The ghosts of St Kilda

Situated 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, the St Kilda archipelago is one of the most inaccessible parts of the British Isles. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of the beautiful island of Hirta.

James Marston

Situated 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, the St Kilda archipelago is one of the most inaccessible parts of the British Isles. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of the beautiful island of Hirta. JAMES MARSTON meets one of the last surviving members of the remote community.

FOR Norman John Gillies, St Kilda will always be home.

As he poses with Ivy, his wife of more than 50 years, outside his home in Chelmondiston - aptly called St Kilda - he is proud to talk about his past and his roots.

He said: “I was born on St Kilda and my family had lived on the island for hundreds of years. My theory for the reason we all left was that during World War One there was a wireless station on the island and a number of young men came to work there.

“Those young men told the young men of the island how much easier life was like in the outside world and how much easier it was to earn a living.

Most Read

“After the war a lot of the younger men left the island leaving only the very old residents and very young residents. It wasn't enough to manage the island - it became unsustainable.”

It was in 1930 that the island was evacuated - there were 36 islanders left.

Norman added: “There were one or two bad harvests in the late 1920s. Plus my mother got ill with appendicitis. St Kilda was so remote that she couldn't get a boat to the mainland. She died in February 1930.

“These problems made people see how hard it was for them to access medical care if anyone got ill.”

Now an 84-year-old grandfather of 11, Norman recalls vividly his time on St Kilda before the evacuation.

He said: “Among my first memories is of my mother standing on the dyke in front of our cottage waving me in.

“We spoke Gaelic; I had a smattering of English but didn't really learn to speak English until we moved to Scotland.”

Seabirds like fulmars, puffins and gannets made up a significant part of the St Kildan diet.

Norman said: “The catch was shared for the whole village. Everything was shared. It was a Christian community and we all went to church twice on a Sunday and no work was done on a Sunday apart from milking the cow.

“I was born in cottage 15 and my family home was at number 10.”

At the end of August 1930, HMS Harebell arrived at Hirta - the main St Kildan island - to evacuate the islanders.

Norman said: “Belongings and livestock had gone already. I remember running around on the deck of the boat and people spreading out on the deck.

“My saddest memory is of several of the old ladies at the rear of the boat waving goodbye to the island. I don't think any of them ever saw St Kilda ever again.

“I know that several of the older people were very sad to leave St Kilda but to my generation it was a golden opportunity for their lives and future to come to the mainland.

“I can remember arriving at the pier on the mainland and there were crowds of people to see us arrive from St Kilda.

“I can remember seeing my first car and first tree -we didn't have trees on St Kilda -and the first jobs the islanders were found was planting trees with the forestry commission in Scotland.”

Norman has been back to the island several times. He first returned in 1976.

He said: “It was wonderful to walk the street again and see the cottage where I lived and see where I remember my mother on the wall.

“I went back in 1980 for the 50th anniversary of the evacuation and with Ben Fogle from Countryfile in 2005. We were taken in on a helicopter which was indescribable.”

And just a few weeks ago Norman found himself once again on the island courtesy of BBC Scotland.

He said: “It was tremendous to be back again and see the village and think about how my parents and grandparents had lived there. It was a very hard life for them.”

Currently home to a radar station, the Ministry of Defence Site on Hirta was established in 1957 as a radar tracking station for the missile range in Benbecula, Outer Hebrides. The site is now staffed by civilian workers and the base is manned throughout the year by about 15 staff and provides an infrastructure of power, water supply, logistics transport and medical aid.

The MoD presence helps the work of conservation organisations on the islands.

Norman, whose cousin Rachel Johnson, 87, is the only other survivor from the original St Kildan community, said: “It won't be inhabited again like it used to be.”

One of three St Kildans to serve in the Second World War Norman served on HMS Beehive in Felixstowe from 1944 until the end of the war.

After the war he was sent to HMS Ganges and it was in Chelmondiston Methodist Chapel one Sunday that he met Ivy, who he married in 1948.

Now retired, Norman worked for many years in builder's merchant firms in Ipswich.

He said: “We have three children, 11 grandchildren and five great grandchildren and we have lived all our lives in Chelmondiston.”

A keen gardener and sprightly, Norman said he will keep going back to the place of his birth as long as he is able.

He added: “It was a hard life there but it was a very caring community. St Kilda is a very beautiful place, the views are indescribable.”

Have you visited St Kilda? Have you got a similar story? What do you think? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or send an e-mail to

St Kilda is one of only 24 global locations to be awarded 'mixed' World Heritage Status for its natural and cultural significance.

St Kilda is Europe's most important seabird colony, and one of the major seabird breeding stations in the North Atlantic

The world's largest colony of gannets nests on Boreray and the sea stacks

St Kilda has the largest colony of fulmars in the British Isles - nearly 65,000 in 1999

Stac an Armin (191 metres) and Stac Lee (165 metres) are the highest sea stacks in Britain

St Kilda is one of the best places in Britain for diving because of its clear water and its submerged caves, tunnels and arches

Seabirds formed a major part of the St Kildan diet, especially gannets, fulmars and puffins. At one time it was estimated that each person on St Kilda ate 115 fulmars every year.

In 1876 it was said that the islanders took 89,600 puffins for food and feathers. The St Kildans used to eat puffins for a snack.

Soay sheep, from the island of Soay, are a unique survival of primitive breeds dating back to the Bronze Age

Two kinds of mice (the St Kilda house mouse and St Kilda field mouse) used to be found on St Kilda. Both were larger varieties (sub-species) of the mainland house mouse and wood mouse respectively. They were probably brought to St Kilda by Norsemen. The house mouse became extinct after the islanders left in 1930.

The St Kilda wren is a larger sub-species of the mainland wren found throughout the St Kilda archipelago. There are believed to be only about 113-117 pairs on Hirta.

In the 1850s, 42 islanders emigrated to Australia. Many of the emigrants died en-route, but a few settled in Melbourne, and to this day a suburb of the city is called St Kilda.

At 1,400ft, Conachair boasts the highest sea cliffs in Britain.

St Kilda was bought by the Marquess of Bute in 1931. He bequeathed it to the National Trust For Scotland in 1957.