St Kilda - Island of the Birdmen

This article is from 2009

Scaling the heights

The island of St Kilda is a magnet for ideas about history, society and nature. Carol Main talks to the key players in a multimedia opera which hammers home its grand themes

At 191 metres, there is no building in Scotland anywhere near as tall as Stac an Armin, the highest sea stack in Britain. Along with the slightly shorter Stac Lee, these wildly dramatic sea cliffs were among the hunting grounds for the birdmen of St Kilda. For thousands of years, barefoot and, latterly, wearing cloth caps and tweed jackets, they raided their rocky ledges and gullies for fulmar, gannets, puffins and their eggs in a desperate quest for food.

An isolated archipelago off to the west of the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda is a group of islands now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is the UK’s only dual World Heritage Site, a distinction earned for both its natural and cultural heritage. People lived here from prehistoric times, establishing their own culture and way of life, until 1930 when the last remaining 36 islanders left for the mainland. Telling the story of their life, their communities and the decline and depopulation of a society that is unique in the world, St Kilda, Island of the Birdmen, is an opera unlike any other.

For a start, its summer 2007 premiere took place in five European cities simultaneously, linked by live satellite connection to St Kilda and webcast on the BBC. And which other opera has ever had large-screen film footage of vertical dancers performing aerial ballet suspended from gigantic sea cliffs? The version being staged in Edinburgh is based on that originally seen in Belgium, directed then and now by Thierry Poquet. ‘I was in the south of France,’ he says, ‘and got a call to go to the island. Along with Norman Chalmers, who advised on the music, and Malcolm Maclean of Pròiseact nan Ealan – the Gaelic Arts Agency – we spent six days there, talking about St Kilda, about its stories, legends, whatever, and little by little we decided to focus on one main story. The opera would be about the birdmen.’

They also agreed that it should be told through musicians, actors, choirs, the aforementioned dancers and Gaelic singers in each of the five venues. Both contemporary and traditional music would be used, as well as the natural St Kildan sounds of sea, wind and birds. St Kilda is the result of ancient volcanic activity and it’s something that Poquet really feels. ‘The height of the mountains in a very small place is very powerful. The disproportion is huge. I’m not religious at all, but you can feel the strength of the earth. I think it’s a really sacred place.’

In the opera, which uses both Gaelic and English, the spiritual element is embodied in the role of Catriona, played by Lewis-born singer and actress, Alyth McCormack. ‘She is the spirit of the islands,’ she says , ‘the connection of past, present and future. She’s not real, she’s more a presence. Without being too airy-fairy about it, I find that sort of sense with Gaelic anyway.’ The opera’s other character is John. ‘He introduces the story,’ explains Poquet, ‘and is like an angel during the show.’ Although Catriona and John are the only two main named characters, the stage does not belong exclusively to them. There is ingenious use of film footage on huge screens, both archive and specially commissioned in high definition.

‘I went to St Kilda three times for filming,’ says Poquet. ‘The first time, the weather was very stormy and we had to hang on in Wick for two days. By boat from there, it took eight hours. We shot colour pictures of the elements – the sea, birds, mountains, clouds – and it’s mixed in with old footage from the early 1900s.’ On stage, there is also an ensemble of actors/singers, three acrobats, soloists and a choir, with a small instrumental ensemble in the pit below.

Much of the unconventionality of the production is in Poquet’s use of the space. ‘There are no curtains, it is all very open. We’re using the front of the light boxes, for instance, and actors and singers come through the audience. We are weaving together the different languages of music, theatre, dance and film. We want to reach people in their hearts and minds.’

For McCormack, the St Kilda opera is one of the best things she’s ever been involved with. ‘It is rewarding as a singer and as an actress. It’s a very moving piece, very emotional, and the amazing images that Thierry Poquet has created on stage let you understand what is happening and what’s going on. There is a fantastic moment when I am looking on from the wings and think to myself “oh my god, that is so beautiful”, and then have to think very quickly, “you’re going on now, Alyth!”’

McCormack grew up on a Hebridean island, never far from the sea, and although she hasn’t yet managed to get to St Kilda, she feels the power of it deep in her own psyche. ‘It was something I really missed when I went to music college in Glasgow, not so much when the sea is calm, but when it’s really wild.’ It’s not just the sea which is central to the opera, but the distance between people which is created by it. It’s a distance which gives rise to the sort of curiosity that intrigued the wider world about what St Kilda and the St Kildans were like, captured by the original filming of their traditional ways of life. ‘We’ve created the music to accompany these amazing old tapes,’ says McCormack. ‘The people were very shy, and you see the children running from the camera. It’s a bit like native American Indians thinking that having their picture taken meant that their souls would be taken away.’

The new music, composed by David P Graham and Jean-Paul Dessy, works in support of the Gaelic sung by McCormack. ‘The St Kildan songs are all original, with some of them imitative of birdsong that the people were surrounded by,’ she explains. ‘Another one is a love song, really more representative of love rather than specifically about people in love.’

Dating from around the 1830s, it was written by a woman, Mairi Morrison, who could not read nor write, but could express what she wanted to communicate through song. The oral tradition of such music not being written down, but passed on through singing it, meant that her song survived.

There is only one remaining human survivor from St Kilda, Norman Gillies, now in his 80s and living in Suffolk. ‘He was evacuated when he was five,’ says McCormack. ‘His mother dying in childbirth was the final reason for everyone leaving.’ Storms meant that she couldn’t get to the mainland to reach hospital in time. Realising that the situation was hopeless if anyone was seriously ill, the decision was made for everyone to leave their homes, and in August 1930 the boat took off with the young excited about the future and the old waving their beloved island goodbye. ‘The opera is also about the feelings that this must have evoked and what you do when a situation becomes difficult but you are emotionally tied,’ says McCormack. ‘Catriona is that sense of what’s gone, what’s there and what’s left behind.’

Originally conceived by a Frenchman, the St Kilda opera throws up all sorts of universal issues to do with tradition vying with globalisation, a loss of cultural diversity and migration of people in a modern world. As Poquet says, ‘it’s a strong story, it’s a strong place, but it’s also a small culture eradicated by a strong society.’ For audiences, McCormack hopes that there will be ‘a sense of magic and wonder of a place. There is something very, very special about St Kilda, and they will definitely get that.’

St Kilda, Island of the Birdmen, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 15–17 Aug, 8pm, £10–£30.