The Deserted Village

The news that Rachel Johnson, the last person to have lived on the island archipelago of St Kilda, forty miles west of the Hebrides and perhaps the remotest group of islands in the British isles, has recently died at the age of 93 gave me much food for thought regarding the situation relating to remote settlements in Italy.


(Rachel Johnson (centre, face obscured) among pupils outside the St Kilda schoolhouse in the late 1920s before the archipelago’s evacuation. Photograph: National Trust/PA)

St Kilda consists of four islands, Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray and is one of the most spectacular and beautiful places in Scotland.

We were privileged to have been selected by the Scottish National Trust as part of an archaeological work party to the islands in 1988. I’d wanted to visit these islands for a long time, being very much an ‘island’ collector and the only way to get there was to join a work party.

The islands exerted their special magic on us. They have the tallest cliffs in Britain and the fulmars flying below us seemed like candy floss. The sheep were of a wild, ancient variety and our first sighting of the unique St Kilda wren was truly special.


Bonxies (skuas) would hit us on the head with their claws if we approached their breeding ground and one night, in particular was especially enchanted – it was the night we spent on the cliffs with the storm petrels returning with their eerie songs to their underground burrows . Puffins were our friends so were the gannets and many other sea birds.

Here are some more of photographs I took in that magic summer of 1988 on St Kilda:

Now there is no one left to remember what it was like to live in St Kilda before the evacuation of its population in 1930 when Rachel Johnson was eight years old and life had become quite unsustainable because of a decreasing population.

The sad human emptiness of St Kilda reminds me of the many Italian villages which have been abandoned with perhaps just a few old people to reflect on the past social life of the place they were born in.

In our own area we have several abandoned villages, the most notable of which is Bugnano. But there are plenty more to re-discover. As for the settlements of the summer alpeggi there are even more to consider. If only stones could speak!

Here is a vast village palazzo I visited a couple of days ago with an artist friend who is particularly inspired by themes of dilapidation, dereliction and desertion:

Longoio itself is diminishing in size as more and more people leave for towns and cities in search of work. I am probably one of a handful of people who live here the whole year round. At Easter and in the summer holiday cottage owners arrive (though not always). For me they appear to resemble passing migrating birds who have no real connection with the place they visit. Frankly, I have little to do with them and some of them are (unfortunately) downright ghastly concoctions who appear to spend most of their time on the booze and round the barbie.

The times when people would work hard to make a living from the soil have largely disappeared from Longoio as they did in 1930 for St Kilda. That’s why when I see a young shepherdess who has returned to the land with her flock or when I meet someone who has consciously left the city to seek life in a shelter among the woods my heart truly leaps for joy.

Ten years after leaving St Kilda I wrote this.






Island nest, half earth half sea, transfixes

memory like a cosmic standing stone

splitting our youth from age: as cast pyxes

of fire the rocks exalt a limitless moan.



An outermost dominion is revealed

of vertical stacks in a vicious sea

and yellow flags in a gently sloped field –

that such conflicting elements can be.



Giants’ toys cast into abandoned seas,

they mix chimeras and reality

into a spectre which does not appease

our inmost fears and admits no pity.



Loud gannets and gulls, petrels and fulmars

take over the definition of life

while the night’s realm reflects infinite stars

and seals dip through the primordial strife.



Shepherdless sheep are masters here: they lead

to harlequin puffins, emerald caves

and the Cambir’s burgeoning, love-lost head,

to wind-thrown cleits, cyclops’ walls and sedged graves.



The sad wee history, fearful chapel;

the cottages are strung like renounced hulks

around the bay’s fan as I bid farewell

and all around the sombre sea sulks.



I hope I shall never have to write a similar farewell to Longoio…..



6 thoughts on “The Deserted Village

  1. Ah St Kilda! It was just the other day I mentioned our adventures and work on this island to a Scotsman who is most interested in doing the same when he indeed gets better. In fact we also placed a plaque in the old school little did you imagine then that you too would be out there in this wide world teaching. I too did a few hours teaching.

    It is sad though when people fall in love with areas then retire without thinking of future needs and then sadly dreams are shattered. However it is better to have enjoyed a few useful vital years and pursued ones dream than not. In USA they have created whole villages self administered by all OAP each pursuing their chosen tasks and still leading vital enjoyable lives in company of all older members of society.

    It has been suggested to use prisons in UK where OAPS would be surveilled 24/7 and enjoy 3 hot meals daily, have doctors at the ready entertainment and other useful activities and place prisoners in these so called care homes: cold meals little care makes sense. Seems prisoners have a busman’s holiday at our expense. I wonder still who the very first inhabitants of St Kilda were. Could it have been the Etruscans fleeing for their safety from the Romans? The Romans did eat porridge! To-date no one knows – quite a mystery. Beautiful St Kilda island of ones dreams majestic, vital, alive, inspiring will we ever see you again?

  2. Cpmment from artist: F. D.
    “First I must comment on your photos. You are really a wonderful photographer. I have always loved looking at them. Your St Kilda images take me back to when I first read Ring of bright Water, one of my favorite books. Your photo’s are really magical. I probably have three or four images from P d C that may find their way into Paintings. Thanks again for the trip. Hopefully we can make more sometime soon.”.

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