The Edge of the World
Living life on the edge may never be the same. Not after seeing the The Edge of the World.
The 1936 film’s portrayal of life on the isolated Scottish island of Hurta is as sobering as it is beautiful. Juxtaposing the stunning natural beauty of the island’s sea cliffs, hills and the menacing ocean that surrounds them with the lonely existence of its inhabitants, the Michael Powell film astounds viewers with its otherworldiness.
More than 70 years after its release, the The Edge of the World watches in some ways like an anthropological documentary. A look into an ancient and disappearing way of life of the hardy peoples of the outer Scottish isles.
The main island of the St. Kilda archipelago, Hurta is a remote outpost on humanity’s fringe. For millennia the locals scraped by, surviving mostly on sea birds, and the little agriculture resilient enough to endure the harsh conditions. Such is the fury of the North Atlantic that for most of the year fishing was deemed too dangerous for the islanders’ small fishing boats. The sale of wool brought in some income. A treeless terrain, the islands were largely dependent on peat for fuel.
Their haphazard connection to civilization on the Scottish mainland was determined by the volatile sea that separates them. Communication before radio was limited to bonfires lit on the Hurta’s peak to signal emergencies to passing boats, and messages we’re sent—as seen in the film—via mail boats resembling a child’s toy that were tossed into the ocean.
Based on the true story of the self-evacuation of the few dozen remaining residents of Hurta in 1930, due to emigration and disease, The Edge of the World was filmed on the Shetland island of Foula. Essentially similar in rocky appearance and spirit to Hurta, Foula was chosen after requests to film on Hurta were repeatedly denied after it had been decreed a bird sanctuary.
Cast and crew lived on Foula during the five months it took to complete production. It was an impressive experience that many claimed to have changed their lives. Many of the locals were employed in the production, and can be seen in the film.
In contrast to the fate of the people Hurta, the settlements on Foula remain. Regular ferry service and air travel makes visiting the island much easier. Hurta, on the other hand, is still primarily reachable by chartered or private boats.
Life on the edge these days is limited to a small, temporary population of military personnel, wardens of The National Trust of Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, some wild sheep and birds. Thousands of them. An ornithologist’s dream, the islands are breeding grounds for numerous sea bird species.
One of a few locations worldwide holding joint status by UNESCO as World Heritage Site for its natural. marine and cultural qualities, St. Kilda is also known as one of the United Kingdom’s best scuba diving destinations. But don’t mistake it for that dive in the Caribbean; St Kilda isn’t for novices or the thin-skinned. It’s for those who don’t mind of having a rough time of it.
Yet, as they say, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. After all, isn’t that what life on the edge is all about?