We all use money with some surviving pay cheque to pay cheque and many others embarrassingly wealthy billionaires. The use of money to live is still unknown in some places around the world and I’d like to share a story close to my roots.
In 1930 the last of the community on the islands of St Kilda far out in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Scotland were evacuated to the mainland of Scotland. This was necessary as the population had fallen to a level where sustaining life on the islands was no longer possible.
St Kilda has been continuously inhabited for two millennia or more, from the Bronze Age to the final evacuation but as the modern world started to encroach in the late 19th century the impact was devastating.
In the latter part of the 19th century the St Kilda community were for the first time regularly exposed to the rest of the UK. Firstly infrequent visiting fishing boats and thereafter by a regular mailboat service that also brought some tourists to the island.
To survive on a group of islands almost 50 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean from the Western Isles of Scotland was a story of true grit. From the capital of the Western Isles it is almost another 60 miles by ferry to reach the Scottish mainland.
The St Kilda group of islands are home to over one million seabirds and the locals climbed the cliffs which are the highest in the UK to collect eggs and cull seabirds. This provided excellent nutritious food but was a very hazardous way to live. The locals had unique feet that over centuries had adapted to assist them carry out their climbing the vertical cliffs whilst fending off attacking birds.
Once a year the factor of the chief of MacLeod of MacLeod clan who owned the islands would arrive to collect the annual dues owed by the islanders. As they had no money they had to pay their dues in kind. They bred Soay sheep physically like the wild ancestors of domestic sheep, the Mediterranean mouflon and the horned urial sheep of Central Asia. They would shear the sheep with basic knives to obtain the wool to be woven by the women of the island into tweed. They would also kill some sheep for meat to supplement their seabird diet. Additionally, they would pay the factor in bird oil and obtain some seeds to grow vegetables in the poor earth surrounding the village where they lived.
Once exposed to the mainland several things happened but two key things brought about their demise. One was the attraction to leave the island for far flung places where many of the young set up new lives. Once news came back about their new life this encouraged younger men to leave reducing the available able-bodied workforce to climb the cliffs. Families back in the island for the first time started to use money through remittances from relatives and from selling things to tourists who visited the islands. This killed the equal sharing society that had existed for over 2,000 years.
In the end a population that had once stood at close to 300 was down to only 36 mostly elderly residents who were in a pitiful state of health after a flu epidemic. After squabbling who should pay the British government in August shipped the last remaining residents leaving the islands to the birds.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org