The Scots call this the “Thin World” where the membrane that separates the secular from the spiritual is drawn tight. This is the part of the world where the sea churns and mists into vapor, joining the fog, which solidifies and becomes the roiling green and white foam ocean. These physical states merge. Viewed from the deck of the ship as it rolls, sways, rocks, pitches and yaws, all motions seem simultaneous. This is the introduction to the archipelago of St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles, lying 41 miles west of Benbecula, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
Thirty people left this tiny island in 1936. Mid-ocean, in the thin world, where the sun just clips below the horizon and the twilight seems perpetual; I look for the boat of refugees approaching from the island with its eccentric passenger list. It must be hallucinations, a side effect of the seasickness medication. What makes an island depopulate after a thousand years of habitation? How do people remain for untold generations eating sea birds in a completely insulated world; and how do they leave?
Seven hundred miles North West of London. It is chilly in mid-July. No one would ever think of checking a forecast. Last year a visitor was sun burnt in five minutes of intense northern latitude sun; an hour later it was snowing—in July. St. Kilda is so far north that the sun dips slightly below the horizon from about 11pm to 3am–with a constant glow on the horizon during the four hours the sun is hidden.
We are on the MV CUMA, a fishing research vessel with 12 bunks and an equal number of adventurous explorers. We leave the port of Miavaig, 60 miles west of Stornoway somewhat anxious, under dark billowing skies. First we weigh options then we weigh anchor and away we go. An hour later we are in the middle of a force eight gale and we are “running before the storm”…seeking shelter in the relative safety of an inlet. Eleven thirty, a mere three hours after departure and we are stopped, dragging anchor most of the night–waiting out the storm. This is a less than auspicious start.
The next morning it clears somewhat and we head west for our five-hour journey on the 67-foot MV CUMA. As I look out the window there is a repetitious movie of gray cumulonimbus clouds and gray-green ocean. The horizon scrolls up and down through the cabin windows…with all too much regularity. I am unsure if it is the pitch or the roll that is making people queasy and beyond. We are in the middle of the “Imperfect Storm.” The weather is insistent. After five never-ending hours, we are carving a path through two vertical rock walls filled with 250,000 gannets, large white birds. The stones look like folded sheets of rock iced with pulsating birds that launch and land in endless relocation. The wings, the waves of the ocean, the persistent wind and the drizzle seem like a symphony of nature. I have somehow, accidentally, entered the Discover Channel. This is an infusion of a grand picture of the environment and the place of humans within it. We are an hour from St. Kilda. The MV CUMA coped better with the weather than her passengers. Most are green. The theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” loops in my mind as I search my fellow travelers in the hopes of finding Ginger or Mary Anne hidden under their rubberized all-weather hoods.
Finally, St. Kilda looms, the highest point in the British Isles at 1400+ feet, capped by a heavy mist that obscures any sight of its cap. The severity of one side of the island seems as if Racquel Welsh is atop with Pterodactyls and T Rexes. This is Jurassic land, King-Kong’s habitat, a location any horror movie on the planet would kill for. As we turn the corner, the morning mist leaves to reveal a parenthesis of green embracing a dark green lagoon. The sky becomes brilliant blue, the grass verdant. When we enter the sanctuary of a gentle horseshoe shaped harbor we encounter the true monstrosity.At the edge of the beach, amid the abandoned village is a 30-foot-high, aluminum-sided power plant, with a constant low rumble. As one reflects on the beauty and isolation of the village in this pastoral setting, the out-of-place industrial power plant and its attendant buildings assault one. The charming, nostalgic village is made up of about fifteen homes many in ruins, some simply in disrepair, a church with attached school room, the factors (governor’s) house, and a large cinder-block complex housing an assortment of quasi-military personnel that track missile trajectories. Physically placed in this almost sacred location by the necessity of the cold war, the juxtaposition of these disparate architectural bedfellows seems offensive by any standard.
There are approximately 1,000 visitors per year work, many working with Scottish National Trust in restoration and archeological work parties. They intermingle with the dozen-crew members from QuintiQ, a privatized defense-research organization. Each evening they unwind at the Puffin, where the drinks are doubles and served during an abbreviated evening from 10:30 to 11:30 PM.
