Sunday, 29 December 2013

The story of the destruction of St Kilda

Review: East Wind, a short story by Daphne du Maurier

I’m reading The Doll, a collection of early short stories by Daphne du Maurier, during this week that stretches out to New Year, perfect for letting loose one's imagination.

East Wind is a short story about the destruction of a community, through decadent values impacting on simple remote people and the long, strong traditions which bind them together. Due to a strong east wind bringing a sheltering ship to their bay, a remote island is landed by foreign strangers, bringing brandy, dancing, the outside world, sin and free love. The effect quickly fragments the local fishing community, leading to dancing and lust, ending in murder. It is symbolic of the eventual demise of the whole community. Du Maurier calls her island 'St Hilda', an isolated rock, supposedly far off the Scilly Islands, but it must surely be St Kilda, a real island forty miles west of Uist, the far west point of Scotland. In fact, St Kilda was abandoned in 1930 by 36 remaining people, an event contemporary with the date of her short story. Today, just this abandoned street tells of the once cohesive and strong seafaring community that lived here.

                                                The ruined "Street", St Kilda (Wikipedia)

Visitors started to reach St Kilda by boat during mid Victorian summers to watch birds on the seven mile barren island. They encountered the natives of St Kilda, St Kildans, bringing with them each time a 'flu epidemic, which the islanders genes could not resist. Nevertheless, contact with the outside world was alluring. St Kilda's young men left for the mainland. By 1930, a shrunken community clung on without enough people to work the land, harvest the sheep for cheese, eat the sea birds, or make tweed. St Kilda could not be reached, except by trawlers from late August to late spring, due to wild Atlantic seas. That winter, the islanders were near to starving. Even a doctor could not reach them.

The remaining islanders unable to face another winter cut off by storms, petitioned the Government to be evacuated. They specifically said that they did not wish to be rehoused together as a community of families, possibly because they all had different ideas about what they wanted to do, but possibly because they were no more a living community.

So, today, St Kilda is as dead as Pompeii:  an empty shell, storm lashed for seven months a year. In summer, it is visited by keen bird watchers, but you need permission from the National Trust for Scotland to set anchor in Village Bay (below).

                                                      Village Bay, St Kilda (Wikipedia)

Possibly, as Du Maurier perceives, it was the temptations of the world and the flesh which finally destroyed St Kilda’s community. Du Maurier certainly loved isolated, marine and wild places. Debauchery and murder on a rocky shore is a theme in her novels and is always destructive.

While watching the famous film "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve, George Bailey is a given a vision of what would have happened to his community if he had never lived. Instead of a decent community, the main street is a line of gaming houses, brothels, crime, flashing lights, pawn shops and money-lenders. Oddly, this alternative town struck me as rather like some of our towns today.

We talk about the “destruction of community” so perhaps we can learn lessons:
  • That honesty, self discipline and moral values matter, in the longer term, for communities and their ongoing survival. 
  • That people and churches must make an effort to act as "salt and light" in their local communities to hold them together and strengthen them. 
  • That temptations of materialism can destroy whole communities. 
Our towns could all be left as empty streets, as people elect to go somewhere else. We already see some English high streets becoming dead retail centres, full of charity shops and empty premises as out of town shopping centres take over. The mass exodus of the young is already destroying many remote and mountain communities across Europe. 

Maybe we urgently need more people who are willing to reverse the process of decay, to value again the concept of "community" itself, to swim against this strong tide of abandonment, to resist the strong lure of modernity, and materialism.

1 comment:

  1. Kipling, whom T S Eliot once called 'prophetic' ( I have forgotten the source) wrote on a kindred theme in 1909 in his short story 'The Mother Hive' - Actions and Reactions (1918). A wax moth insinuates herself into the hive which has already become old and weak and starts to lay eggs in it. But just a few bees nuture a new queen ...