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St Kilda: islands on the edge of the world

Norman John Gillies lives in a pretty village by the river Orwell in Suffolk, in a house with a tidy lawn, a privet hedge and large windows overlooking a cul-de-sac. But he was born in a much wilder place, on the most remote island group in Britain, St Kilda, which sits out in the Atlantic 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. St Kilda was evacuated on 29 August 1930 after thousands of years of habitation, and Gillies, now 84, is one of only two people alive who were taken off that day. Clues to his origins are dotted around the Suffolk house. A wooden sign above the porch bears St Kilda’s name. The living room walls are adorned with black-and-white pictures showing a lost community. When inquisitive strangers come visiting, as they sometimes do, Gillies talks them through the photographs – a string of aunts and uncles and grandparents – explaining what became of each of them. They stare back, half-smiling, at the lens and into the future.

Lawrence Durrell once defined “islomania” as a rare affliction of the spirit that results in a strong attraction to islands. He could have added a subcategory, “Kildamania”, to describe an obsession with St Kilda. Early Kildamanes included Samuel Johnson, whose friend James Boswell wanted to buy the islands after their visit to the Hebrides in 1773. “Pray do, Sir,” replied Dr Johnson, “we shall go and pass a winter amid the blasts there.” When the young Michael Powell read about the evacuation of the islands in 1930, he carried the newspaper clipping with him for six years, determined to turn the story into a film. The Edge Of The World, his debut as a director, led to a glittering career. In recent years Kildamania has blossomed again: film footage taken on the islands in the 20s, The Island Tapes, plays to full houses on tours of Europe and the US, and the opera St Kilda, Island Of Birdmen, was one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh festival. Novels, poems and songs have been written to celebrate the archipelago. Today, the anniversary of the evacuation, Scotland celebrates the first national St Kilda Day.

Few Kildamanes ever reach St Kilda, however, protected as the islands are from the mainland by 80 miles of blue-black ocean. Johnson and Boswell didn’t; Powell had to shoot his film on Foula in the Orkneys. Even now, would-be visitors are often found stewing in Benbecula, Leverburgh or Stornoway, waiting for a gap in the storms. This year, after a decade-long bout of Kildamania, I was offered my chance to visit the islands, to tramp the peaty cliffs where seabirds scream and wheel, and to walk the single street. A group of friends were chartering a boat and sailing there. We’d leave Skye just before the summer solstice, when the days were longest and the weather at its best. First, two of us would visit Norman John Gillies.

On a sunny day in late spring we arrived at Gillies’s house and sat in the living room with his wife, Ivy, listening to him recount stories from the islands in an accent that switched between the Hebrides and the south-east of England. He was five on the day of the evacuation, but could recall it clearly. “I remember being on the boat, running around on the deck of HMS Harebell, and the older people were lying or sitting down,” he said. “I remember several of the women at the rear of the boat waving to the island until it was out of sight. I can see that as plain as anything. It was a hard life, as you can see.”

The wind on St Kilda was sometimes so strong that the islanders’ sheep and cattle were blown over the cliffs. One visitor from the mainland reported that the sea beat so hard on the shore in a storm, it left the villagers deaf for a week. Trees refused to grow there, and the few crops would sometimes became polluted with salt water. Fishing was considered too dangerous: many St Kildans were drowned, including the two uncles Gillies is named after, Norman and John, after their boat overturned in the swell just a few hundred yards from their home in Village Bay. “They never did find them,” Gillies said.

There was one asset, however, that St Kilda possessed in extraordinary abundance: seabirds. Three-quarteres of a million of them came every year to nest on the islands and on the sea stacs: gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, great skua, razorbills, guillemots and petrels. The St Kildans lived on these birds, catching them by lowering themselves on ropes from the clifftops or climbing up the stacs from boats. The men became expert climbers, learning their skills as children. John Lane Buchanan recorded the St Kildans’ technique in the 1780s. The fowler descended the cliffs at night, and artfully started a fight between the sentinel gannet and its nearest neighbour: “This alarms the whole camp, and instead of flying off they all begin to fight through the whole company; while in the meantime the common enemy, unsuspected, begins in good earnest to twist their necks, and never gives up till the whole are left dead on the spot.”

