OK! My first book in the Read Scotland 2014 challenge was “The truth about St Kilda” by Donald John Gillies, a native of Hirta, the main island of the group called collectively St Kilda. The islands, some mere rocks with high steep cliffs lie 60 or so miles west of the Outer Hebrides, and have always held a fascination for me. I doubt if I ever will now, but I would love to go there.
Donald John was born in Hirta in 1901; was brought up on the island, in a very isolated community whose way of life was quite primitive to our minds, even in the 20th century. He left the islands when he was 24, making his life as a minister in Canada. This book is about his memories of the place he called home, the people, their way of life, their customs, their work - some of it quite hair raising! I mean would you go abseiling down a sheer rock face in the middle of a raging sea, the rock covered in seabirds’ nests, and guano, to collect gannets eggs and capture not a few gannets into the bargain. That was just one of the jobs that had to be done to secure food for the islanders. I have a tiny inkling of the conditions on these islands as some years ago I visited the Skellig Islands off the south west of Ireland, two great stacks of rock in the middle of the ocean, where a group of intrepid monks set up their community, in centuries gone by.
For centuries life continued much the same as ever it had, until the population dwindled so much in the 19th century, mainly due to young men leaving to pursue careers elsewhere, in the merchant navy for example, or as church ministers, like Donald John, leaving behind a population that was steadily aging, and unable to continue the life they had lived in their youth
Eventually life on Hirta became totally unsustainable, and in the late 1920s the islanders requested that the British Government relocate them on the mainland. Conditions were set and met, and in 1930 the evacuation took place.
There are many books about the island group, its history and social structure, and I have another to read, by a visitor to the islands in the 18th century, so I am looking forward to that, to compare the lives of the people a century before Donald John Gillies was born.
Talk again soon.