Martine's Reviews > St. Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World

St. Kilda by Charles Maclean
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Jan 19, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: british, anthropology, non-fiction, travel-writing, social-history
Read in January, 2008

I've always had a thing for remote places. I love deserts, I love mountains and I love islands -- the more remote, the better. So when I visited Dunvegan Castle on the Scottish isle of Skye and came across a photo exhibition about the evacuation of St Kilda, I was intrigued. Sufficiently so to buy this book.

St Kilda, for those who don't know their UK topography, is a group of four small islands west of the Outer Hebrides, so far away from the Scottish mainland they're not even on most maps. Until 1930, a small community of hugely isolated islanders lived there, living off seabirds and occasionally making a tiny profit off them. Until the mid-nineteenth century, they were reasonably happy; then the world lost its interest in St Kilda produce, tourists introduced the islanders to modern conveniences and the previously strong islanders started falling prey to diseases carried by their well-intending visitors. By 1900 the community was no longer socially or economically viable, and in 1930 the last remaining islanders were evacuated, leaving the isles to the sheep, the cats and the birds.

Charles Maclean does a great job telling the story of St Kilda from its origins (still somewhat unknown) to its tragic end. He describes the way the local community was run, how it kept itself alive despite the harsh conditions (let's just say seabirds have many, many uses) and how it responded to visitors from the outside, some of whom got to exert an unhealthy influence on them. In addition, he freely quotes seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors who visited the island, comparing their accounts with later eyewitness accounts and his own impressions of the island, which is now a bird sanctuary. Mostly he focuses on the tragedy of native people who succumb to outside influences -- a universal story which never fails to make one feel sad. He describes the St Kildans with obvious admiration and affection, but avoids over-romanticising them or turning them into Noble Savages. In short, he comes up with a fine, well-written piece of social history about a place which sadly saw itself overtaken by the modern era. Now if only I could visit St Kilda and take some photos of those cliffs, birds and ruins...
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