In 1927 two young undergraduates from Cambridge spend the summer working on St Kilda, one is Fred Lawson and the other is his friend, and the laird’s son, Archie Macleod. During his time there Fred falls in love not only with the island, but with Chrissie, a young islander. Little does Fred know that only three years later this wild, isolated and beautiful island would need to be evacuated because, following yet another harsh winter when supply boats were unable to reach the island, all the islanders would be close to death from starvation. Although a misunderstanding meant that he lost contact with Chrissie after that summer, he never forgot either her or the summer he spent on the island and in 1940, when he is a prisoner of war behind enemy lines in France, his memories of that time, and of the woman he had loved and lost, become ever more vivid. Following a daring escape he faces a dangerous journey across occupied territory to reach a neutral country and freedom. The one thought which sustains him throughout all the hardships he faces is that he must find his way back to Chrissie, to find out if, after all these years apart, there is any possibility of a future together.
With the timeline switching between 1910-1930 on St Kilda, 1930-1940 on Morvern Peninsular on the west coast of Scotland, and 1940 in occupied France, and the narrative switching between the voices of Chrissie, her daughter Rachel Anne, and Fred, this is a compelling and beautifully written novel. The gradually unfolding love story which underpins Chrissie and Fred’s relationship feels both convincing and very poignant, but it is matched by a parallel love story, the one symbolising how the islanders felt about St Kilda and for a way of life which was so precious to them. In many ways this felt like paean not just to a wildly beautiful place, but also to the loss of a unique community.
The constantly changing timelines never felt confusing, instead they were used in an assured way to effectively weave the different strands of the story together, gradually adding depth to the developing storyline. I felt drawn into the unique way of life of the islanders of this remote community, with all the pride they took in the skills they had developed to endure the privations and challenges they faced, and with the powerful sense of community which had evolved in order to ensure mutual support. The landscapes of the islands and of war-torn France, were each very vividly and convincingly described. However, for me, it was the author’s evocative descriptions of the savage beauty and wildness of the storm-battered islands, the powerful ocean, the pounding waves against the steep sea cliffs and the vast colonies of noisy sea-birds nesting on them which felt the more powerful, making me feel that I was experiencing something of that wild beauty for myself.
Before I read this story I had always thought that St Kilda was the name of the inhabited island but, as I discovered, that’s the collective name for this archipelago and the name of the main island is Hirta. Although I was aware of the fact that the island had been evacuated in 1930, one of the things I enjoyed most about this story was how much I learnt about what led up to that momentous event, putting it into an historical and social context. I hadn’t realised how significant a part WWI had played in the gradual decline of the island’s population when, not only had the young men gone off to war but, with the archipelago being the most westerly islands of the UK, they had a vitally important military significance. As a result, the Royal Navy established a manned signal station on Hirta in the early years of the war and with this came not only more regular and reliable contact with the outside world for the islanders, but also more reliable access to essential supplies and the gradual establishment of a money-based economy. This slightly easier way of life during the war-time period probably undermined self-reliance to some degree, something compounded by the fact that many young men didn’t return to the island after the war; some had been killed but for those who did survive, returning to a life of hardship held little appeal. This growing realisation that they didn’t have to put up with living such a precarious existence then led to a steady exodus of young people from the island, with the population falling from seventy-three in 1920 to just thirty-six when, following successive crop failures and a particularly harsh winter, in August 1930 everyone on the island agreed to be evacuated to Morvern.
The author’s gradual revelations of the events which led up to this momentous event very effectively captured the islanders’ sense of despair about the loss of their unique way of life, which however unsustainable it had by then become, had nurtured them for generations and was all they knew. She also demonstrated how tourism, whilst providing a source of income for the islanders – from the sale of their homemade tweed and birds’ eggs – also did much to undermine their self-confidence, as the visitors, seeing their simple, unsophisticated way of life and the identical nature of their dress, portraying them as objects of derision and curiosity, almost as though they were exotic exhibits rather than fellow human beings. As a result of all these insights, she enabled me to empathise with the profound sadness of their loss, as well as their fears and anxieties about what the future held for them.
Days after finishing this deeply moving story, written with such a simple yet lyrical prose, I still feel haunted by it and cannot imagine anyone being able to read it without being similarly affected. This is the first of Elisabeth Gifford’s books I’ve read but, with writing of this quality, and her ability to create such unforgettable characters, I now want to read some of her earlier novels.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford
Corvus 9781786499714 hbk Mar 2020