Review: The Life & Death Of St Kilda

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October 28, 2011 by markstani

Most of us have harboured romantic notions of being cast away on a remote island. Somewhere in the Pacific would be nice. Somewhere with fish and fruit and friendly, scantily-clad natives. Somewhere to forget the pressures of the modern world.
It’s unlikely St Kilda embodies many Utopian idylls – not unless your idea of paradise is a speck of rock in the north Atlantic whose gales are so strong they blow sheep off the top of the precipitous cliffs, and where puffin porridge is the only thing ever on the breakfast menu.
St Kilda is a tiny archipelago plonked almost one hundred miles off the west coast of Scotland. It was inhabited for at least two millennia, but the remaining population was finally evacuated in 1930 when ekeing out an existence finally proved too tough.
Tom Steel’s chronicle of the island, ‘The Life & Death Of St Kilda’ (pub. Harper Press), first published in 1975 when a number of the evacuees were still alive, and republished this year to mark St Kilda’s appointment as the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a compulsive, painstakingly researched read.
Steel reveals the islanders’ constant battle with nature, navigating huge seas to reach the dangerous cliffs where they would catch and kill the fulmars and other seabirds which sustained the community through the winter when the severe weather would usually cut the island off from any outside contact for months:

‘Mary Cameron, daughter of one of the island’s last missionaries, remembers a storm that literally deafened the people of the village: ‘One particularly severe storm,’ she writes, left us deaf for a week – incredible but true. The noise of the wind, the pounding of the heavy sea were indescribable. This storm was accompanied by thunder and lightning, but we could not hear the thunder for other sounds.”

Strangely, the islanders didn’t care much for fish, instead subsisting on the meat of the 12,000 fulmars caught each year, their feathers packed off to the mainland for pillows and their ruby-red oil for use in lamps. Other seabirds – in particular puffins and guga, or baby gannets, were also eaten:

‘breakfast usually consisted of porridge and milk, with a puffin boiled in with the oats to give flavour.’

Steel places the blame for the community’s gradual decline squarely at the feet of meddling mainlanders who, he says, ‘seduced [the St Kildans] into thinking that perhaps their way of doing things was no longer the best.’
Religion, war, and the disruption through tourism of a society which had survived centuries on purely socialist principles all contributed to St Kilda’s demise. But you can’t help feeling Steel is being rather simplistic in his implied belief that without those outside elements, there might have been a community struggling on on the islands even now.
Steel’s almost obsessional interest sometimes clogs down the narrative, but his book is nevertheless a fascinating historical document, which challenges our comfy stereotypes of isolated island life.

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