Lessons from St KildaPosted on August 8, 2010
For those of you who, like me, are entertained by abuse of the English language, there was a great example on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House this morning. They were discussing the archipelago of St Kilda – which lies 100 miles off the Scottish coast and is now owned by the National Trust.
It’s an undeniably beautiful and fascinating place, volcanic islands sticking out of the North Atlantic in stubborn defiance of the storms that beat them about. There are many ways in which it can be praised – but the way chosen by the National Trust’s spokesman this morning was not one of them.
Before I tell you the words he used, let’s get a bit of background.
St Kilda is in the news because 80 years ago today it was evacuated of all human life after the islanders sent appeals to the British Government begging to be rescued.
It was clearly never easy to live as a St Kildan. Over the last few centuries they were variously wiped out by disease, subject to famine and almost completely cut off from the wider world throughout.
Even in the late ninetheenth century, when the rest of Britain was setting about industrialising, enjoying improved standards of living and gaining the benefits of new communication technologies, the St Kildans were forced to float messages to the mainland in boxes tied to sheep’s bladders to alert civilisation that they were starving to death. Their infant mortality rate reached 80% at one stage.
After enduring that grim existence, barely surviving on a diet of sea birds, by 1930 they were unable to take it any more. They had heard how the rest of the world was living, and St Kilda was finally abandoned. Tellingly, all of them agreed to leave when the Government offered to resettle them.
That’s a remarkable story, and there are many ways to praise the resilience and stoicism with which the islanders bore their plight for so long. The National Trust’s spokesman, however, decided to go for possibly the most innapropriate term imaginable; life on St Kilda, he said, was “an example of sustainability as it should be practiced”.
Sustainability? I can’t think of a better case study of an unsustainable life than one where a whole population has to be evacuated en masse.
Strangely, given their enthusiasm for the islands’ traditional way of life, no National Trust staff have yet decided to take up a life of puffins for tea and influenza outbreaks for Christmas…