‘YOU made it?” ask friends, hopeful, concerned.

Celebrating a significant anniversary, I find myself checking the weather forecast for the Western Isles obsessively. It’s looking bad a few days out, then the wind turns and it’s looking better – not bright, or dry, but possible.

Tom Steel’s book is etched into my head.

His writing is not just historically fascinating, but he tells a story as if you were there – the stones tied around the necks of dogs that were drowned in the bay; the linoleum that served as a blackboard in the school room; all the furniture and fishing gear left behind in the homes as the evacuation took place.

Then the evocative image of the islanders, standing silently in the stern of the boat – The Harebell – looking until they could no longer see land on the horizon.

Harebell, of course, is the English name for the beautiful, delicate, August wild meadow and machair flower – The Bluebell of Scotland, The Fairy Flower; in Gaelic clag-ghuirmean – is given. The words for lands, like song lines sung through families, contain the histories, the traces of distant ways of living, and of their overlays, of forms of settlement and colonisation and occupation.

Romance and stories of islands, steep cliffs, wheeling sea birds and eagles, dolphins, porpoise, seals, skuas and gannets, dry-stane dykers, cleit-makers, weavers and whalers, and names of rocks and skerries tumble forth from my memory of the litany of the Shipping Forecast as I prepare to sail.

St Kilda.

It’s dreich. I’m told that there was no such Saint. That this, like so much language in oral tradition, is a word worn into another shape, like sea glass, smoothed to something different. “Skilda”, I’m told, means protection in Old Norse. It has an Irish derivation. It’s no surprise, I smile to myself, that we remind ourselves of this at this point in history. History, of course, is told through what we need it to do for us in the present. It’s what makes its study so fraught and vexed. It’s why there is such a commotion around the old names, the new names, the buildings named after people.

Names of countries can indeed change suddenly with revolution, conflict, confession, through my lifetime. Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Burma, now Myanmar, Peking now Beijing, Karl-Marx-Stadt, now Chemnitz. But names can also change with the wind’s direction over time, rubbing on consonants and vowels as they meet the air.

All that is solid melts into air.

We step onto a small boat. Angus the skipper explains how the lifejacket works. Everything about him reassures.

I’m on two different journeys now. My body is on this small boat, watching another small boat across the sea, just ahead, that set out from Uig on Skye, not Leverburgh on Harris. Leverburgh – An T-Òb in Gaelic – renamed in 1920 to reflect a different lordship of the Isles, coming around the time that St Kilda was evacuated.

My mind and heart are with the stories of all those in my family and my wider community of work who have stepped on to small boats, whose lives have become intolerable, and who are now persecuted by my own country for choosing this mode of transport – a small boat – to make the journey from what has become intolerable, uninhabitable, to life, to safety.

And my mind is with Gaza. It is always with Gaza, these days. That morning I’d written in my diary of “cries”:

The wicked speak of
legally killing children
Their mouths are twisted into evil
Their decisions are bombing tents,
sending weapons
Their orders have destroyed hospitals
No-one can learn
Under the conditions made by those who deal in death

Evacuation is a strange word. Industrial. But when you say it, your jaw opens widely, mimicking a physical gesture of expulsion.

Scotland has recently been responding to the mass evacuation of the Ukrainian people, now beginning to make lives for themselves and friendships that are more stable than at the moment of arrival.

This mass evacuation was one of the first in the living memory, at least of the civil servants who are tasked with putting political decisions from the Home Office into practice. It’s not an easy undertaking. Tom Steel’s book makes that much very clear.

The St Kildans, like the Ukrainians, made a successful petition to live in a place that can sustain life, rather than damage it. The story is romanticised and simplified but it’s clear it is exactly as complex for everyone concerned, as it is for every refugee or person who seeks asylum or petitions governments for evacuation. St Kildans, lives harsh as they were and well-acquainted with much death, made their own petition, Steel says, on the advice of the nurse sent to live with them, Williamina Barclay.

Many are not so fortunate as to be heard. There should have been a mass evacuation of Gaza, but the history is fraught, the UN agencies reluctant and people know that to leave their land is to lose their right of return. Like the St Kildans in a different time, and different conditions of starvation and infant mortality.

Steel makes clear that the British government of the time was deeply ashamed of the “underdeveloped” state of the people living in isolation on St Kilda. This was the time of seeing all indigenous peoples as in need of “development” or “conversion”. The St Kildans had their fair share of that too, not least in the latter centuries of their 2000-year inhabitation of the island archipelago.

In his documentation of the evacuation, he offers this chilling detail: “It cost the Navy £2 2s 6d to provide them [the evacuees] with a meal – a sum which it insisted on recovering as soon as possible from the Scottish Office. […] At the time it had not been resolved who was going to foot the bill for the evacuation. The head of every family, therefore, was obliged to sign a declaration over a sixpenny stamp. […]

“By signing, the St Kildans agreed to repay the Department of Health such sums as ‘may be incurred by them regarding the removal of a family, goods and effects, temporary accommodation etc…’” (Tom Steel: The Life And Death Of St Kilda)

There are similar clauses in the legislation passed by the governments of the West, similar taxes on being a family, or on the potential to flourish if you seek refuge or just migrate. In this, our governments have behaved like traffickers, with guns, requiring work or payment, indenturing migrants worldwide, until such time as this “debt” is paid. Detention centres, hotels (as quasi-detention centres) Rwanda, the Barge, no recourse to public funds, no right to work, the signing of documents “over a postage stamp” that you barely understand – these are the modern-day iterations of the violence of politics, even when it may think – as do our governments – that deterrence and cruelty are the only way.

The dogs were drowned. The St Kildans were impelled to leave most of their possessions.

As we enter the bay, there is a naval supply ship unloading, new barracks have been built and Hìorta – Hirta, the main island – is occupied by army surveillance, we are told. A large digger beeps constantly through our four-and-a-half hours ashore. There is the constant sound of gravel unloading and big, black, highly polished four-wheel drives driving the 200 yards from the slipway to the barracks and back.

“You made it?” ask friends, hopeful, concerned.

It’s World Refugee Day on June 20. This question is not one to which there is an answer in a world of evacuations, persecutions, trafficking, improvishment and between the humanitarian straitjackets and governments’ control of the bodies of those of whom it feels ashamed, or revolted, in its tenacious grip on power.

“What are they?” writes the Mull poet Jan Sutch Pickard in her poem about the stone shelters – cleits – for storage and shelter, after her visit to St Kilda:

Opening mouths telling of hardship,
Empty bellies, broken teeth; stone upon stone,
But not random, nor cobbled together,
This island’s clutter of cleits is the skilful work
Of centuries, created out of need:
but now storing nothing but a story.

Cleits, refugee camps, the skills born of hardship; the stories wrought from ghosts, the violence sitting pretty on a rock in an archipelago a hundred miles from the next living soul.

‘’Made it where?” I wonder, opening my mouth to say words made of weathered stone.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Education, Languages and Arts at the University of Glasgow