Hebrides Tour – Day 10 – St Kilda
Visiting St Kilda was probably the most memorable part of the Hebrides Tour for many of the Nevis players. Here, I’m going to attempt to share the range of strong emotions we experienced during the trip, and to explain why it was so special for us to play on Hirta, the main island of the St Kilda archipelago.
The only way to get to St Kilda is on small chartered boats so, as a 40-piece orchestra including drum kit and two double basses, we had to make the journey in four boats. I was in one of the earlier groups, which met at the dock at a bright(cloudy) and early 7am. The lack of people around at this hour was counterbalanced by a healthy concentration of midges, which was announced every five seconds by our skipper exclaiming ‘OHHH THE MIDGES!’- just in case we had forgotten we were being eaten alive at that very moment! As a wee English lassie, the Nevis tour marked my first encounter with midges but, luckily, I came prepared with some salve, kindly donated by Cubby’s Salves, Avon Skin So Soft and a midge net to wear over my face… practical and sexy.
We were in for a long ride and by the middle of our journey I was quite frightened at not being able to see land in any direction. As we approached the archipelago, the wealth of nature in this part of the ocean showed itself in the form of a family of three minke whales popping up to greet us! Before I realised how close we were, we were at the foot of Boreray with its huge rocks towering over our tiny little boat. The sheer force of nature struck me as the waves exploded on the rocks and thousands upon thousands of sea birds circled the sky. Despite usually being quite unemotional, I was so moved by the colossal population of sea birds on and around the stacks that I actually had a little cry! It was made especially poignant by the ‘green’ focus of our Hebrides tour, I couldn’t help but grieve for the damage we have done to this planet, and fear the loss of such an incredible environment.
Our final destination was Hirta which, for me, had a very different tone to the other islands. Hirta is the only island in St Kilda to have inhabited and was home to human settlers from prehistoric times until they self-elected to be evacuated in 1930. Now it is inhabited during the summer months by a small number of National Trust of Scotland employees and military personnel. Based in a sheltered bay at the foot of the mountain, the village is a kind of ghost town, with half of the old houses awaiting restoration (before and after) and the native Soay sheep ruling the roost.
There are no trees on Hirta, which gives this small island a disproportionate sense of expanse. This was beautiful on a day like the one on which we visited; a few of us were even lulled to sleep by the calmness on the island. It was also clear, however, that the exposed island is totally at the mercy of the weather. I think the fact that island life is so heavily dictated by its immediate environment makes it feel as though Hirta is a whole world in itself.
The biggest privilege as musicians, though, was being able to perform James Macmillan’s arrangement of ‘Hirta’, from Trevor Morrison’s account of the Lost Songs of St Kilda, on Hirta. I didn’t realise how evocative it is of the island until we got there and it all seemed to click into place. ‘Hirta’ is arranged for strings accompanying the original recording made of Trevor Morrison playing the tune on the piano in his care home. Our co-Artistic Director Holly Mathieson made the decision to spatialise the performance (in front of The Street), which amplified the effect of the sparse texture in representing the expanse and starkness of the place. Trills give the feeling of constant motion in the air coming from the sea breeze, while harmonics are like the freezing cold chill. Its speed is so slow it is timeless and etherial; just as the island retains its detachment and otherworldly atmosphere. The piece ends with the whole string section performing short, high glissandi which mimic the sounds of the ever-present sea birds.
It is easy to be swept away with the romanticism of such a beautiful place away from modern civilisation, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Hirta was a very sad place, haunted by bad things that happened there. The St Kildans were vulnerable because of their isolation and became subject to the tourist trade in Victorian times; people would visit to see how the ‘uncivilised’ lived, intruding on islanders’ lives as though they were animals in a zoo. There is a hint of this sentiment in this film footage of St Kildans hiding from a cameraman. Another sadness of Hirta was the enforcement of strict religious practice from the 19th century, which replaced the islanders’ longstanding pagan religion and condemned much of their cultural heritage as sinful – hence the ‘lost’ songs of St Kilda. As steamers began to visit the islands, the inhabitants became reliant on monetary income from selling tweed and began to lose their self-sufficiency. The island was eventually evacuated in 1930, but St Kildans found life difficult on the mainland and there are questions as to whether the islanders could have stayed, had the government provided them with some monetary aid every so often. As an orchestra whose enemy is social inequality, it felt very important to play for the memory of the St Kildans who left Hirta.
Though I was lucky to be on one of the earlier slower Boats, the last players of the group had to return on a speed boat in the dark. They didn’t arrive back in Leverburgh until 11pm, by which time their tiny open boat had been caught in a sea storm. We were all very relieved to see them back ok, but upon arrival they were all pretty shaken. Back at the hostel, people could be found sipping hot toddies to warm themselves up and to soothe the shock a little.
We woke up the next day exhausted and a little humbler.