Quercus Books, London, UK, 2011
Quercus Books, London, UK, 2011

In part 2 of good reads for the festive season, my choice is Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg, which has faith, love and alienation as its themes. What a pleasure this dry-looking novel turned out to be; very gripping and thought-provoking in plot, characterization and setting, yet restrained and subtle in writing style. This book looks unglamorous, with a plain printed hard cover illustrated with an engraving of a sailing ship on rough seas. But on the front is a recommendation by Anne Enright, who wrote the lush and, frankly, eye-brow-raising The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002). And another by the also wonderful Andrew O’Hagan, who wrote the topsy-turvy and insightful The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010). So, with this high praise from noteworthy authors, and never having read Altenberg, I was intrigued.

Island of Wings

There was mention in the blurb on the back of the book of some haunting, or fearsome thing, on the island where the novel is set, the islands of St. Kilda, the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, as northern and as remote a place as you could find outside of the Arctic Circle. The reader finds out, not so much during the novel as towards the end, what the haunting is that drives the young evangelical minister from the Church of Scotland to the islands, and again, off the islands. What changes during his time there, and what does he and his wife achieve?

The Islands of St. Kilda in the 1830s

Location of St. Kilda (inside front cover of book)
Location of St. Kilda (inside front cover of book)

The novel is a fictionalization of the life of the actual Reverend Neil MacKenzie who arrived on St. Kilda’s Hirta Island as a missionary on 3 July 1830, to bring the handful of pagan heathens on the island back to the proper ways of the Church of Scotland. (Well, they weren’t actual heathens. They just weren’t particularly observant or church-going.) At that time, Britain was changing from the Georgian Period to the rule of Queen Victoria. It was a time of immense social change with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and social reform in areas such as the abolition of slavery, prison reform and social justice, and an evangelical revival.

After MacKenzie arrived in St. Kilda (the island was not named after a saint, by the way, it was probably a misnomer), Victorian England ruled the world, with colonies extending British technology, science, engineering, commerce and religion were taken to the most far-flung corners of the world, to bring British values and beliefs to the “primitive natives”.

MacKenzie was there at the behest of the Laird of St. Kilda, who owned the land, and the Church, which was his employer. In 1843, 13 years after he had arrived, the Church was split by what is now referred to as The Disruption of 1843. Four hundred and fifty evangelical ministers of the Church broke away, over the issue of the Church’s relationship with the State, to form the Free Church of Scotland.

The Church of Scotland had up till then claimed an inherent right to exercise independent spiritual jurisdiction over its own affairs. However, the right of “patronage”, the right of a wealthy patron to install a minister of his choice into a parish, (like MacKenzie had been) became a point of contention between those who held that this infringed on the spiritual independence of the church, and those who regarded it as a matter of property under the state’s jurisdiction.

In 1834, the Veto Act was passed in the Church, which gave parishioners the right to reject a minister nominated by their patron. On 18 May 1843, this was followed by The Disruption, when 121 ministers and 73 elders led by Dr David Welsh, the retiring Moderator, left the Church of Scotland General Assembly at the Church of St. Andrew in George Street, Edinburgh, to form the Free Church of Scotland. Those Ministers that stayed would continue as they were, those that left forfeited livings, manses and pulpits, and had, without the aid of the establishment, to found and finance a national Church from scratch. MacKenzie chose to stay, not having the courage to face making a living and starting afresh without the financial backing of the church. It was a critical and terrible choice that was forced on him.

(Read more about the people of St. Kilda here: Saint Kilda – Local Population Studies)

The MacKenzies on Herta

So, against this background of paternalism and moral high ground, the fresh young missionary and his new, pregnant wife, Lizzie, arrived on the island of Herta, with a mission to impose their beliefs on the natives, who, until then, had survived pretty well by themselves, other than starving through long bouts of violent storms. You may well ask why they lived there. But consider that this is the early 1800s. The Past, (as in The Go-Between by LP Hartley), is a foreign country. They do things differently there. (Poor LP Hartley, to be mainly famous for one opening line, though he was a prolific author and poet.)

MacKenzie goes from being an advisor, to a shepherd, to a tyrant with a god-complex, to a self-doubting, hallucinating wreck. Nothing much happens to him, at least nothing worse than what regularly happens to the islanders – starvation, drowning, freezing, attacks by pirates, and the regular, predictable deaths of their babies.  His is the terror of a man losing his belief in the justification of his cause. The neonatal deaths, are, first, a facet of the setting of the book. Soon it becomes a sub-theme.