“When you get there and see the stacs, you’ll say to yourself, ‘I’ll never know how they climbed up there to get the gannets and birds – or even landed on the islands of Bororay and Soay,'” Gillies said. He had a photograph of a fulmar catch in which men and women stood around a great feathered mass of hundreds of seabirds. It was a loyal, democratic community, and food caught by the able-bodied was shared among the young, the sick and the old. “You can see that they’re all waiting to get their share of the catch. Everyone sort of looked after each other – if somebody fell ill, they would go and see to them, you know. They used to meet at what they called the St Kilda parliament, and they would allocate the different tasks. When they were going fowling, so many would go here and so many would go somewhere else.” Little was wasted: fulmar bones and the bills of oystercatchers made fastenings for clothes, the skin of gannets’ necks made shoes. Feathers and fulmar oil went to the laird to pay the rent.

“I really hope you get there,” Gillies said as he came to the porch to wave us off.

Six weeks later we boarded the yacht Sapphire in Armadale Bay near the southern point of Skye. She was 43ft long with a round belly, and large and plastic enough, I hoped, not to sink easily.

“Where are you headed?” Sapphire’s owner asked as she showed us around the boat. Her face creased in alarm. “You’re scaring me now. Have you sailed in these waters before?”

The seas around the Hebrides are notorious for their tidal rips, races and whirlpools. In the Minch, where water pours back and forth from Cape Wrath, throwing up spectacular, confused waves, earlier Hebrideans believed ancient spirits would toy with unwary sailors and drown them. The most dangerous part of our route lay through the narrow, rock-strewn channel that punctures the Outer Hebrides and leads from the Minch into the Atlantic, the Sound of Harris. “Caution,” the yachtsman’s pilot book advises. “Even the two principal passages… should only be taken in settled moderate weather, using a large-scale chart and, even in light winds, a very heavy sea may be met at the north-west end of the sound.”

We slipped our mooring late in the afternoon and rounded the point of Sleat, tacking north-west through the Sea of the Hebrides. Beyond Rhum, a group of dolphins came alongside, skipping lightly along by the bow before disappearing as abruptly as they had arrived. Night fell, and the Minch became a light show of flashes from the beacons and lighthouses on the Uists and Skye. By dawn, we were between Renish Point and Dun-aarin, at the entrance to the sound. It was calm and humid, with the tops of the hills of Harris obscured by low cloud. The propeller pushed Sapphire through the slack tide at six knots, and we twisted through the narrow channel for an hour, navigating by the cairns and ancient standing stones on land, until we were past Cape Difficulty and out in the Atlantic, bearing west, the sail reefed against a rising wind.

Martin Martin wrote the first account of visiting St Kilda in 1697. The 40-odd miles from Harris took him four days and were full of danger. He left in a gentle breeze that quickly turned into a storm, and twice tried to turn the open longboat for home, but the wind and tide kept pushing it west. The crew turned to drink to keep their spirits up, which meant none could manage cable or anchor, and in a hungover state the next day they were hit by a further storm and “laid aside all hopes of life”. Nearing the islands, they took their direction from seabirds heading home to roost. “The inhabitants of St Kilda take their measures from the flight of those fowls, when the Heavens are not clear, as from a sure compass,” Martin wrote.

Around midday, we began to see large numbers of birds: hunting parties of gannets flying in line astern on their way home, mobs of puffins sitting on the sea, and solitary, acrobatic fulmars that circled the boat. St Kilda eventually appeared as a patch of purple on the horizon, which resolved itself into separate islands and sea stacs: Boreray, Hirta, Levenish, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. The top half of Stac Lee, which sticks 172m out of the ocean like a giant tooth, seemed to have been whitewashed, but closer in we could make out tens of thousands of gannets sitting on their nests. Twenty hours out of Skye, we reached Village Bay on the main island of Hirta and dropped anchor.

At the north end of the bay lay the wreck of the Spinningdale, a trawler driven ashore in a storm in 2008 and now rusting and fracturing. South of it was a small jetty, and above that the buildings marched inland: the church and schoolroom, the factor’s house, where the laird’s representative lived, the post office, then the homes of the other St Kildans and the hundreds of small storage buildings – cleitean in Gaelic – where islanders dried and kept food. And in front of them all stood the ugly prefabs of an army base. Since the evacuation, St Kilda’s only year-round residents have been military personnel at the radar station, built in 1957 as part of the Benbecula missile range. The MoD now plans to withdraw its staff, which will cause a headache for the National Trust for Scotland. The new evacuation will leave the islands’ buildings open to vandalism in winter, the NTS says, and to the arrival on a wrecked ship of a predator that has decimated bird populations on other islands: the rat.

