Will Self on Charles Maclean's St Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World

St Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World

Charles Maclean <em>Canongate, £5.99 pbk</em>

ISBN 086

I first read this book in Viera Lodge, the house of my friend Christopher Bowerbank, on the island of Rousay in the Orkneys. It was Easter 1992, and the islands were attracting some unwelcome notoriety as the result of accusations of Satanic ritual abuse involving children from South Ronaldsay. We had driven up from the south, through the Scottish Highlands, then taken the ferry from Scrabster across the stormy Pentland Firth, rounding the magnificent sea cliffs of Hoy, before landing at Stromness in the relative calm of Scapa Flow.

I didn't find the Orkneys at all to my taste. The islands were bare shading to stark, the vernacular architecture seemed austere to the point of brutality, the wind blew ceaselessly, and the Lodge - a very old house - let it in. We toured the megalithic tombs on Rousay, the plethora of which has led archaeologists to dub this seven-by-three-mile teardrop of turf and rock, adrift in the margins of the North Atlantic and the North Sea, "Little Egypt". I could appreciate the singular atmosphere of the great chambered tomb at Midhowe, but it didn't make me want to linger. When, after a week, we rolled south once more, I had no thoughts of returning.

However, in retrospect, two things I did during that week in Orkney laid the seed which, over the subsequent years, germinated a revolution in the way I viewed Britain and my work as a writer. The first was that I began my debut novel at Viera Lodge. It wasn't that I found it a particularly conducive place to write, more that I was simply driven to do so (but writers are, in my experience, creatures of superstition and magical thinking); and when, a year later, my marriage broke down and I needed somewhere remote to recuperate and work, the house near the end of Britain seemed ideal. In the past seven years, I have ended up writing a good proportion of my books in that house; and if London, with all its teeming urbanity, has often seemed to play the part of my muse, only in the slightly spooky solitude of Viera Lodge has she been prepared to dally with me awhile.

The second thing I did that week was to read Charles Maclean's St Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World (Canongate), an account of the life and death of the remote Hebridean society of St Kilda. Maclean's book is by no means the only one to have been written about this strange community, which, for more than 600 years, survived almost entirely unknown on the outermost extremity of Britain. But it is a good one, it's the one I read first, and it's a book I must have reread at least every year since. Maclean's vision of St Kilda as our own prelapsarian preserve of noble savages (in the 19th century, steamer trips to the island were advertised with "Come and See Britain's Modern Primitives") chimed with my own sense of fictional possibility. I was embarked on a project that involved the construction of alternative worlds that both mirrored and refracted the reality of our own, and in St Kilda I found a real-life version of one of my own fictions.

The St Kilda that Maclean describes is a tiny world, which never numbered much above 200 inhabitants. They spoke their own dialect of Gaelic littered with Norse archaisms. They lived off the fruits of the island, most notably the teeming seabirds - puffins, fulmars and gannets - that nest in the 1,000ft-high sea cliffs that fall away from the backless hills of Hirta, the main island in this tiny archipelago. Indeed, to be a good cragsman was the acme of any male St Kildan; and to prove himself worthy of a woman's hand in marriage, he would have to perform a dangerous rite that involved balancing on the edge of a cliff face. Maclean's book abounds with descriptions of the odd harvesting of seabirds, every part of which was used locally or exported to the mainland - their oil for heat, light and medicinal purposes, their feathers for mattresses, their carcasses for food. The St Kildans even made primitive shoes out of the necks of gannets. And the demise of the community was also intimately bound up with the birds. The economy collapsed when the oil was no longer in demand, and Maclean hypothesises - with some evidence - that it may have been an ancient pagan ritual, whereby the navels of newborn babies were anointed with fulmar oil, that led to a devastating infant mortality rate in the late 19th century and the eventual depopulation of the island. The last St Kildans were evacuated in 1930.

With its own communistic political system centred on the "Mod", or parliament, which determined work according to each family's abilities and divided up the resources according to their needs, its own literature and mythology (necessarily oral because the islanders were illiterate until the 20th century) and its own unique subspecies of wren and mouse (Maclean even suggests that the St Kildan men were adapted for climbing with prehensile toes), the island was truly a world unto itself. It was reported by one earlier chronicler that when a boatload of St Kildans went to visit their laird, McLeod, on Skye, they all spoke in unison. Maclean doesn't suggest that St Kilda was a paradise; life on the island was harsh and uncompromising. Nor does he cling on to any illusions that its fate could have been avoided. None the less, he does paint a chilling and pathetic picture of the depredations that came with civilisation in the 19th century, particularly in the form of a virulent strain of Presbyterianism and boatload after boatload of gawping tourists.

What the St Kildan story, as told by Maclean, did for me was to reawaken my awe at the strangeness of our world. Here, on our very doorstep, was a veritable singularity of human society, an expression of the limitless potential of humans to adapt to their environment and circumstances. In contemporary society, it is all too frequently the case that creative writers not so much dumb down as reduce their imaginations by the lowest common denominator of human behaviour. St Kilda stands as a reminder that, while we may be social animals, we don't have to be social insects.

But Maclean's book also worked another transformation on me. With St Kilda as an ultimate outlier, I began to reorient my conception of the British Isles. A winter spent living in Orkney completed this literal revolution. Viewed from the north, Edinburgh became an immense southern city, London a near-equatorial Babylon. I may spend most of my time bounded by concrete, brick and steel, but there remains a part of me - the ultimately sceptical, anthropological observer of it all - that is for ever marooned in the North Atlantic, peering curiously at this unhappy antheap of mass human society.

Will Self's How the Dead Live (Bloomsbury, £15.99) has been shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year award