Island on the Edge of the World

By Charles Maclean

We saw it briefly, 40 miles from what we thought was already the edge of the world (Outer Hebrides, Scotland), a distant, dark-brown triangle sticking up from a choppy, steel-grey Atlantic. ‘St. Kilda, over there’, the tour-guide had pointed out, and we shuddered, wondering how anybody could’ve eked out a living in that tiny, inhospitable scrap of land. But people — we learn from Charles Maclean’s ‘Island On The Edge Of The World’ — have lived there for 2,000 years, and fairly successfully too. And until the 36 remaining islanders were evacuated (on their request in 1930, when life became unfeasible) to mainland Scotland, it was home to ‘Britain’s most backward people’. Existing in a time warp, where survival scored over aesthetics and the corrupting influence of money and power, let alone the finer aspects of civilisation, were absent, they lived in sooty ‘Black-houses’ (thick-walled stone structures, with a tunnel-like entrance and no window to speak of) that basically kept them warm and dry. Being expert cragsmen, they thought nothing of abseiling down a 1000-ft sheer cliff-face to catch sea-birds; they either brought home the meat or died trying. But their simple lifestyle, rough homemade dresses and naivety served them ill; as recently as 1900s, curious tourists threw ‘sweets at them’, openly mocking and treating them much like ‘wild animals at the zoo.’

It works because

The book is a triumph in documenting not just a primitive people (who would ‘disappear into the hills and hide among the rocks’ whenever strangers visited them) but also an island like no other, boasting some of the highest, most spectacularly dangerous sea-cliffs in all of Britain Today, St. Kilda belongs to the National Trust and is a UNESCO world heritage centre. Some of the original houses have been restored and work-parties and cruise-ships call here every summer. But it’s still far from a touristy-idyll, as wind and rain wreck havoc at will, sheets of spray rise 200-300 feet up into the air, and every landing depends on the whims of a very tempestuous sea. Ironically, it was these very elements that the villagers lived in harmony with and which sealed them off completely (one villager who visited Glasgow ‘was like one that had dropt from the clouds into a new world’, marvelling at horse-drawn coaches and trees, both entirely absent in his little world). But what they lacked in luxuries, they made up in contentment that comes from not knowing another way of life. And it is perhaps for this lost way of life – complete, even though severely ‘limited by the emptiness of its horizon’ - that die-hard romantics routinely, unsuccessfully petition the National Trust to live permanently on this beautiful, brooding island…. For the more practical, an armchair read will have to suffice.

And this one stays with you — first sight of the wild, jagged St. Kilda

‘Shoulders of cliffs descended into the ocean and re-emerged as stacs and skerries, standing up out of the water like elbows and knees at angles of defiance. A ragged promontory extended a treacherous arm, as we passed between it and a pyramid of rock, which by itself pale and massive in the middle of that forbidding sea-waste and guarded the entrance to St Kilda’.

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