Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.
Today, I’ve updated a post from last July to set the field for a special DfB series -beginning next week – on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. Join me as we visit a real world Dystopia with a rich past and timeless lessons.
After days traversing the rough seas, our boat finally rests on the sandy beach of Hirta. A small field dotted with goats and thatched roof houses spreads before us. In the distance, cliffs and mountainous rises form a horseshoe, locking the valley into a sheltered pocket of reality. Welcome to Dystopia.
The Isle of Hirta
The archipelago of St. Kilda lies forty miles off the northwest coast of Scotland and sports the highest cliffs in the United Kingdom. The history of Hirta – the primary island of this chain – stretches back to the Neolithic Age (circa. 4000 B.C. to 2200 B.C.). When inhabited, Hirta’s population never exceeded 180 residents and at times fell so low that “outlander families” had to be imported in order to stabilize the society. The diet and practices of the inhabitants changed little over the course of nearly two millennium. In the end, the impact of outside influences had such a severe effect that the island had to be evacuated, effectively ending 5000 years of successful habitation.
Dystopia’s tend to be sheltered locales, hidden from, yet dangerously susceptible to, the corruptions of the civilized world.
The Setting of Dystopia
The Island of Hirta is an ideal location for a Dystopia in any time frame, including the modern era. It is difficult to reach by any means other than water and even then, only one location provides easy access. Isolated from the rest of the world this pocket community grew and patterned as it chose.
While the island has a small valley along its primary bay where goats and barley could be raised; the majority of the island covered with steep cliffs and harsh mountains. The waters surrounding the island are dangerous for fishing due to weather, tide and current. This left the inhabitants with only one naturally occurring food source – puffins and other birds that roost in large numbers along the cliffs and crags.
The difficulty of the location and the small size of the population led to a dangerous but necessary test of manhood. In order for a young male to be considered worthy of a mate, he would have to hunt and return with several puffins. This was a dangerous mission but by successfully returning, the boy would prove himself useful to the community, capable of supporting a family and thus find acceptance as a man within the society.
For writers, this makes a powerful coming-of-age story yet there is no need for it to revolve around a male hero. Reverse the nature of the people of Hirta and make the society matriarchal. Now our hero becomes a heroine that must prove herself worthy of respect, command and a mate. Or make it a hybrid society where potential mates must hunt together to prove that their union is one that the micro-society should accept and bless. What challenges and tragedies await our young lovers along the dangerous cliffs? Add the genre of your choice and this could be anything from a dragon to a talking puffin.
What if something more dangerous than puffins lived in the shadowed crags? What things might haunt the cliffs at night or swim in the waters offshore encouraging the residents to stay and making would be invaders pause? How would an isolated village, with no supporting neighbor communities, handle such issues as famine, harsh weather, predators or any other threatening crisis?
Let’s take a look at the society that formed on Hirta to gain some clues into creating a similar society for a potential story world.
The Society of Dystopia
It is believed that the first known Parliament formed on Hirta. Due to the size of the society and the tenuous nature of life on the island, the men of the village (which is to say, all the men of the island) would meet every morning to discuss what needed to be done for the day and what action each would take. Almost like being at summer camp. Almost.
While discussions were sometimes heated, no conflict ever grew to the point of tragedy thanks to the open nature of the discussions and the need for survival-based unity. It is notable that over the course of four centuries of known history not a single serious crime was recorded by the inhabitants. What modern society could say the same?
Consider what type of society can be created to handle an isolated community such as this? Which would work best, an open society or one ruled by a familial tyrant? What if a disagreement from morning Parliament led to murder or a rival of the tyrant chose civil war? With such a tightly-knit community, either event would be devastating.
In Dystopia even the smallest choice can have a large impact. However, internal threats are only half the equation – eventually, outlanders will visit.
Other boats approach the shore now. Join me as we witness the impact of these invaders to paradise.
Outsiders to Dystopia
The saying, “nothing lasts forever,” is the friend of writers and the bane of any sheltered community. Over the centuries a wide assembly of visitors arrived at Hirta. Here are three examples of external impact on a Dystopia.
In 1746, a rumor spread that Prince Charles Edward Stuart and the elite of his Jacobite supporters had fled to Hirta after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Soldiers were dispatched to the island to investigate the rumor. The inhabitants, fearing that the soldiers were pirates, fled the village and hid in the cliffs. Eventually, the soldiers persuaded them to come out of hiding only to discover that they had never heard of the Prince or his father, their supposed King.
The lesson, a Dystopia is cut off from knowledge of the world around it.
Imagine a hero that enters this scene. How would he view these people? How would they respond were he to attempt to educate them or claim the right of rule over them?
In 1615, Coll MacDonald raided the island and stole a large quantity of sheep and barley. This, of course, led to other raids. As the reputation of the island and its simple way of life spread, others began to invade the island for recreational purposes. One such visit, in 1697, brought 60 people that used Hirta as a religious resort.
The lesson, a Dystopia cannot resist the invasion of a stronger external force.
How would an islander hero handle a raider or invader with superior strength of arms? Would a heroine attempt to preserve her peoples way of life with seduction or would she take the invaders hunting before an accidental fall off a cliff?
Visiting ships continued to arrive and exploit the meager bounty of Hirta in exchange for small pox and cholera. By 1727, these diseases had killed so many of the original inhabitants that new ones had to be shipped in from Scotland to replace them. This cycle continued until the island was forcibly evacuated in 1930.
The lesson, there are weaknesses to a Dystopia that cannot be discounted, such as disease resistance.
How would our hero or heroine respond to the deaths of their people from an unknown disease? If our hero was one of those shipped to the island to replace a dead inhabitant what kind of reception would he face? How would this merger of cultures affect both the new arrival and the established society?
Now my friends, we must leave this place and let it drift back into the mists of time. Remember always the fragility of Dystopia.
What will your Dystopia be and what forces will rock its foundations?
Join me next week as we begin a Special DfB series on unusual historical locations that inspire story.