Thursday 29 August 2013

A Postcard from the Edge

I clagged this together because postcards were a major source of cash for St Kildans in the late 19th century when visitors were still travelers rather than tourists and mostly well-heeled.  Excursion ships would run people out to St Kilda for a jaunt and all you could do there, apart from gawk at the peasantry, was send a postcard home with an exotic postmark.

After being continuously inhabited since the neolithic, certainly more than 2000 years, the last inhabitants of the archipelago of St Kilda gave up their homes to the elements and were transported to the Scottish mainland, at government expense, on 29th August 1930.  There were only 3 dozen inhabitants at that stage and few of those were "effectives".   St Kilda is remote - the islands are 65km from the nearest land, North Uist, itself part of the Outer Hebrides and a fair lick from the coast of mainland Scotland.  The only thing left behind was the face (squint top right) of the Viking warrior on Stac Leibhinis looking serenely out to sea.  The endemic sub-species of house mouse (Mus musculus muralis) rapidly went extinct after the people left, and stopped leaving crumbs on the floor.

The remoteness dictated the need to make an almost cash-free living from the available resources: a scrabble of barley and spuds, boiled gannets, eggs in season and sheep's milk cheese.  Gannetting from the immensely high sea-cliffs was dangerous and communal.  The feathers were saved for the landlord's factor as rent for the humble homes and gardens.  When things got dire, they would attach an SOS message to a piece of drift-wood, inflate a sheep's bladder as a sail, and tie the two together and launch it into the sea when the wind was from the NW.  Apparently more than half of these communications were picked up: most on the Islands of Scotland but some, less conveniently, in Norway many days later.  That would be an antidote to the restlessly continuous communication that we all expect nowadays.

Lots of £0.01 copies of Tom Steel's great book The Life and Death of St Kilda.  Which, in it's attention to detail, is not a million miles from PrairyErth's Chase County, Kansas.  No indeed, it is only 6390km.  And here's an arresting comparison, even at it's lowest ebb the population density on St Kilda (36/8.5 = 4.2 per was 3 times more than that of Chase County (2750/2000 = 1.4). 

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