VOL I
December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X

 

 

 

 



St Kilda: Britain’s lost republic

Ian Spring, University of Luton

St Kilda is the remotest of the British Isles, a small rocky outpost situated in the Atlantic some 55 miles west of Harris off the north-west coast of Scotland with accompanying sea stacks, the highest vertical cliff in the British Isles, and only one safe landing place. The origin of the name is now obscured. The Gaelic name for the main island is Hirta – which possibly means 'western world' or 'earth' – and it is possible that this was corrupted to Kilda or something similar. Other sources suggest that the island was named after one Kilter who lived there, although the St (the word is always contracted in usage) cannot be so readily explained. The Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of the island gleaned a living for centuries from fishing and fowling (collecting the eggs and carcasses of seabirds for the use of their flesh, oil and feathers) and making tweed from the wool of the island sheep until, at their own request, the island was evacuated in 1930. A few St Kildans still live in the Scottish islands and mainland. The island was a military base until the last eleven soldiers left on 1st April 1998. However, the original houses and crofts (reconstructed by the National Trust) remain. A public house, the Puff Inn, is still open on the islands, for visiting tourists and conservation volunteers who, for braving the long and expensive trip, are entitled to join the St Kilda Club and wear the society tie with a puffin motif.

In October 1999, shortly after the final evacuation of the island and also the opening of the new devolved Scottish parliament, the artist Ross Sinclair launched an exhibition based on the island at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery entitled ‘The New Republic of St Kilda’. The Guardian reported:

Sinclair uses the idea of St Kilda to explore political, historical and contemporary ideas of the good life. Employing deliberately temporary, tacky material to underline the fakery of this utopia, he has built a St Kilda toy town. It’s funny, sad and savage as you wander through, playing simultaneously on the tragic history of this community, ruined through contact with the outside world, and the impossibility of our desire for utopia. There are, we see, no keys, geography, god, leaders or writing here (that all sounds fine), but neither do art or mirrors exist. Is that really what we want, asks this marvellously reflective work, at the same time nudging the new parliament down the road to learn from the past as it shapes the future. (Mahoney, 1999: 4)

In fact, Sinclair’s notion of St Kilda as a lost Utopia and, especially, as a sort of democratic ‘republic’ that can be reborn and serve as a model for a new parliamentary democracy in Scotland, has a substantial pedigree. St Kilda has a long tradition of literary representation. Several poets of greater or lesser skills have employed St Kilda in their work. See, for example, Walter J. Miller, St. Kilda, the Arcadia of the Hebrides and Psalms of Life. It also appears in David Mallet's Amyntor and Theodora of 1748, and, briefly, in James Thomson's Autumn. There are also many books about St Kilda, many of which not only extol its virtues but emphasise its difference from the rest of UK society. For example, according to Charles MacLean, 'St Kilda was a separate culture, subscribed to by a people who in many ways had more in common with a tribe of African bushmen than with the inhabitants of our capital cities of Edinburgh or London'. (MacLean, 1972: 144-5)

Despite its remoteness across the stormy Atlantic, St Kilda has been visited by outsiders for the last four centuries. What is more, interest in all aspects of the island, but notably the unique traditions and way of life of its inhabitants, has grown since the evacuation and has peaked in the late twentieth century – notably with Tom Steel's best selling account of the history of the island in 1975, (Steel, 1975) and Bill Bryden's film about the evacuation, Ill Fares the Land, first screened in 1983.

St Kilda was first described by Sir Donald Monro in 1549 (Monro, 1549) but the first outsider to visit and chronicle the life of the St Kildans was Martin Martin, tutor of the McLeods of Skye, best known for his later account of his travels in the Western Isles. Martin visited the island in 1697 and recorded his experiences in a volume entitled A Voyage to St Kilda. Martin's conclusion is that:

The inhabitants of St Kilda, are much happier than the generality of Mankind, being almost the only People in the World who feel the Sweetness of true Liberty: What the Condition of the People in the Golden Age is feigned by the Poets to be, that theirs really is, I mean, in Innocence and Simplicity, Purity, mutual Love and cordial Friendship, free from solicitous Cares, and anxious Covetousness; from Envy, Deceit, and Dissimulation; from Ambition and Pride, and the Consequences that attend them... they themselves do not know how happy they are, and how much they are above the Avarice and Slavery of the rest of Mankind. Their way of living makes them contemn Gold and Silver, as below the Dignity of human Nature; they live by the Munificance of Heaven, and have no Designs upon one another, but such as are purely suggested by Justice and Benevolence. (Martin, 1698, 66-67)

