Eighty years ago St Kilda was evacuated. Today one of only two survivors remembers leaving the islands.

AT THE age of five, the full significance of his first boat trip would not have been obvious to Norman John Gillies.

AT THE age of five, the full significance of his first boat trip would not have been obvious to Norman John Gillies.

As he played hide-and-seek with other children on the deck of HMS Harebell, his family and neighbours sat waving goodbye to an island disappearing into the horizon, and to their very way of life.

Hide Ad

Awaiting them on the mainland was a new start after the trauma of leaving behind the ultimately impossible existence on St Kilda.

The departure had been coming for some time and at 8am on 29 August, 1930, the archipelago was evacuated and St Kilda was finally, after 4,000 years of occupation, devoid of human inhabitants.

At the time one resident described looking back from the ship and seeing their abandoned home resemble "an open grave".

The St Kildans had clung to their basic existence in almost unimaginable conditions. The archipelago is the most remote part of the British Isles, lying 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Atlantic.

Isolated and battered by a hostile climate, they survived largely by scaling sheer cliff faces to catch the plentiful gannets, fulmars and puffins, and farmed meagre crops.

• Historical picture of the parliament of the Hebridean island of St Kilda

Hide Ad

At one time it was estimated that each person on St Kilda ate 115 fulmars every year and in 1876 it was said that the islanders took 89,600 puffins for food. The mass harvesting of seabirds on the main island of Hirta produced such a flurry of feathers that it resembled a heavy snowfall.

While the birds were dissected for food and oil, the feathers would also be gathered and used as part payment of rent to the landlord, the MacLeod of MacLeod.

Hide Ad

But from the mid-19th century the hardy residents began to lose their self-sufficiency, relying more on imports of food, fuel and building materials, and on revenue from tourists. As contact with the outside world increased, so too did the islanders' dissatisfaction with the realities of their life.

The population decline began in 1852, when 36 people emigrated to Australia, many of them dying on the way. In 1912 there were acute food shortages and in 1913 an outbreak of influenza.

During the First World War a naval detachment arrived on Hirta, resulting in regular deliveries of mail and food. But when these services were withdrawn at the end of the war feelings of isolation increased, leading to more emigration and a breakdown of the island economy.

Norman John Gillies was born in house number 15 to John and Mary Gillies. Now 85, and living near Ipswich in a house called St Kilda, he says the naval officers played their part in changing attitudes: "These men used to tell the young men on St Kilda about life in the outside world, like Glasgow and Edinburgh.

"They would say how much easier it would be for them to go to live in the cities, to work in the shipyards or somewhere like that and get a wage.

"Coming up to the evacuation there was only the very old and very young left. They had one or two very bad winters and in the end it was getting a bit difficult to survive."

Hide Ad

A petition seeking evacuation was sent in May 1930 to the Scottish secretary, Tom Johnston, who later visited the population individually in their homes.

One of the events that tipped the balance was the death of Mr Gillies's mother in 1930. Mary Gillies, who was pregnant and had appendicitis, was taken in rough seas by ship to hospital in Glasgow after a previous attempt to get her off St Kilda two weeks earlier had failed owing to bad weather.

Hide Ad

"I recall her being taken off in a rowing boat with a shawl around her head", says Mr Gillies. "I remember her waving to me as I stood near the pier and I was waving back. That was the last time I saw her."

Mary Gillies died on 26 May 1930. The girl she had given birth to died the same day, just 13 days old.

It was to be 60 years later, when an uncle died in 1990, and her birth certificate was found among other papers, that Mr Gillies realised he had had a little sister.

"It was just something the family didn't talk about", he says.

He adds: "My mother's death showed the St Kildans the hopelessness of being on the island if someone took really ill."

His memory of the evacuation is of playing on the deck of the HMS Harebell, a fishery cruiser, while the adults mourned the loss of their home.

Hide Ad

"The saddest moment was watching several of the women at the rear of the Harebell waving goodbye to the island until it went out of sight. It was hard for them to leave, but that was the agreement, everyone had to go."

In all, 36 men, women and children made the 12-hour crossing from Village Bay, with 28 coming ashore at Lochaline, in the Morvern peninsula, while others headed for Oban and on to Inverness, Portree, Fife or Stromeferry.

Hide Ad

Two days before, the Dunara Castle tourist boat had taken off the sheep and cattle, which were sold. But working dogs were drowned in the bay, as they could not be taken on board.

