“Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes?” asked Lachlan Maclean in 1838; “that land is St Kilda”. Whether socialist, anarchist, noble savage, or beggar, the natives of this most remote Hebridean archipelago have almost invariably been ill-represented in literature, cast variously as semi-mystical beings or as peoples uncorrupted by the vicissitudes of industrial life. Such myths are scorned in Roger Hutchinson’s St Kilda: A People’s History as such a sentimental veneer is lifted to uncover a nonetheless remarkable “little Hebridean family” that tenaciously struggled for life.
Jutting out of the North Atlantic, some eighty miles from Scotland’s western shores, Hirta – the populated heart of the St Kilda islands cluster – supported a way of life consequent on its extreme isolation from mainland Britain. Reputed to be an island utopia, it attracted boatloads of curious tourists in the latter nineteenth century, Anthony Trollope amongst them. Yet, these visitors also reflected somewhat disappointedly upon the “corruption” of this apparently unique idyll, complaining of an impoverished, trade-hungry populace, in place of the “unconscious anarchists” of contemporary writings. Yet, as Hutchinson illuminates, recourse to the trope of virgin soil should surprise for in reality footprints of traders had been imprinted upon Hirta’s banks for centuries; island life was inextricably tied to a series of landowners and their often exploitative factors. Harvests were far from abundant, especially after the tacksman’s share, and barely sustained a people who were consistently below the poverty line. Nineteenth century notions of a sophisticated “parliament” on the islands and, far more absurdly, “royalty” are in Hutchinson’s history dismissed as fanciful exaggerations. Rather, the islands’ famed “parallel culture” was rooted in toil.
St Kilda supplants the clichés with a history of the broadest scope applicable to such a minute community. From the formation of Village Bay’s caldera to the first Mesolithic venture upon it, every evident source is exploited, be they archaeological or toponymical. Borrowing heavily from primary accounts, Hutchinson evokes more recent changes in St Kildan life with remarkable power, skilfully interweaving the biographies of numerous notable individuals into his broader narrative: fulmar-catching acrobatics atop the islands’ soaring stacks, ongoing controversy over the handling of manure, the localised matters which shaped everyday life justifiably receive extensive coverage. That this is likely to be the definitive history of the tiny community indicates Hutchinson’s skill and also the respective dearth of source material. Though not the bastion of Celtic culture long imagined, native acceptance of the English tongue was never complete, leaving only ministers and missionaries able to write of island life with genuine authority. Almost invariably, the accounts excerpted are from visitors’ pens, a fact that is rendered even more frustrating by the inability of local oral tradition to survive beyond a few generations among this tiny community. Thus, only in their final decades did the island dwellers begin to make their voices heard. When they did, as Hutchinson records, their recollections were far from idyllic. The handful of St Kildans who finally deserted Village Bay in August 1930 appreciated the unsustainability of their way of life, as did their many mainland supporters. Demographically-uneven and aid-dependent numbers, the scars of disease, exceptional rates of infant mortality, and the thrall of emigration had rendered post-war island life intolerable. Though eulogisers continue to mourn the abandonment of this most romanticised of romantic island settlements, the “well-planned and sensitive evacuation” portrayed was as desired as it was necessary.
Hutchinson’s St Kilda is undeniably a product of the same fascination that has previously obscured the islands’ history. Nevertheless, in combating dewy-eyed nostalgia with scepticism based on empirical evidence, he has both shown the reality to be as intriguing as the myth, and produced a St Kildan chronicle that is unlikely to be surpassed.