Martin's evocation of a mythical 'Golden Age' is an example of a tradition that has a pedigree in Scottish literature and later informed the concept of the Noble Savage popularised in Europe by Rousseau and in England by Cook. What the accounts of the early travellers and the blossoming of the exploration of the north-western periphery of the British Isles continually stress is the Arcadian or Utopian ideal of life in this isolated haven. In tandem, there also develops the process of representation of the St Kildans as the 'other', as defined by Jack Goody's concept of the Grand Dichotomy (Goody, 1977) or Colin McArthur's use of core/ periphery theory; (McArthur, 1986) so that the native St Kildans, like all peripheral cultures, are represented as possessing the opposite characteristics of the representing, core culture. In the mythological sense, these characteristics may be attractive, but in the political sense they are considered as disabling. This process has been investigated in a Scottish context by such critics as Malcolm Chapman (Chapman, 1978) and McArthur, who differentiates between the people of the core culture, homo economicus, and the homo celticus of the periphery.

Within the operation of these discourses, it was important that the St Kildans were ‘discovered' as an ancient, noble and heroic race with a continuing tradition. The precedent for this was already established with the practice, promoted by James Macpherson with the cognisance of some members of the Scottish literati, of inventing a Celtic mythology for Gaelic Scotland. The Ossianification of St Kilda's limited folk history, in which a germ of historical truth grows into a more general mythology, is apparent, for example, in these two extracts from nineteenth-century accounts of St Kilda, based on an initial observation by Martin:

There is a legend that St Kilda was not always an island, and that a lady known as the Warrior Queen had the right of hunting deer on the land between Hirta and Harris. In proof of this the St Kildans of Martin's time pointed to a pair of antlers that were found buried in the ground on Oiseval... and showed him the lady's house situated near the 'Well of Virtues' at the bottom of the 'Female Warrior's Glen'. (Connel, 1887: 13)

The altar on Mullach gear, where the ancient St Kildans offered sacrifices to the god of the seasons... on which the islanders poured libations of milk to a deity named Grangach, or the divinity with fine hair or long tresses – the Grannus of the Britons, and the Apollo of Greece and Rome. (Seton, 1878: 288)

On the other hand, the St Kildans were an unlikely hybrid of homo celticus, without any real tradition of warfare, clan allegiance or romantic mythology. Their much vaunted simple life denied an easy transformation into the heroic strain of the typical Scottish Highlander. One thing, however, did set the islanders apart from the rest and typified, to the outsider, their dangerous and primitive lifestyle – the practice of fowling or harvesting seabirds and their eggs on the precipitous cliffs of the island and its neighbouring stacks and outliers. This important difference, allied to the discovery, at the beginning of the romantic period, of the attractions of the grandeur and verticality of the rugged Scottish scenery, led to the development of the representation of the St Kildans as a post-Ossianic strain of fleet-footed heroes. Their exploits in ascending (or, more commonly, descending) the cliffs and crags of the island were, therefore, lauded in almost every account.

Also, during the Romantic period there developed a practice of constructing obviously specious versions of 'folk' ballads associated with fowling, the earliest of which is a text contributed to James Johnson's Musical Museum (best known for the contributions of Robert Burns) A similar piece was also recorded by Seton with the note: 'The following tolerably literal translation of a St Kilda song appeared in the columns of the 'Scotsman' newspaper, where it was stated to be at least as old as the middle of last century, and possibly much older. The contributor... describes the air as one of the wildest and eeriest he ever listened to, 'the burden or refrain being manifestly an imitation, consciously or unconsciously, of the loud discordant clamour of a flock of sea-fowl over a shoal of fish'. (Seton, 1878: 280). The song begins:

Over the rocks, steadily, steadily;
Down to the clefts with a shout and a shove, O!
Warily tend the rope, shifting it readily;
Eagerly, actively, watch from above, O!
Brave, O brave, my lover true, he's worth a maiden's love;
(And the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above).
(Seton, 1878: 281)

Similarly, a romanticised translation of a Gaelic song supposedly collected from Euphemia MacCrimmon in St Kilda in May 1865 (which begins 'Down the ploughie, down the spade, away wi' lamb, wi' kid and nannie,/Up my rope, and up! my snare, for o'er the sea I've heard the gannet!/The gannet are coming, I hear their tune') is recorded in a more recent collection of Gaelic pieces (Geddes, 1961: 60-61) with the note: 'It overflows with the joy of laughter and love, of singing together, and of skill in danger with a friend on the sea-girt crags; and it closes in prayer... when at last its Gaelic words were published in 1941, no living soul of the little community dwelt on St. Kilda. Yet surely their spirit lives on in this song.' An early account by Alexander Buchan dating from 1752 suggests that these songs have a long history – 'Their wives make doleful Songs on such Occasions (when their husbands fall to their death)... The chief Topicks, or subject Matter of these Elegies are their Courage, their Dexterity in Climbing'. (Buchan, 1727: 17) Both the lineage of the songs and their subject, however, are taken as genuine by a recent BBC documentary on the island, Am Posadih Hiortech, which mixes archive footage with dramatised scenes.

