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Pictures of St Kilda
Graeme Garvey
... almost anywhere was better than St Kilda

A picture forms in my mind. It is a fine day, the wind is warm and I’m feeling good. Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnet with its lovely litany of ‘Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea’ has made me yearn for somewhere townless, roadless and remote. Another reading of Auden’s "On this Island" and I’m ready for the ultimate challenge - St Kilda. Wild, rocky isle stranded in the Atlantic, miles from anywhere. I could cope with you - in this picture.
And then…and then another one forms, the kind you see at the pictures. Glowering clouds are hurling spiteful anger on the pitiable cottages, whilst tumultuous seas unleash their endless force on the battered shoreline. Letting this impression of St Kilda quickly fade, I turn up the central heating and picture something else, glad to live in a place where a three-hour power cut is a hardship.

Even the island’s hardy inhabitants opted out, eventually. 2,000 years of clinging to a craggy landmass beyond the Outer Hebrides ended in 1930. They had come to know not just that there was somewhere better to live, but that almost anywhere was better than St Kilda. Finally they did something about it.

There are photographs on the internet of residents braving it early in the last century. They even had a go, incredible to believe, at promoting tourism but of course to no avail. So we progressively piece together a photographic gallery of hardship. Lack of variety in diet and an apparent uselessness at fishing lead to them living mainly off gannet. Earlier written records create a picture of a happy, unspoilt people with a love of music and games, and give clear hints of it being an earthly paradise. Although it is hard for most of us now to equate St Kilda with the Garden of Eden, the whole comparison fell anyway once its traditional Christianity was replaced by adherence to the grim and unsuitably named Free Church. Images of a black and white hell on earth began to fill the gallery. They even locked their doors, which is pathetic if you think about it.

And so it came to pass that the islanders quit the shores forever. Nothing much happened on St Kilda for a while. The sheep were left to it. It was abandoned as a forsaken lump of stone set in an angry sea. Yet this is where the story twists two ways. Firstly, its very isolation started to become attractive, particularly as an antidote to modern living. My friend Ward is adamant that he could manage there fine, and I believe him. He could even put up with the glowering clouds hurling their spiteful anger and would positively encourage the tumultuous seas to unleash their endless force. A diet consisting entirely of gannet? No problem. Electricity? A waste of time –and energy. He plays the bagpipes and St Kilda would be swathed in its lone inhabitant’s piping as the wind raged. His marching would be a fine sight for circling spy satellites.

The final ironic twist, however, is that the unpeopled St Kilda has now become popular with scientists, conservationists, environmentalists and, yes tourists! There is even a pub, dubiously called the Puff Inn. Happy evenings captured by polaroid for all to smile at on an ‘uninhabited’ island.
Ward will have to start looking for somewhere quieter.

© Graeme Garvey November 2002

Graeme Garvey
on his first trip to Canada

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