Lessons from St Kilda

Posted 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…



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Categories: Culture, Opinion


6 Responses

  1. Gurthrum:

    I heard it too, it was jaw dropping, they will never be happy until we are returned to the state of happy peasants. The last person to try this trendy French agrarian-marxism was called Pol Pot

    29.08.2010 17:52 Reply

  2. Michael St George:

    Sky were on that particular bandwagon yesterday, too. I suppose we should at least be grateful that we haven’t had Zac Goldsmith and George the Moonbat proselytizing how St Kilda provides the perfect blueprint for the impoverished, unhealthy (sorry, I do of course mean sustainable and at-one-with-Gaia) future that awaits us if they get their way.

    30.08.2010 12:11 Reply

  3. Tory Tattler:

    What I fail to understand is why on earth the enviro-whackos aren’t thinking about the poor puffins! As much as I love shooting game birds for sport (and supper) the puffin (although admittedly a delicacy) is just too cute a bird to kill en masse in order to supply the protein element of an entire island community’s diet! Therefore I beg you, enviro-whackos; think of the puffins dammit!

    30.08.2010 15:59 Reply

  4. Tom:

    Let’s ask them to demonstrate the island’s sustainability by living for 6 months as the original sustainable inhabitants lived. And I mean that – no leccy, no bottles of gas , no primary batteries etc. etc.

    Absolute bunch of twits – then again anybody with experience of dealing with the National Trust away from the turnstiles would have told you that in somewhat fruitier language…..

    31.08.2010 09:41 Reply

  5. doug lawrence:

    They needed to work 7 days a week to survive but ta minister of their kirk said they should not work on a Sunday this caused problems as their landlord still insisted on his full rent ..in feathers,oil and woven tweed.they did not use money … sadly they were a victim to market forces.

    21.11.2011 15:57 Reply

  6. Douglas Crook:

    Please note that all references above to ‘The National Trust’ should be to ‘The National Trust for Scotland’ which is an entirely separate organisation.

    11.12.2011 10:42 Reply

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