St Kilda’s Language and Culture

It is perhaps not surprising that so many of the St Kildan evacuees of 1930 spent their exile craving return to their homeland and indeed some continued to return each summer throughout the 1930s until the outbreak of war. The Earl of Dumfries regarded the islands as a nature reserve and Neil Gillies, a St Kildan, was employed as a summer warden. Those evacuees, retained the ‘St Kildan lisp’, mentioned by Martin Martin as early as 1697. In effect, this was a mispronunciation of consonants. L (before a broad vowel) and V both became W. Similarly R became L. The word (razorbill) for example –pronounced elsewhere in the Hebrides as ‘laavy’, became ‘waawy’. The islanders pronounced the word Hiort (Hirta) as ‘hilt’. As Norman Heathcote mentioned in his book published in 1900, it is probably that the name ‘St Kilda’ is a corruption of the already corrupted ‘hilt’.

Although almost all the placenames of the archipelago have a Norse derivation, for at least 400 years Gaelic was the language of Hirta. The following words, unique to the St Kildan vocabulary, are redolent of the islander's extraordinary lifestyle: lon – a climbing rope made of strips of plaited rawhide and regarded as a precious heirloom; mogais – an anchor, consisting of heavy stones placed in a seal-skin sack; sraonadh – slipping off a rock; crathadh –the usual method of despatching a bird, i.e. dislocating its neck; faire – literally ‘nightwatch’ (wearing dark clothes but with a white cloth tucked under the throat, the hunter tricked razorbills into coming in to roost). Many such words pertaining to sea-fowling were peculiar to St Kilda with its seabird economy.

Throughout the islands recorded history, superstition was widespread. As in other parts of the Highlands and Islands, it was believed that sithichean (little people) lived in grassy hillocks, close to human habitation. The Gruagach, the benign female spirit that was believed to look after the cattle, resided within a monolith located close to the Village. In the remote Gleann Mor, invalids offered gifts to the spirit residing in Tobair nam Buadh (the well of virtues) before drinking what was supposedly the well’s healing waters.

Some 300 years ago, Martin Martin reported that composing songs and bardachd (poetry), and making up humorous rhymes were favourite pastimes of both the men and women of St Kilda. Early in the 19th century, visitors collected songs that must have been composed at times when the community felt buoyant and self-confident. The best known of these are the
Bhanais Hiortach (St Kilda wedding) and Cleite Gadaig (Gadag Rock), both of which were composed in an age when mouth-music and dancing were acceptable expressions of wellbeing and happiness. Dancing to music ‘scratched out of a bad fiddle’ was popular at all times of the year. In summer pony races and shinty matches were held on the beach of Village Bay.

After the famous evangelist Dr John Macdonald of Ferintosh (known as ‘The Apostle of the North’) visited the island, albeit briefly, in 1822 and 1823, he reported the people steeped in a mixture of ‘pagan belief and Popish superstition’. Charismatic and persuasive, Macdonald’s influence over the minds of the islanders was profound. Following a century without a resident minister, in 1829 the islanders welcomed into their midst the Rev. Neil MacKenzie. Under these Presbyterian influences many of the older islanders became introspective and conscience-stricken, and began to spend more time in prayer and theological debate than in earning a living. It is undeniable that MacKenzie worked hard to improve the material as well as the spiritual plight of his parishioners, and his account of island life has become a classic in St Kildan literature. MacKenzie also left to posterity a collection of laments and poems popular during his time on the island – all of them inspired by feelings of intense grief or piety, or both.

Without a resident spiritual leader, the older members of the community began to fret and endlessly debated their future. This sense of uncertainty and unhappiness persuaded many of the young to escape their isolation. In 1852 for instance, 36 of the island’s youngest and ablest emigrated to Australia. On the voyage to Melbourne, 18 of them perished. When the news of the tragedy reached St Kilda the people ‘shut themselves up in their houses and wept for a week’.

On a visit to St Kilda in 1865, the folklorist Alexander Carmichael was determined to meet Oighrig NicCruimein (Effie MacCrimmon), an 84 year old famed as a tradition-bearer. The Rev. Mackay, at that time the incumbent minister, did all he could to discourage the meeting. ‘You should be aware’, he declared, ‘that the people of St Kilda have now discarded songs, music and dancing and the stories of their foolish past!’

Thankfully, Carmichael persisted and, during his brief hours in her company, discovered that Oighrig could recall many of the island’s ancient songs, stories and traditions.
Included in her treasury was An Comhradh (The Conversation) which Oighrig’s parents had composed together during their courtship days in the late 18th century. The tune of An Comhradh is robust and inventive although the translation fails to express the full vigour and vitality of the lyric. The young man looked forward to the challenge of hunting gannets on Boreray.

Away with spade and tools of the soil!
Away with the basin and away with the lamb!
Up with my climbing rope and down my snares!
For I hear the gannet speak in the ocean.

The song is noteworthy, not least in that it encapsulates the genius and tragedy of the St Kildans. Sadly, days before Oighrig was born, her father and grandfather, tied together by their climbing rope, plunged to their death whilst fowling on the cliffs at the back of Oiseval.

Oighrig Nic Cruimen - traditional story tellerThe St Kilda wedding song

Archaeological evidence suggests that Hirta has been occupied, almost continuously, for well over 2,000 years and that the first human activity began a further 3,000 or more years beforehand. It is certain that the Vikings had an influence on the islands and that Hirta was also occupied by early Christians. The place names on the islands reflect both the Norse and Gaelic influence.

