Murray goes west with cultural giants to explore St Kilda history

Shetland-based writer and school­teacher Donald Murray says he will be “honoured” to rub shoulders with two greatly-revered figures within UK culture next week when he is joined by writer Will Self and sculptor Antony Gormley on a trip to St Kilda.

Weather-permitting, the trio – joined by the award-winning photo­grapher Murdo MacLeod from The Guardian – will be setting off for the westernmost archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, which was aban­doned as a settlement just over 80 years ago.

Murray first encountered Self when the well-known novelist and newspaper columnist visited Shet­land for the Wordplay book festival back in 2008 and the two have kept in close contact since. They ap­peared together to deliver a talk on St Kilda at the Edinburgh Festival last August and will be accompanied by Gormley, best known for Gates­head’s contemp­orary Angel of the North sculpture, on next week’s four-day trip. Self is planning to write an article based on the trip and Murray, who has also written stories and poems about St Kilda previously, said he hoped to learn a lot simply by spend­ing time in such esteemed company.

“I’m expecting to gain an awful lot of experience watching how people of that kind of calibre work, and hoping it’s something which will have a spin-off in my writing and my teaching,” he said. “The privilege of being in the company of people like that is quite remark­able in itself.”

Before being dashed by the weath­er, Self and Murray had plan­ned to make the trip last summer to coincide with the anniversary of the last remaining inhabitants of St Kilda being evacuated on 30th August 1930. That date brought to an end more than a millennium of unbroken human occupation of the isolated archipelago.

Murray said it looked as if the forecast will be kinder this time, adding that his 6’ 3” frame made him the shortest of the “three tall, dark and grumpy men” making the trip. Indeed, he said some have remarked on the “strong physical resem­blance” between he and Self. Their trip happens to coincide with a visit to St Kilda by The Swan. A rep­resentative of The Shetland Times is now onboard the ship and a report will follow in due course.

The group of islands is some 50 miles to the west of Harris and plays host to important seabird colonies including puffin, fulmar, guillemot and gannets, spectacular cliffs and sea stacks. Its human history is preserved in the form of a village on the main island Hitra, including its church, school and a museum giv­ing an insight into what life in St Kilda’s unforgiving environment was like.

Following the visit, Murray is heading for his native Lewis next Friday to read his new three-part poem sequence PsalmBoat. It was written as a response to the story of South Loch communities being taken by boat across Loch Erisort for church services in villages on the north side of the loch.

He will be participating in a celebration of the distinctive sights and sounds of psalm singing on boats sailing across the loch. The community event will take place in Keose Bay, with Murray’s poem one of the centrepieces of a re-enactment of a custom which has not taken place for well over half a century.


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