Monday, May 9, 2016

The Last Of The St. Kildans

Sometimes the past reaches out to touch the present.  Sometimes the things that have come before ebb into the things that are happening now.  And sometimes those things die away.

This past month, the last of a beautiful island culture passed away.  The last surviving native resident of the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda has died.  At the age of 93, Rachel Johnson (seen pictured above) the last surviving resident of the island of St. Kilda has gone.  But where is St. Kilda?

On the west coast of Scotland lies a set of islands known as the Hebrides.  I have visited a few of these, and they are very remote.  The wind sweeps in off of the Atlantic ocean with a ferocious vengeance equalled only by the total isolation and loneliness that can be experienced there.  The rain on these islands doesn't just fall from the sky, it slaps you in the face, like a handful of salt on a cold winter day.  The outerrmost islands in this chain are known as the Outer Hebrides.  Of these islands one of the most remote and desolate is an island known as -  St. Kilda.  St. Kilda is where a handful of hearty residents eked out a meager subsistence of fishing, farming and shepherding for thousands of years.

One of these native St. Kildans was named Rachel Johnson.  Rachel grew up in a village where the 36 residents met each morning to decide what the community work projects would be.  Sometimes it was fishing.  Other days it was shepherding, or mending a boat, or a rock wall.  The women would get together to knit a sweater or patch up a quilt blanket.  These sweaters or quilts would be sold to a passing boat of the very occasional tourists who would visit.

For food, Rachel, and her young friends, who were under the age of eight, would be lowered down from the cliff edges in baskets to search for eggs - from puffins, gannets and fumars.  There was no telephone or telegraph machine to the mainland of Scotland.  The only connection to civilization was an ancient tradition of putting a note in a sheep's bladder, and placing it in the ocean, and hoping that the currents would wash the note up on the shore of another remote Hebridean island.  And so, it would sometimes be many months before outsiders heard any news from St. Kilda: "A baby has been born," "a wizened crofter has died," "There are no provisions here, please bring supplies," "a storm destroyed a house."

In 1930, fearing that the local population would be decimated by disease and abject poverty, the National Scottish Trust evacuated all of the residents of St. Kilda (numbering 36), and relocated them to the mainland of Scotland.  Rachel was 8 years old when this happened.  As she grew up, away from her familiar island traditions, she did various things to get by.  She worked as a server at a local hotel in the Ardtornish Highland estate.  She took up highland dancing and won prizes up and down the coast of Scotland.  She eventually married and moved to Clydebank - a town near Glasgow.  Rachel never talked much about her life in St. Kilda.  Indeed, like most island people, she hardly said anything at all.  "If you asked her about St. Kilda now," said her surviving son, Ronnie Gillies, "she would just look at you and smile."

One of the most important aspects of Rachel's life was her faith in God.  She was a stalwart churchgoer.  According to the Church of Scotland, Rachel had been a member of the Radnor Park Parish Church in Clydebank for 60 years.  As the world around Rachel changed, her faith, which was a private one, remained a constant.  Fifty people attended her funeral.  Gaelic hymns, the native language of Scotland, were sung.

Reflecting on his mother's death, Ronnie Gillies, her son said, "It is very sad because she is the last of the line of native St. Kilda residents.  Her death represents the passing of an era."

All For Now,


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