Another example of the elevation of the St Kildans to heroic status which may or may not have an origin in actual custom, is the ceremony of the Lover's Stone, or the Mistress Stone, first noted by Martin, in which young St Kildans had to undergo an initiation which involved an acrobatic feat performed above a great drop in order to either, in most versions, claim a wife, or, occasionally, prove their prowess as a fowler. This is the ritual as described by Connel:

In those days a young St. Kildan who wished to make one of the fair maids of the island his own was required to accomplish a most dangerous feat in order to prove possibly the sincerity of his love, but, more probably, his ability to support a wife... the aspirant to the hand of a fair St. Kildan had to climb this giddy, dangerous height, and, planting his left heel on the outer edge, with the sole of his foot entirely unsupported, he extended his right leg forward beyond the other and grasped the foot with both hands, holding it long enough to satisfy... the lady's friends gathered below – thus giving a very forcible illustration of the proverb, 'Faint heart never won fair lady'. (Connel, 1887: 76-77)

It is not clear whether this custom was ever actually practised in earnest, but it is certain that much mileage has been made in various accounts of the islands and the supposed location of the ritual was, before the evacuation, commonly visited by tourists.

In many representations, therefore, the particular practice of cragsmanship is transferred in meaning from a simple acquired skill to an inbred propensity (thus the various attempts et 'anthropological' descriptions of the St Kildans some of which credit them with peculiar constructions of the feet and hands), and the act of fowling becomes not an essential local industry but an adventure or a test. Within this framework, the contradictory demands of Arcadia and Ossianic myth are reconciled.


The Deserted Village? St Kilda 1999

So far I have referred generally to representations of the St Kildans in written literature, but there has also been a long tradition, since the late nineteenth century, of photographic representation of the island, culminating in the postcards produced for tourists to send from the tiny St Kilda post office in the early part of this century. The photographer George Washington Wilson, who ‘industrialised’ tourist photography in the nineteenth century, visited St Kilda in the late 1880s. His famous photograph of the St Kilda Parliament was not only circulated as a simple black and white print, but also sold in the form of hand-coloured prints and lantern-slides. The lecture notes accompanying this particular image as one of a popular series of lantern slides read:

Beyond the reach of the laws that govern this realm they make their own laws. The solitary minister on the island may advise on certain matters, and certainly has a limited influence, but it is their Parliament that fixes matters beyond appeal, and no stranger may take part in their deliberations. This Parliament meets daily, discusses the weather and the state of the sea etc. in a few Gaelic phrases; and by a majority the order of the day is fixed, and no single individual takes it upon himself to arrange his own business until after they unitedly decide what is best. (MacLean & Carrell, 1986: 72)

Very probably it is true that the St Kildans did work in this way; but it is the stressing of this notion of a democratic 'parliamentary' structure to the islanders' life and work, which derives from Martin's utopian ideal, and also mirrors in microcosm the established form of the British Constitution, that has important consequences for later representations of St Kilda.

Of the various photographs that constitute an ethnographic reading of the St Kildan way of life, several characteristics that are generally found in ethnographic images stand out – notably a concentration on the 'otherness' of their way of life with its emphasis on work rather than leisure activities (a well known early engraving – Dr Factobend's recantation in the bird basket, St Kilda – caricatures the St Kildans in the fashion of the typical comic Scot), the self-conscious employment of direct address, and the clear association of the inhabitants of the island with the landscape they inhabit or the natural things they harvest. For example, this effect can be clearly seen in engravings by John Sands in his study of St Kilda (Sands, 1878) which portray the islanders in profile with appositely, a profile of a fulmar. This type of juxtaposition is also very common in early versions of documentary film, where the weather-beaten faces of those portrayed are often cut into scenes of rocks or storm-ridden seas. In fact, the island has not been neglected by the art of the moving image. There are seven documentary films featuring St Kilda in the Scottish Film Archive. (Mylne, ND) The most important of these are:

