The Sea-fowl's Kingdom—Precious Fulmar—Population—Means of Living— Accounts
by Martin, Kenneth Macaulay, and Dr. Macculloch—Infant Mortality—Mysterious
Colds—"No English"—A Life of Exile—High Morality—Primitive Customs—Traces of
Heathen Worship—Ravages of Small-pox—Lack of Boats.
SIXTY miles beyond Harris, forty-five from North Uist,
and a hundred and forty from the mainland, lies St. Kilda, formerly called
Hirt or Hirtha (so late as A.D. 1704, Buchanan was sent as a missionary to
the inhabitants of Hirta), a mighty rock mass, rising precipitously from the
wild waves—a lonely isle indeed. In point of fact it is one of a small
group, of which, however, only St. Kilda possesses human inhabitants. The
two neighbouring inlets of Soay and Boreray provide rich pasture for sheep,
but the predominance of rugged rock makes shepherding here a difficult
matter. A hundred years ago five hundred sheep were pastured on Soay—now the
island supports two hundred. Besides these, there are five bare rocks
jutting up from the sea, where, all through the long months of spring and
summer (i. e. from the beginning of March till the beginning of November),
myriads of wild sea-birds congregate; so that the dark rocks of Lij,
Stack-in-Armin, and Stack-Birael seem transformed to snowy mountains by
reason of the multitude of solan geese and other birds of white plumage.
Around St. Kilda itself, during these months, a
never-ceasing snow-shower seems to fall—a shower whose quivering snow-flakes
are each beautiful living creatures; birds of dazzling whiteness, that float
in tremulous clouds around their chosen home—the isle of which Scott said
"Here the lone sea-bird makes its wildest cry."
The little island is about three miles long and two
broad; and, except at two points (where there :is a landing-place, whence
you can scramble up the rocks by a steep path), its sea-face is a series of
precipitous cliffs, of dark syenitic trap and greenstone, rising
perpendicularly to a very great height, in some places nearly 1400 feet.
They are said to be the highest crags in Britain. These in the distance seem
positively white by reason of the myriads of gulls, gannets, guillemots, and
every species of sea-bird, whose nests are closely packed on every ledge of
Equally numerous is the bird population on the crags of
Boreray, which are almost as precipitous as those of St. Kilda itself.
The solan goose, the great northern diver, the fulmar
or stormy petrel, which the sailors declare is named after St. Peter, in
memory of his walking on the sea, great solemn black cormorants standing
sentinel, thousands of puffins; in short, every sea-bird you ever heard of,
are here, living busy domestic lives; talking hard about the prospects of
the year, and of the millions of blue and green eggs which they have laid
among grass or rushes, on bare rock, or among the large stones. Each tribe
has its own encampment, though wayward individuals will sometimes sit apart
in some solitary niche.
The puffins, especially, live in colonies; burrowing in
the earth with their strong beak, or "neb," as the country folk say. Hence
their name of coulter-neb, from the coulter of a plough. The idler puffins
profit by the labour of others, and make their nests in old rabbit-holes.
Then there are the foolish guillemots, which earn their
name by sitting still on the rocks, and allowing themselves to be caught by
the hand. They are said to carry their young on their backs, from their high
nests on the rocks, down to the water, when it is time to give them swimming
lessons. Each bird lays one large egg, which is considered excellent food.
That of the solan goose 8 also a delicacy, being translucent and oval, much
resembling that of the plover. She also only lays one egg, and sits with her
foot on it— the male bird very properly taking his turn. The great auk
altogether declines to sit on her eggs, but nestles close beside them, and
the warmth of her body, or of her maternal love, hatches them in due time.
There are eider ducks too, whose precious down the
islanders carefully collect, going the round of the nests several times in a
season, and thence stealing all the soft fine lining which the mother duck
has plucked from her own breast, and with which, moreover, she covers her
four eggs, that her tender nestlings may find a warmer welcome when they
come out of their shell. So patient and long- suffering is this good mother,
that when ruthless hands have despoiled her nest and-taken one or two of her
eggs, she will lay more eggs and pull more down, repeating the process till
she has no down left, and has to appeal to the drake, who then gives all he
can spare. It is said that one duck will thus yield about half a pound in a
season, an immense quantity considering its amazing lightness. Besides these
eggs, vast numbers are taken of other sorts, and of the young birds, which
the people use as food. It is reckoned that upwards of 20,000 gannets are
annually destroyed in the Hebrides, yet their number shows no perceptible
The life of a rock fowler is perilous indeed; sometimes
he must make his difficult way along scarcely perceptible ledges, where one
false step would involve certain death. But the most inaccessible cliffs are
always the most thickly crowded with nests, so these are the goals to be
won; the lower cliffs, to which his companions can let him down by strong
ropes, are comparatively safe quarters, though dangerous enough. As to the
ropes, they are precious property; a good rope is a maiden's dowry, and is
the most precious legacy which friend can bequeath to friend. The rope must
be about thirty fathoms long, and the best are those made of strong raw
cowhide, in threefold twist; this is wrapped round with sheepskin to prevent
the sharp rocks from cutting it. Such a rope is a treasure indeed, and with
fair usage it ought to last at least two generations. The man who possesses
such a one may reap his never-failing harvest on the most awful crags.
