Sunday, October 05, 2008

Has Sarah Palin heard about St. Kilda?

Following a wonderful reply to a tag from Anne Johnson, Aquila ka Hecate has tagged everyone on her sidebar to give their opinions on "The hilarious" McCain-Palin ticket for the US presidency. 

I gather that Sarah Palin is Governor of Alaska and Commander-in-chief of the state’s military forces. I have never been to Alaska but have always regarded it as one of those special liminal places that exist at the edge of the world. I, therefore, offer Sarah the story of another liminal place at the very edge of Europe.

The BBC has a little known TV channel called BBC Alba which broadcasts programmes in the Gaelic language of the West of Scotland. Earlier this week BBC Alba televised a programme dedicated to the history of St. Kilda.

I guess that Sarah has never heard of St. Kilda so I will tell her that St. Kilda is not a Christian Saint but the most remote place in the British Isles. A group of tiny islands and stacks forty miles to the west of the Outer Hebrides. St. Kilda literally lies at the very edge of the ancient world. Despite being lashed by winds and rain and an average July temperature of just 12 degrees Celsius St. Kilda was inhabited for more than two millennia until it was abandoned in 1930. The Norse settled there and then the Gael.

The BBC Alba programme was narrated by a wonderful man whose ancestors had lived on St. Kilda. His beautiful Gaelic words cut straight to the heart. He spoke eloquently of the Gael of St. Kilda and how they had lived a hard subsistence life surviving on the countless seabirds that nested on the cliffs. They knew little of the outside world. Held almost everything in common and gave everyone an equal say in the running of day to day affairs.

As the narrator knelt lovingly by Tobar nam buadh (the Spring of virtues) he spoke of the offerings that were once left to the spirits and fairies of the hills and the springs. How life was guided by the sun and the moon. How all work was done sunwise. How there were special festivities at midwinter and midsummer. How the people loved song and dance and story and games.

The Gael of St. Kilda had no arms or money yet had to pay rent to the Clann Mhic Leòid who owned lands on Harris and Skye. They paid this rent in gannet feathers which were subsequently sold to the British army to make pillows for soldiers. Thus these peaceful people were taxed to further colonial battles.

The narrator then went on to tell of the decline of the St. Kilda community. In 1822 the Church of Scotland sent a minister to bring religion to a people “who knew nothing of religion”. At first this mission brought benefits. New agricultural methods were introduced, better houses were built and a Gaelic Language school was set up for the children. Then the Free Church of Scotland sent their own minister, a religious zealot who began the downward spiral that would lead to the destruction of life on St. Kilda.

This religious man introduced compulsory three hour Sabbath Day services. All offerings to the spirits of the land were stopped. Song, dance and games were banned and the only stories told were from the Bible. In 1875 a visitor to St. Kilda described the Sabbath as, "A day of incredible gloom when all the Islanders hurry to church their eyes fixed to the grounds as it was regarded as a sin to look to left or right." Those who made any noise in the chapel were lectured at length and warned that they risked spending eternity in hell. Children were forbidden from playing any games and had to carry a bible with them wherever they went.

Religious duties began to take over valuable time that was needed for subsistence. A famine ensued and when a boat arrived with food on a Saturday it was not allowed to unload until the following Monday so as not to interfere with the Sabbath.

The new capitalism of the Victorian age brought tourist cruise ships to St. Kilda full of people who knew nothing of the Gaelic language or way of life. The islanders were viewed as curiosities and began to loose self-respect. Visitors brought influenza and infantile tetanus.

During the Great War of 1914 to 1918 the Royal Navy decided St. Kilda was of strategic importance as an ideal place to watch for ships in the North Atlantic. The Navy brought their own rules and the gradual introduction of money which made the islanders less self-reliant. In 1930 the Gael of St. Kilda asked to be re-patriated to Morvern on the Scottish Mainland.

Sarah is noted for her ‘Pro-Life’ views. I have never understood how someone who says they are pro-life can approve of hunting for sport, belong to the military and have little or no regard for the environment. But then Pro-Life and pro-life are in reality very different.

Anyway St. Kilda is a warning to us all. It reminds us how easily a people can be exploited by the rich and powerful. How easily a way of life totally in harmony with the natural environment can be destroyed. How dangerous are the men who are so sure they hold absolute truth that they deny a people access to their own traditions and all joy and pleasure on pain of eternal punishment.

But St. Kilda is not alone. History is full of stories of peoples whose joy, happiness and way of life have been severely limited by the power struggles of the religious, the military and the profit seekers. Politicians are not noted for their ability to learn from history and the experience of those on the edge of their world. Maybe the only question we ever need to ask anyone running for political office is, “How would you treat those whose language and culture you do not understand, those who live on the margins of your world?”

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Blogger Aquila ka Hecate said...

The story of the destructive ways of civilization, retold in the history of those islands -how fascinating.
How sad.
Terri in Joburg

Blogger Brian Charles said...

I am afraid, Paul, that we already know the answer to your questions. No she has never heard of St Kilda and I do not think that she would care.

Like you, I see a huge danger in the idea of absolute truth, particularly when this is a truth that holds that the true home of humanity is elsewhere. I previously posted a video - which has since been removed from youtube! - in which we see young members of Palin's fcrmer church singing, "This world has nothing for me, so I will follow You". Such thinking is truly scary!

Blogger Paul said...

Thank you for your comments Aquila and Brian.

I fear you are right Brian. I saw the video of Sarah being protected from witchcraft and her church does seem to be way off on a limb! I would say they are into destructive magic in a big way but they would never see this.

Blogger Andy said...

Thank you for this post, Paul. It seems to me that the celebration of diversity, in all its forms, is something that we are still a very, very long way from obtaining. We simply do not seem capable of learning the lessons of our own history. I do find this incredibly worrying.

Blogger Mary said...

Awesome post, Paul. Thank you. I'm as much looking forward to voting against McCain/Palin as I am voting for Obama/Biden.

I've tagged you on my blog today.

Blogger Lucy said...

Beautiful site! It is wonderful to have a place to come to learn so much and be exposed to such beauty and thoughtfulness.

Blogger Brian Charles said...

Hi Paul - like Mary, I have also tagged you on my blog

Hope to read more from you soon - no pressure :-)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just now discovered your blog and this post.

Awesome post.

I just read an article about St. Kilda the other day too. Hmmmmm.


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