I confess I’d always thought St Kilda was an island but, as I learned from the book (and from the maps that form the gorgeous endpapers), it is in fact a group of islands. Hirta is the main island and the only one inhabited in 1927, when part of the book is set.
I loved the descriptions of Hirta and the details of the islanders’ life – “a daily struggle against nature”. (I wasn’t so sure about the island cuisine – ‘boiled oats with a salted puffin for flavour’ anyone?) I vaguely knew about the evacuation of the islanders but nothing of their history before that or the hardship of life there battling illness, cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time by storms, and living a hand to mouth existence from farming and the hunting of seabirds involving perilous climbs along cliff ledges. The sense of isolation is overwhelming.
Moving between different timelines and points of view, each strand of the story – Chrissie’s life on Hirta and Fred’s wartime experiences – would be enthralling enough in their own right. Woven together by the skilful hands of the author (much like a bolt of St Kildan tweed) they are simply wonderful.
Storytelling is a major element of the book, reflecting the oral tradition of passing down tales from generation to generation; tales linked to the landscape, the sea and the weather. Chrissie gradually recounts her own story of growing up on Hirta and her childhood friendship with laird’s son, Archie. Although used to being an object of fascination for summer visitors to the island, the St Kildans cannot know the chain of events that will be set in train by the return to the island of Archie and his friend, Fred, years later.
Fred develops an interest in recording the islanders’ stories and, through his study of geology, in telling the story of the island, created by a volcanic eruption. As time goes by, that’s not Fred’s only interest. Memories of his time on the island, and of Chrissie, will come to be a beacon of light in times of darkness and danger, giving him the courage and energy to battle on.
The Lost Lights of St Kilda is wonderfully romantic without being sentimental and a beautifully crafted depiction of a (now lost) community and way of life. It’s a story of love, betrayal, endurance and faith. “For what is faith but the sure hope of things that will come but are not yet seen.”
Cathy Johnson 5* (not recommended as a group read)
The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford
9781786499714 Atlantic Books Corvus Hardcover March 2020