Descending by his rope, he drops his snares over the unwary birds, and so
captures them, while his poorer neighbour must be content with smaller
gains, on less dizzy ledges. The people consider that the sea-birds yield
most oil in the beginning of summer. They catch the young ones with their
hands, before they can fly, and the older ones with a rod and snare.
There is one very simple method of catching old birds,
known as the gull fishery. An old woman will set long strings with nooses,
and then site watching them, ready to draw them in at the right moment. She
carries a small pouch, ready to catch the oil which the bird throws up in
the anguish of being captured. The oil of the fulmar is coarse and yellow,
having a strong rancid smell; the people say it cures rheumatism, and they
burn it in their lamps in the long winter nights. The bird is so full of oil
that some slovenly householders do not even extract it, but passing a wick
through the body of the dead bird, and drawing it out by the beak, actually
light the wick thus oiled, and it goes on burning for a considerable time.
Thus they have a ready-made bird-lamp.
They say the fulmar gives them oil for burning, down
for their beds, wholesome meat, and healing ointment Therefore they abstain
from ever taking its egg—it lays only one, and deserts its nest if touched
by human hand.
The people also make a sort of pudding or sauce of the
very thick layer of fat which covers the solan goose, and give it to their
cattle as a sort of soothing posset if they Seem to have caught cold. The
Rev. Kenneth Macaulay, who was appointed missionary to St Kilda in A.D.
1764, speaks of this oily preparation as the island substitute for milk in
the last century, at which time, he says that the despotic steward of the
isle claimed all the milk of the people's cows (pretty little red cows), as
also every second he-lamb, every seventh she-lamb, and every seventh fleece;
and also the sole right to purchase the increase of the flocks. The people
had at that time about a thousand sheep pasturing on St. Kilda, and four
hundred on Boreray.
He describes the care with which the small tract of
amble land was cultivated, and how its produce not only sufficed for the
wants of the people, but enabled them annually to export to Harris fifty
boils of very good barley. Potatoes had very recently been introduced, as a
Now, the island produces only a small portion of the
meal necessary for a smaller population, and the pastures support fewer
The population of St. Kilda, in 1881, numbered nineteen
families, i.e. seventy-seven persons: thirty-three male, forty-four female.
They live in a small green valley which runs down to the shore, where there
are about thirty acres of land under cultivation—the only arable ground on
the island. The people grow potatoes and oats, but get poor return—even in a
good year they can barely treble the seed sown, and they say that the
average return steadily decreases.
About fifty black cattle and four hundred sheep find a
living among the rocky hills, but, sad to say, the pastures are also
deteriorating, as there is no peat moss on the isle, so the people are
compelled to dig up turf, to supply themselves with necessary fuel, and this
work of destruction goes on faster than nature's powers of fresh growth.
Some pasture, however, is obtained on some little islets near, and so the
people obtain sufficient wool, not only to clothe themselves in good
homespun, but they also with their rude hand-looms manufacture strong coarse
cloth for export. They dye their own wool, make their own boots of
home-cured hides, knit stockings, and prepare much salt-fish for the market,
in addition to their stores of feathers and sea-bird oil.
Curiously enough, there are no hens on the island.
Sea-fowl feed themselves, and provide a never-failing supply of eggs.
The ordinary food still consists chiefly of the flesh
of sea-birds. Only think how wearisome an unvarying diet of salt-fish
alternating with salt sea-bird., must be for months together—all through the
long dreary winter I how, even from the commissariat point of view, the
people must bemoan the departure of the myriads of blithe, white-winged
birds, which betokens not only the approach of short dark days, but a long
fast from fresh moat! Think how they must hail the return of the birds in
spring, with their inexhaustible supply of fresh eggs! They do occasionally
indulge in a dish of braxy mutton, but cannot afford to kill healthy sheep,
so that roast puffin or salt fulmar stewed in oatmeal, are still the
standard dishes of St Kilda.
