Martin Martin's Influence on Modern Media About St. Kilda

Term Paper 2012 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography




I. Depiction of St. Kilda
1. Martin Martin describes the St. Kildans
2. Martin Martin describes the island and its wildlife
3. Michael Powell's filming of St. Kilda
4. British Broadcasting Corporation documentary about St. Kilda

II. Comparing the three texts




The small Island of St. Kilda off the west coast of Scotland has inspired numerous people throughout the centuries to explore, investigate and describe its nature, history, inhabitants and remoteness.

Martin Martin was the first to give a written first-hand account of his travels to the western Hebrides, when he embarked in May of 1697. Since then many others have followed in his footsteps as recently as 2008, when Kate Humble, Dan Snow and Steve Backshall went to St. Kilda for a BBC documentary.

But St. Kilda and its main island Hirta, as it is called in Gaelic, has not only drawn scientific interest but also found its way into popular culture, with novels like Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg in 2011 or the feature film The Edge of the World by Michael Powell in 1937.

My goal is to show that Martin Martin had a huge influence on those who thematized this remarkable island after him, even transcending genre, by analysing the BBC documentary Britain's Lost World and the feature film The Edge of the World to discover language and images used by Martin Martin. The question to be answered is: Has the language and imagery of Martin Martin persevered throughout the centuries and transcended genres?

In the first chapter I will analyse the different depictions of St. Kilda, its wildlife and inhabitants in the three different texts. The second chapter will compare all of them, show similarities and point out the exact intersections.

I. Depiction of St. Kilda

The description of St. Kilda's natural features, its inhabitants and wildlife are major parts in all three texts I am analysing. While all of them take different approaches fitting their genre, i.e. travel narrative, documentary and feature film respectively, there are similarities between all of them. In this chapter I will concentrate on the descriptions themselves.

1. Martin Martin describes the St. Kildans

Martin Martin's travel narrative Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1716) appropriately starts with his departure from the Isle Esay in Harries. His description of the voyage is intermitted by observations about animal behaviour or St. Kildan methods, when he explains how the St. Kildans measure their course by observing the flight patterns of sea-birds or how the Solan Geese behave during nesting. He proves very observant as he goes to great detail in describing the theft of grass by Solan Geese and the repercussion by the bereft bird (cf. Martin 1716, 27 - 30).

He left Scotland on Wednesday 29th May in 1967 and arrived three days later on Saturday 1st June, greeted by the St. Kildans and admired for making the voyage despite the stormy weather. This is an indication of the importance the islanders placed on competence and skill. Martin Martin observes how securely the St. Kildans scale the cliffs, without fear of losing their footing, even keeping up with their boat and "they outrun our [Martin Martin's] Boat to the Town, from thence they brought the Steward and all the Inhabitants of both Sexes to receive us" (ib., 9). It is notable that he feels the need to mention that both males and females come out to greet them. This can be seen as an indication of relaxed gender relations, which we can in turn associate with a pre peccatum original state of blissful ignorance or Romanticism's tendency to "[invest] wildness with beauty and merit of its own" (Chapman 1992, 128).

Their admiration of competence is further enhanced by a courting tradition held at Mistress-Stone. Here a bachelor must show a difficult feat of balance to his love interest, proving he is able to earn a living with their dangerous fowling methods (Martin 1716, 61).

The entire narrative is marked by a great level of detail, going as far as comparing the sizes of eggs brought to them by inhabitants of St. Kilda as part of accommodating the visitors, the production method and components of the islanders' clothing and extrapolations of the number of eggs consumed by the villagers.

St. Kildans are described as "carrying all the Signs of extreme Poverty" (Martin 1716, 10), their housing as "rudely built" (ib.) but practical, as even the position of the doors serves to ward against the weather. Prior to his stay on the island, the St. Kildans "have conceived strong Prejudices" (ib., 14) against foreigners, probably due to the influence of Roderick the Impostor and are ready to defend their island if necessary. Their defence is utilitarian, exploiting the natural characteristics of Hirta.

Furthermore, Martin Martin feels the need to write down how both sexes collaborate to pull boats ashore, further differentiating the way of life on St. Kilda from that on the mainland (cf. ib., 13). Both men and women are described as beautiful, if they would dress en par with the mainland's inhabitants and "well proportioned, nothing differing from those of the Isles and Continent" (ib., 37).

Martin Martin notes a decline in physical "Strength and Longevity" (ib.) compared to previous generations, but the St. Kildans are still stronger than the inhabitants of the surrounding isles or the mainland.

He also describes their inability to pronounce the sound of the Letters "d, g or r" (ib.), because of a universal lisp of both male and female St. Kildans (cf. ib.). After commenting on the physical qualities of Hirta's inhabitants, Martin Martin describes their mental faculties. Blessed with sharp senses and good memories, the St. Kildans are clever in their dealings with visitors, "chaste and honest" (ib. 38) and unified by a strong sense of community. This evaluation mixes the pre-romantic concept of Celts and "the new moral valuation" (Chapman 1992, 210) of Romanticism, obliterating the opposition of the "self" (ib., 209) and the "other" (ib.). Apart from that, Martin Martin does describe the St. Kildans as poetic, fond of music and dance, passionate and in good health, in accordance with Romanticisms idealization of the "other" (ib., 210) (cf. Martin 1716, 38 - 39), but always tempered with accounts of their high work ethics and piety (cf. ib., 43). The islanders combine the Celtic superstition and modern piety, adhering to strict church traditions while still believing in spirits (cf. ib.).

