Sharadha Bain details an extraordinary voyage made by a lone man from St. Kilda.
A thriving colony of 2,00,000 Leach’s petrels make their home amid the wild cliffs and barren fields of the islands of St. Kilda, the most remote outpost of Scotland and Britain in the Atlantic. The largest colony in Europe, they lay claim to being one of the main inhabitants of these islands, deserted of human presence bar the staff of the National Trust for Scotland, the conservation charity which is the custodian of St. Kilda, and technicians who run a radar station located there.
With their sleek black feathers and rounded beaks, the birds on St. Kilda are part of the same family as the three-million-strong flock on Baccalieu Island off Newfoundland. The storm petrel’s travels between the dramatic blue-grey sea stacks of St. Kilda and the rolling shores of Canada echo the shared ancestral ties that link many Canadians and Scots. Nearly five million Canadians today claim Scottish ancestry, their lives built on epic voyages made by brave and often desperate men and women leaving behind all that they had ever known in search of a new world and new possibilities. One of the most extraordinary of these voyages was made by a lone man from St. Kilda — Donald John Gillies. This is his story.
Unlike other communities from the Highlands and the Hebridean islands, emigration from St. Kilda was slow and reluctant. In 1852, an ill-fated expedition to Australia saw only 18 of its 36 members survive, the others perishing by infectious diseases during the voyage or soon upon arrival. It revealed in heartbreaking fashion how low the immune resistance of the isolated colony was. There were no other attempts to migrate from St. Kilda for a very long time.
It wasn’t until World War I brought the outside world to St. Kilda that the siren call of modern life began drawing people away. Unlike other communities, the St. Kildans didn’t venture far — most went to the nearby towns and cities of Oban, Glasgow and Inverness. Only Donald John Gillies crossed the Atlantic. He was born in 1906 and spent the first 24 years of his life in a two-room stone cottage with his parents. His descriptions of the simplicity of island life are poignant. He narrates how boating accidents regularly killed island men because none of them could swim. The harvesting of seabirds, a vital part of the diet on the islands, was also fraught with danger. Ropes could snap, men lost their footing on the slippery rocks, a moment’s inattention on the cliffs proved deadly. Mail only arrived in the summer and they were isolated from the world for the rest of the year.
During the war years, the island had 16 visitors from the outside world who painted vivid tales of life elsewhere. Given the contrast with their own harsh life, the population began ebbing away. In 1924, it was also Donald John’s time to leave. “As I looked around, I discovered that all my school chums and playmates had left for various places on the mainland and St. Kilda looked to me as a desolate place without any future. I was just left practically alone. When the ferry arrived on her last trip for the season, I made up my mind that I would leave that day.”
His parents gave him all the cash they had in the house — a grand figure of four pounds sterling. The ferry from St. Kilda to Glasgow cost him one pound. He spoke only Gaelic and had never been off the island before.
Six years later, in August 1930, the final five remaining families on St. Kilda left the island. A Bible remained in each of their homes, left open at the Book of Exodus.
All manner of new experiences awaited Donald John on arrival in Glasgow. “I saw my first car and wondered what the dickens it was — four wheels coming towards me.”
A cousin met him off the ferry in Glasgow and he initially stayed with an uncle and aunt. He entered Bible Training College. He also began learning English. A chance meeting in 1926 with a visiting minister from Canada inspired him to fill in an application to become a student of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. A year later, he sailed from Glasgow, arriving in Quebec with no money or ticket to get to his destination. By a stroke of good fortune, he met an Anglican clergyman on the dock who heard his tale with great sympathy and helped him reach the Presbyterian church in the city. The minister there supplied him with a ticket and also stocked his purse with $20.
Rev. Donald John Gillies steadily built a new life in Canada from these poignant beginnings. The years that followed were rich with service and travel. The church was filled to capacity when he preached his final sermon.
Rev. Donald John Gillies returned to St. Kilda in 1980 at the invitation of the National Trust for Scotland. A ceremony was held to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Evacuation of the Island, and the church was rededicated. At the service, he spoke from his heart: “We live in a time when much of what is old and cherished is being questioned and doubted, but it seems to me that there are a few matters which should be beyond dispute — the value of the great Scottish virtues of honesty, pride, self-reliance, independence of spirit, deep religious sense, of love and of education — surely these are all beyond doubt. I am proud of the National Trust for Scotland, of the marvellous efforts they are putting forward in the restoration of abandoned places of great religious and historic life.”
Rev. Donald John Gillies died peacefully at his home in Vancouver in 1994 at the age of 94.
Today, St. Kilda has dual UNESCO World Heritage status — a rare honour bestowed for both natural and cultural significance.
St. Kilda’s islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray possess the highest sea cliffs and stacks in Britain. These are home to the world’s largest colony of gannets, just one of 17 species of seabird that come to St. Kilda every spring and summer to breed.
Under the sea, there is a wealth of marine life. These include jewel anemones, jellyfish of many different types, long-clawed squat lobster, basking sharks, and minke and killer whales. We have evidence that people first arrived at St. Kilda in the Neolithic age. They stayed — although the population never rose above 200. The most striking man-made features are the cleits — conical drystone structures in which crops, sea-birds, eggs and peat would be stored. Hirta alone has more than 1,400 of them. What also remains is a necklace of 19 century dwellings, once occupied by families such as the Gillies’, and now silent memorials to a lost community.
The author is a part of the communications team for the National Trust of Scotland, an independent conservation charity that has been the custodian of St. Kilda since 1957.