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.
HOME THOUGHTS TO ST KILDA
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…..