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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.

Unbelievable. 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.)

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.