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.

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(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.

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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…..

 

 

Is it Brigid, Brigit, Bridgit, Bridget, Brigida or Birgitta?

An email from a dear friend yesterday reminded me that the first of February is Saint Brigid’s day. Saint Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, the other two being Saint Columba and Saint Patrick.

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Saint Columba also links Ireland to Scotland through his founding of the monastery on the beautiful island of Iona which we visited in 1988.

(Sandra on Iona in 1988)

Indeed, St Columba was buried there in 597. In 794, however, the Vikings landed on Iona and divided his relics between Iona and Downpatrick cathedral hill where he was joined by Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid.

My friend also reminded me that Saint Brigid is the patron saint of poets and smiths – a great combination since poets are known as word-smiths and, indeed, T. S. Eliot in his introduction to The Wasteland dedicated it to Ezra Pound whom he described in Italian as ‘il migliore Fabbro’ (the best smith) quoting line 117 from Canto XXVI of Dante’s Purgatory.

Last but not least spring is supposed to begin now – at least in Ireland – but then they have a very positive spirit over there!

In addition to Saint Brigid (sometimes spelt Brigit or Bridgit or Bridget) of Kildare there’s Saint Bridget of Sweden.

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Saint Bridget (Birgitta) was the founder of the Bridgettine nuns and is one of the six patrons saints of Europe. (The other five are St Benedict, Saint Cyril, Saint Methodius, Saint Catherine of Siena and Sr. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross – Edith Stein – who was murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1942 and was made a saint in 1998).

In Florence there’s the church of Saints Maria and Brigida, south of the Arno.

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A convent of nuns from the order the Swedish Saint Bridget founded has recently been restored after years of neglect and conversion into poor dwellings. Interestingly, the convent caused some controversy when it was founded since at first both monks and nuns lived in the same building. Later the monks moved to a separate location.

(View of the convent from the Via del Paradiso)

What survives of the Bridgettine convent today in addition to the church of Santa Maria and Brigida are the parts of a chapel, a small cloister and refectory with remains of a fresco. The convent is one of Florence’s lesser known gems but it’s rather difficult to get inside it as it’s private housing. Thanks should be given to the architect and restorer Paolo Antonio Martini that the remains were saved in 1999.

It’s a lovely walk up the Via del Paradiso but, be warned, it becomes so steep you really start thinking you’ll get to the destination it’s named after!

Two Saint Brigids are better than one, especially if they are patron saints of Ireland and Europe respectively.