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Maps have always held a fascination for me, and I have spent many an hour poring over my atlas. More recently, trawling around the more isolated islands on the fringes of the Hebrides on Google Maps, I was startled to come across an island which didn't appear on the map, and which was caught on the satellite view apparently halfway through fading into or out of existence. (They've since added it on the map, and provided a high resolution satellite view, but you can still see the half-present island if you zoom out.

It turns out this is actually the island of Boreray, St Kilda, west of the Outer Hebrides. For some reason, though, St Kilda maintained a fascination for me, and I kept coming back to it. Google maps showed a settlement and roads on Hirta (the main island), but I learned from Wikipedia that the island had been evacuated in 1930 at the islanders' own request.

The Wikipedia page also talks about how the island's extreme isolation affected the way of life there:
After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, it was rumoured that Prince Charles Edward Stuart and some of his senior Jacobite aides had escaped to St Kilda. An expedition was launched, and in due course British soldiers were ferried ashore to Hirta. They found a deserted village, as the St Kildans, fearing pirates, had fled to caves to the west. When the St Kildans were persuaded to come down, the soldiers discovered that the isolated natives knew nothing of the prince and had never heard of King George II either.

Even in the late 19th century, the islanders could communicate with the rest of the world only by lighting a bonfire on the summit of Conachair and hoping a passing ship might see it, or by using the "St Kilda mailboat". The mailboat was the invention of John Sands, who visited in 1877. During his stay, a shipwreck left nine Austrian sailors marooned there, and by February supplies were running low. Sands attached a message to a lifebuoy salvaged from the Peti Dubrovacki and threw it into the sea. Nine days later it was picked up in Birsay, Orkney and a rescue was arranged. The St Kildans, building on this idea, fashioned a piece of wood into the shape of a boat, attached it to a bladder made of sheepskin, and placed in it a small bottle or tin containing a message. Launched when the wind came from the north-west, two-thirds of the messages were later found on the west coast of Scotland or, less conveniently, in Norway.
I also learned from Wikipedia how Michael Powell of later Archers fame (no, not that Archers, this Archers) read about the islands' evacuation in 1930, and in 1937 made a film about it, entitled The Edge of the World. Powell couldn't get permission to make the film on St Kilda itself, as its owner had dedicated it after the evacuation as a birdlife sanctuary; and shot the film instead on the similarly remote Shetland island Foula (which, years after first spotting it on maps, I can now report is pronounced like in "fool", even though the name derives from the Norse for bird [i.e. fowl] island).

I've just watched the film, after ordering it from easyCinema. The plot centres, as it should, on the characters involved, of whom Robbie Manson wants to leave the island, and Andrew Gray does not, leaving Ruth, Robbie's sister and Andrew's girlfriend, torn between them; but really the island is one of the characters of the film itself. We see the traditions of life on the island, including herding sheep without sheepdogs, scaling precipitous cliff-faces in search of birds' eggs, and the above-mentioned "St Kilda mailboat"—along with the breathtaking vistas the island itself offers.

[ETA: Actually, the film is set not on St Kilda itself, but on the fictitious island of Hirta, located a hundred miles west of the Orkneys; the characters refer at one point to the evacuation of St Kilda. Confusingly Hirta is also the name of the main island of the St Kilda group, and the map of the island shown is identical to that of Foula.]

The DVD also contains a short (fifteen minute) tourism film from 1923 depicting a cruise up the Hebrides to St Kilda; much of what the fiction film depicts is mirrored in the earlier documentary one. The DVD includes an optional commentary to this silent film, revealing that, for example, when the film-makers showed the islanders a film of life on the mainland, a shot of a steam train caused the islanders to panic and flee from the makeshift cinema.

As well as the 1923 film, the DVD also includes a 1978 short documentary, in which Powell and many of those involved in the making of The Edge of the World returned to Foula forty years later and met up again. We also hear a little from modern (for 1978 values of "modern") Foulans, who talk of the benefits the film brought to the island in terms of increased recognition, but also how it made successive governments loath to invest in the island's infrastructure, fearing they would be the next to request evacuation.

One thing I'm surprised I haven't seen any mention of on the DVD, Wikipedia or elsewhere on the web, is what the erstwhile St Kildans themselves thought of the film. If I'm lucky, this might be mentioned on the DVD commentary track (featuring, inter alia, Powell's widow), which I haven't yet finished watching. [ETA: It wasn't, IIRC.]


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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