Friday, September 02, 2016

St. Kilda memory

 From the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are familiar with the work of anthropologists who have studied the life-styles of pre-capitalist societies and shown that human beings have not always been competitive, money conscious owners and non-owners; but their examples have usually been regarded as rather exotic—Amazonian Indians, Polynesians and the like. It was all the more interesting, therefore, to see in the Guardian(July 25) an article written in commemoration of the evacuation a mere 50 years ago of the last inhabitants of the island of St Kilda in the Hebrides.

It is fascinating to read remarks about these people (some of whom are still alive in England) that recall very similar observations about savage tribes. We read, for example, that for hundreds of years the islanders existed without the use of money, something that seems to baffle those workers who imagine that apes made money their first priority as soon as they got down from the trees. “There was virtually no crime and no policeman ever landed on their shores.” The island was owned by the McLeods of Skye. “All work to pay the rent (in kind) was done communally as was the sharing out of the sea-bird harvest which was divided according to need.” “Every member of the community relied on the others for survival and notions of individual payment were strange to them. Sheep, a secondary source of wealth, were owned individually but if one man lost some, the others would make up his losses.”

The island was bleak and windswept (still is) but there is no evidence from 17th and 18th century accounts that “the islanders were wretched or dissatisfied. On the contrary, authors wrote of “the relish and gaiety with which they went about their work and of their great love for poetry, music, dancing and other jollity”. But the outside world of capitalism could not leave St. Kilda alone. “The ministers and missionaries proved a decisive influence, mostly for the bad . . .  their poetry and music, banned by the ministers, died out . . . A community, which had been a weather-beaten anachronism for a millenium and flourished with it — declined and died.”

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