The Lost Lights of St Kilda

Written by Elisabeth Gifford
Review by Edward James

St Kilda is a tiny archipelago, the remnants of an ancient volcano, in the North Atlantic 40 miles west of the westernmost of the Outer Hebrides. It was inhabited from Neolithic times until 1930, although how and why it was settled I cannot imagine. The last 36 inhabitants were evacuated in 1930 at their own request.

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is essentially a love story set during the last years of the island community. It is structured as a multi-narrative novel, with the heroine telling the St Kilda story to her 13-year-old daughter in Scotland in 1940 while the hero, now a soldier, is in France making a perilous journey home after escaping from a German POW camp. The narrative cuts back and forth between the three locations, but Gifford’s heart is clearly in St Kilda, and the wartime escape story seems almost perfunctory by comparison.

This is perhaps an unfair criticism, which arises because Gifford’s account of the dying village, its frugal people and wild, beautiful landscape, is so very good. There will never again be a community like St Kilda, and this evocative novel is a tribute to a harsh, remote little lost paradise that is now a bird sanctuary.