Mr Gillies, one of only two evacuees still alive – the other being a female cousin who is in a nursing home in Glasgow – clearly recalls seeing the crowd of 200-300 gathered at the shore to see them arrive, as well as his first sighting of a car.

For him, as well as other St Kildans, it was also the first time he had seen a tree as, ironically, as they had come to live and work on the Forestry Commission's 7,000-acre Fiunary Forest. He says: "Looking back, the evacuation was a blessing in disguise. It gave the younger ones greater opportunities to do something with their lives that would not have been possible on St Kilda".

The 36 islanders who left the isolation of Hirta joined a community of about 500 in Morvern, swapping their two-room cottages for slated, two-storey houses and running water. Although they were more scattered than they wanted, they were still largely together.

Norman John, his father and grandmother all at first lived in a small, isolated cottage at Ardness overlooking the Sound of Mull. The cottage got flooded several times and, after complaining to the Scottish Secretary they finally were moved to Larachbeg, where there were other exiled St Kildans.

Morvern resident and historian Iain Thornber says the alien environment, while still remote, had considerably more amenities than St Kilda.

Hide Ad

"In those days there were three post offices, providing six daily mail deliveries and collections a week, a doctor, district nurse, two shops, six schools and a public telephone system as well as a direct daily steamer link with Oban.

"Moreover, eight of the men were offered steady employment in the forest at a wage of 38 shillings (just under 2) per 45-hour week, in place of an annual income of around 30 in a good year on St Kilda."

Hide Ad

Mr Thornber saiys the St Kildan men were strong, hard-working people with a keen sense of direction and an in-built ability to predict the weather. They used semaphore, a technique they picked up from the sailors, to communicate with each other when in different work parties several miles apart.

They also showed their climbing skills, acquired from gathering seabirds, in one of their first tasks in planting trees on Aoinneadh Mor, a basalt ridge rising sharply to 1,500ft.

"None of the local forestry workers cared to go anywhere near the place saying it was too dangerous", says Mr Thornber. "But the islanders, renowned for their cragmanship on some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, just laughed and said the Aoinneadh Mor rocks were only 'little hills' by comparison, and got on with the work."

He adds: "Although they came as strangers all these years ago, the St Kildans are remembered not so much for the forest they left behind, which still dominates the Morvern landscape, but for their friendliness, hospitality and remarkable way in which they adjusted to life in an unfamiliar land."

Despite the St Kildans admitting the futility of staying, after their departure the landowner Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod received requests from other people to live there, but he declined.

He said at the time: "I'm sorry to lose a population that has down its generations been tenants of my family for 1,000 years. But they themselves have a right to go and I cannot blame them.

Hide Ad

"I'm strongly opposed to the idea of resettlers. The present population signed a petition for removal which at great trouble and expense has now been carried out. In these circumstances it would be a folly to remove one lot of people who know the island and replace them with a group of strangers." MacLeod of MacLeod sold the islands in 1931 to the Marquis of Bute, a keen ornithologist. He bequeathed them to The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1957.

Today the archipelago is managed by NTS in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, the Ministry of Defence and Western Isles Council.

Hide Ad

The NTS has two staff living there between April and September, and has refurbished six cottages to accommodate working parties who visit each year.

The trust also leases land to the MoD and contractor QinetiQ who run a missile tracking system from the remote site, employing 12-15 civilian staff.

Last year the base was saved from closure, producing a huge sigh of relief from the NTS, which relies on the military operation for electricity, transport, clean water and sewerage infrastructure.

Susan Bain, the NTS Western Isles officer, visits four times a year and says it has a special atmosphere. "I am always blown away by it. I don't find it eerie but you get moments, particularly if you're by yourself in the village, when you begin to think what it really must have been like for those people living there.

"Its going back to nature now so its missing a lot of the sounds you hear on islands – there are no cattle, no children running about laughing – and there is no smoke coming from the chimneys."

A challenge for the NTS now is balancing the increasing number of people who want to see St Kilda with the need to protect the sensitive location.

Hide Ad

More than 4,000 people visited last year – a fourfold increase in ten years – including passengers from 20 cruise ships.

"The challenge is keeping that intangible quality that everyone gets when they go there. Its the sense of place, the atmosphere", says Ms Bain.

Hide Ad

She adds: "Perhaps it has come to symbolise all the evacuations from islands, but St Kilda is dominated by the evacuation and I think its a shame it's what it is known for: the time it was struggling and failed. For thousands of years it thrived and people were successful, yet its history is dominated by its last gasp."