WHEN Rachel Johnson stood aboard the deck of the HMS Harebell and watched the gannet-specked stacks around Hirta fade into the horizon, it was a new beginning, one which heralded an end to a way of life that made stern demands of a child.
At an age when most girls were playing, she would be out working, dangling off sheer cliff edges to harvest seabird eggs, gathering seaweed from secluded shores or helping her mother make meals for the family.
It was an industrious existence, one that maintained proud traditions stretching back at least two millennia. But it could not last. Come the dawn of the 1930s, she and 35 other hardy souls were spirited from the windlashed outcrop they called home. Now, nearly nine decades later, St Kilda has lost the last of her children.
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Tributes have been paid to Ms Johnson, the last surviving resident of the remote archipelago, who has died at the age of 93. She was among the youngest of the remaining islanders faced with the toughest of decisions amid a plummeting population and failing crops.
The death of her aunt, Mary Gillies, from pneumonia, proved the tipping point for the fragile community. Having petitioned the government, they set sail in August 1930 for a fresh start on the Scottish mainland.
If you asked her about St Kilda, she would look at you and smile. It was a very hard life on St Kilda but there was a great sense of communityRACHEL JOHNSON’S SON RONNIE
Many of them would never return, though Ms Johnson was not among their number. She came back to Hirta on several occasions, including an event in 1980 to mark the half centenary of the evacuation.
After departing St Kilda, Ms Johnson’s parents settled in a cottage at Larachbeg, near Lochaline. It was there she met Ronald, a housebuilder. The couple were married in Oban before moving to Scotstoun and later, Clydebank. They went on to settle in the West Dunbartonshire town, where she raised two sons, Ronnie and Malcolm.
Ronnie, a 61-year-old draughtsman, said that although his mother seldom spoke of her early years, she cherished her memories of life in the northermost part of the British isles. “If you asked her about St Kilda, she would look at you and smile,” he said.
“It was a very hard life on St Kilda, but there was a great sense of community.
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A grandmother and great grandmother, she spent her later years in the town’s Mount Pleasant care home, where she died on Monday.
Alexander Bennett, general manager for countryside and islands north at the National Trust for Scotland, the owners of St Kilda, said her death was keenly felt by everyone involved with the archipelago.
“It is a sad day and truly the end of an era to learn that the last of the native St Kildans has passed away,” he said.
“I was privileged enough to have met Rachel on a number of occasions. She was intensely private but extremely kindly.
“On behalf of the National Trust for Scotland and all who care for St Kilda, we offer our condolences to her family and many friends.”
Ms Johnson’s cousin and former neighbour on St Kilda, Norman Gillies, died in 2013 at the age of 88. Her funeral service will he held at Clydebank’s Radnow Park Parish Church this morning.