One of the last surviving native inhabitants of St Kilda;
Born: May 22, 1925; Died: September 29, 2013.
NORMAN John Gillies, who has died after a heart attack aged 88, was one of the last two surviving native inhabitants of St Kilda, Britain's remotest group of islands more than 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides.
He was only five when he was rowed from St Kilda's main island, Hirta, to the Royal Navy vessel HMS Harebell on August 29, 1930, in the final evacuation of islands that had been occupied by humans for centuries, possibly even several millennia.
For the rest of his life, mostly in a village in Suffolk in a house he called St Kilda, Mr Gillies (he was always known as Norman John) remembered that fateful day. "There were 36 St Kildans in all, the last ever to live there. Although I was only five, I remember the older ladies, including my grandmother, standing at the stern of the Harebell, in their shawls, waving at St Kilda until it was out of sight."
His father John was also on board, but not his mother Mary. She had died in Glasgow's Stobhill hospital just three months earlier, and her new-born daughter 13 days after her mother. It was a tragedy for the islands' close-knit population that became a catalyst for the final evacuation.
"My most precious memory was seeing my mother with her shawl round her head, standing on the dyke outside Number 10, near our home, Number 15, on the only street in our only village, calling out to me "Tormod Iain (Gaelic for Norman John), come home for dinner! I also remember being on my grandmother's back, wrapped in her shawl, as she came home from milking our cow.
"My saddest memory was standing in the same place, in the Village Bay on February 15, 1930, with my grandmother, watching and waving to my mother who was in a rowing boat on the long voyage, via bigger boats, to the mainland. She was waving back to us for as long as we could see. When the weather cleared, our lighthouse ship took her to Stranraer, where she was put on a train to Glasgow and taken to Stobhill hospital and died in May."
The fact that it took Mary Gillies two weeks to get a boat off the island, when she was not only pregnant with Mr Gillies's ill-fated sister but also had appendicitis, brought home to the islanders their isolation. When the news of her death and that of her daughter got back to St Kilda, the remaining islanders got together in their local "parliament" - a croft on their only street - to decide whether staying was still feasible. While the older folks wanted to cling to their heritage, the younger ones, including Norman John's father, held sway and a majority agreed to petition the UK government to get them off the island.
Although far from Wall Street and the crash of 1929, St Kilda was suffering its own recession in the latter years of the 1920s, with shortages of crops and staple foods, notably the seabirds - fulmars, guillemots, gannets or puffins - the menfolk used to catch on the high cliffs of the three islands, often at great danger. "When the men got a big catch, they always distributed it first to the needy, widows, the ill, and then to every other household," Mr Gillies recalled.
"After the shock of my mother's death, evacuation became seen as an opportunity for a better life. There was a wireless station run by people from the mainland and they used to say: 'why are you working like slaves, for nothing [everything on the islands was usually paid by barter - sheep, wool, milk, weavings]. Why don't you go to Glasgow, work only eight-to-five and get paid real money?' they said. For the older ones, though, like my grandmother, it was a wrench, like cutting off their right hand."
Despite his young age, Mr Gillies recalled disembarking from the Glasgow-built HMS Harebell on the mainland at Lochaline in the Morvern area of the Highlands. "There were crowds on the pier like you'd never seen. They'd gathered to see these strange inhabitants. For me, it was the first time I'd seen a motor car. It was the first time I'd even seen a tree!" he recalled.
After living in Morvern, he joined the Royal Navy in 1943, aged 18, and served on motor torpedo boats, out of Felixstowe, until the end of the war. It was at a church service in a village near Felixstowe that he met his future wife, Ivy, and they settled in Suffolk after the war, latterly in the village of Chelmondiston near Ipswich, naming their house St Kilda with a big plaque to show it.
In recent years, Mr Gillies returned to St. Kilda several times, including on behalf of the National Trust of Scotland, which now owns the islands, to help renovate the old stone houses where he and his neighbours - mostly with the surnames Gillies or MacKinnon - used to live. Several environmental groups are seeking to preserve the houses and a boat service from Skye, a four-hour sail each-way, started two months ago to help them, and curious tourists, get to what are sometimes termed "the islands at the edge of the world."
The islands are now a dual Unesco World Heritage Site - needless to say for their cultural history and birdlife rather than for the UK Ministry of Defence base which tracks test rockets and missiles fired across the Hebrides.
Norman John Gillies died in a hospital in Cambridge. He is survived by his wife Ivy, a son and two daughters. The last surviving native St Kildan is now believed to be 91-year-old Rachel Johnson (née Gillies and a distant relative of Norman John), who was eight during the evacuation.
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