The first comprehensive account of life on St Kilda was provided by Martin Martin (1697), tutor to the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan. At this time, St Kilda was owned by the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan, and would remain with a branch of the family until the year after the evacuation in 1930. At the time of Martin’s visit there were approximately 180 people on Hirta, living in a main settlement in Village Bay. They kept sheep and cattle and grew crops – but the most important component of their diet came from seabirds. The seabird harvest included the northern gannets that were so abundant on Boreray and the Stacs and, in later times, came to depend on the northern fulmars and Atlantic puffins that nested on the cliffs of Hirta and Dun. The St Kildans were consummate and fearless climbers and caught the birds by either scaling the cliffs from the bottom, or more usually by lowering themselves down to the cliff ledges where the birds nested. The bird life also provided them with oil, feathers and eggs, which they collected and used as payment in-kind for their rent.

Ropes and fowling rods were usually the property of all of the islanders, as were the areas of pasture and other items such as boats and the numerous cleitean (drying chambers) which can still be found densely dotted around the islands. Ropes could, however, also be owned by individuals and, at some stage in the history of the islands, they often formed part of a dowry. At the time of Martin’s visit, the people of St Kilda led a simple life. They were guided by basic though at times idiosyncratic Christian principles with their lifestyle ‘in tune’ with nature and adapted to the pressures of survival in such a difficult environment. In later times their lifestyle was to become strongly influenced by the Church, through the strenuous efforts of the many clergy who spent time on the islands.

Rev. John MacKay - Minister on St Kilda 1866 - 1889In 1822, St Kilda was visited by the renowned evangelical preacher, Rev. John Macdonald, the so-called ‘Apostle of the North’. Macdonald set about constructing the foundations of a highly organised and puritanical religion on St Kilda. These were built upon by the Rev. Neil MacKenzie who arrived on the islands in 1830. He also decided to try to improve the standard of living of the St Kildans and under his guidance the traditional ‘run-rig’ system of agriculture was replaced by a permanent allocation of land to each family. The old village was demolished and replaced around 1834 by a curving line of blackhouses around the curve of Village Bay. In 1861, MacLeod, the landlord, paid for a new set of cottages for the St Kildans that were built by his masons from Dunvegan. These were erected alongside the 1830’s blackhouses, many of which were retained as byres. In 1865 the Rev. John Mackay was sent to St Kilda and set about imposing a particularly strict religious rule over the islanders: the St Kildans embraced his teaching and ignored their own traditions.

Another factor in the history of the St Kildans was the influence of disease on the islanders. The islands were devastated by a smallpox epidemic in 1724, from which only four adults and 26 children survived. (A further three men and eight boys escaped exposure to the disease as a result of being stranded for several months on Boreray while on a fowling expedition.) Although some new families were introduced from Harris and Skye, the population never again exceeded 110. A further factor in the decline was infant tetanus, which, until it was finally eradicated in 1891, exacted a toll of two out of every three live births. The emigration of 36 islanders to Australia in 1852 reduced the population to approximately 70, from which it never recovered.

Detail from Sharban's map of 1860By this time, the islanders’ traditional economy had also begun to falter, with the oil and feathers they exported losing value on the mainland –though still accepted by the Factor as part payment of the rent. From the 1870s, however, steamers were calling regularly at Village Bay, full of well-meaning, curious visitors – tourists. They came ashore to see the inhabitants, whom they regarded as quaint, and to buy souvenirs made by them. Money was introduced for the first time and the St Kildans came to rely on these tourists to provide them with a source of income. But by the beginning of the 20th century this fickle and uncertain source of income began to decline as St Kilda began to go out of vogue. What followed were years of hardship when illness, bad weather, poor harvests and lack of food seriously affected the quality of life and the expectations of the St Kildans. They had few sources of income, although the sale of cattle and tweed to Skye and the mainland continued through the estate Factor until after the First World War. Communication with the mainland was also difficult, with the efficiency of their post office, which opened in 1899, often affected by weather conditions.

During the First World War, the islanders experienced a short reprieve when a Naval unit stationed on the island brought them a measure of prosperity as well as radio communication, regular mail, employment and supplies. However, in 1919 the Navy pulled out and the islanders’ situation was once again desperate. By 1928 the population had fallen to 37 and in 1930 the remaining islanders, guided by Nurse Williamina Barclay, decided that they had no future on St Kilda. They signed a petition requesting evacuation, which was sent to the Secretary of State for Scotland in May 1930. Eventually, their request was granted and on 29 August 1930 the 36 remaining St Kildans left the islands. They were taken by HMS Harebell to the mainland where the majority was to settle in Morvern, Argyll, to work for the Forestry Commission – most having never before seen a tree!

The MacLeods sold the island in 1931 to the Earl of Dumfries, later to become the 5th Marquess of Bute. He retained the island, unoccupied and managed as a bird sanctuary, until his death in 1956, following which the islands came into the care of The National Trust for Scotland, when it also became a National Nature Reserve under the supervision of The Nature Conservancy (now SNH).

Operation Hardrock 1957‘Operation Hardrock’, established the need for St Kilda as an early warning radar outpost during the Cold War. An MoD Base was established in 1957, initially by the RAF, and this has gradually evolved into the MoD Base for the South Uist Rocket Range. This establishment continues to provide the island with its most permanent occupants as well as electricity, running water, medical support, and lines of supply. In order to cause minimal disturbance to the Village, the Base was established on the ‘Glebe Land’ – agricultural land in the control of the church. Initial plans to demolish the Village and use the stone for road building were successfully opposed in 1957 by representatives of The Nature Conservancy and the NTS; the Village was spared and the quarry above Village Bay was established instead. Various radar facilities have come and gone on the hilltops, but the most sustained activity of this type is confined to the area of the Base, now run by the commercial company QinetiQ.

From 1958 onwards, volunteer ‘Work Parties’ of The National Trust for Scotland have visited annually, restoring a number of the historic buildings for use by visitors, volunteers, and researchers, as well as maintaining the ruined structures and assisting with archaeological excavations.