St Kilda… such a hard, hard life

There was an obituary in today’s paper for a man who was born on the tiny island of St Kilda, later evacuated of its entire population when conditions became too rigorous for them to survive there. There is only one another person still alive who actually comes from St Kilda, she is the cousin of Tormod Ian Gillies, known as Norman John, who died last Saturday, September 29th at the age of eighty-eight. her is an extract from the obituary:

Norman John Gillies, who has died aged 88, was one of only two remaining survivors of the 36 islanders evacuated from St Kilda in 1930, when the privations of life far out in the North Atlantic finally became too much for them.

Between 1976 and 2005 he returned four times to the home he had left when he was five years old, becoming something of a media personality thanks to his outgoing nature, his facility with words and his rich recollections of life in Scotland’s most remote and inhospitable outpost.

Norman John (Tormod Ian in Gaelic) Gillies was born on May 22 1925 in House No 15 in the village on St Kilda’s only inhabited island of Hirta. The son of John Gillies, a fowler and crofter, and the former Mary MacQueen, he was named after two uncles lost when their boat foundered in a storm. He appeared stillborn, and even his grandmother was giving up when the midwife smacked him on the back and he drew his first breath.

Life on St Kilda was extremely harsh. The weather was ferocious; little would grow apart from hay and corn; there was no proper harbour; and the islanders subsisted mainly on a diet of fulmars, gannets and puffins rather than the fish in which the seas were rich — having concluded from the numerous wrecks of fishing boats that the Almighty disapproved. The birds were killed by the men of the island, who gained access to their nesting sites by using ropes to scale the cliffs of St Kilda that rise up to 1,300ft above the sea. Sheep provided the wool for clothing and for weaving into tweed, which was bartered to pay rent to the laird and to buy supplies from the mainland.

The population had halved in a generation, partly through emigration and the loss of men in the Great War but also because, up to the late 19th century, the island’s unwitting midwife had coated each new baby’s umbilical cord with a poisonous paste based on seabird droppings.

Norman John was only four when, in February 1930, his mother developed suspected appendicitis during pregnancy and — a month after a passing fishing boat had been asked to have help sent from the Hebridean mainland — was taken to a hospital in Glasgow. He remembered waving from the jetty as she was rowed out to the boat in Village Bay; his father accompanied her. A baby girl was delivered by caesarean section in May, but within a fortnight both mother and daughter were dead. Norman John was not told that he had had a sister until 1991.

On August 29 1930, three months after his mother’s death, Norman John and the other 35 remaining islanders boarded the steamer Harebell when the government evacuated St Kilda; most would never see their birthplace again as, for the next three-quarters of a century, its only occupants were conservationists and small detachments of the military.

Most of the islanders were settled on the Morvern Peninsula of Argyll. Norman John (who on the way there saw his first tree), his father and grandfather moved into a remote cottage at Ardness, but it flooded repeatedly and they relocated to Larachbeg, a mile from his school, where he responded in Gaelic to questions in English.

He served during the war and then settled in Suffolk with his wife and three children.

St Kilda is an archipelago and the remotest part of the British isles, situated 41 miles  west of Benbecula in the  Outer Hebrides. Despite its distance from any mainland or even other islands, it was settled between four and five thousand years ago. In more recent times, the population was nearly 170 in the 1670’s when the islanders paid rent on their land by what they produced,  barley, oats, fish, meat, wool, skins and butter from cattle and sheep, and especially seabirds. Seabirds… they ‘harvested’ gannets, fulmars and puffins for food, feathers and oil; they used the bird products themselves but also as rent; the birds were snared or caught by hand, or with a fowling rod or a snare in the summer breeding season. It was an unimaginably hard life; there were no roads and there wasn’t even a jetty until 1901. The islanders spoke Gaelic and by the end of the nineteenth century they all belonged to the rather strict Free Church of Scotland.

If you want to know more, there are some wonderful photos here:

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