The landscape, green and spongy, is dotted with stones placed in corals and huts called “cleiteans” where the harvested birds were stored. Wild sheep wander among stacked stone structures are everywhere in a 19th century Lego-land. This charm stands in sharp contrast and conflict with the modern support structures for the radar dishes. Yet, the problems seems minimized at best, ignored at worst…the power plant greets the visitor at the harbor entrance like a lump of dirt in a plate of milk.
It is a gentle walk to any part of the island. The trek is punctuated with birds protecting their ground nests (there are no trees on the island.) The aerial acts include a variety of theatrical injuries to lead you away or a series of endless winged dive-bombers flaring wings and diverting inches from your face.
Stand on the edge of the Atlantic and you are momentarily deceiving yourself into believing man’s dominance over nature. Stand on lip of the island, disregard the assaulting birds and look 1,400 feet below to the space filled with thousands of white check marks dancing against the palette of ocean. Solitary as you are, you can never measure the weight of isolation and privation of the last 36 inhabitants. This is far from the industry of Glasgow, the culture of Edinburgh or the bustle of London. St. Kilda is a time warp–a 19th century life bisected by a 21st century defense installation. The question reoccurs. How can people live here under such conditions? How can they abandon a life so defined by the architecture of the landscape?
St. Kilda is a World Heritage Site as an environmental location for more nesting sea- birds than anywhere in Europe. The Scottish government hopes to be granted the rare dual cultural/environmental status by UNESCO as well. There is a certain oddness on the part of Scottish National Heritage. They are extremely proud of this site, yet the powers that be seem to be willing to sign a 25-year lease with QuintQ without mention of architectural review. There are conditions that demand a return to the natural state at the end of the lease term, but this does not make the cold war era architecture any more compatible with the more historic structures. The QuitiQ director floats a trial balloon—the possibility that the support structures are significant as cold-war era architecture. This seems more than far-fetched when one looks at this recently completely abomination of architecture. To bastardize an Eisenhower quote, “Beware the Military-Cultural conspiracy.”
Why go to an island at the end of the world, with this sad and poignant history? Seventy years later this scene repeats itself on a regular basis. The vast American plains, Island America hosts many desiccated towns, small crossroads villages that are no longer sustainable. Rather than by sea, the population climbs into pick-up trucks with less glamour and heroics and heads for Chicago and Dallas for new opportunities. The colony dies, but the individuals survive in relocation–cultural Darwinism.
As I leave St. Kilda, I take a last look in the Free Presbyterian Church. Below the pulpit a family bible sits open on a podium. The family history is recorded for posterity.
Husband John Mathie, born 29 October 1843, wed wife Catherine Marshall, born 13 May 1844 on August 16th 1869. Their seven children are recorded dutifully and optimistically-
James Mathie b 17 August 1870; John Marshall Mathie b. 17 August 1970; Samuel Mathie b. 13 March 1874; Margaret Mathie b. 16 September 1875; Catherine Mathie 5 August 1877; Agnes Mathie b. 17 April 1879; John Mathie 12 October 1884 and Thomas Mathie 12 June 1886.
The births are marked with corresponding deaths. John 10 months later, Samuel at 12 months 26 days, Margaret at 12 months 18 days, little Thomas at 3 months and 18 days, and Agnes at a ripe old 29 years and six months.
These are people with the same hopes and aspirations for the success of their families, their children…but this was not to be. There is a limit to how long you can live with a community of 36 people and all the petrels and puffins you can eat. Amid this difficult existence, the village imported wood to build caskets for their dead. There are no trees, no wood on the island; only the moss, birds, stones, sheep wind and fog left.
And so they voluntarily evacuated in 1930 and disseminated into Glasgow population, not with a bang, nor even with a whimper. Are these the tales of hope, or the reports of failures? For decades the island remained a ghost town, undisturbed. There is no possibility of development. St. Kilda will never be a metropolis nor seaside resort but it is a place where a traveler can see an isle from the uninterrupted perspective of himself or herself on a cliff-side overlooking an uninterrupted horizon—completely and totally alone. It is worth the trip.
IF YOU GO:
MV CUMA–www.island-cruising.com there are no hotels on the island, you sleep on the ship, or as a cultural or archeological volunteer, you may sleep with a group in one of the cottages. Ship is about $750 per person per week with a full compliment of 12 people.
Cook (Scottish Cooking), Mate and Captain. E-mail Cuma@sol.co.uk
Scotland Preview website–www.toscotland.com or www.visitscotland.com
St. Kilda Preview website–http://www.kilda.org.uk/