My first encounter with the archipelago of St Kilda, which is located in the North Atlantic, 40 miles west-northwest of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, was courtesy of the entry in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (2010), pictured below.
That huge water mass surrounding the islands gives me the shivers. So too the tragic story of the eight-day sickness (tetanus), which laid the foundation for Sarah Moss’s novel Night Waking (2011). Seabirds were the main source of food and economic income, so the annual hunting expeditions on the Stac an Armin (Warrior Stac – that tiny dot top right) were not only dangerous, but vital to the survival of the islands’ human inhabitants. Rich fodder, too, for novelists; a guga hunt providing the thrilling climax in Peter May’s The Blackhouse (2012).
In the summer of 1727 a group of 3 men and 8 boys were put ashore on the Warrior Stac. They were to return with their harvest to Hirta three weeks later. Except the pick-up didn’t arrive for nine months, leaving the hunting party to face an Atlantic winter on a sea stac not provisioned for long-term human occupation. Even the sea-birds know to emigrate in the winter! Yet, everyone survived. How was that possible?
Geraldine McCraughean sets about providing the answers in her 2018 CILIP Carnegie Award winning novel, Where The World Ends. She adds a couple of twists to render the tale even more dramatic and I’m OK with that. I just didn’t like that the villain of the piece was the religious one turned hypocrite (a real bugbear of mine when it comes to literature). Apart from that though, Where The World Ends is a thrilling read, packed with much adventure, Scottish weather of the foulest kind, a menagerie of – er – other fowl (puffins, fulmars, guillemots, gannets, gugas, blackbacked gulls, manx shearwaters, storm petrels, now extinct great auks) plus survival skills one hopes never need be employed.
It was said that, even under normal circumstances, the annual hunting trip was one to make a boy a man, and it’s hard to imagine a more visceral coming-of-age. 9 months is a long time not only in physical development but in emotional development too. From seeking comfort in story-telling to nurturing emnities and maturing to truce and reconciliation. There is, too, the question of hormones. You’d think there could be no place for love sickness and rivalries in this set-up. You’d be wrong.
You’d also be wrong in thinking that the three adults hold it all together. But the religious hypocrite is more intent on subjugation, another suffers a mental breakdown, and the able-bodied third is rendered less useful by injury. In true young adult novel style it falls to the adolescent Quill to rise above adversity and ensure the group survives to fight another day.
A further heart-wrenching shock awaits when they are finally rescued. Just when they think they are getting a break, they discover that their greatest emotional trial lies ahead. Even though I knew what was on their horizon, I still felt the devastation of McCaughrean’s characters.
And yet the community on St Kilda survived the smallpox epidemic of 1727 which almost wiped it out. The laird brought in more families from Harris, and the community kept going against all the odds until 1930, when, following a crop failure and a harsh winter, the almost starved islanders unanimously requested transfer to the mainland. This event is the backdrop to Elisabeth Gifford’s The Lost Lights of St. Kilda (2020).
Rachel Anne and her mother, Chrissie, were among the islanders who left in 1930 when Rachel Anne was just 3. Since then Chrissie has never spoken about the reasons why the community decided to disband, but some 10 years later, Rachel Anne is feeling the need to know about her heritage, and, more importantly, the identity of her father. Eventually she persuades her mother to open up. Going back to her own childhood , Chrissie tells of life on the island, back-breaking farm work, bird hunting (of course), religious and domestic life in the close knit community, where everyone knew and watched out for everyone else. Also of the precariousness of that existence: of famine when crops failed, the dangers of disease brought in on the mail or tourist boats, and the resentment of the islanders of being turned into a tourist attraction. Then there is Chrissie’s tale of falling in love.
Interweaving with Chrissie’s tale of the past is that of Fred Lawson’s present. In 1940 Fred finds himself, as part of the defeated British army, stranded in France, making his way on foot to the Spanish border with the aid of the French underground. His thoughts continually play back to his time on St Kilda as a geological student, and a crass betrayal by his friend, the laird apparent, Archie. The pain of these memories intensifies when Archie reappears as a key enabler of his escape, and Fred is forced to entrust his future to the very man who wrecked his past.
Elisabeth Gifford’s weaving of these two diametrically opposed tales is intricate, and I was as interested in the war-time tale in France as in the rural tale on St. Kilda. The romance connecting the two, although not my usual reading material of choice, is beautifully written, and, yes I will admit, I shed a sentimental tear or two at the end. But what I most enjoyed was the insight into the minds of the St Kildans and what made them view living in what I can only describe as a hostile environment as something special and only to be rescinded in the most desperate circumstances.