Karen Thorburn shares her personal perspective on St Kilda – Scotland’s ultima thule.
Half my lifetime ago, in 2002, I found myself on holiday with my parents, standing atop huge sand dunes overlooking a magnificent beach on the west coast of the island of Berneray in the Sound of Harris. Pristine golden sand stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see, and turquoise water broke in waves on the shore. The little island of Pabbay lay to the north and, to the west, we looked beyond the Outer Hebrides to a vast expanse of open sea, or so I thought.
Two shapes on the horizon caught my dad’s attention. “That must be St Kilda!” he exclaimed. My mum and I took turns to squint through a monocular while my dad filmed the blurry outline of Scotland’s remotest archipelago with his camcorder before the distant land masses became shrouded in cloud. Although I was unaware of the significance of what I’d just witnessed and was blind to how this moment would shape my life in years to come, I was conscious that these remote islands had captured my imagination. As we walked across the machair to return to the car, my dad shared with me his sketchy knowledge of an island community, 40 miles beyond the Western Isles, that survived for centuries by harvesting seabirds and their eggs but was abandoned in 1930 and its inhabitants re-located to the Scottish mainland.
Later that week, feeling intrigued by that chance fleeting moment on Berneray, I picked up a well-known book about St Kilda whilst in a gift shop in Tarbert. My dad spotted me flicking through black and white photos and absorbing the synopsis on the back cover. As a teacher, he always encouraged me to learn but never applied any pressure. Before we left the gift shop, my dad had purchased the book to keep aside for my birthday in September. St Kilda receded from my mind for the time being, but I returned to my home town of Perth with a sense of having been forever changed by my first visit to the Western Isles. The Gaelic language and spectacular landscapes spoke to me deeply and my love of the Scottish islands went into overdrive.
October arrived and, with it, another holiday with my parents. This time we found ourselves in Banchory in land-locked Royal Deeside. The castles and autumn colours were magnificent but, in my mind, I was back on the west coast. As we toured around Aberdeenshire drinking numerous cups of instant coffee in the car between walks in the countryside, I sat in the back seat immersed in the first of many books I would acquire about St Kilda.
I was hooked from the first chapter, gobsmacked to read about the islanders drowning their dogs in Village Bay instead of transporting them to their new homes in Morvern. As I turned the pages, I learned the names of the islands my dad had spotted from Berneray’s West Beach – Hirta, Dùn, Soay, Boreray and their sea stacks including Stac Lee and the mighty Stac an Armin, the tallest sea stack in the British Isles – and the way of life which they supported. Here was a largely self-sufficient community that had survived for countless generations by harvesting fulmars, puffins and gannets for their flesh, oil and feathers; gathering eggs; fishing; and raising sheep for wool and cattle for milk. The factors leading to the abandonment of the islands are complex and many but, in summary, were largely related to increasing contact with the outside world and depopulation. The islanders’ way of life became untenable to the point that the remaining 36 St Kildans had little choice other than to petition the government for re-settlement.
Not long after I finished reading Tom Steel’s ‘The Life and Death of St Kilda’, my dad took me to a lecture about the islands in Perth Library, and I pledged to visit St Kilda later in life. Remarkably, only four years on, as a National Trust for Scotland volunteer, I stood on the grassy summit of Conachair, St Kilda’s highest peak at 430 metres (1,410 feet), and gazed east over sparkling blue seas to a long stretch of pristine golden sand on the west side of Berneray, and recalled a special moment with my dad on one of our best ever family holidays.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit St Kilda on three occasions in the past 12 years. Each time, on the homeward crossing to Harris, I sat overlooking the stern of the boat, watching the highest sea cliffs in the UK shrink to a speck on the horizon, until clouds of gannets dispersed into empty skies. With modern technology, St Kilda has become more accessible than ever before, with the return journey taking around two and a half hours. I’ve often wondered how the St Kildans must have felt as they stood on board the deck of the HMS Harebell, bound for Oban overnight, watching their home, and that of their ancestors, disappear over the horizon. St Kilda tugs at my heartstrings every time the boat pulls away from the pier and out of the bay, yet I always know I will return in future. Imagine how the older generation of islanders must have felt knowing that they would likely never set foot in Village Bay again.
My way of life has transformed dramatically since 2002 and once again I find myself with that feeling of being irreversibly changed. I’ve long since said goodbye to the house that I grew up in. I’ve watched my grandparents’ generation pass on. My brother has settled on the other side of the world but thankfully the digital revolution has made it possible to keep in touch on a daily basis. I’ve spread my wings and put down roots in an area of Scotland with which I have few family connections. I’ve watched my dad – one of the fittest, healthiest, most energetic people I’ve ever known – peacefully slip away on a bright summer’s afternoon at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer.
Half way through my dad’s illness, I took my parents to one of my camera club talks, which just so happened to be in the lecture theatre at Perth Library. As I presented my landscape images from the Scottish islands, including St Kilda, I’m sure my dad and I shared a sense of having come full circle.
I guess it’s natural to be filled with nostalgia for a lost way of life. When new memories can no longer be made, old ones become even more precious. The future stretches out before me; a vast expanse of time without someone whose presence was as solid and dependable as the ground under my feet. Like shifting sand dunes on a distant beach, I will adapt and find stability again. As I watch old camcorder footage, flick through photo albums and travel around Scotland, memories will bring my dad back to me, from the windswept beaches of the Hebrides to the heather-clad hills of Deeside.