Martin Martin even goes into great detail when describing the way the St. Kildans dress, recounting all clothing articles and the way they are produced and worn. He gives the impression of utilitarian and simple clothes, made from materials easily found on the island itself. The most important article of clothing to our investigation is the headscarf worn by the women (cf. ib., 56-57).

He closes his description of the islanders with a very idealized and romanticized résumé:

The inhabitants of St. Kilda, are much happier than the generality of Mankind, being almost the only People in the World who feel the Sweetness of true Liberty.

(Martin 1716, 66)

While his description of the St. Kildans has been very meticulous and balanced, his remarks foreshadow the romantic Celtic ideal later propelled by Romanticism.

2. Martin Martin describes the island and its wildlife

As detailed as Martin Martin's description of the St. Kildans is, his description of the wildlife and geography is even more observant, showing a scientific aspiration in this travel narrative.

From approximated measurements of the island to scouting possible landing locations, Martin Martin meticulously describes the shape of landscapes, terrain texture and terrain progression. But his descriptions are not purely scientific, as he takes the time to describe the appeal and effect of those landscapes. He even sets apart the location of St. Kilda from the other isles of the Hebrides (cf. ib., 11 - 25).

Furthermore, Martin Martin gives a very fine-grained account of climatic conditions and their effects on landscape, inhabitants and wildlife. His thorough analysis of weather patterns and soil quality is exemplary and only topped by his description of behavioural patterns of the wildlife. He proves an able observer because he even describes minute details like the sound specific birds make in certain situations (cf. ib., 17 - 36).

His wording never strays far from being scientific and exact. The language used is always prosaic but not to the point of being overly sparse, and it always conveys the feeling of reading a documentary that is akin to the scientific television documentaries of the late eighties to the mid nineties.

It is noteworthy that Martin Martin does not emphasize the isolation and remoteness of St. Kilda, mentioning it only as a side effect when describing problems of the islanders or the untamed wilderness, mostly free of human domination, further cementing the impression of a scientific account. He only uses emotionally tinged language during the depiction of treacherous terrain features.

Additionally, we have to take note of the order of the issues tackled by Martin Martin. While his narration starts with a journey, the chronological order is dropped in favour of thematically linking the different topics.

3. Michael Powell's filming of St. Kilda

The most important fact to consider when watching The Edge of the World is that it tells a tale set on St. Kilda, but is filmed almost entirely on Foula, the westernmost island of the Shetlands. This circumstance alone suffices to differentiate it from the description given to us by Martin Martin because even if we look for the landmarks mentioned by him, we will not be able to find them.

The choice of filming location was presumably made out of necessity. Michael Powell needed extras to represent the St. Kildans and found them in the entire populace of Foula, as mentioned in Return to the Edge of the World a short documentary by Michael Powell (Powell 1976, 6:48). Furthermore Foula is home to a bird population and subject to weather conditions similar to St. Kilda (Powell 1976, 5:30).

The lisp mentioned by Martin Martin is not heard in the film, probably due to the actors hailing from Foula, Ireland and England and not from St. Kilda. But we can find allusions to the way he describes the dress of the St. Kildans, mostly with the men. Their clothing is sombre and practical and all women wear a headscarf, except for the lead Belle Crystall who wears her hair open. This can be attributed to the fact that most women are being played by the inhabitants of Foula, which has similar weather conditions to St. Kilda. None of the typical clothing articles described by Martin Martin can be found in the feature film, again with the exception of the headscarf, but this is because 221 years have passed since his depiction of the St. Kildan dress. The female lead wears the fashion of the time, which underlines her prominent role in the film, but would be highly inappropriate for an inhabitant of the islands. Pumps and a short woolen dress are impractical on an island with a high rain probability and steep cliffs.

Another similarity between The Edge of the World and Martin Martin's writing is the need to show and describe in great detail. Shots linger on in the feature film, but there are no real "long take[s]" (Buckland 2008, 12). In addition, most shots are wideangled, capturing as much of the scenery as possible, creating an impression very much like Martin Martin's precise descriptions.

The Mistress Stone, called Lovers Stone in the feature film, is a small interlude to give the audience a closer look at the relationships between the three leads. Ruth Manson expresses fear as Andrew Gray balances on the rock. While this is expected of a woman of the 1930's, it does not fit the description of the islanders we have from Martin Martin (Powell 1937, 15:46). Andrew then states that his behavior is an old tradition to show courage.

In the scene when Peter Manson invites all the islanders to Robbie's funeral, Powell opted for slow fades and a repetition of Peter wistfully saying: "I bid ye to prepare for the funeral of Robbie Manson tomorrow at twelve" (ib., 29:51) or parts thereof. This immediately causes the viewer to sympathize with the Manson family



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University of Rostock – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
St. Kilda Martin Martin Media Influence



Title: Martin Martin's Influence on Modern Media About St. Kilda