1908 St Kilda – Its People and Birds, by Oliver Pike.
1918 The Island of St Kilda, Pathe News Film (incorporates Pike footage).
1923 St Kilda – Britain's Loneliest Isle, produced for John McCallum (later McBrayne's) steamship company.
1930 Evacuation of St Kilda, by John Ritchie.
1967 St Kilda – The Lonely Islands, Films of Scotland in collaboration with the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Of these, the 1967 Films of Scotland film by Christopher Mylne (who in fact discovered the Oliver Pike footage, documented the other listed films, and included extracts in his own film) is the most complete, and it also includes an interesting reconstruction of the ritual of the Lover's Stone, complete with anxious mother gazing upwards. It was screened in the Royal Festival Hall on 1 April 1967 and reviewed by Robert Macdonald in the Scotsman on Monday, 3 April – ‘After seeing it I felt as if I myself had climbed over every steep and rugged yard of these extraordinary islands' (Macdonald, 1967: 15). However, the most important is probably the 1923 film, St Kilda – Britain's Loneliest Isle, made to publicise trips to the Western Isles and St Kilda run by the John McCallum steamship company. As far as we know, the film was produced by the company's directors Paul Robello and Robert Mann (although Mann probably was mostly involved). The narrative is framed by a succession of printed captions, some accompanied by small romantic cameos of island scenes. These captions serve to reinforce the romantic discourse: 'My ain wee hoose, what the crofter clings to' (to signify the 'otherness' of the St Kildans); 'Timid – they never saw a movie cameraman before' (this is, of course, incorrect); 'Also timid – but strong' (shot of an old woman with a heavy creel); 'The natives have a sweet tooth', etc. Finally, direct comparisons are made with the civilised core: 'There is no "buroo" here'; and (juxtaposing shots of the village with Glasgow at the rush hour) 'Main Street, St. Kilda. "Keep to the left" ' and 'Sauchiehall Street looks quiet in comparison'.

By 1930, at the time of the evacuation, it seems, The Scottish Office was eager to avoid undue publicity and Ritchie's 1930 film was a clandestine exercise. The SFA catalogue entry notes: 'existence of film kept secret until 1979. At time of making Scottish Office regulations prohibited any photos or newsreel recordings of the evacuation'. There is also an indication in the footage that the islanders themselves were unhappy about Ritchie's work. Remember, Robello and Mann's 1923 film had described the islanders as timid and they are clearly depicted as camera-shy. At a later date, Christopher Mylne compares this experience to the Pike footage and comes to a very definite conclusion:

There is a world of difference between the people of 1908 going about their daily business and the camera-shy 'natives' of 1923 onwards hiding their faces from the inquisitive gaze of the tourists and their cameras and much unwanted publicity... now... we can see the 1920's aversion to the camera for what it is, a symptom of a community in decline, an aversion to the sort of publicity meted out by the press and the unfeeling curiosity of tourists, a symbol of their unhappiness that their once happy way of life was finally and irrevocably at an end. (Mylne, ND)

This aversion, however, seems to have turned to outright hostility in 1930 as the shot list for Ritchie's film details a stone-throwing incident (which seems to be genuine although the quality of the film leaves a little room for doubt):

Old Woman knitting socks outside her cottage. Photographer paid £2.00 for the privilege of taking this shot... Another woman knitting outside her house takes fright at the camera and three times runs away to escape into the house, once dropping her wool... Woman carrying bundles outside same house as above runs into house to avoid camera.... Girl appears at same door but shies off. Group of islanders outside house... One woman hides her face. Woman's back to camera.... Old man smoking a pipe outside his house. Younger man picks up a stone to throw it at the camera....

It is assumed that, firstly, the Scottish Office wished to conceal to the greatest possible degree their involvement in the evacuation, and, secondly, that the islanders themselves were ashamed of their own role. However, other contemporary newspaper reports tell a different story. The Sunday Mail of 31st August photographed St Kilda’s ‘King’, Findlay McQueen in his new home and noted: ‘...asked if she liked her new home, Widow McQueen nodded emphatically, " I wish I had gone long ago", was her only comment’, and, ‘...the people of Lochaline have taken the St Kildans to their bosoms, and a fine spirit of friendliness is abroad and apparent in many concrete acts of kindness’.

Other press reports display a degree of ambiguity. The Glasgow Herald (Glasgow Herald, 30th August 1930, pp 9-10) develops the romanticised discourse and the fowling metaphor to frame the story of the evacuation:

A rugged little man with his jacket buttoned up to his throat to half-conceal a red kerchief and wearing well-patched blue trousers, stood with a melancholy mongrel beside a turf cleat at the base of Ruival and looked steadily out to sea between the point of Coll and Levenish towards a spur of eastern horizon... Under his gaze and ahead was the village bay, on Loch Hirta as some call it, the only landing place on the island... The sentinel on the cliff and the wet-haired dog had stood vigil on this cliff from after dawn, patient and unwearying... For two days now the islander had been waiting. Then suddenly he straightened. Away out on the waters to where the Sound of Harris lay behind the cloud of mist was the suspecred shape of a narrow steamer... His lookout was ended. The last landing ship to call before the islanders deserted this wild volcanic rock in the Atlantic had been sighted. Finlay McQueen, white bearded at 69, had a heavy box strapped to his shoulders. The aqualine head suggested power and strength and this appearance was not deceptive. Finlay, despite his years is the greatest cragsman on St Kilda. While others, when they descended hundreds of feet down the face of rocks for fulmars have men on the rope at the top, he sticks a stake in the ground and trusts to his own iron nerve.

The Daily Record (Daily Record, Saturday 30th August, pp 1-2) evokes the otherness of the St Kildans through their sale of spinning wheels (for 30s each): ' the St Kildans have no regard for antiquities as such...', and, interestedly, noting the 'timelessness' of the once dreamt-of ''Tir nan Og': 'Today the crisis of its story is reached. Within a few short hours, as time is rated on this island, where the clock is given the same short shrift of all things mechanical, the hearths will be stone cold and the people will be gone and scattered to places unfamiliar.' Yet it also lauds the beginnings of assimilation: 'Civilisation has no surprises or terrors for the St Kildans. Within ten minutes of arrival some of them, who had never been off their lonely native isle, saw their first motor car – the Daily Record car – but it did not surprise them.' And notes that one old woman reacts to a motorcycle rushing past, '...Och, there is nothing to it!' This scene is recorded in the Ritchie film and is reprised forty years later, to comical effect, in Bill Forsyth's Local Hero.


Tourists visiting St Kilda, 1920s

A full page spread appeared in the Illustrated London News. These pictures, with the islanders apparently proudly displaying their possessions, seems to tell a very different tale from the jumbled images collected by Ritchie. What is not of particular concern here is which of these sets of images offers the truest account of the events of 1930, but what is notable is the way in which the most tragic (and therefore most romantic) version of this complex narrative – that of the proud dispossessed people led shamefaced from their homeland to exile – has been universally accepted to the exclusion of any other possible narratives. Therefore the nod to progress and assimilation (which was very real; several St Kildans, for example, found jobs as lorry drivers) is secondary, in general, to an implied gaze which is structurally opposed to that of landfall and the future.

Six years after the evacuation, the first fictional film account of the St Kildans was to appear. The making of this extraordinary film, The Edge of the World, directed by Michael Powell, is well documented in Powell’s book, Edge of the World: the making of a film. The film was shot, however, not on St Kilda, but on the still inhabited Shetland Isle, Foula (taken from the Roman Ultima Thule). Powell had read the accounts of the evacuation and had apparently mooted the project with the ‘father’ of documentary, Robert Flaherty who had admonished him with ‘... you should have been there when it happened! With half a dozen cameras’. (Powell, 1938: xi) Powell’s account was intended as a tragedy, as the music for the film, by the Glasgow Orpheus choir, and the captions make clear: ‘The slow shadow of Death is falling upon the Outer Isles of Scotland...’ and ‘They are doomed and it is Civilisation that is killing them...’ The structure of the fictional discourse is based on a simple oppositional structure: two fathers, one a die-hard islander and one who wants to leave, mirrored by two sons who have the opposite proclivities. Powell noted:

From the first, I saw [the plot] would have to be a simple one, merely a peg on which to hang necessary emotions and incidents. I took the simplest groundwork: two fathers and two sons. Each one took different sides. This gave conflict from the start in everything they said and did... The scenes wrote themselves, though of course I had to think in pictures as well as dialogue (Powell, 1938: 16).

At the end one dies in a tragic cliff race. The film was a popular enough romance, but the parallel with the actual St Kilda story was not evident to its audience. However, the oppositional structure has implications for later versions of the St Kilda story.

During the war and its aftermath, there was a short lull in the interest in St Kilda, but a few years later a couple of volumes – Charles MacLean's Island on the Edge of the World and Steel's The Life and Death of St Kilda – appeared to revive interest in the lonely isle. The book by Steel, best known as a television producer and creator of Scotland's Story, a much criticised television history of Scotland, is really a collation of earlier versions of the story of St Kilda put together very competently. In many ways it is a very fair rendition of different versions of the St Kilda story, but, to a great extent – as the extended title of the work, The Life and Death of St Kilda: The Moving Story of a Vanished Island Community, makes clear – it is also a popularisation of the romantic narrative.

