by Jill Smith
In the Spring 2012 edition of Goddess Pages I wrote of my visits to the Amazon House on St Kilda, which lies at least 60 miles to the west of mainland Scotland.
This archipelago has an almost mythical hold on many people, drawing them to visit, and in the past was almost legendary, as the islands disappear and re-appear faintly on the horizon like some version of Tir nan Og, tantalising viewers in the Western Isles of Scotland. I too was ‘called’ by them over several decades before finding an affordable way to physically reach them.
These remains of an ancient volcano, whose cliffs rise sheer from the clear deep bottle-green ocean, were inhabited from prehistoric times, being a likely stopping-off point as people hopped round the coasts from Scandinavia to Ireland. There is little early evidence as stone used in buildings was continuously re-used for later development, but advances in archaeology enable finds which push back the dates of habitation.
Populations probably changed over millennia, but one long-term group of people was visited by Martin Martin in 1695 and he was told by them of the legends of the Amazon, Giantess or female warrior of Hirte. (Hirte is now the name of the main island, but Gaelic speakers call the whole archipelago by this term). The people met by Martin were almost entirely wiped out by smallpox in 1727, and were replaced by others from Harris who maybe knew less of the legends and traditions of the islands than those who had died. The last inhabitants finally left in 1930 and now the islands are only populated by a company running a radar tracking station for the MoD, the National Trust work parties in the summer, multitudinous birds and Soay sheep which are allowed to live wild.
My fascination with the place has largely been driven by this legend of the Amazon woman. This is what Martin wrote:
“Upon the west side of this isle there is a valley with a declination towards the sea, having a rivulet running through the middle of it, on each side of which is an ascent of half a mile; all of which piece of ground is called by the inhabitants the Female Warrior’s glen: this Amazon is famous in their traditions: her house or dairy of stone is yet extant; some of the inhabitants dwell in it all summer though it be some 100 years old; the whole is built of stone, without any wood, lime, earth or mortar to cement it, and is built in the form of a circle pyramid-wise towards the top, having a vent in it, the fire being always in the centre of the floor; the stones are long and thin, which supplies the defect of wood; the body of this house contains not above nine persons sitting; there are three beds or low vaults that go off the side of the wall, a pillar betwixt each bed, which contains five men apiece; at the entry to one of these low vaults is a stone standing upon one end fix’d; upon this they say she ordinarily laid her helmet; there are two stones on the other side, upon which she is reported to have laid her sword: she is said to have been much addicted to hunting, and that in her time all the space betwixt this isle and that of Harries was one continuous tract of dry land”. “Tis also said of this warrior, that she let loose her greyhounds after the deer in St Kilda, making their course towards the opposite isles.” He finishes by saying: ”There are several traditions of this famous Amazon, with which I will not further trouble the reader”!!
Otta Swire, author of ‘The Outer Hebrides and their Legends’, who got much information verbally from relatives, adds that she was “an Amazon Queen, a giantess of great prowess in war and possessed of many magic gifts”.
Nowadays there are those who seek to de-mystify legends of ancient traditions in these Isles, citing the leg-pulling that Hebrideans are notorious for when speaking to gullible tourists, but I think not, on the whole, in this case. Why a Giantess? Why have a whole glen named after her – Gleann na Banaghaisgeach? Her house lies in the bottom of this deep glen, a place which is a magical world unto itself with an extraordinarily powerful atmosphere.
Her house is one of many strange and unusual structures existing only in this glen – ancient triple-form ‘beehive’ houses with long crablike arms forming fore-courts. Some say these are ‘lamb-folds’. There are long and curving dykes (walls), an oval enclosure, other odd stone formations and a beautiful clear, pure well – Tobar nam Buaidh (Well of Virtues). A river runs the length of the glen with several streams feeding into it. Here, the presence of the Amazon Woman, whoever she may have been – ancient goddess, creation ancestress, mythical power of place or memory of some real living warrior woman, is still powerful and at times overwhelming.
