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Submitted by Nicky Smith

A rock and a hard place
Juliet Clough treads in the ghostly footsteps of an exiled people
The Observer Sunday November 14, 1999

Mid-morning on a fine September day: Main Street stands deserted. Thistledown and hanks of wool blow through cottage doorways open to a brisk Atlantic gale. In No 14, Flora Gillies's, an iron bar hangs over the hearth, ready for a kettle that will never boil again.

The neatly made beds in No 4 will be occupied by strangers whose business it is to preserve the relics of a community denied a future. Our own voices, full of questions, sound thin and irrelevant against a silence full of wind and herring gulls. Today, no visitor can walk down St Kilda's only street without feeling something of the guilt of a society that failed to protect this, one of its furthest-flung outposts, from extinction.

On 29 August 1930, Widow Gillies and her two young daughters, together with the 33 other remaining St Kildans, boarded the Fishery Protection vessel HMS Harebell for the Scottish mainland, abandoning their island to the seabirds. They left their 11 cottages, each with its turf fire banked up and a Bible on the table, one of them open at the Book of Exodus.

Behind them lay a pre-industrial way of life sustained for thousands of years; ahead, a twentieth century for which most of the islanders - speakers of an archaic Gaelic, who had never worked for wages - were singularly ill-equipped.

Britain's ultima Thule lies 50 stormy miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Unless you are a particularly intrepid yachtsman or a National Trust for Scotland work group volunteer, this is a tough place to reach. I have struck lucky, invited to join a helicopter carrying Army and National Trust for Scotland top brass on a day's jolly. I am not alone in having longed to visit this haunted place, Scotland's first World Heritage Site and capital of poignancy and loss.

Two seconds ashore are enough to blow sentimentality far across the Atlantic. The chopper, coasting over the gothic pinnacles of Britain's highest sea stacks, deposits us on a beach with a view, in one direction anyway, of unrelieved concrete. Since 1957, when the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust for Scotland arrived neck and neck on Hirta, the archipelago's main island, one end of the village has been engulfed in Nissen grey.

The armed services came to build a missile tracking station, the National Trust for Scotland to preserve human settlements threatened with demolition. The stores, the generator, the mess and the PuffInn dwarf the church and the feather store of a people who never went to war and who regarded the demon drink with fierce Presbyterian disapproval.

Without the support of the military, the Trust would be hard pressed for water and electricity, let alone communications, transport and medical back-up, says NTS director Trevor Croft. While the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency puts St Kilda to work in developing weapons systems for European Fighter Aircraft, the NTS sends parties of volunteers annually to paint, re-point and re-tile abandoned cottages, de-roofed every winter by Atlantic gales.

The spectacle of so much public money being poured today into an island emptied of its inhabitants by the meanness of an earlier British government seems deeply ironic. St Kilda died not only for want of such simple basics as a doctor or a proper postal service. The last 36 inhabitants had asked to leave, defeated by an outside world that no longer seemed to need fulmar oil, feathers and island woollies.

Tourism, too, had an unsavoury effect on St Kilda's classless, moneyless society, a thought that stings as I walk down the only street, past the graveyard where the dead lie, anonymous under clumps of wild iris.

For millenniums, St Kilda slept in isolation, protected in its caul of storms. Passing pirates with designs on birds' eggs were divested of their trousers and sent back to sea; the occasional shipwrecked sailor welcomed to help ward off inbreeding.

Current research is unearthing pottery dating from Neolithic times as well as Bronze Age, Viking and medieval remains, says the NTS archaeologist Robin Turner. Stone Age quarries; pirate-baffling hidyholes buried in the scree; lost medieval churches all occupy the NTS work parties that descend on St Kilda each summer.

The advent of the first steamship in 1838 broke St Kilda's isolation forever. Tom Steel's vividly elegiac The Life and Death of St Kilda (Fontana 7.99) describes the cult of the Noble Savage and the souvenir trade in woollen stockings and blown birds' eggs that it quickly engendered. Victorian tourists tended to regard the islanders as animals in a zoo: 'I have seen them standing at the church door during service,' wrote one observer, 'laughing and talking, and staring in as if at an entertainment got up for their amusement.'

The day of St Kilda's evacuation saw ugly scenes as trippers fought for the island's last postage stamps. We are their successors: one graffiti artist has written on the wall of the PuffInn, 'Dive, Barf, Bed; Dive Barf Bed; Repeat for Seven Days; That's St Kilda.'

The prosaic minutiae of life tug at my imagination. Those cleats, small stone structures which barnacle Hirta wall to wall, were the islanders' life support system: drying seabirds, storing oats, turf and the crude agricultural implements displayed in the NTS museum.

Down on that pier, the women (unassisted by their menfolk) hefted huge loads from any boat that put in. The roofless black houses, which they shared with their beasts, nudge up between vague tumbles of prehistoric stone.

'People romanticise St Kilda,' says Lieutenant Colonel Crawford Stoddart, deputy commander of the range. 'I don't think of it as romantic. It was a rough, tough place. Still is.' Only last week, the Army forklift was called out to rescue a yacht from a southern swell in Village Bay.

We are standing under the radar golf balls on Mullach Mor, looking across at the cathedral stacks of Boreray, their spires talcum-dusted with sea birds. A young Belgian volunteer has recently, tragically, been lost over the cliffs which claimed so many St Kildan lives in the past.

In the end it was the twentieth century that killed St Kilda. Some of its exiles survived and prospered, unlike many of the hopeful emigrants who, in 1852, died in droves of shipboard diseases unknown on their island. An Australian friend of mine shows me a poster from home; it depicts a manicured curve of sand, artfully placed palms, a pleasure pier stretching into a turquoise sea. 'St Kilda' reads the sign on a passing tram: Melbourne's 'Play Bay'.

As we pull away over Village Bay, the sea birds settle back on their stacks. I look down to watch the tide come in, washing the last faint traces of footprints from the beach.

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999

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