Saturday, March 02, 2013

Espadrilles of gannet-neck: St Kilda in the late 17th century

I’ve generally enjoyed the novels of Jim Crace, and was pleased to see from Adam Mars-Jones’ review in the LRB that another is out, with a setting both atopical and anachronistic. One feature of his invented village is (the reviewer notes) that nobody there owns a mirror, and this made for me a pleasing little connection to a late 17th century work that had actually reminded me (while reading it) of Crace’s fiction, Martin Martin’s account of his incident-filled visit to the Isle of St Kilda in 1694. Among the things Martin says about those male St Kildans who get to larger, more inshore islands, is that “they admired Glass Windows hugely, and a Looking-Glass to them was a prodigy”.

The text has the title, A Late Voyage to St Kilda, the Remotest of all the HEBRIDES, OR Western Isles of SCOTLAND. WITH A History of the Island, Natural, Moral, and Topographical. Wherein is an Account of their Customs, Religion, Fish, Fowl, &c. As also a Relation of a late IMPOSTOR there, pretended to be Sent by St. John Baptist (1698). The author of the Preface to the book (who tells us that Martin was himself from the Western Isles, went to university in Edinburgh and had met members of the Royal Society), makes an entirely persuasive point: “Men have Travelled far enough in the search of Foreign Plants and Animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural Climate”.

St Kilda in the late 17th century emerges as an utterly fascinating mix of things: a Gaelic-Polynesian-Christian-Animist community of one hundred and eighty people, 18 horses, and 90 head of cattle, plus two thousand sheep dispersed over Hirta and the even smaller local islands. It’s a community so traditional in its ways as in places to recall the weird rituals of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast – yet so marginal, that you feel that had they dared deviate in the slightest from customs handed down over generations, that abandonment of the rigour necessary to survival in this place might have doomed their entire way of life. Secured by their extreme isolation from most of the perils threatened by other people, they lived a life that tolerated an astonishing degree of natural risk. Their voyages on their one open boat to the other islands and sea stacks around Hirta, the main island, involved life-threatening dangers both in launching and landing, then from currents and storms. For a main part of their diet, they harvested eggs and birds, suspended over the sea cliffs on ropes made of twisted hemp bound in leather. These daily hazards were not enough, it seems, for their courtship customs, like those of Easter Island, required foolhardy demonstrations of nerve and agility in climbs that modern free climbers could emulate easily enough, though Martin is hugely impressed:
“In the face of the Rock, South from the Town, is the famous Stone, known by the Name of the Mistress-Stone; it resembles a Door exactly, and is in the very front of this Rock, which is Twenty or Thirty Fathom perpendicular in Height, the Figure of it being discernable about the distance of a Mile: Upon the Lintel of this Door, every Batchelor-Wooer is by an Antient Custom obliged in honour to give a Specimen of his Affection for the Love of his Mistress”. The young man who had managed the climb then had to strike a time-honoured (and ridiculously risky) posture high on the exposed pinnacle. I found the following images (Martin may have confused the Mistress stone and Lover’s stone into one story).

Though cool-headed modern visitors seem able to emulate this feat, the St Kildans were clearly, and necessarily, expert climbers. Boys would, Martin says, begin by climbing the walls of their houses, this from the age of three. One stunt by which especially proficient climbers could show off was making climbs with their back to the rock face.

The community gets by with so little. There’s the one boat, with seating and stowage on board assigned and restricted with utterly exact specification of each man’s allocated space. The whole community owns just three ropes for the egg and bird collecting. “The Ropes belong to the Commonwealth, and are not to be used without the general Consent of all”. There is “one Steel and Tinder-Box in all this Commonwealth”, and the guardian of this precious equipment makes a small toll in goods for providing his services.

Every St Kildan is an expert reader of the sky, and as the stark requirement of your life probably depending on reading it correctly (if a boat was to be launched), it was imperative to update your reading experience all the time. But nobody is (literally speaking) literate. They can tell the time to an exactitude by the tide, and continuous awareness of the phase of the moon.

When Martin was there, some of the older people could still remember wearing nothing else but sheepskin garments. Plaids have arrived on boats from other outer islands less wildly distant from the mainland, and the odd pair of trousers abandoned by sailors caught by the natives filling knotted trouser-legs with their precious birds’ eggs. Their plaids and mantles are pinned together with bones from fulmars. The island women wear little espadrilles fashioned out of the necks of gannets: “the only and ordinary Shoes they wear, are made of the Necks of Solan Geese, which they cut above the Eyes, the Crown of the Head serves for the Heel, the whole Skin being cut close at the Breast, which end being sowed, the Foot enters into it, as into a piece of narrow Stocking; this Shoe doth not Wear above Five Days.” There is no money in circulation. Their rents to the laird, of the clan MacLeod, are paid in barley grain, measured out in an immemorial grain measure which they will not change, though its battered state makes it a regular point of dispute. In other acts of trade they are implacable bargainers: “They are reputed very Cunning, and there is scarce any Circumventing of them in Traffick and Bartering; the Voice of one is the Voice of all the rest, they being all of a piece, their common Interest uniting them firmly together.”

