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Getting back

23 June 2010

Getting back


I’ve just been back home for a week in Lewis- the first time off Kilda in 7 weeks – and boy did I appreciate it. My Woman! My dog! Friends! Lots of people, strangers even! Trees! Big skies! Strange white sheep everywhere!


Most of the joy of being home was to see missed loved ones, something which most of the old Kildians (that’s how they liked to be known, apparently) would not have had to deal with to as great a degree. One of the strangest things about being here in Kilda is that it’s like half of a human settlement - the male half! And we get all our essentials choppered in from another island. It’s not a healthily operating community.


It’s like we – as a race - are now almost here, but not quite; we’re tip toeing around as if we’re not really supposed to be here. This shows in most of the photographs – the base and the modern buildings are a “terrible eyesore” and never make it into the frame, the hallowed and hollowed wrecks of the failed ‘improvement’ cottages instead take centre shot so we can all wring our hands and feel sad about the evacuation.


Having said that, the modern buildings couldn’t be much uglier, right enough, and are a stark contrast to the rest of the island. But that’s not the only example of this kind of thing - take the case of the Soay sheep. Once husbanded, corralled on separate islands and generally managed by the Kildians they now roam free all over Hirte, and apart from being intensively studied by Scientists they receive no management whatsoever. They are a ‘feral’ population. As a consequence they are far too numerous and apparently about to die in large numbers, and are changing the ecology of Village bay (they were kept out of here back in the day) by overgrazing. This also helps the Bonksie (Great Skua) population grow, something the Kildians would surely not have tolerated. Back in April, I watched a mother trying to lick her starving lamb back to life whilst two bonksies were already eating it from the other end. Bonksie’s also prey on the other sea birds. Bonksie’s only started breeding here in the 1960’s.


Originally, it was presumably more of a symbiosis; the humans kept the sheep population healthy and the sheep helped to keep us healthy with their meat, milk and wool. Now we just stand aside and watch them try to live without the relationship which they had evolved to rely upon.


The same goes for the buildings here. Without humans living in them, they fall to pieces. The wind and rain and cold and sun work away at them. The sheep climb all over them. The drains block up. They require human attention, preferably of the constant variety, to stop them falling apart. The buildings here once harboured the St Kilda house mouse, a unique variety of mouse which had evolved on Hirte because of the existence of our human houses. Since the people were evacuated, this mouse lost it’s habitat and is now extinct.


I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but it seems to me that we humans were originally just as much an essential part of this place as the sea birds or sheep or mice or plants; this island was an ecosystem in which humans were an integral part. Not interacting with it at all in the present day may be as bad for it as a bad interaction.


It’s just a daydream, but I cant help imagining a sort of ‘living monument’ where people with the required skills are brought in and paid handsomely to live here, keep traditions alive and interact with the island; grow crops, eat the sheep, use the wool. These skills are the sort that get forgotten in the modern world but surely deserve to be treasured, and in this way we may also be able to better look after the treasure that is St. Kilda (not to mention making an archaeologist even happier...).  

Ian Mchardy St. Kilda Archaeologist

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