Decades later these deaths were identified as possibly being caused by tetanus or lockjaw, due to the villagers putting infected or dirty oil from the fulmar seabirds of the island on the umbilical wounds of the babies. (The villagers used the seabird that massed on the islands for everything; food, fuel, clothes, shoes, bedding, medicine, etc.) While the first baby of the MacKenzies died, like those of the islanders, their other children did not, presumably because they were not treated in the same way as the villagers’ babies.

“Lizzie looked down at the end of the rope in her hands. It seemed to have been made of some kind of organic material knotted together. …’What is this?’ she asked in a hoarse whisper. ‘I thought the life lines that we shared would take me to them. Through this cord they were attached to me, each one of them, and when they were born I failed them. I wanted to be pulled back to them…’ Lizzie could not make out the rest of the sentence. She looked in horror at the dried umbilical cords in her hands. They had been preserved in oil and tied together, all six of them, into a rope that was about six feet long. What grief would drive a person to such madness?” (p. 284)

The infant deaths are an indicator of the separation between the islanders and the MacKenzies in terms of both lifestyle and beliefs. The MacKenzies briefly get involved with the villagers, followed by the death of their firstborn. They step back, retreat to their manse and their church, and keep well away, refusing to be dragged down to the villagers’ level of “barbarity”. Their other children live to grow up, while the villagers’ babies keep dying. Yet, the MacKenzies remain outsiders, and while Neil is repulsed by the islanders, Lizzie is not, though he forbids her from getting involved with them. Still, life on the island drags them closer and closer to their congregation, and exposes their weaknesses as individuals and as a couple.

Writing style

You might think this is all historical fact and would be pretty boring stuff to read, but Altenberg’s depictions of the islands, and the immutable contrasts between the MacKenzies and the islanders, and the slowly, subtly shifting feelings of Neil and Lizzie are finely observed and captivating. They drove me to find out more about an island group that I didn’t even know existed.

Lizzie:

“She remembered the young man she loved all those years ago: the man whom her young self adored; the firm body that would arouse her; the eyes that aspired to know her. How she loved him then; she would follow him anywhere. He seemed to walk ahead of her, opening all the doors and letting in the light. She had followed him here, to this life. Did I follow the man or the love? She asked herself as she rubbed his damp limbs. Now she stroked his sagging muscles and coarse skin, hot and humid. For all the old love she stroked it – wanting it to go cool and dry again. The body she had once loved. His grey hair. Remembering the strong thighs and narrow hips…He dreams of birds. Of wings and noise and air. White wings batting the air. The noise! Island of wings. He hears a curlew’s call. Or is it a man laughing? And then another dream; somebody is pulling him underwater. “ (pp. 292, 293)

Neil:

“Looking at her he felt lost and betrayed. She had lost her firm body and there was something dusty about her. Had he brought her to this? He tried to remember her as she had been when they were first married – but it was impossible. But still he knew; he knew that she had been beautiful and that he had been able to love. That she alone had made it possible for him to love.” (p. 295)

The terror of St. Kilda

The terror that stalks MacKenzie (referred to in the blurb) is not the weather or the poverty or the increasing alienation from his wife, or even confronting his cowardice. It is the growing realization that he cannot force his beliefs on others, that what he is doing is futile, that the islanders will not change and that he would have wasted his life and achieved nothing.

“‘I have watched them as closely as a scientist looks at insects under a glass. I have been able to touch them, to heal them, to encourage them, to instruct them – but still I do not understand them.’ She made a sound that might have been a sigh. ‘You have kept yourself aloof and apart from them. You saw them as a problem that needed to be solved. But they were never the problem.’ He shook his head but she was not sure he was listening. She had suddenly had enough of him and his self-pity. There was intensity and some of the old spirit in her voice as she said, ‘The only way we can come to understand other beings is by tainting them with a bit of ourselves. When we are all covered by the same filth it is possible to understand each other – and to believe in each other.’” (p.296)

MacKenzie had wanted to reform the islanders to his beliefs and his world view. The islanders wanted simply to continue as they always had, which allowed them to survive. He had assumed his way was best, his church was right. In the end, his church split, and he found out there are many beliefs, old and new, on the island. How it ends for the couple, you have to read for yourself.

