Robin Robertson journeyed to the bleak and unforgiving beauty of St Kilda to write poetry. But, inspired by the archipelago's folklore, and a collaboration with a musician, he instead rendered this strange place in song
We were entering our sixth hour at sea, sailing west into the Atlantic from the Outer Hebrides, when we finally saw St Kilda. I knew what to look for – a volcanic stone outcrop in the middle of the ocean – but I had no idea quite what to expect. The rocks rose out of the sea like Mordor: the black sea-towers of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin looming like sentry guards, and beyond them the main island, Hirta, its great peaks wreathed in banner-cloud. I'd read that St Kilda is so far out into the Atlantic it has its own weather: the storm systems roll across from Canada and catch here on the jagged heights of Conachair and Mullach Mòr like sheep's wool on a barbed-wire fence. Even from six or seven miles away the archipelago before us was a mountain range – rising over 1,400 feet and tearing up through the flat grey fabric of the sea.
St Kilda is the most remote part of the British Isles and one of the most extraordinary. Thought to have been inhabited for at least two thousand years, there are traces of Neolithic sites and of a Norse presence prior to the settlement by Gaelic-speaking Scots. That this place was inhabited at all is remarkable, given the unforgiving landscape and weather, its remoteness, and the great difficulty in ever being able to land there. The Atlantic swell is almost always heavy, and if the wind is blowing from the wrong direction (and almost every way is the wrong way around St Kilda) then no landfall can be made, and the boat must turn round and sail the unhappy six or seven hours back to the Sound of Harris. People did live here, though, among these inhospitable rocks, and the last 36 islanders were only evacuated in 1930. Before that, they and their forbears had survived for many hundreds of years. Their diet was not fish, as one might expect, as the seas are too treacherous; instead they subsisted on seabirds – gannets and fulmars mostly – which they caught and used for food, and much else. The meat was dried and stored and the eggs were eaten; their oil provided fuel for lamps, and their feathers were stored and sold to the infrequent visitors. Every part of the bird was used: the beaks became brooch-pins, the bones were fashioned into needles, the skins of gannets were turned into shoes. It is still hard to imagine that people in Britain were living like this only 83 years ago.
This was why we found ourselves in early August 2007 in a blizzard of seabirds drawing in – through the open mouth between Oiseval and Dùn – to anchorage in Village Bay. As our sea-legs steadied and we came ashore and started walking down the row of ruined, roofless blackhouses of the last settlement – the Street, as it was known – with the whitewashed manse and kirk and near-circular graveyard, all built perfectly from the gathered stone, we looked up and saw what seemed like a tidal wave rolling off the mountain down towards us, 1,100 feet below. The clouds that had capped the high peaks were now pouring down the slopes of Mullach Mòr like dry ice, and it was clear that this place was never going to be straightforward or comfortable, never going to stop looking like a painting by John Martin. After all, we were walking on the rim of a volcano that first erupted 50 million years ago, with the highest cliffs and sea stacks in Britain and a breeding ground for a quarter of the world's northern gannets and a major sanctuary for fulmars, puffins and petrels.
And so, after walking on Hirta, after circumnavigating the whole archipelago the next day, from Village Bay anticlockwise to Soay and round back to Dùn, then sailing the four miles north-east to the hunting grounds of Boreray and its outriders, Stac an Armin, Stack of the Warrior – nearly 650 feet of sheer-sided rock – and Stac Lee, with its huge gannet colony and its cacophony of screaming birds, it was time to leave. After this bewilderingly intense experience, filmic and immersive, we were heading away – back to a world that seemed suddenly mediocre.
I knew I had to write about St Kilda, but the poem that came was really just a list of place names – a litany of Scots and Gaelic and Norse, along with the common folk-names in English: Cleft of the Sea-Shepherd, the Brae of Weepings, the Plain of Spells, Landing Place of the Strangers, the Lobster Precipice, the Cave of Ruin, Skull Rock of the Fleeces. While naming is important in folk culture, and although it gave some sense of the scale of the place, and allowed for the sea-rhythms, the poem had lots of topography, but no real narrative. Given that part of my fascination with St Kilda stems from the people and their stories, their legends, I wanted to try something else, and started talking to my friend, the Scottish folk musician, Alasdair Roberts. Alasdair writes new songs that seem to be hundreds of years old, and sings songs that are hundreds of years old but sound as though they were written yesterday. He is such an interesting lyricist that he scarcely needs any help from me, but he also thrives on collaboration (with Drag City label-mates Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bill Callahan; with the late Jason Molina; with Isobel Campbell and Karine Polwart) and he and I had worked together before. We agreed that I would write the words and he would put them to music.
I wanted to address some of the most interesting aspects of St Kildan life: fowling for gannets and fulmars on sea cliffs with all the attendant perils, but also the islanders' belief in the old ways – the legends and superstitions, the folk remedies and music that were suppressed by the missionaries of the Church of Scotland. The last song – I knew – would be about the evacuation of 1930, when the islanders left their ancestral home, never to return: a candle burning in each window, the doors flung wide, and on each table of every house, the Bible, laid open on the first page of Exodus.
I'd forgotten how utterly different songs are from poems, and how complicated it is to make the transition from one form to the other. The kind of poetry I write is clotted and densely worked, and though I pay great attention to internal rhyming and rhythm I don't employ end-rhyme. Working on Hirta Songs I had to constantly remind myself that I wasn't trying to write a poem, I was trying to write lyrics – words that would only come alive when Alasdair put them to music.
As it turned out, the process was provocative and fascinating. I emailed the first draft to Alasdair in early 2011, and he started to find appropriate musical settings – beginning, wherever possible, with existing Gaelic melodies. The long process of fitting the words into the music felt like a kind of carpentry: close and careful work towards a neat dovetailing. As we edited my text for his singing voice we were recalibrating stresses, adjusting syllables, and – in so doing – coming up with better words or phrases. Often my instinct towards reticulated densities of sound and sense hobbled the song's progression – and Alasdair would diplomatically unpick the knot. After a few months of emails and phonecalls between London and Glasgow, and some rough demos through the post, we arrived at versions we were both happy with, and Alasdair moved to the next step: the gathering of the band.
The studio was in West Pilton, Edinburgh – Trainspotting territory – and Alasdair had asked some of his favourite musicians, friends he'd played with for years: Tom Crossley on drums and flute, Rafe Fitzpatrick on fiddle and Stevie Jones on upright bass – to be joined later by Corrina Hewat on harp and Robin Williamson, once of the Incredible String Band, on Hardanger fiddle. Song by song, the musicians started to feel their way into the music – and the words, miraculously, seemed to sit there, right at home. Over just two days of recording in this enclave of St Kilda in the middle of a busy city, Alasdair and his band had made a record that I think says something about a desolate outpost of our people – a place harrowed by wind and haunted by birds – and a way of life that is gone now forever.
We were standing in the drum time
when the pibroch's turning blade
caught the sunlight like a bright
on the waves of Boreray.