Communes don’t last !

I am often asked what is the oldest / longest surviving intentional community in Britain. Any answer begs the question what are we defining as an ‘intentional community’. For the Diggers & Dreamers directory we have always ducked the issue of having a predetermined definition of what does or does not constitute communal living, leaving it up to the people doing it to decide whether they think they are living communally or not. This has led to a wide variety of groups being listed from monastic communities through classic ‘big house’ communes to small urban communal houses, all of whom could clearly be described in some way as living communally. Other groups that have chosen to be listed become harder to pin down their communal raison d’etre, places such as Scoraig or the Balnakiel Craft Village which are more dispersed or ‘village’ like communities. I have always taken a broad church approach to coming to any definition and have personally happily used various interchangeable descriptions; commune, shared households, communal/utopian experiments, alternative/intentional community….. So back to the question of the oldest / longest surviving UK ‘communal set up’?

“If St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. No taxgatherer’s bill threatens on a church door-the game-laws reach not the gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds, and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe – and acknowledging the dominion of M’Leod, cares not who sways the British sceptre. Well may the pampered native of happy Hirt refuse to change his situation – his slumbers are late – his labours are light – his occupation his amusement. Government he has not – law he feels not – physic he wants not – politics he heeds not – money he sees not – of war he hears not. His state is his city, his city is his social circle-he has the liberty of his thoughts, his actions, and his kingdom and all the world are his equals. His climate is mild, and his island green, and the stranger who might corrupt him shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall it be sought ? ”  Lachlan Maclean 1838

The remotest inhabited place in the British Isles lies some110 miles west of the Scottish mainland, a small archipelago of islands known as St Kilda. On the north side of the main island, Hirta, are the remains of the tigh na banaghaisgich, ‘female warriors’ house’ or ‘Amazon’s house’. Descriptions of the house and St Kildian folklore has lead to speculation that these are the vestiges of an iron age matriarchal culture surviving through oral tradition. – first recorded by Martin Martin in 1698 in his detailed description of the island and it’s community.

Remains of 'Amazons house' Hirta, St Kilda
Remains of ‘Amazons house’ Hirta, St Kilda

On the islands, consisting of 1575 acres of Hirta, a further 244 acres on Soay & 79 acres on Dun, Martin found that the 180 islanders had developed a self-sufficient communal economy based on seabirds (meat, oil & eggs), Soay sheep, fishing, and small scale crofting. A form of primitive socialism prevailed on the island. All grazing land was held in common. All property on which they depended for their livelihood was held in common; including boats, climbing ropes and fowling gear. All the island’s produce of seabirds and fish was divided equally according to the number of households on the island, with provision made for the sick and elderly. And later gifts brought in by tourists, philanthropists and visitors were divided as equally as possible between the families.

The main settlement on the island, at village bay, was rebuilt in 1836-8. It consisted of 25 stone built cottages with barns & outbuildings in typical Hebridean style. The islands are also dotted with distinctive stone built/turf roofed cleits, or storehouses.

Decisions concerning all matters were made by an informal meeting that took place each weekday morning – known as the `St Kilda Parliament’ it consisted of all the adult males on the island. It had no rules, no chairman and ‘members’ arrived in there own time. Once assembled the ‘parliament’ would consider the work to be done that day.

 St Kilda Parliament
St Kilda Parliament

The islands’ schoolmaster in 1889 wrote that the parliament ‘very much resembles our Honourable British Parliament in being able to waste any amount of precious time over a very small matter while on the other hand they can pass a Bill before it is well introduced’.

The islanders had a thriving cultural life with their own music, dance, poetry and sports. Martin reported that they were `very fond of music, dancing to an old wretched fiddle with great delight. They were also good singers, and accompanied all their duties with suitable songs, generally of their own composition.’ Shinty was a favourite game & rock climbing was as much a sport as a skill needed for birding. Whilst some of their customs showed a possible early Christian influence – the beliefs of the islanders were seen as a mixture of ‘popery and druidism,’ prompting the Church of Scotland to send out a series of missionaries from 1705 onwards. Some of the missionaries had a beneficial effect on the island improving housing and living conditions. However in 1844 the islanders were won over to the doctrines of the Free Church and from 1863-1889 came under the severe rule of a Rev John Mackay whose adherence to a strict Christian doctrine played a large part in the eventual downfall of the island republic. Mackay’s autocratic rule undermined the traditions that had grown up on the island to such an extend that religious worship often left little time to carry out the essential tasks necessary for survival on the island. In the late 1800s the island economy was given a boost by becoming part of the Victorian cruise itinerary.

Tourists on St Kilda Still from 'Cruise to St Kilda and the Western Isles' 1929
Tourists on St Kilda 1929
Still from ‘Cruise to St Kilda and the Western Isles’

This introduction to the cash economy (the tourists bought tweeds, knitwear & sheepskins) further undermined the subsistence economy of the island and also led to emigration from the island to the mainland. As the cruise ships declined in the early 1900’s the islands dwindling population was supported by trawlermen fishing the seas around the island and from public funds.

On 10 May 1930, a petition was signed by 20 islanders `We the undersigned . . . hereby respectfully pray and petition Her [sic] Majesty’s Government to assist us all to leave the island this year and to find homes and occupation for us on the mainland.’ The evacuation took place on 29 August 1930. The Surgeon of HMS Harebell recorded the death of the community:

“…..all the houses were locked and the people taken on board. Shortly afterward they were looking their last at St Kilda as the Harebell, quickly increasing speed, left the island a blur on the horizon. Contrary to expectations they had been very cheerful throughout, though obviously very tired, but with the first actual separation came the first signs of emotion, and men, women and children wept unrestrainedly as the last farewells were said.” A. Pomfret

Islanders leaving St Kilda 1930
Islanders leaving St Kilda 1930

So ended the longest surviving ‘Communal Republic’ on British soil. Somewhat ironically many of these refugees from a treeless island found work with the Forestry Commission at Ardtornish in Morvern, where they found that their climbing skills were in demand to tend trees. The Islands were bought by the Marquis of Bute in 1931 to be preserved as a nature reserve. A small military station was set up there during WW2. The Island is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland.

St Kilda Island Republic . 1697(at least) – 1930 R.I.P.

“Who says communal living doesn’t last?”

Coda: Today St Kilda is a World Heritage Site – for more info see: http://www.kilda.org.uk/

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