Roddy Lumsden reviews The Island on the Edge of the World
Seabirds were the main reason the islanders stayed over the centuries, providing not only food (the fulmar was latterly preferred to the fishy tasting guga, or young gannet) but fertiliser, beaks for use as nails, feathers to export to the mainland, oil for medications; gannet heads were even fashioned as makeshift shoes. Charles Maclean explains all this in Island At The Edge Of The World, first published in the 1970s and recently published in a new Canongate Classics edition.
The snippets of information about St Kildans are fascinating: they all had lisps; their sheepdogs were largely toothless, to stop them biting sheep which could not be herded in the usual way; women would grind corn stripped to the waist while singing melancholy songs; young men had to perform an astoundingly dangerous balancing trick before they could marry.
But the book's deeper attraction lies in the fatalistic demise of the inhabitants. The population had been all but wiped out on several occasions – probably by Viking raiders (St Kildans spoke a version of Gaelic with lots of Norse words), possibly, according to a local tale, by swindlers who rounded up and burnt the population to steal their livestock, and certainly by smallpox in 1724. But it could barely withstand the pressures which came during the Victorian period. The 1850s saw a third of the population leave for Australia. The next decades saw up to 80% of newborns die of tetanus, probably caused by a post-natal ritual involving smearing the baby's navel with dung and fulmar oil.
Tourism also took its toll. The island was popular with Victorians who were attracted by its romantic isolation and 'backward' citizens. The St Kildans dropped much of their traditional work and made tweed and souvenirs. Before long, they grew dependent on tourism and the charity of philanthropists. While tourists brought new illnesses, the islanders became ever more insular, yet less harmonious and more inbred. Youngsters began to leave this sickly environment.
The Free Church, though, must take the greatest blame for the breaking of St Kildan culture. John Mackay was the missionary who, from 1865 to 1889, oversaw a harsh regime of Sabbatarianism; with work being banned 12 hours either side of any church service (and there many), little work was done.
Naturally superstitious, the islanders took to fundamentalism; their culture didn't go underground, it simply waned. The St Kildans had always gone about their hard tasks with the help of art and sport – herding and fowling were competitive as well as laborious, while most work was accompanied by song and poetry. This was all banned by the church along with, incredibly for an island people, swimming, which was seen as a sport, therefore frivolous and sinful.
Charles Maclean's book was his first of many, written in his mid-20s. His next book was about Amala and Kamala, the Indian girls supposedly raised by wolves, and he has gone on to write fiction and various books on Scottish landscape and culture. Island At The Edge Of The World certainly warrants the Classics tag, being one of the most enjoyable and engrossing non-fiction books I have read.
- Add to BasketSt Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World: The Story Of St Kilda - - Paperback
St. Kilda was isolated from the mainstream of civilisation for more than 1000 years. Increased contact with the mainland led to its downfall, and by the 1930s the islanders were finally evacuated. Maclean's is the classic history of the island.