ST. KILDA, A Unesco World Heritage site owned by the National Trust for Scotland, is one of the outermost outposts of the British Isles: Beyond it to the west lies the North Atlantic in an unbroken stretch until Newfoundland. The main island, Hirta, was inhabited until 1930. Beyond the reconstructed main village, which is just a row of half a dozen houses, the island is dotted with scores of cleits, stone storage huts with turf roofs, that characterize the St. Kilda archipelago. The surrounding smaller islands of Soay, Dun and Boreray, and the several sea stacks in the straits between the islands, were never peopled, although they were used to graze sheep (soay means “island of sheep” in Old Norse) and provided the islanders with seabirds (and their eggs) for food. There are no trees — what can survive being buffeted by the North Atlantic winds from all sides year-round? — but the archipelago is the most important breeding site in northwest Europe for nearly a million seabirds each year, including gannets, petrels, puffins, skuas, fulmars, shearwaters and guillemots. Some numbers might assist in imagining the place: Hirta is about 2.5 square miles, but it has the highest sea cliffs in the United Kingdom (Conachair, the highest, is 1,400 feet).
It is easy to see what attracted Michael Powell, the British director, to St. Kilda, which inspired his first major film, which he shot when he was 30, “The Edge of the World” (1937). Powell, born in 1905, is one of the very few great filmmakers that Britain has produced. He began his career assisting directors such as Alexander Korda and Alfred Hitchcock (who would remain his lifelong friend). Hired as a contract director by Korda’s production company, London Films, Powell first met the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger on “The Spy in Black” (1939). They would soon set up a production team called the Archers that lasted until the late 1950s. The Powell-Pressburger partnership produced classics of midcentury British cinema such as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), “Black Narcissus” (1947) and “The Red Shoes” (1948), among others. Their films are often deeply felt and deeply imbued with a magical sense of place. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have cited Powell as an influence on their artistic careers.
“The Edge of the World,” which Powell wrote and directed before meeting Pressburger, dramatizes as fiction the real-life events that led to the evacuation of Hirta. In 1928, the entire population of the island, never more than 200, had fallen to 37, half of what it had been eight years before. Disease, malnutrition, isolation, the attrition of daily life, the denuding of the island of peat (the main source of heating), crop failure from salt spray blowing in from the Atlantic — all contributed to its eventual abandonment. In 1930, the last remaining islanders were evacuated, at their own request, since their old way of life was no longer tenable, and were resettled on the mainland. Shooting a film on a windswept, rain-battered, remote Scottish island (Powell, in fact, did not get permission to film on St. Kilda, so he shot it on Foula, one of the Shetland Islands, about 250 miles northeast, instead) couldn’t have been easy. The thought of the transportation of equipment and crew alone to the island makes my head swim. But the story of St. Kilda’s evacuation must have made the Hebrides too compelling an idea for Powell. Almost 10 years later, he ventured with Pressburger to the Isle of Mull, a more tractable place in the Inner Hebrides, to film “I Know Where I’m Going!”