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14 May 2020

St Kilda – the last summer

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist
Black and white photograph taken from a boat looking over the sea to an island with a large hill and cloud just covering the top.
Margaret Fay Shaw’s first glimpse of St Kilda, May 1930
Using a range of objects from the Canna Archives, we see and hear some of Margaret Fay Shaw’s memories and images from her trip to St Kilda in May 1930, as one of the last civilians to visit the island before the evacuation.

On 10 May 1930, the residents of the remote St Kilda archipelago asked the British Government to facilitate their evacuation. Due to disease and poverty they could no longer survive there and so they were left with no other option than to leave St Kilda, to live on the mainland. 

A few days after the islanders’ plea reached the mainland, US-born folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw visited the island on the SS Hebrides. At the time Margaret was living in North Glendale, South Lochboisdale, South Uist, taking pictures and recording songs and stories of a disappearing lifestyle and she jumped at the chance to visit the island.

Black and white photograph taken from a boat, looking across the sea to two islands.
St Kilda from the boat

Although Margaret documented her experiences on that trip, it was many years before she published those memories, in The Scots Magazine of August 1980. Here, we use some excerpts from those memories, Margaret’s photos and some other gems from the Canna archives to tell us more about that sad period in St Kilda’s history.

‘In 1930, I was living in the thatched house of Peigi and Mairi Macrae on their croft at Glendale on the south side of Lochbosidale in South Uist. I had lived there for a year learning Gaelic in order to collect traditional Gaelic songs with which South Uist then abounded. One day in May I went to Lochboisdale and there lying at the pier was the McCallum Orme ship “Hebrides” which then used to take general cargo and a few passengers round the islands in the summer.

Black and white photograph of the SS Hebrides, with a plume of black smoke coming from the funnel.
Margaret's image of the SS Hebrides in Lochboisdale Harbour, May 1930

‘I was told that she was on her way to make the first spring trip to St Kilda and that I could go if I was at Lochmaddy where she would be in the morning after her calls at Skye. Luckily the MacBrayne mail steamer was calling that same evening at Lochboisdale on her way to Lochmaddy and this gave me time to cross to Glendale in a lobster boat, collect my heavy Graflex camera and clothes then get back to the pier in time. I thought I would bring the news to the Macraes but I was met at the door by Mairi saying that she heard I was off to St Kilda and it would cost me three pounds, ten shillings. Such is the bush telegraph in the islands.’

Black and white photograph of two woman and a man, with a black dog in front of them.
This image, taken by Margaret in 1930, is of Peigi and Mairi Macrae, and Mr Finlay Mackenzie, proprietor of the Lochboisdale Hotel. Margaret’s Graflex camera is being carried by Finlay.

Margaret mentions in her article that she knew all the crew of the ship quite well, including a certain Mr Alastair Macrae who was a well known Gaelic singer, renowned for his fine red-hued Macrae kilt.

‘I knew the officers and crew, tall Captain MacMillan and the First Officer, Mr Clelland, the jolly rotund Chief Steward Mr Blair and the wireless operator Alastair Macrae, who was a real authority on birds and who had taught me the constellations by pin holes in brown paper held up to the light.’

This was before Margaret met her future husband John Lorne Campbell, and what she doesn’t mention is that she actually had more than a passing fancy for Mr Macrae! Recently I was passed some letters by the grandniece of Alastair, who mentioned Margaret when writing to his son, also Alastair,  in 1940, on the subject of pibroch (ceol mor or big bagpipe music):

‘That Saturday afternoon we reached Lochboisdale. There was a rising southerly wind and the night would be dark and Captain Macmillan decided to lie up to the pier until morning. To fill in the time between high tea on board and late dinner in Lochbosidale Hotel – where I was to meet my American girlfriend – a great musician (she knew most of the pibrochs).

Margaret was indeed a great musician  a trained classical pianist and she loved the music of the pipes.

Black and white photograph of a man in a kilt, with a crowd of people behind at a Highland Games.
At the South Uist Games

Margaret, in her description of the ship the Hebrides, wrote:

“The Hebrides” was a lovely ship with her red plush saloon and the long dining table in the centre; everything was shining and bright.’

Along with the letters donated to us, we were delighted to also receive from Alastair’s grandniece the brass nameplate from the saloon of the Hebrides, together with a scrap from Alastair’s kilt!

A brass nameplate with the word Hebrides, and a scrap of blue and green tartan underneath it.
The brass nameplate from the SS Hebrides, with a piece of Alastair’s kilt

As we approached St Kilda we could see thick white cloud concealing the tops of the islands and we were surrounded by thousands of sea birds, mostly fulmar and gannets. But as we neared the entrance of the long horse shoe bay of Hirta, the main island, the cloud lifted and gave the vision of wild beauty that has so often been described. The small islands looked inaccessible but Hirta itself was a most pleasing place with good pasture land and its giant velvet green slope reaching to the summit of Conachar, the highest sea cliff in Britain. In the strange northern light every stone on the hill side appeared almost luminous. There was a row of houses with chimnies [sic] smoking and people with many dogs were hurrying to the shore. A group put out to meet us in a heavy rowing boat.

Black and white photograph of a rowing boat full of people in the sea, with an island in the background.
Islanders rowing out to meet the SS Hebrides

Going ashore we met the people who were most courteous and friendly. Some of the women were wearing dresses of dark blue serge with beautifully cut tight fitting bodices and full skirts, most elegant and tartan squares on their heads in place of the heavy shawls worn on the Long Island (Uist). The women were the spinners and the men were weavers. This wool is from the brown or murrit sheep which are on the neighbouring island of Soay, a peculiar breed, and they must have been there when the Norsemen came more than a thousand years ago, for Soay means “Sheep island” in Old Norse. Such a name would not have been bestowed unless there was something unusual about the sheep on that island. They are more like goats than sheep and Peigi Macrae had taught me a Gaelic song beginning:

The foot of the Hirta sheep, that was the nimble foot. 
That was the elegant sheep, the colour would grow on her.
She would need neither lichen nor soot, but spinning the wool to make trousers.

I was asked by a Mrs Gillies to come in by her fire. She was wearing a tartan square about her head which was most becoming. I thought she might have woven it herself but when I asked she replied, “Do you know Cowcaddens in Glasgow? That’s where they come from and I can give you a nice new one”. But her own had faded to such soft and pretty shades that I said I much preferred it. This made her laugh and she took it off  he head and gave it to me. It is still a prized possession.

Every island in the Hebrides is highly individualistic and St Kilda, being the most remote, had developed her own way of life through the centuries. Descending the great cliffs for birds meant bravery and physical strength; and now there were no longer men able to do it. Only 36 were left and at the meeting, the majority wanted to leave. The great British Empire had never been able to provide a regular postal service and the wireless station had not been replaced. There was no winter communication with the mainland nor the Outer Hebrides. The MacCallum Orme ships, “Hebrides” and “Dunara Castle” made one call, turn about, during the four summer months, May, June, July, August, bringing mail and supplies with the tourists to see the “primitive life”. But the long years of isolation and neglect led to young people leaving, not to return. And now there was no word of help to come.

Later that evening we sailed for Lochbosidale. I tried to hope that this most beautiful and individual of islands might yet be saved. But it was not to be.

On the 29th of August, the St Kildans left their island. It was said that they were defeated by Nature.

But she was not wholly to blame.’

Black and white photograph looking over a bay, with turf-covered cleits in the foreground, and a boat in the bay.
Looking over Village Bay

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