Tributes paid after death of former St Kilda resident

Norman John Gillies was one of the last survivors from the evacuation of St Kilda. Picture: Comp
Norman John Gillies was one of the last survivors from the evacuation of St Kilda. Picture: Comp
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Tributes are being paid after one of the last survivors of the famous St Kilda evacuation in 1930 has died.

Norman John Gillies was only five years old when 36 of the last residents on the remotest outpost in the UK left the islands, 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides.

Norman Gillies as a baby on St Kilda with his mother Mary and father John. Picture: Comp

Norman Gillies as a baby on St Kilda with his mother Mary and father John. Picture: Comp

The archipelago was famously abandoned in 1930 at the request of the remaining population when they finally realised life on the edge of Britain was unsustainable.

Mr Gillies, who died in hospital in Cambridge on Sunday after suffering a heart attack, aged 88, had always happily spoken about St Kilda and his experience, and has told how his mother’s own death was a catalyst for the decision by islanders to leave.

Mary Gillies fell with appendicitis in February 1930 while she was pregnant, but storms prevented her leaving for a few days. She and her daughter later died at Glasgow’s Stobhill Hospital.

David Allison, who knew Mr Gillies after interviewing him for the project, The Island Life – which shows documentaries and archive films of Scottish island life around the world – told how his friend had been “an inspirational character” whose legacy would last forever on film.

Mr Allison said: “When I was making the island tapes I went to see him to get his blessing and played him one of the archive films, filming him as he watched.

“It was an old archive he did not know existed. He had not seen his mother since she had been rowed away, never to come back, but his mother was in the film and he saw her for the first time since then.

“He stretched out his hand saying ‘that is my mother’ and it was a totally magical moment.”

Speaking on the Island Life tapes, Mr Gillies told of that moment, aged only four when, he last saw his mother.

He said: “I remember that well, as if it happened yesterday. Me standing down at the seashore and waving to her as she was rowed out in a boat with her shawl on and her waving back.”

Her death had far-reaching consequences, with the evacuation taking place some months later, with Mr Gillies recalling the decision made by islanders: “They realised that they were in a hopeless position if anybody took really ill. All islanders had to sign that they would leave St Kilda.

“For the younger people it was an opportunity to do things which would help their entire lives. To the older inhabitants it was almost as if they had cut off their right hands, to have left their island home.”

Mr Allison said: “Norman John wanted people to know about St Kilda and he had a passion about telling his story. He had a great voice that told of his journey, with an accent a bit confused between Scottish and Suffolk.

“His story has been around the world. Even last year when I was in Tokyo I called him to say he was famous in Japan. He was very happy for people to hear about his experience.

“He was very balanced and never over-romanticised St Kilda. He recalled it as being an island community where people looked after each other, but also as a brutally tough life with little opportunity for people, especially the young generation, in a world getting more connected.

“To me he remained forever young, and I believe that he wanted to stay in touch with the moment he last saw his mother.”

Mr Allison is unsure whether Mr Gillies is the last survivor, with rumours of someone living in the Glasgow area and another in Ross-shire, but added: “He is certainly the last to tell the story of someone actually being there.”

Mr Gillies had been unwell for around a year and had a heart attack last week. He was taken to hospital, but died. He is survived by wife, Ivy, and three children.

He had moved to Ipswich after meeting the woman who was to be his wife for more than 63 years at a local church, while he was serving in the Royal Navy.

The National Trust for Scotland, which now owns the world heritage site which gets 4,000 tourists a year, also paid tribute.

Susan Bain, NTS Western Isles Manager, said: “Norman John was always happy to share his memories of St Kilda and very generous with his time when asked to recall his early life on St Kilda.

“I consider myself very privileged to have met Norman John with his family when they visited St Kilda and was able to share his recollections of his life on St Kilda and afterwards when they settled in Argyll. The living testimony he provided brought the landscape to life and populated it with people that he knew and loved.

“Norman John always felt that leaving St Kilda gave the young people great opportunities in life but this did not diminish his love for his original home. We would like to pass our condolences to his wife and family at this sad time.”

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