Mr. Macaulay says that in his day the isle Lij was set
apart as a bird sanctuary, from which no eggs were ever taken. But from all
the other rocks vast stores of eggs were collected and carefully stored,
without any sort of preserving process, and these the people ate with
perfect composure when in the most advanced stage of rottenness !!
A hundred years earlier Mr. Martin had observed that
the people of St. Kilda divided the fishing and fowling rocks as exactly as
they did their corn and grass land, and no poaching would have been
tolerated. Every three years the rocks were divided anew by lot; a very
important measure, especially as regards the fishing rocks, inasmuch as
there are only two on the isle from which it is possible to angle, and those
are difficult of access. The produce of these was something enormous. He
says that in one day he saw the people bring home 2000 sea-fowl and
twenty-nine large baskets-full of eggs; some containing 400 large eggs,
others about 800 of lesser sorts.
The only miracle is how the vast amount of bird-life is
kept up without diminution, but year by year fresh' myriads are there;
countless millions floating about in feathery crowds and darkening the air
with most substantial cloud-shadows, or else packed together in serried rows
along every niche and ledge of the cliffs, each bird knowing its own nest
and egg by some marvellous instinct, and rearing its curious brood of soft,
downy nestlings in that strangely public family life. And so the race of
beautiful, snowy, white- winged spirits, 'with the wild eyes and the eerie
cry, still holds its ground, rejoicing in the cairn sunshine, or battling
with wind and wave, and showing. no decrease in its numbers in spite of all
its human foes.
Dr. Macculloch's account of the island reads like that
of a feather-bed gone mad. He says: "The air is full of feathered animals,
the sea is covered with them, the houses are ornamented by them, and the
inhabitants look as if they had been all tarred and feathered, for their
hair is full of feathers and their clothes are covered with feathers. The
women look like feathered Mercuries, for their shoes are made of gannet's
skin. Everything smells of feathers." When the feathers are ready for
exportation they are stowed away in low atone cells and covered with turf,
to await the coming of the next boat, laden with such simple goods as may
suit the needs of these Children of the Waves and of the Mist.
For in their own primitive fashion they are
self-supporting, and care little for the changes and chances of the outer
world, with which they have no regular connection.
Twice a year, in June and September, a boat, sent by
Macleod of Macleod, goes over from Harris laden with useful merchandise, to
exchange for the surplus produce of the isle; with which produce the rent is
also paid in kind—oil, feathers, cloth, and cattle. The feathers are taken
at a valuation of 7s. per stone for black puffin feathers, 5s. per stone for
grey feathers, fulmar oil at 1s. a pint, cloth at 3s. the Scotch ell, and
cattle according to individual value.
Few and simple are the desires of the people. Yet they
do mourn some of their deflciences—chiefly having no doctor, and being often
left without the simplest medicines—no regular post, and, above all, no
harbour where any boat can find refuge in a storm. The isle is 80 difficult
of access, that it is not a pleasant landing even in fine weather, being on
the sloping side of a solid rock which descends right down into the sea, and
is all slippery with the green weed known in Scotland as slawk, and which is
said to be identical with the layer, dear to English epicures. It has also a
small sandy beach, but this is only accessible at low tide, and then not
without danger, and aid from the inhabitants.
Most yachts rather avoid approaching these dangerous
and inhospitable rocks, and steamers call by chance on an average about four
times in the course of the summer, bringing welcome newspapers and possibly
letters; so that mails may perhaps come about six times in a year.
Sometimes, however, eight or nine months elapse without any communication
with the outer world.
As I pen these lines, news comes from Dunvegan, in
Skye, that five men from St. Kilda had just arrived there in a small open
fishing-boat, to say that the store of meal is finished, and that (like all
the inhabitants of the other isles) they have neither seed-oats nor potatoes
for the spring -sowing. Dire necessity could alone inspire men with the
courage to start on a voyage of upwards of a hundred miles, across the
stormy seas, in April gales, and in a poor little open boat!
Just imagine the force with which the great waves must
dash against these desolate cliffs, in the wild wintry storms, chafing and
frothing over all the low breastwork of sunken rocks, till, far as the eye
can reach, nothing is visible but range beyond range of raging breakers, the
whole ocean boiling and seething like yeast, while blinding spray drifts
right over the little island, and even the wild sea-birds dare not face the
storm, but take refuge in the caves and hollows of the rock, where they sit
half stupefied, and in danger of starvation. Terrible thunder-storms add awe
to these wild, winter months, and darken the brief hours of day.
