End of an era as last surviving native resident of St Kilda laid to rest

rachel
Ronnie Johnson and his mother Rachel at her parents's grave.

A Church of Scotland minister has described the death of the last surviving native resident of St Kilda as the "passing of an era".

The Rev Margaret Yule of Radnor Park Parish Church in Clydebank said it was a privilege to lead the funeral of Rachel Johnson today – a service attended by about 50 people.

The 93-year-old, who was described as a caring, friendly person who would do whatever she could to help people, was a member of the congregation for nearly 60 years.

Mrs Johnson was just eight years old when she and her family, along with 32 other people, were evacuated from the remote Atlantic archipelago in August, 1930 aboard HMS Harebell.

Survival

Her son Ronnie, an elder at Radnor Park Parish Church, said his mother was a very private person and did not talk much about her early life on St Kilda, which lies 40 miles west of North Uist in the Western Isles,

But he added that she was a member of the National Trust for Scotland, which owns the site, and attended regular St Kilda Society events.

The St Kildans lived in a semi-circle of 16 cottages and Mrs Johnson stayed at number 13 with her parents Christina, Donald and her older sister Cathie.

Reflecting on his mother's early life, Mr Johnson, 61, who has been to the archipelago twice, said: "If you ever asked her about St Kilda, she would look at you and smile.

"It was an important part of her life, but she did not speak much about it.

"It was a hard life and the five families who lived there in the 1920s were mostly focused on survival.

"There was a great sense of community and every morning family members would meet outside the post office and collectively decide what jobs needed to be done," he added.

"It was like a co-operative - four men would go fishing, six would look after the sheep and others would do basic building work.

"The women had spinning wheels and would make clothing, bed linens and blankets out of wool that they would sell to visitors who came by boat to the island."

Sheep bladder

Mrs Johnson's duties included being lowered by rope off cliffs to scoop up puffin, gannet and fulmar eggs.

She would help her mother prepare meals and often walk along the shore to collect seaweed which the islanders would dry and burn as fuel.

Children on the island received basic schooling and once the day's lessons were over, they would go and play down by the water's edge.

Mr Johnson said there were no telephones and people would put notes in sheep bladders – a makeshift message in a bottle – and toss them out to sea, relying on tides and currents to wash them up on the shores of the Hebrides.

"They relied on people picking up messages in a bottle to help them with whatever they needed," he added.

Following the evacuation Mrs Johnson, who spoke Gaelic and little English, and her family settled at Larachbeg, near Lochaline in the Highlands.

She moved to Glasgow then Clydebank after she married her husband Ronald, a joiner in the house building trade from Luss who died in 1991.

The retired primary school dinner lady, who had two sons and five grandchildren, lived out the last eight years of her life in Mount Pleasant House, a care home in Clydebank.

Church stalwart

Reflecting on his mother's death, Mr Johnson, a retired draftsman whose brother Malcolm died in 2004, said: "It is very sad because she is the last of the line of native St Kilda residents.

"The funeral was a very good send off and Margaret did really well."

Ms Yule described the pensioner as a "stalwart" of the church who was involved in many activities and groups including The Guild.

"Mrs Johnson was a very kindly and popular lady – a friendly and chatty person.

"But she did not talk about being from St Kilda – she was a private person in that respect," she added.

"Her death represents the passing of an era."