Shawbost, Bragar & St. Kilda

**** This article was contributed by Donald MacDonald (Doilidh Dhonnchaidh) of New Shawbost and Back ****

My interest in St Kilda and its inhabitants stretches back to the days of my early youth. My father, Duncan MacDonald, was a member of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and, like many others, was called into service at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. His assignation was rather unusual in that he did not serve on any conventional naval ship. Instead, he became a crew member of a small fishing boat with instructions to discard naval uniform in favour of fisherman’s garb. On the deck of the tiny craft was a small gun hidden away by draped fishing nets. All very mysterious.

Setting off

Orders were given to proceed to the sea area between Lewis and St Kilda, where an explanation of the proposed operation was revealed. Rendezvous was made with a submarine and a communicating cable was attached to both vessels. The plan was to keep a lookout for any enemy activity. If the innocent ‘fisherman’ spotted a hostile ship, contact could be made by cable with the submarine, which would then take appropriate action. A somewhat similar arrangement took place in World War Two. Such vessels were known as “Q” Ships.

Landing on St. Kilda

On one occasion, it so happened that the fishing boat was running short of fresh water used for cooking and drinking. The skipper decided to head for St Kilda to replenish supplies. Duncan MacDonald, with one or two others, was detailed to go ashore at Village Bay in the hope of finding a well or fresh water loch. It was never an easy task to land on St Kilda because of heavy swell.
Gaelic was spoken

Having scrambled ashore, the navy men approached a small hamlet where they met an elderly female resident whom my father engaged in conversation – Gaelic of course. During the conversation, Duncan expressed the view that living in such a remote part posed many problems and asked if the inhabitants considered life on the mainland where they would enjoy easier living conditions. The response was instant and emphatic. “Gu dearbh, cha tàinig a’ smuain a-steach orm. Chan fhaca mise a-riamh àite a chuirinn air thoiseach air an eilean bheag bhòidheach agam fhìn” (“Indeed never did such a thought enter my head. I have never seen a place that I would prefer to our own beautiful little island”) Loyalty indeed!

It hit a mine!!

The little fishing boat came to a sad end in 1917. It hit a mine. Among the casualties was Duncan MacDonald who received injuries to his back, the arm and the leg. Treatment was received at the naval hospital in Gillingham, Kent.

A further Shawbost connection with St Kilda occurred in 1933. Rev Donald Cameron was appointed to the small Church of Scotland congregation in Shawbost after the retirement of John MacLean, Missionary. Mr Cameron was a native of Glenelg. His wife hailed from North Uist. In 1919, when he was then a missionary (ordained later), Donald Cameron accepted a call to St Kilda where, with his family, he remained until 1926. There were two young daughters – Mary who was four years old in 1919 and Chrissie.

An unqualified Teacher

The appointment of the Cameron family to the island archipelago was fortuitous in that Mrs Cameron was a qualified schoolteacher. Mr Cameron was given permission to assist as an unqualified teacher in the small village school. Thus, for seven years, educational and spiritual needs were provided. Incidentally, every single islander was expected to attend church, and this they did.
Many and varied were the stories Mr Cameron related concerning island life. He it was who was responsible for listing all the requirements of the population – food supplies, medical needs, such as they were, and many other things. If, he said, any commodity was missed out through error, the only remedy was to wait another twelve months.

Ferocious winds

Interesting facts relating to island life are contained in a fascinating book written by Mary Cameron. It is available at Stornoway public library. According to the authoress, ferocious winds, which could last for days on end, made life almost unbearable.

The mail

The island inhabitants welcomed visiting trawlers that anchored in the bay. Often they would carry mail to and from the island. On one occasion, a trawler delivered, among other things, an English newspaper which had news of the difficulties faced by London readers when they were deprived of their daily papers because of a printers’ strike. After reading this account Rev Cameron wrote to the newspaper editor stating that while he had sympathy for the plight of the capital’s readership, the people of St Kilda, owing to severe weather conditions, had had no mail for a period of eleven weeks. The letter was published and, astonishingly, there followed sackfuls of mail (trawler delivery) from far and wide. One man kept sending, for years, copies of the “Manchester Guardian”.

Football

Extremely popular with young and old was a certain Fleetwood trawler skipper whose kindness was legendary. When, once, he took his catch of fish to Aberdeen market, it so happened that his visit coincided with a football match, a contest between Aberdeen FC and Glasgow Rangers. Joy must have reigned in the Granite City that Saturday because Rangers lost 2-1. After the game, the skipper sought out the secretary of the Rangers Football Club and arranged the purchase of the actual ball that had entered the Rangers goal on two occasions. The cost was ten shillings. On the skipper’s next visit to St Kilda, he presented the ball to grateful youngsters and immediately a kick about was arranged, including the missionary. The football had made its first appearance on St Kilda in the 1920’s.

Evacuation

I vividly recall the time of the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930. My grandfather received from his son in Greenock copies of “The Bulletin”, a Glasgow newspaper. The front page had a photograph of a sturdy-looking bearded gentleman preparing to board the evacuation ship. John Gillies was greatly admired by my grandfather who said that the gent looked very much the part of a courageous islander. Chiefly responsible for persuading the residents to evacuate the island was Williamina Barclay, who became a resident nurse in 1927. For her work she was awarded the CBE.

 

Bardens

The village of Bragar features in the annals of the St Kildan archipelago. Roderick Campbell, Ruaraidh Thormoid Chaluim, of North Bragar, taught the children of St Kilda in the early part of the 1900’s.

His photograph, along with the island children, appears in Tom Steel’s book, “The Life and Death of St Kilda”. The group shows four girls and six boys beside their teacher who looks immaculately dressed in dark suit, white collar, black tie and, as was the custom of the times, the watch chain prominently displayed across the waistcoat, the watch itself securely lodged in the fob pocket.

Some ninety odd years after Mr Campbell’s residence on St Kilda, the Bragar connection was renewed when Donna (Campbell) Barden, a grand niece was married on St Kilda on 1 June 1993. The last island wedding was in 1926, four years before evacuation.

The wedding of Donna and Dr Alasdair Barden featured prominently in national newspapers. Rev Norman MacSween performed the marriage ceremony and army personnel carried out the catering. Wedding guests will remember the vehemence of weather conditions before they set foot on terra firma.

Dr Barden will be fondly remembered not only for his work in the medical field but also for the variety of ways in which he enhanced Hebridean life and culture. Whilst a medical student in Edinburgh, he became fluent in the Gaelic language to such an extent that he mastered, with ease, vocabulary, idiom and pronunciation – the latter being no mean achievement, as many can testify. He found time to promote the Gaelic language by serving as a member on numerous committees, and he also took an enthusiastic interest in political activity.

Donna and Alasdair Barden, having acquired a croft at Col Uarach, proceeded to build a house based in structure on the traditional blackhouse. As can be seen from the photograph, there is thick stone cladding, together with rounded corners that are set, aerodynamically, against the prevailing wind. Running along the top of the stonework is a layer of turf resembling the “tobhta” of the black house. While the exterior harks back to past times, the interior has central heating, four bedrooms and all mod cons. Sadly, Alasdair Barden did not see the finished project as he met his untimely death in 1998 at the age of thirty-four.

From the rear of the house there is a stunning view of the golden sands of Coll Beach, across the waters of Broad Bay and to the Minch beyond. Donna Barden has two young boys, each of whom has a Gaelic name – Dòmhnall and Tearlach and both are fluent Gaelic speakers.

Did not the blackhouse of yore reverberate with the sound of our ancient tongue?