The most important new development in the representation of the island, however, was to come in 1983, when Bill Bryden, associate director of the National Theatre and head of drama at Scottish Television, directed the feature film Ill Fares the Land, later to be screened by Channel Four. The popular version of the St Kilda story is accepted wholeheartedly by Bryden – 'For me to be presented with a community of 36 people was a gift – and to find them at a moment of utter change... The St Kilda people had a place in the romance of Scottish history... I think people are so moved by it because... it shows the precise moment when they are aware as an audience of something that has gone forever, and the tragedy that represented for the people who did have it.' (Guardian, 1982: 23) Later, his film was criticised by Colin McArthur for its romantic view:

Bryden... deploys a discourse which has existed in European thought at least since the time of Rousseau, a discourse which constructs the primitive as noble and untarnished by the modern world. This is a discourse which exploited peoples the world over knows to their cost. Ostensibly flattering to them, it is in reality the ideological dimension of political and economic expropriation.... (Ill Fares the Land) is stylistically and ideologically archaic, posing no problems of consumption for its audience. (McArthur, 1983)

It can be demonstrated that Bryden is working in an established tradition implicit in the concept of the Grand Dichotomy by which peripheral cultures are both romanticised and marginalised. This is made clear in several ways. Firstly, in the quest for verisimilitude Bryden has both used real names for his characters, and made the narrator a young boy named Neil Gillies – perhaps based on one of the oldest survivors of the evacuation who now lives in Glasgow (another character, Willie John, also echoes Gillies's life when he travels to Glasgow and returns just before the evacuation). Secondly, some stills from the film resemble fairly closely earlier photographs. In fact, the cinematography is the film's main strength, and the scenes featuring the islanders en masse, although sometimes contrived, have an air of authenticity. Thirdly, Bryden has clearly read the literature on St Kilda and constantly echoes its major themes – for example, when, as according to the established dogma, the islanders decry the use of money. An especially interesting comparison can be made between the film text and Martin Martin's account, as an episode in the film – in which Willie John travels to Glasgow – is clearly of the same genre as a tale related by Martin glossed by MacLean as 'A Utopian in the City'. (Martin, 1698: 196) Finally, however, Bryden has taken these influences a stage further. In the 1923 film, Britain's Loneliest Isle, there is a scene in which the villagers are seen trooping to the village hall, supposedly for the island's first film screening. Bryden had faithfully recreated this event and added one extra twist – for the film screened in this scene from Ill Fares the Land is, in fact, the actual 1923 footage. The islanders look on amazed as, after a piece featuring Charlie Chaplin, they view their own images on screen, and one of them comments, ironically, 'We will never die'. The paradox is clear here, but seems even more powerful if we consider the few surviving St Kildans, watching a film with actors playing their characters, watching 'authentic' images of their early life.

Ill Fares the Land is also, however, a prime example of the elegiac discourse which McArthur and others have identified as a particularly potent force in the shaping of Scottish history. The title of the film derives, in fact, from Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay:
Princes and Lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

After the publication of Goldsmith's poem, within the general debate about the future of the highlands and the proposed clearances, these sentiments, and also these specific lines, were much employed in debates about the changing nature of the Scottish Highlands, as Peter Womak has noted (Womak, 1989).

Clearly then, in the Scottish context, the title of the film itself had several loaded connotations of which Bryden was aware. However, their meaning is only made clear within the film narrative at its conclusion when, as the islanders leave the island, a voice-over recites the poem, and the camera pans down the empty houses in the St Kilda Main Street, juxtaposed with close-ups of the islanders' fraught faces as they journey towards their new home. The irony of this scene is not lost on those au fait with the story of the production of the film, since it was the reconstitution of the village by volunteers working under the auspices of the National Trust that enabled scenes to be filmed on location, and so the Deserted Village becomes at last, in the 1980s, not only a filmic but a 'living' reality.

This revelation of the inevitable consequences of the evacuation is not, however, considered an adequate denouement by Bryden. He is intent upon a more tragic conclusion and, prompted by the popular mythology purveyed by Steel and others that the St Kildans, bereft of their familiar environment, succumbed to a variety of fairly common illnesses upon settlement on the mainland, he sets about metaphorically killing off his players in the finale. This he achieves by the clever textual device of having a sequence of obituaries for the characters read out by the voice-over (the only point in the film where the authorial voice employed is not that of Neil Gillies, the putative narrator) as the islanders gaze out towards their new home. Also as they arrive in Lochaline, a church bell echoes the very first scene of the film in which the bell tolls and the women keen as the body of a drowned islander is discovered and committed to the earth.

