Traditions of a powerful ‘genius loci’ drew Jill Smith to an island in the near Atlantic, and a sense of presence
Living in the Hebrides, I have for decades been somewhat obsessed by the islands and stacks of St Kilda, which lie 40 miles to the W of Lewis and Harris. They come and go on the horizon, depending on the conditions of light and atmosphere, adding to their sense of mystery. Occasionally I can see the two misty triangles of Hirte and Boreray when I walk 3mls down my local road.
St Kilda is the rocky remnant of an ancient volcano, its high cliffs rising sheer from the deep, dark green water of the surrounding Atlantic; festooned with white guano from the resting seabirds. It seems likely that even thousands of years ago people island- and coast-hopped from Scandinavia via Orkney, along the north of Scotland and down the west of the Hebrides to Ireland and even further south – and vice versa. St Kilda may have been an oceanic ‘motorway service station’ conveniently situated en route. Archaeology is gradually pushing back the dates of habitation, though we do not yet know whether anciently there was continuous occupation or just occasional pockets of settlement.
We do know that in more recent centuries populations were wiped out and others moved in to replace them. One was destroyed by a smallpox epidemic in 1727 CE and repopulated by people from other parts of the Western isles. Many readers will know of the most recent peoples who hunted the numerous nesting seabirds by climbing down the sheer cliffs to gather birds and eggs from the nests. Nowadays this is regarded as an unusual way of life, but many Scottish communities with a similar environment would have lived thus. A remnant of this tradition is still carried out by the men of Ness on Lewis, who annually go out to the rocks of Sula Sgeir on a ‘guga hunt’. Guga are young gannets and the meat is much sought after by the community on their return.
However, one main reason for my own fascination with the place has been the legend of St Kilda’s Amazon warrior woman (Banaghaisgeach) or giantess. When Martin Martin visited in about 1695 and wrote his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, he met the population who were later to perish from smallpox, and it was they who told him of their Amazon.
Nowadays the increasing numbers of visitors mainly visit Village Bay, where several recent populations lived, their houses being restored by the National Trust, in whose care the archipelago is held. There are also military buildings constructed in the cold war as a missile-tracking station. This is still run by QinetiQ on behalf of the MoD.
But if you climb up and over the high ‘spine’ (Mullach Geal) of the main island you come to another deep glen of an entirely different character. This is Gleann na Banaghaisgeach or Glen of the Female Warrior – now more commonly known as Gleann Mor (Big Glen).
This glen is steep-sided, with a river running through the middle, down to the rocky cliff over the sea at Glen Bay. It is filled not only with lines of ‘cleits’ – the storage buildings the recent people used – but by many strange and ancient buildings found only on St Kilda. These resemble the ‘beehive’ houses of the Hebrides and are of a triple formation. In the front of each lie low curving walls which reach round like arms. When I once saw them from above in thick cloud they resembled crab-like underwater creatures on some alien planet. It is not known for sure whether these structures were the permanent houses of a more ancient population than those in Village Bay or whether they were always used as ‘sheiling houses’ for the summer pastures, as they were in more recent times. They are definitely medieval and some think they go back to the Bronze Age, with the possibility of older structures underneath. The ‘arms’ are thought by some to be later additions and used as ‘lamb folds’.
One of these structures is known as The Amazon’s House. We only know of the Amazon, her house, glen and river from the writing of Martin Martin. I know of no other source, but his is fascinating and frustrating, for he writes that there are many legends of this Amazon, but he won’t bother the reader with them. He describes the glen and river and that it is “call’d by the inhabitants the Female Warrior’s Glen: this Amazon is famous in their traditions”. He goes on to describe her house, which was then still used by the people, presumably at the sheilings. He describes a stone upon which “they say she ordinarily laid her helmet” and two stones “upon which she is reported to have lain her sword: she is said to have been much addicted to hunting, and that in her time all the space betwixt this isle and that of Harries was one continuous tract of dry land”. And “Tis also said of this warrior, that she let loose her greyhounds after the deer in St Kilda, making their course towards the opposite isles”.
