St Kilda and the seas of change

THE FAINT chalk marks on the slates in St Kilda's school are a fading reminder of a time past. In this room, generations of children were taught the rudiments of learning. On the desk the register tells its own story about life on St Kilda. Few completed their education. Many were required to help at home. Often their schooling was interrupted by death.

It encapsulates a life where the need to work and premature death were the only constants. It informs us of a hard and difficult life.

St Kilda was the most remotely inhabited area of the UK, lying 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. In good times it supported almost 200 people, who survived predominately on seabirds nesting on the cliffs. Islanders lived in virtual isolation as the tenants of the Chief of the Clan MacLeod. As time marched forward, leaving them behind, it became a 20th century anachronism.

Victorians – many of whom had an affinity for touring asylums, prisons and the "freakish" - were fascinated by the island. They came in cruise ships to gawk at the dark-featured, taciturn men and woman.

Travel, however, is never a one-way journey. These visitors brought with them a promise of a world away. St Kildan life began to unravel. Emigration, disease and an ageing population resulted ultimately in a decision to evacuate.

Seventy-five years ago, on 29 August 1930, the remaining 36 islanders packed their belongings, climbed on board the Harebell and set sail for Lochaline. On board were four-year-old Megan Munro, her father, the Church of Scotland lay-preacher Dugald Munro and his wife Margaret.

In March 1929 when Margaret Munro opened a letter from the Church that requested the family move to St Kilda she wept, understanding the isolation and privations that the island will bring. Before leaving, she stocked up on provisions, including tinned milk and butter. The family could not have realised then how much they were to rely on this during the coming year.

"I can still remember the sheer visual beauty of the island," says Megan Munro, one of only a handful of people still alive who can remember life on St Kilda.

The Munros moved into the manse, adjoining the church and school at the top of the village street. They enjoyed greater comfort than most St Kildans and their life soon settled into a routine.

"My mother spent her time cleaning, cooking and washing, although it was hard to get clothes dry," remembers Munro. "My father gave three sermons on Sunday and taught the children in the mornings. Mother gave knitting and sewing lessons to the women."

St Kilda was divided along gender lines. The men gathered in the village street every morning holding a "parliament" to decide on the day's work. It has often been remarked that the women did the heavy work, shouldering enormous burdens. The men harvested sea birds, dangerous work climbing precipitous cliffs.

Megan Munro, 79 years old, recalls her mother discussing the islanders whom she found shy, God-fearing, but just as likely to suffer from petty jealousies as elsewhere. The Munros socialised with the only other incomer, Williamina Barclay, a nurse.

"I can remember visiting the women in their houses, but there could be little cultural exchange between them and my mother," says Munro. "Neither she nor Nurse Barclay could speak Gaelic and their (the islanders') English was not fluent."

And while she remembers the poverty of the barefoot children of the island, Munro also recalls her own deprivation because of where she lived. In October 1929 her mother ordered nuts and apples for Halloween and Christmas. Like the islanders they relied heavily on passing ships to bring post and foodstuffs.

That winter proved the final straw for the islanders. The letters and food requests that were sent so hopefully in October were left unanswered as boat after boat sailed for the island, only to be turned away by inclement weather. The fruit and nuts arrived at the end of January.

"The islanders' diet was particularly poor that last year when the potato crop failed," she says. "If it hadn't been for Nurse Barclay, who had a larger stock of food, certain women would have died."

Barclay, a quiet woman from a wealthy shipbuilding Glasgow family, was the driving force behind the evacuation. She galvanised the islanders who then enlisted the help of Dugald Munro.

"The young men had made up their minds to go, but the older ones wanted to stay," says Megan Munro. "They came to my father and asked if he could find jobs for them on the mainland. He then drew up the petition."

The British government acted quickly and the evacuation was sanctioned. The islanders readied themselves for a new life.

Margaret Munro arranged for new clothes to be delivered to the islanders, as their own were of poor, homespun quality. She was aware of the media and public interest in them and wanted them appropriately dressed.

The morning of 29 August 1930 was overcast when the St Kildans boarded for the mainland. As was the tradition at the time they left their bibles open in their homes.

"I can only vaguely remember that day," says Munro. "I have a memory of being in a boat with my mother and her probably feeling a bit sick because she was pregnant."

As the boat pulled away, some passengers wept but others could scarcely contain their joy at leaving. They eventually reached Morvern where the government helped to arrange forestry jobs for the men and where the Munros settled.

"We saw them regularly at church," remembers Megan Munro. "They used to come to the manse if there were any problems. They were terrified of bureaucracy."

The islanders found their new life hard to adjust to. Many families returned to St Kilda every summer in a futile bid to recreate the lives they had lost. There were sporadic attempts by some to return and live permanently on the island, but this was never to happen and St Kilda was eventually left to the birds and sheep.