Occasionally alcohol is brewed out of nettle roots, but mainly they drink water or whey – Martin praises the superb water quality of some of the springs ( … but still).

These people lived mainly on the sea birds that nested in abundance around them. The map in this little book shows the many pyramids of loose stone that the St Kildans built to store both eggs and dead birds: “They preserve the Solan Geese in their Pyramids for the space of a Year, slitting them in the Back, for they have no Salt to keep them with. They have Built above Five hundred Stone Pyramids for their Fowls, Eggs, &c. scattering the burnt Ashes of Turf under and about them, to defend them from the Air, driness being their only Preservative
Gannets, or ‘Solan geese’, were caught in profusion when they were nesting on the island and adjacent sea-stacks. The birds were taken with horse-hair nooses on long rods, or simply clubbed while trying to defend their young. From the sea-stacks, bird corpses were thrown down from cliff-tops into the sea for collection in the boat, until the islander in the boat declared the boat full to capacity. Gannets were also killed by exploiting their methods of diving onto prey:
“a Board set on purpose to float above Water, upon it a Herring is fixed, which the Goose perceiving, flies up to a competent height, until he finds himself making a strait line above the Fish, and then bending his course perpendicularly piercing the Air, as an Arrow from a Bow, hits the Board, into which he runs his Bill with all his force irrecoverably, where he is unfortunately taken.

The gannets survived: St Kildans still had the tragic Great Auk: “The Sea-Fowls are, first, Gairfowl, being the stateliest, as well as the Largest of all the Fowls here, and above the Size of a Solan Goose, of a Black Colour, Red about the Eyes, a large White Spot under each Eye, a long broad Bill; stands stately, his whole Body erected, his Wings short, he Flyeth not at all, lays his Egg upon the bare Rock, which, if taken away, he lays no more for that Year.” In the crassly stupid human annihilation of this bird the St Kildans played a main role. Flightless, the bird was unable to escape them, and the last great auk sighted in the British Isles was collected by St Kildans, kept briefly in captivity, then beaten to death for being a witch that had raised a storm.

The fulmar chick, which protects itself by a projectile-vomit of its acidic stomach contents, was (amazingly) exploited for those same nauseous ejecta: “the Inhabitants and other Islanders put a great value upon it, and use it as a Catholicon for Diseases, especially for any Aking in the Bones, Stitches, &c. some in the adjacent Isles use it as a Purge, others as a Vomiter; it is hot in quality, and forces its passage through any Wooden Vessel.” Yes, one can imagine how emetic that was.

Martin allows himself some sentimental reflections on the people as noble savages: “The Inhabitants of St. Kilda, are much, happier than the generality of Mankind, as being almost the only People in the World who feel the sweetness of true Liberty: What the Condition of the People in the Golden Age is feign’d by the Poets to be, that theirs really is.” But who wouldn’t? He saw a resourceful and brave people, who possess next to nothing, but require nothing from anyone else.

They carried on their immemorial way of life on an island whose small area is diminished by its precipitous nature, and swept by storms. Somehow they also managed the struggle against a small gene-pool, with very careful consideration given to who might marry whom (They are “nice in examining the Degrees of Consanguinity before they Marry”, Martin says). In terms of not out-consuming their resources, they had the conception-limiting practice of continued breast-feeding (“They give Suck to their Children for the space of Two Years”), while Martin gives the impression, without saying very much about it, that they had an abstinence-based (yet successful) management of sexual desire.

These other - (or out-of-worldly) - people were as vulnerable as a rare species (and they would finally follow the great auks into extinction). Every time a boat arrives from the mainland, a cough goes round the entire community, Martin learns, though has to be persuaded that this is true. Two families are struggling with leprosy.

Their other susceptibility was that they were, alongside that conservatism which seems a survival mechanism, all mad for novelty, any kind of novelty. Martin is followed about and watched intently, for at any time he might do or say something that they have never conceived of before.

Martin had been able to get to the island because word had reached the mainland of the previous arrival on Hirta of an imposter, one Roderick, who had found in this place possibly the only community anywhere who could have believed his preposterous lies. Sent to the island (he told them) by John the Baptist, Roderick seems to have been bent on some improvised experiment in social control, yet managed it extremely badly, improvising his way into trouble. The Ten Commandments have been replaced (he told them), and he offered the updates. Roderick seems to have made the women of the island his target, and they may have been his motive for the whole imposture. Accustomed to a life in which a woman has to be frugal with her body as with everything else, these island women on the island were absolutely faithful to their husbands (Martin says). They could not be corrupted by money (if sailors managed to make a landing from a ship during some rare moment of dead calm), as money meant nothing to them. But Roderick was achieving seductions. Discovery of these actions ran neck-and-neck in discrediting him with his other crazy innovations, which all failed, as they were bound to do in a place that could only function and survive in the one traditional way it could function.

Because of the imposter Roderick, Martin got his dangerous voyage out to the island (with narrow escapes from drowning, being swept away into the main ocean, and being wrecked at landfall) in the same boat as a minister, who has been sent out to put the people back to rights. Even Roderick seems relieved, while the St Kildans are happy to be back to what they were.

Martin described this remarkable island with the Royal Society in mind. He does not waste words on its wild beauty. There’s a good map and some good photographs at the following URL’s:

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