The story of St. Kilda is a fascinating one of human endurance and survival in the most unpromising of settings. The most westerly point of the Outer Hebrides, the islands are a remote outpost in the North Atlantic, 40 miles west-northwest of North Uist and 100 miles from the Scottish mainland. The forbidding cliffs, however, can be seen from as far away as the mountains tops of Skye and offer an ideal habitat for vast colonies of seabirds to nest and breed. The archipelago are regularly buffeted by strong winds, with high rainfall and humidity, but little snow, despite very cool average temperatures all year round. A strong sea swell makes navigation around the islands difficult, so the seabirds and a small population of ancient sheep stock that were the main food sources on the islands, the biggest of which, is Hirta.
Despite all of this the islands show evidence of being inhabited for more than two millennia and although the population has always been small, the last permanent residents were eventually evacuated as late as 1930. By then their numbers had dwindled and their story, unquestionably a sad one, saw religion and tourism decimate a traditional way of life, through misplaced zeal and unwittingly introduced diseases. The conflict of WW1 also played a hand in the saga and significantly, there is only a military base that can now boast a permanent population.
But the islands attract both archaeologists and conservators and are one of Scotland’s five world heritage sights. Small teams of volunteers take up residence in the summer to restore some of what the last population left behind. Amongst those in recent years were Karin Altenberg most significantly for us her partner, the poet Robin Robertson. It led to a novel from the former, but now Robin has also turned his experiences into an outstanding collaboration with Alasdair Roberts for the CD and vinyl LP Hirta Songs.
As Robin explains, “I travelled to St Kilda with my partner, Karin Altenberg. She has a doctorate in archaeology and heard about relatively recent excavations on the archipelago, which prompted her initial interest. She had done a lot of research, particularly into the Church of Scotland minister, Neil MacKenzie, and his young wife Lizzie, who were sent to the islands in the 1830s, and had decided to try and write a novel based on their story.
“Being an archaeologist, she needed first-hand experience of St Kilda, so we decided to spend a fortnight in the Outer Hebrides and to book a passage with Tim Pickering, on his boat 58 Degrees North, due to sail west from the Sound of Harris in early August 2007.
“That trip was an incredible – and very productive – experience for both of us. She wrote Island of Wings, a novel that was published in the UK, America and Canada and was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and I wrote a long poem Leaving St Kilda and then, years later, the words to these Hirta Songs.”
Alasdair is an artist who seems to relish collaboration and has previously worked with Robin, as he told me, “I felt that Robin and I could work well together – as we had done once before a few years ago, when we wrote just one song collaboratively for Chemikal Underground’s Ballads Of The Book project, which teamed various Scottish writers with various Scottish musicians.” They seem to enjoy a natural kinship formed through a shared interest in their national heritage and an equal desire to use that in pursuit of new artistic expression. Hirta Songs is all of that and more.
It’s worth spending a little time looking at the story of St. Kilda and even Alasdair admits that he has learnt a deal more since embarking on this project, but the songs and poetry do a great job of getting to the heart of the human history of the islands, whilst also offering a sense of the drama and the challenges of their imposing geography. At the heart of the record is a kind of mystic invocation of a forgotten life filled with simple needs and desires. There are superstitions in The White Handled Knife, the use of herbs and natural plants for medicine in Plain Of Spells, memories of a lifestyle suppressed by the church in The Drum Time and even the mythical promise of the Well Of Youth, delivered here as a short and poignant spoken poem. But there are also the birds and the need for food that they satisfy in A Fall Of Sleet or the tragedy of when the hunt goes wrong in Farwell To The Fowler. Then of course there is the final fate of the islanders and Exodus.
Balancing these human concerns is the dramatic long poem, read by Robin, his Leaving Of St. Kilda. This too has a mystical quality, almost like a litany in supplication to dramatic volcanic rocks thrust by incredible forces through the broiling ocean. It’s a dramatic piece made strangely beautiful by the improvised harp from Corrina Hewat, which somehow seems to invoke the jagged rock, churning sea and freewheeling birds in the magnificent remoteness that Robin describes.
Also featured on the album are Tom Crossley who adds his personal touch to the drums and flute, while also adding his voice. The bass is handled by Stevie Jones and another regular collaborator Rafe Fitzpatrick contributes fiddle. The surprise guest is Robin Williamson, as although Alasdair has long harboured a desire to play with the legendary ISB man, this is the first time it has come to fruition. He plays the hardanger fiddle to two tracks. It’s an instrument with a unique sound as Alasdiar confirms, “Robertson had previously expressed an interest in having some hardanger fiddling on this session – as something capable of conjuring a sound which is somehow perhaps slightly similar to the drone and skirl of the Highland bagpipes, yet more capable of being easily integrated into the musical setting with which we were working… and also something which echoes the Norse history and connections of the islands of St Kilda.”
Alasdair naturally bring his distinctive vocal and guitar style to the album. The trick in the writing has need to use Gaelic tunes and melodies. Although he admits to not being a native speaker bar a few choice phrases, the language of music is far easier to translate, but it also feels the right way to tell the stories here. There are also two tunes, Tuireadh Nan Hiortach and Laoidh Fhionnlaigh Oig, both featuring Corrina and each possessed of an evocative melancholy.
It all adds up to a wonderful record that does the job of building up the unique setting for its story, an album that very specifically has its place. The skill is the way that the songs and robin’s poems and lyrics create a mental landscape that is all but tangible. This may be one of Alasdair’s boldest collaborations and may well also be one of his best. Find out what the man himself thinks as we have a full and extensive interview in the bag and ready to bring you at the end of the week.
Review by: Simon Holland
Farewell To The Fowler