This is the third part of a series dedicated to everyday life on Saint Kilda. Today’s article is about an Hirta’s unique political organisation.
3- Freedom, cherished Freedom…
Now it is time to talk about a major component of life in the north of the world. History books speaks much of Athenian democracy as the origin of many principles which still guided our Western societies. Today many question the representativeness and legitimacy of elected politicians and there is a crisis of confidence in government managers. There is concern about the apparent limits of capitalist democracies, poisoned by abstention and a lack of dialogue between the different social strata. On the other hand, not much is offered in the way of alternatives and solutions. Did you know that, on Hirta, the community has been living in a sort of “pure democracy” (ignoring anyway women like in the Athenian democracy) with considerable simplicity?
How did the system work? Until the evacuation in 1930, the archipelago was effectively independent politically from the rest of the United Kingdom. In a very institutionalized Europe, this tiny archipelago survived, ruled by its own laws, in a manner approaching a primitive communism, a “utopian society”, anomalous in the wider political landscape.
In 1838, the English Georges Clayton Atkinson stayed in the island to observe the curious government in place on Hirta. Until then, he had never seen such a thing! Much of the time before the start of the day, the island men would meet in the unique street of Bàgh a Bhaile in order to decide together, the daily activities. During this meeting, they talked about the work done the day before and decided what came next. On this occasion, they formed working groups according to everyone’s wishes, sharing the tasks necessary for the group to survive. Some of them might hunt birds on the cliffs, others might maintain the cultivated lands and the livestock for each other. Women were usually expected to take care of home, children, and work the wool. They helped maintain the cultivated lands as well. Atkinson spoke of those meetings as “the daily Parliament of St Kilda”. However, we cannot compare it to a parliament because of its singular functionality.
This daily “parliament”, a gathering of adult men, was managed by no one in particular. Everyone has the right to speak. When one Hirta man speaks, other ones listen and discuss. There is no boss, no president, and no master of sessions. It is a real self-management in which all men are equal. According to Tom Steel, author of “The Life and Death of St Kilda”, ‘the discussions often lead to disagreements, but there is no confirmation in History that quarrels were so violent to cause a permanent split in the community.” Indeed, the need for conciliation, in order to live together on the island is essential. This is maybe the reason for success of the local political functioning which ultimately knows only its own laws. The continent and its institutions are far off and abstract.
Maybe this freedom made life sweeter on St Kilda. Maybe this freedom also engendered the deep attachment in the community for its island. Finally, maybe this freedom compelled them to stay, in a way that defies all logic, until one morning at the end of the summer 1930. Some freedoms had to be sacrificed. Another life, less difficult, less risky and more comfortable was about to come. Another life, certainly less breathless for Men whose dream is almost within reach. This is certainly why, some years after he left Hirta, Lachlan MacDonald, one of the last inhabitants and a child during the evacuation, said: “Life was beautiful on the island…”
To be continued…
Clément B., translation by Valérie G.