Editor at Large: The Sound and the Fury

Posted by in November's Magazine

As a child I was a voracious reader, ably abetted by my father who airily tossed me any book he had just finished. He did not censor my intake, from the brutality of Hubert Selby Jnr to the density of William Faulkner ‘down the long and lonely light rays you might see Jesus walking, like’. I devoured them all but the Life And Death Of Saint Kilda proved my favourite. 

Saint Kilda was, and is, a group of thin, inclined, sheets of basalt, masquerading as habitable islands, that cling to the edge of the Atlantic, a hundred and fifty miles north northwest of the Scottish mainland. How did they live, these near mythical people, these Saint Kildans? In my childish imaginings they lived in bursts of feverish activity and quiet contemplation. Which is to say they lived like birds. 


A man on the Lover’s Stone, Hirt. © National Trust for Scotland

Last night I returned to Saint Kilda again – where the white whales sing at
 the edge of the world – courtesy of a video I found on a USB stick. In the flickering, ancient, footage, a solid canopy of
 gannets scream like banshees in a field full of razorblades. Kittiwakes and guillemots screech and skree down the scowling cliffs, arguing angles that don’t exist.
On Boreray the puffins nestle stoutly. In the roiling waters beneath Stac Lee, lie miles of coral reef – feather star, sun star and orange deadman’s fingers. 

Above the waterline – least willow, purple saxifrage and butterwort flourish. Everywhere, wind blasted heather. Summer shielings full of sheep dry stane and musty wool, cling to the earth in the lea of Gleann Bay. 

Strange to think that anywhere this elemental could actually belong to someone, but it did, the Macleod’s of Skye were the landlords and they received their rent in kind. The birds – it always comes back to the birds – were the islander’s currency. Feathers for mattresses, rendered oil for lamps and meat for consumption. Supplemented by barley, oats, and fish. 

In the video it seems, the islands are to be returned to nature again, at least from September to April, so the archipelago give itself wholly to the elements, those driven, relentlessly cruel elements that finally drove the natives away after 3,000 years of clinging to the edge of nowhere. 

In the winter of 1930 the natives petitioned the Government to be taken off the islands. Diseases for which they had no defence, emigration and dwindling stocks of everything – hell, the rapidly changing world – had devastated the population. 

Where the white whales sing at the edge of the world

And so it was that The Royal Navy sloop SS Harebell hung low in the water at her anchorage in Village Bay on that August morning. Children and women ran hither and thither in an attempt to avoid the prying eye of John Ritchie’s camera, amateur and intrusive, as it recorded the evacuation of the remaining thirty-six islanders. 

Each Saint Kildan family went into their home for the final time and placed an open bible and a handful of oats on
 the table, succour and sustenance for
 unlikely visitors, before drowning
 all of their domestic pets. Then let us suppose they took one last look up Main Street to the cleats on the higher ground, effectively their fridges, before craning their necks to take in the green vastness of Conachair. Higher still, the glowering sky, fat with rain bearing clouds. 

Everywhere, in this the nesting season, a cacophony
of gulls strafing and dive-bombing every moving thing. Finally, those last thirty-six islanders would have turned with
 the slowness of centuries and walked
out along the rudimentary jetty. In the distance, three towering Stacs bleached white with bird guano. 

Then they would have stepped for the last and first time off the edge of the world.

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