In 1983 the artist Keith Payne, who was illustrating a book ‘Road Through the Isles’ he was researching with the writer John Sharkey, stayed on St Kilda for two weeks. One late summer’s evening as he returned from drawing the island of Soay, he paused to rest and looked down into the glen as the setting sun cast long shadows, and what he saw astonished him – the great figure of the Amazon lay there, drawn on the land, her features delineated by the houses, dykes and the oval enclosure. Her face was partly created by the evening shadows and solitary stones gleaming white; her great arms were outstretched, one formed by a length of scree reaching up the mountainside, the other holding the crystal-clear well of Tobar nam Buaidh. Payne made an intricate pencil drawing of what he saw, though this was not used in the final book.
Hearing of this I was utterly fascinated, but one cannot see something so huge from the ground. Where would one have to see her from? What should one look for? Did she really exist?
Payne’s drawing ‘disappeared’ for decades, but following the death of John Sharkey it re-appeared in the original sketchbook among his possessions. I was humbled when the artist sent the whole thing to me – to do what I would with. I felt deeply honoured to have it in my care, the detailed drawing showing a clear and undisputed figure.
Of course, this meant I must now make another visit to St Kilda and the Glen.
Once again I booked my camping trip with the National Trust and Kilda Cruises, though the best laid plans when going to Hirte are very weather-dependant. Many day-trips are cancelled as the boat owners won’t take passengers out when the wind is more than Force 5. Growing older, I was somewhat apprehensive about my ability to climb up the steep hill of Mullach Geal, down the steeper sides of the Glen into its depths, to walk round the river and then climb up the other side and back again. St Kilda is a very challenging landscape. To cap it all, in the weeks leading up to my trip I developed persistent tendonitis in my right foot, which not only made walking and climbing difficult and painful but prevented me from doing all the preparatory exercise I had planned. But I would not be deterred – the Amazon always tests me to my limits.
I felt barely prepared as I sped across the ocean, landing once more with a sense almost of disbelief at being back on the island I had last left five years before, not knowing if I would ever return. For my whole time there I had a sense both of unreality yet of total familiarity, as though I were in a lucid dream.
The next day I woke to depressingly low cloud – I only had two possible days to go ‘up and over’. I was reluctant to go there again in deep mist and risk getting disorientated as I had the first time – exciting once, but I didn’t want to get a reputation for getting lost! And anyway I wouldn’t be able to see her in a fog.
Have faith. By midday the fog was lifting and I began to climb up the MoD road, a hard enough task in itself – up, up, past the Milking Stone where the people used to leave libations for the Gruagach – up, up, higher and higher, as the mist thinned to smoke-like haar - clearing, then drifting back over the higher peaks, then clearing again.
Go for it. The glen was clear as I looked down into this now familiar world. The sun was shining, the mist retreating, though it lurked teasingly as a white roll not far out to sea.
Even though I needed this time to go over to the ‘other side’ of the glen to find Keith Payne’s viewpoint I felt compelled to return first to both the Amazon House and Tobar nam Buaidh, giving them thanks for allowing me back. It felt such a privilege to be there again. To the well I returned some of its own water from 5 years before, and gifted it some from Chalice Well in Glastonbury. In return I was allowed to refill my water-bottle. I neither left nor took anything else, for the slightest thing can change the ecology of this World Heritage site.
I had thought I would have to walk all the way round the river head, past the remains of a Wellington aircraft which crashed there on June 8th 1944, killing 10 airmen, its aluminium now being absorbed into the earth as are the bodies of the dead sheep which are left where they die. But this had already been a dry summer in the Hebrides and the river was little more than a trickle, so I could just step across. Even so, my tired legs were complaining. Up I climbed and turned at my first rest – and there she was – the Amazon figure lying there beneath me in the glen just as Keith Payne had drawn her, though I was seeing her at more of an angle. She is real! There was no doubt. There lay her great body stretched out along the glen, the curved lines of her sides, her breasts, knees, hips and vulva; her great arms reaching out sideways, one up the mountain, the other holding the well. She was absolutely clear with a pulsating living energy, just as Keith had drawn her.
I could not clearly see the details of her face for this was early afternoon and the sun was high, not casting those long evening shadows, and indeed her head seemed thrown back away from me. The delineation of her legs has gone, but there are lines of the storage cleits which cover the island and are peculiar to it, near where her legs would have been and it seems likely that her leg stones were ‘borrowed’ by later people as building material, people who maybe did not know she was there.