It took me many years to find an affordable way to get to St Kilda, firstly on day trips and then twice for a few days camping (with the permission of the NT). My initial impression of the Glen was that of an overpowering atmosphere and the very definite presence of a Giantess filling the whole. I found being in that part of the island an even more extraordinary and breathtaking experience than the rest, incredibly awesome though the whole place is.
I had long known that the artist Keith Payne had visited St Kilda in 1983, when illustrating a book, The Road Through The Isles, which he was researching with the late John Sharkey. One summer evening, when walking along the high ridge above the Glen, he looked down as the setting sun was casting long shadows, and saw to his amazement that the house structures, the strange curving and straight walls which lie some seemingly purposelessly in the base of the glen, and the shadows highlighting otherwise insignificant rocks, formed the shape of a giant woman lying the length of the base of the glen. He made a delicate and detailed pencil drawing which does not appear in the book. For decades this drawing was lost, and it is impossible to see the figure when down in the glen itself and walking amidst the structures.
After the death of John Sharkey, when his belongings were being sorted, a sketch-book of Payne’s was discovered – and inside was the original drawing of the Amazon. He sent it to me and I returned to St Kilda last summer. Growing older, I don’t find climbing as easy as I once did – and everything on St Kilda is extremely steep! But I got to Gleann Mor and began to climb up the ‘other’ side to that which I normally descend, trying to locate the spot from which Payne had made his drawing. It seemed to me that he must have done it from the sky!
When I first stopped and turned to look down – there she was. She is real. There actually is the shape of a giant woman lying in the glen. She was very clear although I was seeing her from a much lower angle – but there was no doubt. This was earlier in the day than when Payne discovered her, so I did not see the long shadows, but she seemed to have her head thrown back. Her long straight arms (one is a stretch of scree) reach out at right angles to her body. The other, a low wall, balances the beautiful well of Tobar nam Buaidh (Well of Virtues). She has two distinct breasts with an Amazon-type house as each nipple and curving walls form her waist and hips. At her neck is an oval enclosure. Payne calls this her ‘breastplate’, but I wondered whether it might be a necklace or torc. There are 3 houses in a line as her hip bones and genitals, and a structure at her heart which Payne was deeply affected by and felt to be a communal burial place. The stones of her legs have gone, possibly ‘borrowed’ for building the lines of cleits nearby by later populations who may no longer have known that she was there. Where her feet would have been there is a small (disputed) stone circle on which she may have ‘stood’.
This is the physical manifestation of the Giantess, the Amazon whose life-force I had experienced so intensely. I was too exhausted to climb higher. The bright sun blotted out the images in my camera viewfinder and my photographs to do not show her as clearly as I saw her, but I do not feel any photograph can better Payne’s drawing. When you look, you see. I can assure you that she most definitely is there.
Was she constructed by some ancient population to represent the already existing legends and the atmosphere in the glen, or were the people positioning the houses and building the strange curving walls unknowingly laying out her figure?
Who was this Amazon? Was she some ancient goddess who roamed with her dogs hunting deer at a time when the seas were so low she could walk across to Harris? (The Ice Age?) Was she some ancient historical figure – a queen or warrior woman fighting for and protecting her people and now become an almost lost legend? Or was she an explanation for the powerful energy in the glen – the remnant of a landscape creation ancestress at the time of a British Dreamtime?
Do we want to know? I would not like to see her excavated by archaeologists who then deny her reality. For me it is enough to know she is there, lying – gazing up at the shifting skies and stars, in vicious weather parts of her body sheltering the wild Soay sheep, watching the gannets and fulmar and nowadays the swooping ‘Bonxies’ or Skua.
The drawing has been discovered. Let her lie in peace and be seen by a few visitors who, knowing, may climb above the glen and look down on her. She is there.
Harman, Mary. An Isle Called Hirte. Maclean Press 1997.
Martin, Martin. A Description of The Western Isles of Scotland Circa 1695. Birlinn 1994
Sharkey, John, and Payne, Keith. Road Through the Isles. Wildwood. 1988
Smith, Jill. Mother of the Isles. Dor Dama Press 2003 (now available from Jill)
Swire, Otta. The Outer Hebrides and Their Legends. Oliver and Boyd 1966
There are a great number of books about the most recent populations of St Kilda.
Published in NE151 (December 2017), pp.19-22