In fact, the elegiac discourse is particularly prominent in versions of Scottish history – notably in those mythic narratives prompted by the events of 1745. Bryden takes this to its logical extreme. The focus of Ill Fares the Land is, quite literally, on death. Thus the soundtrack alternates between funeral solemnity and a sort of wistful, vaguely-Celtic flute-playing which is stylistically linked with the landscape of the island and is also linked with the everyday life of the islanders. These plaintive tones, however, only seem to reinforce the message that all the events of the film, including the growing pains of the youthful Neil Gillies, function as a kind of prelude to the greater death – the evacuation.


Still from Ill Fares the Land

However, Bryden's insistence on a stark and romanticised narrative of this type presents an interesting authorial dilemma. The islanders have to reach a decision to evacuate the island – yet the overt rationalisation of this step, not to mention the incumbent political manoeuvrings clearly have no place within the elegiac discourse preferred. Bryden solves this problem thus. Firstly, Bryden's accepts the Wilson imposition of the parliament but takes it one stage further to reinforce the supposed democratic nature of the institution, as the introduction to the key scene, spoken by the narrator, Neil Gillies, makes evident:

My father spoke in the parliament... It was a proper parliament they had, and a republic is what it was – just like the states of America out there at the end of the sea. Parliament met in the morning to decide the work of the day. Every man was equal, every thing was held in common, and every decision made by common consent.

However, Bryden's parliament does not meet in the Main Street, instead it adjourns to a stone circle on a nearby hilltop which is more scenic than authentic. Here the islanders speak in the sort of circumlocutory English that is often taken by scriptwriters to replicate the more consequential purpose:

Norman: What's the day's work?
Donald: It is August, we go for the fulmar.
Norman: That day is past.
Donald: Are you for starving altogether?
Norman: There's the sea parrots. We could go for them.
Donald: Puffins! Puffins. (with contempt – makes as if to go)
Finlay: No, Donald. We decide in common. Altogether. Now that is
the way of it...
Donald: Without the fulmar there is no oil for the lamps. or to make
the wool easier to work, no feathers for the factor or food
or the winter. It's for the fulmar we live.
Norman: There is good eating in a puffin...

The effect of this is at first puzzling and slightly ridiculous – at least until its greater purpose within the overall schema of the narrative is revealed. Of course the islanders cannot speak directly of their dilemma – their poetic language will not allow that; and, in fact, their discussion of the day's work is simply an elaborate metaphor for the choice confronting them – to leave the island or remain. That this specific metaphoric structure should be adopted by Bryden is, however, clearly understood if we consider the history of representations of St Kilda. As we have seen, what typifies the island's way of life and constructs the St Kildans as a race apart is the business of fowling (the primary industry of fishing always takes a back seat in this respect). And what they do is precisely what they are. There is no alternative for the islanders but to pursue their traditional role for without the very activity that marks their singularity as an heroic race they cannot exist. This is the wider implication of both the ethnographic and the mythological constructions of their culture.

However, perhaps the most pointed ideological message of the film concerns the intrusion of the outside world upon the islander's life. McArthur makes a point about this:

There is a sense in which Ill Fares the Land has its cake and eats it. More than one sequence shows the intrusion of outsiders into the lives of the St Kildans, with clicking and flashing cameras and various forms of derision and exploitation of the islanders. The mise-en-scene presents these intrusions as violations and is censorious of them. What it conceals, however, is that the process of representation of St Kilda is precisely such an intrusion. There is no element of Ill Fares the Land which betrays any self-knowledge of this process. (McArthur, 1983: 35)

Bryden includes an episode in which the island is visited by a party of tourists. The point he wants to make concerns exploitation. One small scene shows a tourist conning an old woman into taking an orange in exchange for a large bundle of tweed. At the end of the film she retrieves the orange from a drawer and finds it withered. This, of course, serves to emphasise the otherness of the island way of life, but it also seems to make a point about the relative simplicity of the islanders compared to the sophistication of the tourists – as the voice-over puts it, they are like 'animals in a zoo'. Such constructions ignore the fact that from about 1870 onwards tourism was as much an essential component of the island economy as fowling. And, as every tourist knows to his or her cost, there is an alternative narrative here – that of the gullible visitor being fleeced by the perspicacious 'native' (and there is a whole branch of Scottish literature dedicated to this) that is excluded from Ill Fares the Land. Again, it is the story that elicits the most sympathy and most neatly fits the tragic scenario that is favoured.

