Norman John Gillies: St Kilda evacuee who dedicated himself to preserving its memory

 

The death of Norman John Gillies at the age of 88 has severed a link to an ancient and hardy group of people who for more than 1,000 years inhabited Britain's most remote group of islands. On 29 August 1930 the last 36 inhabitants of St Kilda, far out to sea in the North Atlantic, were evacuated to the mainland of Scotland. Norman John was only five years old, but he never forgot being rowed out to the ship that was to take the St Kildans to the West Coast and a very different life. One of only two remaining native born survivors, he was keen to ensure that the story of the remote community lived on.

"I remember how the older women, including my grandmother stood at the boat's stern," he told me recently when I updated my late husband's book Life and Death of St Kilda. "Their shawls were wrapped around them, waving at the islands as they disappeared from sight."

The St Kildans voted to leave the islands after the death of Gillies' mother, bringing to an end a tightly knit community which had lived there for possibly 2,000 years. The barren islands were cut off from the mainland for nine months of the year by rough seas and winds; his ill mother waited for two weeks for a boat to take her to a hospital in Glasgow. There she died of appendicitis after giving birth to a little girl who also died. Gillies' last memory of his mother was standing with his grandmother watching her being rowed out by the lighthouse ship.

St Kilda, and its central island of Hirta, is the UK's only Unesco Dual World Heritage site. It was home to a group of simple people, mostly named Gillies or MacKinnon, speaking Gaelic and grounded in "The Free Church". They lived by climbing down the rocks to kill the sea birds on the cliffs, living on their meat and using them for oil, and by farming tough sheep and cattle kept on other islands to which they rowed. They weaved and sold their tweeds to tourists who visited the islands, using the money to stock up on supplies. They ran their own affairs, holding a "parliament" in their main street, making sure that the dead seabirds were shared out among the population. A series of disasters, along with the poverty of the 1920s, led to the population gradually declining as the young left.

Gillies' father John was determined that his son would have a better life. "If he hadn't made that decision I would have lived a very hard life," Gillies told me. "Instead I had opportunities others never had."

But the removal to Scotland was no panacea. The community was regarded with curiosity; there were rumours of misshapen feet and some disdain for their simplicity. Gillies remembered people waiting at the pier for their arrival: "I can still recall the crowds, you have never seen so many people; they were probably expecting to see some strange inhabitants arriving."

The population was split up among villages on the north-west coast; the men, who had never seen trees, were given jobs working in the forests. With little money and without help to adapt to their new lives, they struggled to survive. The first croft that Norman moved into, with his father John and grandmother, was damp and miles away from the local school. John put his foot down, as conditions were worse than on St Kilda. His son should be brought up in a healthy climate and be properly schooled, he believed. They moved to another village only a mile away from the school. Many of the youngsters, some living in unhealthy conditions, died from illnesses such as TB. The elderly, it was claimed, died of loneliness.

Norman Gillies left school when he was 14 to work as an apprentice with the Forestry Commission. In 1943, aged 18, he joined the Royal Navy, serving on motor torpedo boats based at Felixstowe patrolling the Channel. He also served at signal stations in Egypt. Demobilised in September 1945, he settled in Suffolk. He married Ivy in 1948, becoming manager of a builders' merchant, playing a major part in his local Methodist church and living in a house called "St Kilda".

He became a frequent contributor to programmes or articles on the islands. Always smartly dressed, remaining neat even when stepping on to the shores of Hirta from some much-buffeted boat, he would make several return visits to his birthplace. In 1976 he took part in a National Trust of Scotland working party repairing crofts. In August 2005 the whole family visited St Kilda. "St Kilda was very important to him," his son John told me. "He was a great Ambassador for the islands; he hoped many generations would visit. He loved telling people stories about St Kilda. I treasure the times we spent together there."

I remember a kind, gracious man, full of enthusiasm for his birthplace. Asked what he wanted to happen to St Kilda, his answer was simple. "It's a beautiful island. I want St Kilda to be looked after and cared for."

Norman John Gillies, survivor of St Kilda: born Hirta, St Kilda 22 May 1925; married 1948 Ivy Knights (one son, two daughters); died Ipswich 29 September 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific