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Calling all Kilda experts

14 July 2010

Calling all Kilda experts...

One day last month I was walking over the screes above St. Brendans, part of a plan I have to walk over all the bits people don’t usually walk. Lying on the scree part way up I found a wooden shaft (see photo) c.750mm long, made of a tough hardwood (Oak?), octagonal in section, 60mm diameter, with one end sharpened to a V point, the other with a rebate which would seem to have accommodated some kind of handle or further part. It had the rusting remains of Iron through bolts near each end, further implying they originally had two kinds of further fitting. I called it a ‘spade handle’ although was not at all sure that this was the case.

wooden stake

Wooden 'spade' handle?

Around a week later I discovered two more of these shafts whilst investigating a little terrace near Creagan Breac, just below the Mullach Mor Radar station, west of the Connachair crags. They had been used (or re-used?), presumably as survey pegs, for the line of the earliest cable to the top of the hill (Lachie Mcleod, Amey, pers comm.), the remains of which were visible immediately next to each shaft, an armoured cable 3-4 cm in diameter. Although driven in to most of their length, it was possible to see that they were of the same wood, the same octagonal section and the same ‘rebate’ for the ‘handle’. These were left in situ.

Shortly after that Murdo Mcdonald (Work Party 2 and a Kildan descendant) found another example on the screes below Mullach Sgar, just north of the Chimney- and left it in situ, as I had asked Work Party members to do with any finds. When I went to investigate I found three separate examples of the same implement in the vicinity, all strikingly similar, all just lying on top of the scree. However, one of them had it’s original Iron attachment at the V end – a strap of Iron covering the V. So they are not ‘spades’ as we would normally define them, but more akin to stakes to be driven into the ground.

Shortly after this, Erica Honning (WP2) discovered another example, this one again stuck into the ground most of its length, but this one was very near the top of Oiseval. This was also left in situ. Then, two weeks ago, I found another, almost complete example, upon Mullach Geal.

The Oiseval stake

The Oiseval stake

To my knowledge these implements have not been described before in any published works, and are a bit of a mystery. For a few weeks now we have been wondering about them, fielding many ideas as to their use and age.

The sharp V end, strengthened with iron, would suggest that the shafts were designed for being driven into the ground. The fitting on the other end would then make sense as an iron cap in order to strengthen the wood for hammer blows. It would thus seem sensible to suggest that they were pegs or stakes of some sort, perhaps for the many large canvas tents brought for Operation Hardrock. A second possibility was thought to be that they were anchor stakes for fowling ropes, belonging to Kildans. Many, many other explanations were forthcoming which although providing lively discussion are probably best left unwritten!

The locations of the find spots are probably significant. All found so far have been at a fair distance from the main village and base, suggesting that they are not specifically to do with Operation Hardrock. Conversely, those found at Oiseval, Mullach Sgar and below Mullach Mor may associate these implements with nearby cliffs. The preponderance of them on the screes below Mullach Sgar might be explained as broken examples thrown from the top of these cliffs.  However, a note of caution should be added here as they are very portable and could have been re-used a long way from their original context.

Stakes for anchoring ropes too were certainly used, at least in 1883, when Richard M. Barrington visited St. Kilda:

“I remember one day walking along its (Connachair’s) edge and seeing a stout stick firmly embedded in the earth about three yards from the face, with a rope around it. I was sure someone was below, catching birds, so descending about 100 feet I came upon another rope, fastened round a stick, embedded in the next ledge. This I also descended and came to a second ledge on which two men roped together were busy catching birds with long fishing rods, to the end of which horse hair nooses were attached.”

Barrington, Richard M. 1913 “The Ascent of Stack Biorach” in The Alpine Journal, Vol. 27.

However, their uniformity strongly suggests mass production, something more common to the Armed services than the Kildans (although A.G. Ferguson in Glasgow could conceivably have had them made), and the distribution doesn’t fit perfectly with the Fowling idea. This line of thought was given further impetus when I managed to consult with author and general Kilda Encyclopedia Mary Harman last week. Mary thought she recognised the implements from description, and in her opinion they were stakes for the laying out of telephone wires for the lookout posts, during the First World War. This would fit well with Lachie’s comment about the earliest cable up to “the top of the hill”, and the known locations of the two look out posts – one on Oiseval, one on Mullach Geal. The only problem with this is that there is no record of look out posts on Ruaval or Mullach Sgar, where four of the stakes were found.

Researching the look-out posts, however, I came across the following statement made in a letter written by Rear Admiral Tupper, addressed to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet:

I visited St. Kilda on Saturday the 19th June. On landing at 6.30 am I was met by Mr. Greenhill, Warrant Telegraphist, who showed me round the buildings and the W/T station. Everything was found to be in good order. I then went to the top of the hill Oisirbhal where the look-out is stationed and selected a stone hut to which the telephone cable is to be laid. I then visited the other look-out place from which could be seen the proposed place for the Westward lookout and decided that a peak eight hundred yards nearer the W/T station and equally good for the look-out would be preferable for the Westward cable to be laid to.

From “Soldiering on St. Kilda” by James Mackay, Token Publishing, Devon 2002, page 4, my italics

Before the telephone wires, look-outs signalled back to the W/T station using semaphore flags. The W/T station was somewhere around the village area, and from here a Radio mast was used to relay the message to the Admiralty. However, the common mists which cloak Hirte, especially the tops of the hills, hampered this method and hence the need for telephone wires. Perhaps one of the original pre- telephone look-out posts was on Ruaval or Mulach Sgar (i.e. 800 yards West of Mullach Geal, so probably Ruaval) and for some reason stakes had already been laid out for the wire before Rear Admiral Tupper changed the proposed site to Mullach Geal.

So far, Mary’s would seem to be by far the best explanation for the stakes. However, questions do still exist and so the case is not quite closed. I wonder if anyone out there knows anything more about them, or about the pre-telephone look-out posts? Any information would be greatly appreciated!

Ian Mchardy, St. Kilda Archaeologist

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