remotest inhabited place in the British Isles lies some110 miles west
of the Scottish mainland, a small archipelago of islands known as St
Kilda. On the north side of the main island, Hirta, are the remains
of the tigh na banaghaisgich, 'female warriors house' or 'Amazon's
house'. Descriptions of the house and St Kildian folklore has lead to
speculation that these are the vestigages of an iron age matriarchal
culture surviving through oral tradition. - first recorded by Martin
Martin in 1698 in his detailed description of the island and it's community
- the story of the survival and eventual demise of this idyllic community
is in danger of itself passing away into folklore.
St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found?
Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics,
nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. No taxgatherer's bill threatens on
a church door-the game-laws reach not the gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds,
and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake
the foundations of Europe - and acknowledging the dominion of M'Leod,
cares not who sways the British sceptre. Well may the pampered native
of happy Hirt refuse to change his situation - his slumbers are late
- his labours are light - his occupation his amusement. Government he
has not - law he feels not - physic he wants not - politics he heeds
not - money he sees not - of war he hears not. His state is his city,
his city is his social circle-he has the liberty of his thoughts, his
actions, and his kingdom and all the world are his equals. His climate
is mild, and his island green, and the stranger who might corrupt him
shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall
it be sought ? " Lachlan Maclean
George Washington Wilson Collection, University of Aberdeen
how long it had taken the St Kildans to develop their communal republic,
observed by Martin in 1698, or where these traditions had come from?
Certainly without them their very survival would have been at risk.
On the islands, consisting of 1575 acres of Hirta, a further 244 acres
on Soay & 79 acres on Dun, the 180 islanders had developed a self-sufficient
communal economy based on seabird (meat, oil & eggs), Soay sheep,
fishing, and small scale crofting. A form of primitive socialism prevailed
on the island. All grazing land was held in common. All property on
which they depended for their livelihood was held in common; including
boats, climbing ropes and fowling gear. All the island's produce of
seabirds and fish was divided equally according to the number of households
on the island, with provision made for the sick and elderly. And later
gifts brought in by tourists, philanthropists and visitors were divided
as equally as possible between the families.
The main settlement on the island, at village bay, was rebuilt in 1836-8.
It consisted of 25 stone built cottages with barns & outbuildings
in typical Hebridean style. The islands are also dotted with distinctive
stone built/turf roofed cleits, or storehouses.
George Washington Wilson Collection, University of Aberdeen
concerning all matters were made by an informal meeting that took place
each weekday morning - known as the `St Kilda Parliament' it consisted
of all the adult males on the island. It had no rules, no chairman and
'members' arrived in there own time. Once assembled the 'parliament'
would consider the work to be done that day. The islands' schoolmaster
in 1889 wrote that the parliament
'very much resembles our Honourable British Parliament in being able
to waste any amount of precious time over a very small matter while
on the other hand they can pass a Bill before it is well introduced'.
The islanders had a thriving cultural life with their own music, dance,
poetry and sports. Martin reported that they were `very
fond of music, dancing to an old wretched fiddle with great delight.
They were also good singers, and accompanied all their duties with suitable
songs, generally of their own composition.' Shinty was a
favourite game & rock climbing was as much a sport as a skill needed
some of their customs showed a possible early Christian influence -
the beliefs of the islanders were seen as a mixture of 'popery and druidism,'
prompting the Church of Scotland to send out a series of missionaries
from 1705 onwards. Some of the missionaries had a beneficial effect
on the island improving housing and living conditions. However in 1844
the islanders were won over to the doctrines of the Free Church and
from 1863-1889 came under the severe rule of a Rev John Mackay whose
adherence to a strict Christian doctrine played a large part in the
eventual downfall of the island republic. Mackay's autocratic rule undermined
the traditions that had grown up on the island to such an extend that
religious worship often left little time to carry out the essential
tasks necessary for survival on the island. In the late 1800s the island
economy was given a boost by becoming part of the Victorian cruise itinery.
This introduction to the cash economy (the tourists bought tweeds, knitwear
& sheepskins) further undermined the subsistence economy of the
island and also led to emigration from the island to the mainland. As
the cruise ships declined in the early1900's the islands dwindling population
was supported by trawlermen fishing the seas around the island and from
public funds. On 10 May 1930, a petition was signed by 20 islanders
the undersigned . . . hereby respectfully pray and petition Her [sic]
Majesty's Government to assist us all to leave the island this year
and to find homes and occupation for us on the mainland.'
evacuation took place on 29 August 1930. The Surgeon of HMS Harebell
recorded the death of the community:
the houses were locked and the people taken on board. Shortly afterward
they were looking their last at St Kilda as the Harebell, quickly increasing
speed, left the island a blur on the horizon. Contrary to expectations
they had been very cheerful throughout, though obviously very tired,
but with the first actual separation came the first signs of emotion,
and men, women and children wept unrestrainedly as the last farewells
were said." A. Pomfret
So ended the longest surviving 'Communal Republic' on British soil.
Somewhat ironically many of islanders found work with the Forestry Commission
at Ardtornish in Morvern, where these refugees from a treeless island,
found that their climbing skills were in demand to tend trees.