Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Hell, fire and damnation...

The wind got up this morning. It was so gusty, as I skirted Ilkley Moor, that I stopped and parked facing directly into the wind, so the gusts wouldn’t hit the vehicle side-on. Even then it was rocking. No great privation: I had articles to  write and two buttered scones to keep me going. I’ve finished the St Kilda book, though the hiistory of the islands, post-evacuation, wasn’t as interesting as the earlier chapters.

The author, Tom Steel, was dismissive of the churchmen who periodically came to the islands. He reserved particular scorn for the Reverend John Mackay, whose mission lasted from 1869 to 1889 (the longest of any minister). Mackay disrupted the islanders’ traditional patterns of work, by requiring them to attend three services every Sunday, which added up to about six and a half hours in church.

Mackay demanded the full attention of his flock, during his long sermons, as he preached “hell, fire and damnation”. No-one could work on the sabbath - or sing, or laugh - and “all but the recitation of the Bible was thought sinful”. Another writer observed the islanders as they went to church. “They did not appear like good people going to listen to glad tidings of great joy, but like a troop of the damned whom Satan is driving to the bottomless pit”.

Life on St Kilda remained harsh and precipitous, right up to the evacuation of 1930. Islanders were susceptible to disease (with no doctor on the island, and little hope of getting help from the mainland). Anyone falling ill between September and May would be treated on the island - probably with a poultice and bed-rest. The islanders were told - and believed - that the high incidence of infant mortality was God’s will. One woman gave birth to twelve children, of which only one survived. By 1930 the traditional way of life had become unsustainable. There were too many old people, too few young men to venture onto the cliffs for gannets and fulmars, and not enough children to keep the population viable.

On the mainland the islanders were split up. They had little concept of money, had never seen a car or a bicycle, and had no idea about wealth or social status, because everything on St Kilda was shared and held in common. “They were unaccustomed to motor cars. Instead of stepping aside when a car came along, they would simply run in front of it”.

In the postscript to the book’s most recent edition, the story is brought - almost - up to date. In 2011 only two St Kildans were still alive, aged 89 and 86. I had to look online to find that one died in the meantime, leaving just Rachel Johnson, aged 94, as the last link with St Kilda.

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