In the church, which boasted the largest pulpit in the western isles and where sermons went on for hours, the bible lay open at the book of Exodus. The schoolroom was filled with desks, Latin primers and a map of Canada, where several St Kildans had emigrated. A little way up the hill the street begins, the early blackhouses, so-called because they had no chimneys and the peat fires blackened every surface, interspersed with rectilinear stone houses built in the 19th century. Six of these have been reroofed by the NTS, one as a tiny museum, the others to house workers in summer. The rest lie ruined and roofless, with a stone in each hearth painted with the house number and the name of its occupant on 29 August 1930. I walked around them, reading the names – Christine MacQueen, Cathie Gillies, Flora Gillies, Rachel MacDonald – and tried to imagine a busy street, a gale rising, small boats in the bay, women carding and spinning, children fetching water, bringing home the catch and the cows’ milk.

The population approached 200 at its peak. Martin Martin found a vibrant community: “The inhabitants of St Kilda, are much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty: what the condition of the people in the Golden Age is feign’d by the poets to be, that theirs really is, I mean, in innocency and simplicity, purity, mutual love and cordial friendship, free from solicitous cares, and anxious covetousness; from envy, deceit, and dissimulation; from ambition and pride, and the consequences that attend them.” Increasing contact with the outside world in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the depopulation of the islands. During the first world war, the Admiralty ran a manned signal station on Hirta, and young mainlanders told the St Kildans how much easier it was to earn a living in Glasgow and Edinburgh. After the war, many young men left, and with fewer able-bodied people, life for those who stayed became harder. Towards the end of the 20s, the crops failed several times.

Early in 1930, Norman John Gillies’s mother, Mary, fell ill. Her appendix burst, and she was pregnant. The islanders signalled for a passing ship to take her to hospital, but the sea was too rough to carry her out to it and it left without her. Days later, they flagged down a second ship and this time she was taken off the island. Gillies recalled the last time he saw her. “I can remember her being taken off, you know, on to the boat, and me standing near the pier with my grandmother and waving to her and she’d got her shawl round her head and was waving back. It must have been a sad moment for her. I expect she thought, well, that’s the last I’ll probably see of him.”

Mary reached Stobhill hospital in Glasgow too late to save herself or her baby. She died on 26 May 1930. To the few remaining St Kildans, this was the final straw: two months later, the nurse who had been put on the island from the mainland, Williamina Barclay, collected the signatures of every householder in a petition to the Scottish Office to be taken off St Kilda before winter.

Norman John and Mary had lived in house number 10. The roof was torn off by the wind long ago, and on this June day the floor was dotted with daisies. The slate in the hearth records that on 29 April 1930 it was deserted. “Number 10. 1930 – Empty.” For their last weeks on the island, Gillies and his father had moved in with his grandparents at number 15.

After the evacuation, the St Kildans were taken to Argyll, where the Scottish office provided homes and jobs for the men. A crowd had gathered on the pier to see these strange people landing. One can only imagine what the adults were thinking. They were only moving 150 miles from their ancestral home, but their way of life was to change utterly. For the older people, Gillies said, leaving the island was “like cutting off your right hand. They found it very difficult”. The government had arranged for the men to be given jobs in the Forestry Commission in Morvern, though there were no trees on St Kilda and none had worked before for a company or a boss. They were not used to an economy based on money – on the islands, the harvest had been partitioned equally, old and young and sick were looked after by the able-bodied; now they had no pensions, no savings and their pay was not enough. Their resistance to disease was lower than that of mainlanders: several of the children died of tuberculosis in the years after the evacuation. “Their opinions were those of a people who were very disillusioned,” wrote Tom Steel in The Life And Death Of St Kilda. “They expected life on the mainland to be the solution to all their problems.”

The St Kildans wrote bitter letters of complaint to the Scottish Office, which tried to placate them and rehoused many of them. In truth, the government did much to reduce the shock of the evacuation. The young adapted more easily. I had asked Gillies if he wished he could have stayed. He shook his head. “To the young people like me, it was a great opportunity to explore the outside world.” He joined the navy in the second world war, and was stationed in Kent and then Suffolk. When the war was over, he met Ivy in the church of the village where they now live. Comparing his life, his health and evident happiness with the existence he might have had on St Kilda, he is clearly better off. If the evacuation marked the extinction of a culture that had survived since the Bronze age and that, in Martin Martin’s phrase, had exhibited “innocency and simplicity, purity, mutual love and cordial friendship”, it was not a tragedy for Gillies.

In the village on Hirta, groups of fulmars sat confidently on their nests on the cleitean behind house number 10, examining us with arrogant, perhaps victorious expressions. I thought of exiled Andrew Gray in Powell’s The Edge Of The World, who tells a visiting yachtsman, “The seabirds were its first owners, and now the seabirds have it for their own again.”

First published in Guardian Weekend magazine and at

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