St. Kilda evokes Flight of the Highlanders

The December issue of Celtic Life International features a gorgeous 3-page spread on a visit to the Scottish island of St. Kilda. We turned up in the vicinity while sailing with Adventure Canada earlier this year. A version of the article, which begins as below, will appear in a 2019 book to be published by Patrick Crean / HarperCollins Canada. We’re calling it FLIGHT OF THE  HIGHLANDERS: Canada’s First Refugees.

Overwhelming. Voyagers who have visited the archipelago of St. Kilda more than
a dozen times declared this The Best Visit Ever. If they had said anything
else, the rest of us would not have believed them. Bright sunshine, balmy
temperatures, no wind . . . was there a cloud in the sky?

During the
morning, when we arrived in this vicinity aboard the Ocean Endeavour, the day
had looked less promising. Most ships that reach St. Kilda never land a soul.
Winds too rough. Today, a serious swell caused people to doubt we would make it
ashore. But in an inspired bit of decision-making, our Adventure Canada
expedition leader turned the day upside down, switching early with late.

Instead of
attempting a morning landing, we sailed directly to the bird cliffs of Stac
Lee, home to the largest colony of gannets in the world. As the winds died and
the sun came out, the captain showcased his navigational skills. Seventy or
eighty metres in front of the towering black wall, he held ship steady. We
found ourselves gazing almost straight up at a whirlwind of wheeling birds more
than 400 metres above. I’m no birder but this was impressive.

A back-deck
barbecue kept us busy as we sailed to Hirta, the archipelago’s main island.
We’re talking about the remotest part of the British Isles, 66 kilometres west
of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. I had landed here once and knew enough to
remain dubious. But on arriving, we found the swell had receded. We piled into
zodiacs and zoomed ashore. Incredible!

St. Kilda is
one of very few places with Dual World Heritage Status for both natural and
cultural significance. Bronze Age travellers appear to have visited 4000 to
5000 years ago, and Vikings landed here in the 800s. Written history reveals
that a scattering of people (around 180 in 1700) rented land here from the
Macleods of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. While living in a settlement (Village
Bay) of stone-built, dome-shaped houses with thatched roofs, they developed a
unique way of life, subsisting mostly on seabirds.

Gradually, as
better ships enabled more contact with the outside world, they came to rely
more on importing food, fuel and building materials. They constructed better
houses. In 1852, 36 people emigrated to Australia, so beginning a long slow
population decline. During the First World War, a naval detachment brought
regular deliveries of food. When those ended after 1918, St. Kildans felt
increasingly isolated. In 1930, the last 36 islanders were evacuated to the
Scottish mainland.

During our June
visit, we strolled along the curved Village Street where these last holdouts
had resided. Most passengers found time to climb the saddle between two high
hills. After a rise in elevation of perhaps 150 metres, we came to a cliff
edge. Gazing back over the vista in the sun – the Village Street, the scattered
beehive cleits, the Ocean Endeavour in the harbour, the occasional zodiac, the
distant mountains – a consensus emerged: unbelievable!

Beyond this,
everyone had their personal highlights. I registered two. The first came when I
found the beehive cleit that stands today on the foundations of what was once
the home of Lady Grange.
She was an articulate, headstrong woman who, in the 1730s, spent eight
lonely years as a prisoner on this island. While living in high-society
Edinburgh, she learned that her husband was having an affair in London.
Infuriated, she had threatened to expose him as a treasonous Jacobite.

That gentleman – who was indeed conspiring with
such powerful figures as Macdonald of Sleat, Fraser of Lovat, and Macleod of
Dunvegan — responded by having his irrepressible wife violently kidnapped and
bundled off, ultimately, to this almost inaccessible island. Here Lady Grange endured
as the only educated, English-speaking mainlander on Hirta except for the
minister and his wife. Her house is long gone, but a ranger directed me to the
hut that stands today on its foundations. Made me shiver.

(To read the rest of the article, check out the December issue of Celtic Life International.)

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