However, there is one last level on which the film works that may explain Bryden's view of the practice of representation. Attentive viewers will note that Bryden continually and almost obsessively keeps cutting to a shot of the island silhouetted against a sunset. The metaphor of the setting sun is obvious, but the insistence on the juxtaposition of this icon of landscape is better explained at the end when Tom Johnston, The Under-Secretary of State, visits the island on behalf of the Scottish Office to arrange the evacuation. In conversation with the local nurse he gazes out, it seems, over the island and comments: 'I take photographs... a pastime... and I develop them myself. And there is a moment just before the image takes form – and I think "perfect". It is the photograph you remember from your eye. A little piece of time preserved. And then it takes form. It is there, and it is never perfect.'

Perhaps this is the crucial difference between photography and film. Ill Fares the Land, free of any dependence on time, does, in a way, resolve itself into a 'perfect' representation, not of a people or a way of life, but of a mythology. It is the last word, perhaps, on the St Kilda story. Yet there is one possibility for further development. The very last shot of the film, as the islanders are driven to their new home on the mainland, shows the young Neil Gillies reflected in a car mirror. Finally, mediated by this reflection, it resolves itself into a still shot. The face is featureless, looking towards the future, or the past, the ‘lost land of dreams’.

More recently, Douglas Dunn's poem, St Kilda's Parliament, is based on the scenario of the photographer, George Washington Wilson, revisiting the scene of his famous photograph of the 1880s. The poem subsequently takes the significant moment of the evacuation of the island in 1930 to comment on the representational process that mythologises the human plight of the islanders.

A day when survivors look across the stern
Of a departing vessel for the last time
At their gannet-shrouded cliffs, and the farewells
Of the St Kilda mouse and St Kilda wren
As they fall into the text of specialists,
Ornithological visitors at the prow
Of a sullenly managed boat from the future.
(Dunn, 1981)

Of course, it is the also the human inhabitants who are situated within the texts of specialists, as this paper has demonstrated, through a continuing process of representation. The ‘parliament’ that Wilson so enthusiastically touted was an accommodation to the harsh lifestyle of the islands which was fundamentally feudal rather than democratic, and Martin Martin, who eulogised the lifestyle of the islanders, was, in fact, also a factor for the McLeods who owned not only the island, but the houses, the sheep and the very means of living of the islanders. An alternative reading of the story of St Kilda, then, may suggest that the decision to evacuate, rather than a tragedy for the islanders, was the first true opportunity for them to exercise their democratic right as genuine citizens of the United Kingdom with its authentic, if distant, parliament.

 

References:

Combe, W (1821) The Tour of Dr Prosody in search of the Antique and the Picturesque, through Scotland, London: R Ackerman's Repository of Arts.
Dunn, D (1981) St Kilda's Parliament, London: Faber.
Geddes, A (1961) The Songs of Craig and Ben, vol. 2, Glasgow: William McLennan.
Goody, J (1977) The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heathcote, N (1900) St Kilda, London: Longman.
Johnson, J (1789-1803) The Scots Musical Museum, Edinburgh: J Johnson.
McArthur, C (1983) 'Tendencies in the new Scottish cinema', Cencrastus 13 (Summer 1983).
McArthur, C (1986) ‘The dialectic of national identity – the Glasgow Empire Exhibition 1938’ in Bennett, T et al, Popular Culture and Social Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macaulay, K (1764) The History of St Kilda, Dublin: James Hoey.
Macdonald, R (1967) The Scotsman, 3rd April 1967, p. 15.
MacLean, C (1972) Island on the Edge of the World, Edinburgh: Canongate.
MacLean, M & Carrell C (ed.), (1896) As an Fhearann: From the Land – Clearance, Conflict and Crofting, Edinburgh: Mainstream.
Mahoney, E (1999) ‘Welcome to the Unreal World’ Guardian Sat Oct 9, 1999, p. 4.
Martin, M (1698) A Late Voyage to St Kilda, London: D Brown & D Goodwin.
Mylne, C (ND) 'Some researchers into St Kilda on film', manuscript in the possession of the Scottish Film Archive.
Powell, M (1938) Edge of the World: the making of a film, London: Faber and Faber.
Sands, J (1878) Out of the World, or Life in St Kilda, Edinburgh: privately published.
Sheppard, B (1968) 'The Death of an Island', Scotsman (13 January 1968).
Steel, T (1975) The Life and Death of St Kilda, London: Fontana.
Thompson, F (1870) St Kilda and Other Hebridean Outliers, Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Womak, P (1989) Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands, London: Macmillan.

 


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