I had felt her presence so powerfully on my previous visits and now was looking down on her in physical reality. It was truly breathtaking. Keith Payne’s drawing seems to have been made almost from a viewpoint directly above her – did he fly that evening, I wondered as I was dive-bombed by the beautiful bonxies (Skuas) which have moved to the islands since the human residents left.
I climbed higher and higher, but the climb was not straightforward. I moved towards her feet, seeing her more and more clearly, but realised too late that I should have climbed higher while I was nearer the top of her body to see her more as he had done, but my own body was screaming with exhaustion and I couldn’t go ‘back’. It didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t need to see her exactly as he had done – I could see her and feel her as clearly as I needed to. I was being at last allowed to share what I had wondered might have been a momentary vision given to Keith all those years before. There she was – a Giantess, the warrior woman of Hirte.
In the bright sunlight which bleached the screen on my camera I attempted to photograph her, but technology cannot capture what the eye can see and the spirit feel. Looking down on her was so different from what can be seen in the pictures, though she is there in them.
Keith Payne’s drawing is a treasure, a vision captured. I am unlikely to attempt any artwork myself which is directly inspired by what I saw, for his drawing cannot be bettered, but seeing her may change how I try to depict her in future.
I climbed higher, watching her shape change and become even clearer though more distant, feeling so honoured at being allowed this day.
How many others, in recent times, have walked the high ridge above her, looked down in the glen and not seen her? I would never have gone over that side had I not known of the drawing.
So – who built her? Who let her presence shape the form of the dykes and the positions of the strange dwellings? How ancient is she? Some archaeologists say even these structures are built over earlier ones, so was she originally prehistoric? Was she consciously made to honour the myth, the legend, the ancestress, the presence which fills the glen? Or could she have been formed unknowingly, her energy guiding the people to mould their structures into her shape?
Do we want to know? Do we want to try to prove her existence archaeologically? Or shall we just let her lie there undisturbed and in peace? She is real. She is truly there, lying in full view for those who will see.
I struggled higher, to The Wall at the top of the glen, over to the road and down to my tent where I collapsed exhausted but fulfilled – mission accomplished.
I did not go back to explore the details of her body – her face, her heart, though I had visited the oval enclosure which Keith Payne calls her breastplate, which to me seems more of a necklace or torc, but here are some of the words which he wrote at the time:
“When the sinking summer sun casts dark shadows up the glen... the head is formed by a ‘big hollow’ (Leacan an t-sluic mhoir, rocks of the big hollow) which casts eastward a shadow out of which the white stones of the facial features glow... the walls sweep round into voluptuous breasts – at the nipple of each is a ‘horned’ building, moonshaped for milking and feeding the stock... the waist is slim and the hips are swung as though the weight is on the right leg... the whole woman stands on the stone circle (a ring of small stones at the head of the river) like a burial on a shield... But the most important place is the heart... a boat-shaped structure... with the north wall still intact... the stone-work... open-work... the huge blocks used... set apart leaving large chambers between... I feel that this ‘heart’ was a communal burial-place... the perfect receptacle for the life of the community – the heart of the goddess... she holds in her heart the souls of the departed... and lies beneath ‘Leathad na Guiltichean’ – the brea of the weeping.” (Keith Payne 1983)
She almost did not let me go. The wind came up on the day I was to leave, the day-trip was cancelled, but the crews venture out in worse weather for charters and I returned on the boat which had brought over some MoD engineers from the mainland – shell-shocked by the violent swell. I could have stayed another 3 days, but my body would not have allowed me to use the time well so I went home.
I had thought this might be my last trip to Hirte, but there is more to see and be with and I might someday still go for a better view, possibly on a fine-weather day trip.
I feel profoundly blessed to have had this gift.
Jill Smith, Isle of Lewis, June 2016
- Mother of the Isles, Jill Smith, Dor Dama Press 2003 (now available from Jill)
- Road through the Isles, John Sharkey and Keith Payne, Wildwood 1986
- A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland Circa 1695, Martin Martin, Birlinn 1994
- The Outer Hebrides and Their Legends, Otta Swire, Oliver and Boyd 1966
- An Isle Called Hirte, Mary Harman, Maclean Press 1997
There are many other books about St Kilda.