Sitting beside me at the table is a lady that was in St Kilda eighty years ago. The conversation came about when there was a picture shown in the cinema entitled Puffin Come Home, and St Kilda was mentioned as one place that puffins nested in millions on the Island of St Kilda. So I asked her how did she enjoy her trip to this lonely Island, St Kilda. She is a native of Dunfermline. She didn’t, she thought that the people were very rude talking their native tongue the Gaelic and they only could speak English. At that moment she wasn’t aware that I was a native born of that Island; so my answer was, ‘The same thing is happening on this cruise, when Germans meet, they speak German, when the Dutch meet, they speak Dutch’. So the Islanders were only speaking the mother’s tongue which they loved, and I continued to enlighten this lady by saying some of them could not speak another language.
Donald John Gillies, The Truth About St Kilda: An Islander’s Memoir
‘The St Kilda Mailboat’ was a piece of wood sometimes fashioned into the shape of a waterproof boat and kept afloat by a sheepskin bladder. It was used by the islanders of St Kilda to convey messages at times of need and launched when the wind came from the north-west.
The mailboats were originally attributed to a journalist staying on Hiort called John Sands who found himself, along with 9 shipwrecked Austrian sailors, becoming an increasing burden on the fragile resources of the islanders.
Following Sands’ rescue, the islanders began to use their own versions of his ‘mailboat’ but mostly these were for the benefit of the growing number of tourists who came to patronise and gawp at their way of life.
In retrospect, there seems to be something eminently sad about these home-made vessels and the messages they contained. As they floated towards the Hebrides and beyond, they become almost emblematic of the st. kildans’ growing attachment and dependancy on a wider world, as their own self-sufficiency and culture waned.
Another sketch for ‘you cannot see them anymore, they are not there’
I’m finally putting some more images together for my mini zine about St. Kilda.
This is Mary Gillies with her baby son Norman John. Mary was the sister of Christina MacQueen who appeared in the first image and it was her death in 1930 that proved to be the final catalyst for the evacuation of the island. Mary was pregnant with her second child and became ill with appendicitis. A message for help was sent out with a fishing trawler but when the first ship arrived to take her off the island the weather was so rough they couldn’t get a boat out from shore. A second ship was sent and Mary was then taken to Stobhill hospital in Glasgow where she later died with her newborn daughter.
Three months later, her son Norman John was one of the final 36 evacuated from the island aged 5 and was one of the last surviving St Kildans when he died in 2013.