In 1830, Neil MacKenzie is the new church minister to St Kilda, the most remote part of the United Kingdom. He and his wife Lizzie start a new life in the small community on the island, where they find poverty, unsanitary living conditions and an epidemic of babies dying in their first week of life.
The Mackenzies are historical figures, but this is a novel based on their time on St Kilda. it's the story of one man's battle, as he saw it, to bring a community into the modern day. MacKenzie doesn't try to understand how the local customs are designed to fit in with the local environment and his mission to give the islanders more sanitary housing ignores how the community has grown organically on the island.
Meanwhile Lizzie battles with her own loneliness (she doesn't speak Gaelic, the language of the island nor does she make any attempt to learn to do so) and the death of her first three children in their first week of life.
People on the island relied on hunting the seabirds for their eggs, their meat and their feathers. At the same time though, they were aware of the need for sustainable harvesting of the birds, to ensure the populations continued to thrive.
St Kilda is an amazing island (no-one lives there now, since the last of
the population were removed) and the book is full of wonderful
descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife.
It's a beautiful book, poignant and moving (though occasionally veering into melodrama) which dramatises the challenges of living in a remote and uniquely difficult place.
Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg published by Quercus.