St Kilda Fatigue

Here we go again; it is St Kilda o’clock.

Today is the day we remember the evacuation of St Kilda, our new favourite Scottish myth of origin. The tragedy! The poignancy! The sublimity!

I’ll be honest here and admit to St Kilda fatigue. And I know that this is slightly hypocritical of me as I too have added my stone to the cairn (cleit?) of St Kilda scholarship. Back in 1998, I was critical of prior histories – by Tom Steel and Charles Maclean – that had failed to place the written sources on St Kilda within the genre of bourgeois travel narratives.

I took the view that most of what we knew about St Kilda was written by visiting elites – the very people least qualified to understand island life and culture. [My paper St Kilda and the Sublime can be downloaded as a 1.5mb pdf here]

This critical historiography was then taken up in the work of the archaeologist Andrew Fleming and others. But fifteen years later, the preoccupations of those privileged nineteenth century travellers still characterize our continuing popular interest in St Kilda.

Never mind that St Kilda was little different to numerous other island communities up and down the western seaboard. What about North Rona? Mingulay? The Monachs? Taransay? Pabbay, Harris? Scarp?

All these islands had forms of social organization quite similar to St Kilda; and their stories of endurance and ultimate evacuation are every bit as interesting. But poor St Kilda is alone left to shoulder the burden of our nostalgia.

The outstanding example of this geographical fetish is our fixation with the St Kilda Parliament.  Everyone knows the photograph.

The surprise that such ‘primitive’ people might have their own patterns of governance had become a standard curiousity for nineteenth century travellers. Though various writers had referred to this meeting – a mòd – it was the journalist John Sands who, in 1876, took something ordinary and turned it into a spectacle:

“The men of St Kilda are in the habit of congregating in front of one of the houses almost every morning for the discussion of business. I called this assembly the Parliament, and with a laugh they adopted the name”.

Sands was mostly having a laugh. You can get the general idea from the title of his book, Out of the World, or, Life on St Kilda.

But then after the popularity of this publication, the photographer Norman Macleod – working for the George Washington Wilson studio – staged the now iconic photograph in playful mimicry of Westminster.

And there we have it: the St Kilda Parliament.

The point in all this is not to complain that the St Kilda Parliament is an ‘image’, and thus not ‘real’. Such attempts to separate ‘image’ from ‘reality’, ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’, are in my view part of the problem.

Rather, the project of a critical history is to understand that the ‘reality’ of St Kilda is itself constituted through numerous such images; that the lives and subjectivities of the islanders were folded into these systems of representation; and that the islanders in turn performed, subverted and re-worked these image-realities.

So that is theoretical work necessary to tackle the story St Kilda. Not for me though. I’m over it.


SNAP!’s ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ and the end of the Cold War

I promise not to make a habit of this, but permit me one more time to return to the artistic high water mark that was the age of rave.

It will surely not have escaped your attention that this month marks the twentieth anniversary of the six week chart-topping reign of ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ by eurodance outfit SNAP!

Rhythm is a Dancer is perhaps best known for one of the worst lines in the history of pop. Against his better judgment, the rapper Turbo B was persuaded to say:

Gotta be what you wanna
If the groove don’t get you the rhyme flow’s gonna
I’m serious as cancer when I say
‘Rhythm is a dancer’


Anyway, this lyrical gem had completely blocked any memory I had of the video to this track which turns out to have been filmed at the rocket park at Cape Canaveral.

If you can look past the latex catsuits and robotic dancing, in the background there are a series of missile monuments to twentieth century space exploration and Cold War militarism.

Here stands Thor, once packing a thermonuclear warhead for both the US Air Force and the British RAF; it was also the vehicle that launched the first Corona spy satellite. This somewhat diminished god of thunder is here rendered a background prop alongside a tinsel-encrusted Flying V.

There too is the Mercury/Redstone rocket, representing the first human spaceflight programme of the United States, famously pipped by the flight of Yuri Gagarin.

Marvel at the iconographic resonance between the three white bodysuited figures of Atlas, serenely unburdened by their polystyrene Earths, and the massive Atlas rocket, still going strong today as the workhorse of expendable launch vehicles.

Okay, one can read too much into this. But it is the sheer silliness that is most interesting.

Rhythm is a Dancer marks the fact that this sort of hardware belonged to an earlier age, whose threat had seemingly passed.

It is an anthem to the smugness of 1992, a year when Boris Yeltsin had announced that Russia would no longer target US cities with their nukes; Francis Fukuyama had just published The End of History and the Last Man; and the European Union had been founded by the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.

Halcyon Days.

The KLF’s ‘It’s Grim Up North’ as geographical gazetteer

Ah, The KLF – everyone’s favourite money-burning art pop pranksters. Here is a typically bonkers but altogether listenable track from 1991.

It’s Grim Up North was originally slated for The Black Room, the darker unreleased companion to The White Room album.

The JAMS’ industrial techno materialises amid the traffic, in the rain, and at night – with an overcoated Bill Drummond presenting a geographical gazetteer for the rave era.

After reciting a catalogue of 71 English towns and cities – ‘Northwich, Nantwich, Knutsford, Hull’ – the list concludes with the undeniably accurate claim that these ‘…are all in The North’.

Apparently (i.e. I just read on Wikipedia), the release of the track was coincident with some ‘It’s Grim Up North’ graffiti that appeared at the M1/M25 junction. This in turn prompted Nottinghamshire MP Joe Ashton to table a motion in the House of Commons on uneven regional development. And if that isn’t a worthy parable for an undergraduate geography lecture, I don’t know what is.