The last people living on St. Kilda

The St. Kildans outside their cottages in 1886. (Image is property of the National Trust for Scotland)
The St. Kildans outside their cottages, sitting in the village street in 1886. (Public domain image is property of the National Trust for Scotland.)

The real MacKenzie left St. Kilda in 1844, and although he had achieved a great deal in terms of agriculture and infrastructure, the weakness of the St. Kildans’ dependence on external authority was exposed in 1865 with the arrival of Rev. John Mackay. Despite their fondness for Mackenzie, who stayed in the Church of Scotland, the St. Kildans came out in favour of the new Free Church formed during The Disruption. So they just did what they wanted, in any case. And they were not half as uninformed or illiterate as MacKenzie had thought they were.

The same street in St Kilda in 1988, showing the restored cottages. (Philippe Giabbanelli)
The same street in St Kilda in 1988, showing the restored cottages. (Photo uploaded to Wikipedia by Philippe Giabbanelli.)

 

St. Kilda may have been permanently inhabited for at least two millennia, the population probably never exceeding 180 (and certainly no more than 100 after 1851). The entire remaining population was evacuated from Hirta (the only inhabited island) in 1930. Currently, the only year-round residents are military personnel; a variety of conservation workers, volunteers and scientists spend time there in the summer months. (More about St. Kilda here.)

The evacuation in 1930, which was the last departure of the St. Kildans from their islands, is described like this:

“On 29 August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were removed to Morvern on the Scottish mainland at their own request. The morning of the evacuation promised a perfect day. The sun rose out of a calm and sparkling sea and warmed the impassive cliffs of Oiseval. The sky was hopelessly blue and the sight of Hirta, green and pleasant as the island of so many careless dreams, made parting all the more difficult. Observing tradition the islanders left an open Bible and a small pile of oats in each house, locked all the doors and at 7 am boarded the Harebell. Although exhausted by the strain and hard work of the last few days, they were reported to have stayed cheerful throughout the operation. But as the long antler of Dun fell back onto the horizon and the familiar outline of the island grew faint, the severing of an ancient tie became a reality and the St Kildans gave way to tears. (From: Charles MacLean, Island On the Edge of the World: The Story of St Kilda, Canongate Books, first published 1972, p. 158)

Altenberg’s description of the MacKenzies departing St. Kilda is ever sadder, and well worth getting to.

Makes you think; after all the ministers, missionaries, lairds, and governors and high-falutin’ society types had come and gone, all that was left were the St. Kildans, and the islands in their harsh glory and godforsaken beauty. Nothing had changed, really. Today, the little restored stone cottages, built by MacKenzie and the islanders as an alternative to their “primitive” thick-walled communal huts, still stand empty, buffeted by the wind.

Theme of the novel

Perhaps this is not what Altenberg wanted readers to get out of the novel. Perhaps the novel is simply is a reflection of those times, and an accurate and fascinating one at that. At the same time, every work of fiction, like a poem, establishes an unspoken liaison between reader and author. The author puts it out there. The reader may interpret it any way they like. The connection, the shared experience, is the reward.

This is what I got out of Island of Wings: For a moment, I was there, on the wind-swept, bird-filled St. Kilda islands, glad that I have never had the inclination to convert anyone to anything.


About the author

karin altenberg

Karin Altenberg was born in Sweden and moved to Britain to study in 1996. She holds a PhD in Archaeology and is currently senior advisor to the Swedish National Heritage Board and a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Her first novel, Island of Wings, was shortlisted for the Scottish Book of the Year Award and longlisted for the Orange prize for fiction. Breaking Light, her latest novel, was published by Quercus in July 2014. Breaking light “I believe that the actual setting a writer chooses for a narrative is related to where your sensibilities lie. I have been tuned to – and have closely observed – the outdoors since I was a child. Other writers may be more aware of architecture, interiors or urban landscapes…Fiction is not reportage but an act of the imagination; it is drawn from memory and deep concentration, digested, in my case, alone and indoors. I spent time on Dartmoor and the island of St Kilda, the landscapes where my two novels are set, before I wrote a word of fiction, but I didn’t feel the need to revisit them while I was writing. The strange, evocative nature of the actual places and their historical significance had lodged in my mind and were crucial to the purpose of my narrative.” (Karin Altenberg, Thu, Mar. 24, 2015) . Read more of this interview with Altenberg in The Irish Times here.