Archive for November, 2012

The Sound And The Fury

Monday, November 5th, 2012

As a child I was a voracious reader, ably abetted by my father who airily tossed me any book he had just finished. He did not censor my intake, from the brutality of Hubert Selby Jnr to the density of William Faulkner – ‘down the long and lonely light rays you might see Jesus walking like’I devoured them all. But the Life And Death Of Saint Kilda was my special favourite. Saint Kilda was, and is, a group of thin, inclined, sheets of basalt, masquerading as habitable islands, that cling to the edge of the Atlantic, a hundred and fifty miles north northwest of the Scottish mainland.

How did they live, these near mythical people, these Saint Kildans? In my childish imaginings they lived in bursts of feverish activity and quiet contemplation. Which is to say they lived like birds.

I returned to Saint Kilda again – where the white whales sing at the edge of the world – courtesy of a specially commissioned opera, Saint Kilda: Island of the Birdmen. On stage, aerial gymnasts glide and Gaelic singers keen and lament, but it is the giant screen that haunts. In the flickering, ancient, footage, a solid canopy of gannets scream like babies in a field full of razorblades. Kittiwakes and guillemots screech and skree down the scowling cliffs, arguing angles that don’t exist. On Boreray the puffins nestle stoutly. In the roiling waters beneath Stac Lee, lie miles of coral reef – feather star, sun star and orange deadman’s fingers. Above the waterline, least willow, purple saxifrage and butterwort flourish. Everywhere, wind blasted heather. Summer shielings full of sheep – dry stane and musty wool – cling to the earth in the lea of Gleann Bay.

Strange to think that anywhere this elemental could actually belong to someone, but it did, the Macleod’s of Skye were the landlords and they received their rent in kind. The birds, it always comes back to the birds, were the islands’ currency. Feathers for mattresses, rendered oil for lamps and meat for consumption. Supplemented by barley, oats, and fish.

And now, it seems, the islands are to be returned to nature. For the last fifty years they have been a military base, but the army has announced its intention to withdraw from Saint Kilda, which means it will be unmanned throughout the winter months, so the archipelago will be left to the elements again, those driven, relentlessly cruel elements, that finally forced the natives away, after 3,000 years of clinging to the edge of nowhere.

In the winter of 1930 the natives petitioned the government to be taken off the island. Diseases for which they had no defence, emigration, dwindling stocks of everything, (hell, the rapidly changing world) had devastated the population.

And so it was that the Royal Navy sloop SS Harebell hung low in the water at her anchorage in Village Bay on that late August morning. Children and women ran hither and thither in an attempt to avoid the prying eye of John Ritchie’s camera, amateur and intrusive, as it recorded the evacuation of the remaining thirty-six islanders.

Each Saint Kildan family went into their home for the final time and placed an open bible and a handful of oats on the table – succour and sustenance for the unlikely visitor – before drowning all of their domestic pets. The simple economy of that gesture.

Then let us suppose they took one last look up Main Street to the cleats on the higher ground, effectively their fridges, before craning their necks to take in the green vastness of Conachair. Higher still, the glowering sky, fat with rain bearing clouds. Everywhere, in this the nesting season, a cacophony of gulls strafing and dive-bombing any moving thing.

Finally, those last thirty-six islanders would have turned, with the slowness of centuries, and walked to the end of the rudimentary jetty – framed by three towering Stacs bleached white with bird shit – where they would have stepped, for the last (and first) time, off the edge of the world.