WEST OF THE HEBRIDES off the coast of Scotland, scarcely visible from the Outer Isles on a clear day and accessible only at the whim of wild North Atlantic seas, lie the islands known as St. Kilda. These small, rocky islands, volcanic remnants of some primordian upheaval, have been reduced by the incessant battering of wind and wave to a cluster of forbidding crags and promontories, crumbling slowly over the millenia into the sea. The great glaciers of the last ice age that carved the features of Scotland and the other Hebridean islands bypassed St. Kilda, leaving its life forms intact to adapt as best they could to its eroding landscape. Too insignificant to appear on most maps, desolate, wind-scoured St. Kilda means little to anyone save vigilant mariners any more, but its story holds a message of vital import to us all.
This remarkable, disturbing book is both a portrait of St. Kilda and a moving account of a people and a culture that endured there for well over a thousand years, in close, strenous harmony with its isolated, inclement world. Like Peter Freuchen's Book of the Eskimos, or Farley Mowat's People of the Deer, it is the story of a culture dependent for its survival on community effort and devotion, a society whose economy was based on the sharing of resources, with the utmost respect ad reverence for a violent but generous natural world. It is as well a chronicle of the annihilation of a peaceful, self-sufficient community by so-called "civilization" and "Christianity," raising the heretical question whether at the core of missionary zeal and progress lurk a spiteful envy of things truly good or efficient, and a compulsion in the name of virtue to destroy them wherever they are found.
The St. Kildans were, as Maclean describes them, a "bird culture," sharing their islands with vast colonies of sea birds, whose eggs, meat, feathers, oil and guano provided their source of food, medicine, light, manure, shoes and revenue, "a way of life, and often enough, when they broke their necks trying to catch them, a cause of death." From centuries of scaling cliffs barefooted after fulmar, gannets and puffins, the St. Kildans evolved specialized musculature and almost prehensile feet. On land fertilized by guano they grew corn and oats, and pastured their small flocks of cattle and native Soay sheep. Fishing was at best a marginal and perilous activity, not worth the risk. The islands' single boat was, like the land, owned in common, each family responsible for maintaining an apportioned section of it. It was used chiefly for birding expeditions between islands. Birds figured largely in lore and mythology, and ancient traditions celebrated the importance of the birds and assured the preservation of their nesting grounds.
Until the end of the 19th century, the St. Kildans had never heard of money. They also were disinclined to believe in the existence of trees, were astonished at the idea of wheeled vehicles, and, as Maclean puts it, had a startling ineptitude for crime. Theft was unknown on the islands, as were incest and drunkenness; adultery was a rarity, and the only cases of illegitimacy ever know were recorded after 1861, when the civilized European world, toying with philosophical ideas of the Noble Savage and the nature of man, took notice of such virtue sublime existing so conveniently close to its shores. St. Kilda became for a time a cause celebre for philosophers, poets, wealthy do-gooders, escapists and of course missionaries. The islanders' functional blend of druidism and primitive Christianity attracted the zealous eye of puritanical evangelists, who were quick to replace native superstitions with particularly virulent Chriistian revival tactics. Within the space of a few years, the sturdy St. Kildans were demoralized to the point of incapacity, as compulsive, interminable, frequent chruch services superseded even food and fuel harvesting. The songs, dances, stories and games that had lightened an arduous life were banned altogether, and the debilitating illnesses introduced by mainland visitors were accepted as divine punishment for evils unknown to the islanders previously.
Compounding the effects of missionaries and disease were the "agricultural improvements" which replaced the islanders' centuries-old system of communal farming and birding. Within 100 years, the St. Kildans declined from a self-sufficient, healthy culture to a people dependent entirely on mainland charity. Their young people, dissatisfied and hungry for thrills and comforts tasted from afar, abandoned the island en masse, and the remaining, dwindling community no longer knew nor cared how to support themselves. In 1930 the last inhabitants of St. Kilda were evacuated to the mainland, with their cattle, sheep and few possessions. Their dogs were taken and drowned in the sea, their cats abandoned in the empty village. Today their homes are being restored as antropological curiosities, but the thousand-year-old culture that thrived there is gone forever.
Maclean's final chapter is an eloquent, provocative treatise exploring the relevance of St. Kilda to the accelerating social entropy of modern life. St. Kilda is important not because it was destroyed, but because it flourished so far longer than the culture that extinguished it. What its story ultimately signifies is that an enduring, viable society can only arise out of spontaneous adaptation to local, natural conditions which demand community of effort and spirit for sheer survival. The mass behavior generated by modern technology can never be more than a flimsy, short-lived substitute for small communities like St. Kilda, based not on idealism, ideology or distant, centralized technology, but on necessity. Ironically, such communities, where they still exist, may well be the only survivors of impending global famine, war, disease and technological breakdown. From the ruins of a extinct island community, Charles Mcclean has drawn a profound moral for our time, in a beautiful, well-written book.