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24 Aug 2020

St Kilda – the evacuation of a community

Written by Susan Bain, Western Isles Manager
A sepia photograph of a rowing boat waiting beside a pier. The boat has several men on it, with piles of sacks and luggage at one end. Another group of people stand at the end of the stone pier.
Leaving St Kilda
This week will see the 90th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda.

In the early morning of 29 August 1930, the final 36 islanders took their few remaining possessions, boarded HMS Harebell and sailed away from their home. While some of the older people looked back as the outline of the islands grew smaller on the horizon, some of the younger St Kildans must have looked forward to see their new home and life appear in front of them.

For thousands of years people had lived on St Kilda – farming, fishing, sealing and, most importantly, harvesting seabirds and their eggs. Their seabird culture was reflected in the unusual buildings they built to store their produce and fowling equipment, in their songs that told of daring cliff climbs, and in their day-to-day language peppered with many words associated with harvesting birds. They had lived on these islands as new peoples came and settled, from nearby islands and further away – proselytising Christian friars and raiding Norsemen, clan raids and Barbary pirates – bringing ideas, goods and also disease. The islands continued to support the St Kildan families, and they traded their abundance until the world changed again, and there were just too few people left.

A black and white photo of three people, either holding or sitting beside hunted seabirds.
Seabird hunting was a traditional way of life on St Kilda

The remaining community made the difficult decision to leave in April 1930 and petitioned the government on 10 May for help to leave their island home. They could hardly have imagined that by July two of the younger members, Mary Gillies aged just 22 and expectant mother Mary Gillies aged 35, would both be dead. Living far from medical care, they paid a terrible price.

Much has been written on the evacuation, the whys and the what-ifs mulled over, but in many communities across Highland Scotland in the early 20th century, young people left to seek opportunities and employment in the bigger cities. Nearly all the St Kildans already had relatives on the mainland or other Hebridean islands – brothers urging siblings to join them for good wages; children urging elderly parents to leave and be closer to family and care. Without good communication and transport links, life on St Kilda was no longer tenable for people with 20th-century expectations.

A black and white photograph of six children standing as a group in front of a stone wall. The three girls all wear long black dresses; the three bots wear black shirts with pale trousers, rolled up to the knees. They are all barefoot.
The MacDonald children – the family had already left the island in 1924 to live on Harris and Lewis.

The emigration from St Kilda had begun many years before. Over the decades, gradually people had left, until the remaining community became unsustainable. In 1852, 36 islanders had left for Australia and the population of St Kilda dropped to around 70; by the 1911 census the population was only 74, and 10 years later was 71. People were leaving or dying, no-one was moving to St Kilda and the birth rate was too low to increase the population. By 1930 many of the remaining islanders were older and widowed; they could see little future for their children if they stayed.

A sepia photograph of a young woman standing in a field and holding a scythe. She wears a jacket and long woollen skirt, with boots. She also wears a scarf wrapped around her head.
Rachel Anne Gillies left with her widowed mother and younger sister. Her elder sister Mary had died just a month before.

So 90 years ago the remaining St Kildans were packing up their homes, trying to decide what they needed to take with them for their new life. There were opportunities to sell many items to tourists who visited that summer. Spinning wheels were a particularly popular item, the cash coming in handy to cover costs of moving and setting up a new home. On the day they left, in some homes an open bible was left on the table and the fire banked up with peat, for a house is not a home without a fire in the hearth.

For a few years some St Kildans returned to spend the summer in their old homes but the outbreak of war in 1939 stopped this, and after that visits became less frequent.

A black and white photograph of a young family sitting on a bench outside a stone cottage. The mother leans over a baby, who is perched on the bench and being held up by his father.
John and Mary Gillies and their baby son Norman John. Norman John was just 6 years old when he left with his father in 1930; his mother had died in hospital a few months before.

Today, St Kilda supports a community of workers and researchers. With good communication and transport links, life is not too hard but even now you can still sometimes be cut off for days. We no longer live off the land but still mark time as the seabirds come and go and the days lengthen and shorten.

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