Travellers’ narratives

25 Apr 2012 in Ian Stephen Blog

I phoned to make a bank transfer and the person on the other end was chatty, while the numbers were chuntering. Where exactly do you live? she asked. I described the Hebrides as being about 3 hours out, by ferry from the northwest mainland. Now that’s a long way from anywhere I’d know, she said. Maybe not, I said, we’re next-door neighbours of New York.

It depends on how you look at it. I’ve been reading from the many accounts of voyages to St Kilda. That’s a further 40 miles out from when you clear the Sound of Harris. But you do get the picture of a stable society and a viable one, by the standards of the time, until increased contact with the outside world and a dwindling population made evacuation inevitable. I also went to hear a very well-researched talk, arranged by the Islands Book Trust. Ian Parker ‘s findings can also be found summarized here and there are other links to the detailed documentation of recent excavations.


Observation of the archaeological evidence on Boreray (about 5 miles over ocean from Hirta) implies that there was a resident population here but further back than any recorded accounts can say. The evidence is in the lie of stones. There are terraced walls which must have held the soil in place on a south-facing slope. There are well-constructed shelters, nearly undergound, under the more recent layer of bothies and stores.

I’ve come to think that this objective evidence might be at least as reliable as some travellers’ accounts. There are reports of a stranding incident on Boreray in Martin Martin and in Kenneth MacAulay. There is further evidence in a list of repaired and wrecked boats that sounds like a secular litany. The number of stranded men varies between accounts. In one version, a securing rope parted and the boat was wrecked. In another, the boat which landed them was wrecked at Village Bay. In another, the men who landed the stranded group are struck down by the cholera epidemic which decimated the population of Hirta.

In all the stories, there is the necessity of finding a way of signaling between the two islands. I’ve looked to Boreray from Oiseval and Connachair and from the deep natural tunnel at Glen Bay. Last week I saw a projection which took the perspective of the research expedition camping on Boreray, looking back over to the higher ground of Hirta. It seems to me that this is the essence of the story, whatever version, whatever details. And it seems likely that there has been more than one stranding incident over the years.


This coming week (5th Feb) I’m visiting another archive – at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. So I took the chance to record a version of the stranding story for Isles FM. We have a regular broadcast slot now, on a Tuesday morning, while the residency runs. Up till now, discussion and stories and readings from library books have gone out live. But thanks to Donald Saunders, the regular slot can be continued.
I explained to Donald that, for me, this is a pibroch of a story. The mood and the pipes and the piper – the ambient temperature and humidity have all got to be in tune.

The narrative reminds me of another great story of survival, this one documented in scrupulous detail – Shackleton’s voyage in the converted lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Their own survival meant that the relief ship could return for the other stranded members of the expedition. As in the Boreray story, the men endure hardships but all survive. And there’s not many West of Scotland stories with an affirmative ending like that.

For more information about Ian visit his website at

© Ian Stephen, 2012