Obituary: Norman John Gillies, painting and decorating department manager

Norman John Gillies, one of the last members of the native St Kilda community to have left the islands
Norman John Gillies, one of the last members of the native St Kilda community to have left the islands
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Born: 22 May, 1925, on Hirta, St Kilda. Died: 29 September, 2013, in Cambridge, aged 88

He had never seen a tree, a car or owned a toy until he was five.

His diet was mainly seabirds and his playground was the barren, rocky landscape of the place known as the island on the edge of the world.

Inaccessible for most of the year, his boyhood home was the archipelago of St Kilda, the most remote part of the British Isles, 41 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean off Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

They had been inhabited for centuries by a core of hardy and determined islanders but when his mother fell ill and died on the mainland, along with her infant daughter, it marked the end of their unique lifestyle and signalled the vanishing of a culture that had been at the heart of Norman John Gillies’ family for generations.

After the tragedy in 1930 he was one of the final 36 inhabitants evacuated from St Kilda. Now his death leaves only one surviving member of that community, his cousin Rachel Johnson. Though he continued to love them and returned a number of times to the islands, Mr Gillies conceded that life for him on the mainland had been “tremendous” and much better than it could ever have been on St Kilda.

Yet for the older generation, who had lived in isolation like one big extended family, witnessing them waving goodbye to their home until it disappeared over the horizon was one of his saddest memories.

Mr Gillies was born in his grandmother Annie’s home on the island of Hirta in St Kilda. Known as the Queen of St Kilda, she lived at No 15, one of 16 dwellings in a semi-circle on Village Bay. The new baby and his family lived in cottage No 10. His widowed aunt lived next door and an uncle was just a few doors down.

It was inevitably a close-knit community and the little boy was named Norman John in memory of two uncles who were lost at sea when their boat capsized as they tried to land on Dun, one of the other islands. Life for the men of the island was dangerous – scaling cliffs and catching seabirds – and following bad harvests, food shortages, influenza and the Great War, more and more able-bodied youngsters emigrated.

By 1930 only three dozen inhabitants remained. That January his mother, who was pregnant, fell ill with suspected appendicitis. The first boat of the year was not due until June but eventually, in February, she and his father were taken to the mainland by lighthouse ship.

Several months later his father returned alone. It transpired that young Norman John’s mother had given birth to a little girl in May 1930 – a fact that her son did not find out until 60 years later. Soon after the birth she contracted pneumonia and both mother and baby died in Glasgow. When the St Kildans, who had previously resisted attempts by the medical profession to get them to leave, heard what had happened they all agreed to depart the islands. At the end of August the remaining 36, including the five-year-old Norman John, his father and grandmother, sailed on HMS Harebell for a new life on the mainland, landing at Lochaline in Argyll. That day the youngster saw his first tree and his first car. Initially allocated a small house in Ardness, the family was unhappy with the conditions and the distance from family and friends. After protesting they were moved to Larachbeg, where fellow St Kildans occupied neighbouring homes.

Mr Gillies, who was educated at Claggan School, Morven, left at 14 to start work in a sawmill around the start of the Second World War. In November 1943 he joined the Royal Navy and trained at the Butlins Holiday Camp site at Skegness before being posted to Ayrshire. He served on HMS Hornet at Portsmouth and Fort William and, in August 1944, joined motor torpedo boat 489 as a signalman in Lowestoft.

He also served at Felixstowe and Ostend and was in one of the flotillas that sailed to accept the surrender of the German E boats at Felixstowe just before VE Day. In July 1945 he was posted to Shotley, Suffolk, on HMS Ganges, to learn American signals. There he met his future wife, Ivy, at the Methodist chapel in Chelmondiston.

That autumn he served on HMS Cossack in Malta, Alexandria and Port Said and caused something of a panic when he contracted what naval doctors thought was smallpox. He was escorted in a field ambulance by naval dispatch riders to an isolation hospital where, a few days later, it was decided he had chickenpox.

The following year found him on a dangerous mission on a minesweeper in Trieste clearing and the area of mines. He then served for a short time on HMS Magpie before returning home to be demobbed in September 1946 and marrying Ivy the following year.

Back in civilian life he had various jobs – he was a sawmill worker in Ipswich, a trolley bus conductor for a spell and then worked in an ironmongers. Latterly he was the manager of the painting and decorating department of a builders’ merchants and away from work was heavily involved in his local Methodist church, where he was a society steward for more than 30 years.

He returned to St Kilda for the first time in 1976, as part of a National Trust for Scotland work party, helping to renovate the stone houses which he and his neighbours had left decades earlier. It was a wonderful experience for him to be back in his homeland, to see the house where he lived and the church where he sat as a boy, and to be part of the restoration.

He also went back in 1980 for the 50th anniversary of the evacuation and returned, with Ben Fogle of the BBC’s Countryfile, in 2005.

Meanwhile, in his adopted home of Ipswich he lived in a house called St Kilda, a tribute to the birthplace he knew as “a delightful little island”.

He is survived by his wife Ivy, their children Bridget, John and Shirley, 11 grandchildren and ten great grandchildren.