In this weekend’s newspaper, my attention was drawn to the name St Kilda in a tiny almost-hidden paragraph. It was ninety years ago today, in 1930, that the last 36 residents of St Kilda, a Scottish archipelago 100 miles west of the mainland, ‘asked to leave because life was not sustainable’. The islands are now a World Heritage Site, home to the world’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins.
Abandoned homes, villages and ways of life in the Dodecanese islands of Greece are the subject of my new book, Wild Abandon, so I’d been interested to find a book on Mark’s shelves about St Kilda. I read a lot of books about wild, semi-abandoned Scottish islands during the writing of mine, from Sea Room by Adam Nicolson about the Shiants, to The Outrun by Amy Liptrot about Orkney. There are many similarities with the Dodecanese, which are also remote from the Greek mainland and whose populations were reduced during the twentieth century, often from several thousands to next to nothing; and those deserted places, slowly reverting to the wild, also provide safe havens for wildlife.
One thing that struck me about the people of St Kilda was that, according to the book, the people who left didn’t do well on the mainland. The people of the Dodecanese, from what I’ve discovered, thrived when they left, many of those from Kalymnos and Nisyros, Karpathos and Rhodes becoming successful businesspeople in America and Australia and Africa. And some who left have fulfilled their longing to return. I was fascinated by the variety of stories I discovered, and I loved talking to those who stayed, who lived through the times when – as one man on Kastellorizo said – ‘there wasn’t even earth to bury us!’
Another news story caught my attention in the previous weekend’s Times (the newspapers have become something of a weekend treat during lockdown in the UK, especially for the crosswords). In Italy, the semi-abandoned rustic villages, emptying for years, are being seen in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis as the country’s future as Italians flee the crowded cities to work from home. As in Greece, the half-deserted villages have attracted only foreigners in recent years, but now urban Italians are beginning to see the appeal.
Here’s an excerpt from Wild Abandon, talking about the village on Tilos that was well populated and full of life until the mid-twentieth century, a place some of you will know well if you’ve been following my blog for a while:
After my first couple of years on Tilos, I moved into the heart of Megalo Horio (‘Big Village’) when a house with a lemon tree and views of mountains and sea was offered for a small rent. To one side was a home owned by a potter from Crete, who had bought a ruin and restored it but visited only a few weeks a year. The neighbour on the other side had died years ago and the house was slowly disintegrating, the garden overgrown and the shutters hanging askew.
These days every third or fourth house, many with a Christian cross carved into the stone lintel, sports a handwritten ‘For Sale’ sign; for every one that’s inhabited, there’s a ruin with gaping walls and roof, wooden cupboards still intact, trees still dropping fruit in the courtyard. The village with its narrow, twisting alleys is half-empty, more than half-empty in winter, shutters closed. Many people don’t have the money to fix up the hundred-year-old house built by their forebears. The edges of Megalo Horio are scattered with abandoned dwellings built long and low into the gently descending terraces, earth packed into double-skinned stone walls and roofs of rough-cut logs, now covered with grass and flowers.
My village house had rusty metal railings and broken door handles, and a frequently blocked kitchen drain that couldn’t be fixed without breaking a stone wall half a metre thick. There were occasionally cockroaches, and slugs at night from the disused well, but I loved the space, the empty rooms, the rambling, ramshackle building with additions from different eras: a heavy old wooden trapdoor divided upstairs from downstairs; outside, modern concrete steps leading to the terrace were haphazardly built over the stone archway of the original front door, which had ‘1868’ carved into it – a century before my birth. In the summer I slept on the terrace, rigging up a shelter to block the streetlight so I could see the stars. Scops owls made their high-pitched calls in the evening.
The low rent allowed me a different kind of life, less dominated by regular work, yet I marvelled every morning that I could sit in my office overlooking the arched roof of a tiny medieval chapel, and across the valley to Harkadio Cave, where the last elephants in Europe died four thousand years ago. To the left on top of the mountain stood the observatory, dating from the Italian occupation, the shell of a building with no roof and gaping windows. The sun gradually lit and defined the terraces on the hill below it, where people once grew everything they needed, when the island was yellow with wheat fields, perhaps when the house was built for a newly married couple.
In the 1880s, the British couple Theodore and Mabel Bent came to Megalo Horio – albeit on a very brief visit – and their diaries record what they saw. They were on a longer trip around the Dodecanese, aiming to excavate and remove items of archaeological interest, usually without permission or with Ottoman officials turning a blind eye in return for baksheesh. In Tilos they stayed with the priest, who also cured hides for making shoes. The houses were dark, they wrote, and women sat spinning on their roofs. Tilos was ‘thinly populated, and as remote a spot as well could be found from any centre of civilisation’, rarely visited by steamer or even sailing boats. Women wore coats of homespun material, white shirts edged with embroidery, and pointed leather shoes; they had wild, gypsy looks and wore earrings so big they deformed their ears. There was no doctor; the local people would ‘live and die as birds of the air’.
If you’re interested in reading more about my journey around the deserted places of the Dodecanese islands, it’s now available in e-book from Amazon and various other sellers. Thanks for your support! And if you do read it and want to support me even more, please post a review online to help others to find it.
And here’s the link to what others have written about the book so far, and some photos from the deserted places: https://wild-abandon-dodecanese.blogspot.com/
Hope you’re well!