Those long summer months, which know no real darkness,
are succeeded by wintry nights of sixteen hours' duration, and long-
continued periods of storm, during which the cattle and the sheep must seek
for themselves such corners of shelter as exist, and the people must busy
themselves with their weaving and knitting, and in cleaning and preparing
their feathers for market. As to the knitting, that is a never-failing
occupation for every moment when there is no other work on hand.
Thus, year after year, the simple round of life moves
on. To the casual visitor, a life full of strange, picturesque incident, but
one suggestive of dull monotony to any but a born islander, one who can
calmly contemplate the prospect of watching the sun rise from the ocean, and
sink into it again day after day, always from the same spot, throughout his
fourscore years. Yet such men do exist, and nowhere is the love of country
and of home more deeply rooted than among the lonely islanders of St. Kilda.
The isle is an ancient possession of the house of
Dunvegan. Mr. Macaulay spoke of Norman Macleod of Macleod as proprietor in
his time, having inherited from his ancestors, who had then been in
possession for at least two hundred years. How it came to pass from the
direct line I know not, but I am told that it was not repurchased till the
reign of the present chief--a unique but very unremunerative property.
At the time when the present Macleod of Macleod took it
in hand, he found all its inhabitants living huddled together in a most
wretched village—a cluster of, flat-roofed huts, half. buriedby the
accumulation of filth, both inside and out, consisting chiefly of the very
unfragrant refuse of ancient sea-fowl carcases! The village resembled a
Hottentot kraal, though lacking its regularity. These miserable huts were
mere 'mounds, with walls five or six feet in thickness, built of loose
stones and turf, thatched with oat straw, and filled with a perpetual cloud
of dense smoke. They had neither chimney nor window, nor furniture of any
sort, but were divided by a partition of loose stones, the cattle and
poultry occupying the outer half, which acted as the general manure pit,
where all manner of filth was allowed to accumulate, forming a precious
store, which once a year was removed, and spread over the tiny, hand-
ploughed fields. fields. The houses rarely exceeded four feet in apparent
height, being sunk in the earth, so as to be less exposed to the wild raging
winds which sweep the island.
Determined to improve the condition of his islanders,
Macleod provided each family with a substantial two-roomed stone house,
roofed with galvanized iron, as being more durable than thatch, and more
able to resist the wild winds. These houses form a most respectable street,
but within-doors, the people naturally adhere to their long-cherished
notions of the comfort of dirt and untidiness. Milk-dishes, ropes, tarry
nets, wool, cooking-pots, and fishing-tackle are strewn haphazard over the
broken earthen floors; from the smoke-blackened rafters hang a winter store
of dried sea-fowl, fish, and bladders containing oil for use in the long
winter nights. The spinning-wheel and all the requisites for carding and
dressing wool tell of the industrious and skilful hands that not only
provide clothing for their own families, but also have a surplus for sale,
or to help to meet the rent.
One might naturally suppose that the grand sea-breezes,
which come sweeping right across the broad Atlantic, should insure to all
dwellers on St. Kilda a most unusual claim to robust health. But strange to
say, from time immemorial its people have been subject to a most singular
mortality among the new-born children, the majority of whom die within ten
days of their birth.
Till the present generation, it was said that not one
in ten survived the ninth day of their unhappy little lives, but it was
supposed that this was due to the foul air the poor babies inhaled in their
filthy homes, and it was naturally supposed that when the people moved into
the tidy street of eighteen good, two-roomed atone houses, built for them by
Macleod, these ocean-cradled babies would flourish. But strange to say,
though this infant mortality may in some measure have diminished, it is
still a marked feature of St. Kilda. It was hoped that the importation from
the mainland of a good trained monthly nurse would exorcise this mysterious
and malignant baby-foe, but even this has proved of little effect, and a
considerable number of babies continue to perish. About the sixth night
after birth, the children cease sucking, being apparently struck with a sort
of lock-jaw. Then they are seized with convulsions, and the about the eighth
day. This extraordinary peculiarity has been minutely described by
successive visitors to the isle, and still no medical man has been found
willing to face an exile in St. Kilda in the hopes of solving the mystery.
As there are only one or two births in the year, and some babies do live, he
might have to wait a considerable period.
Another very odd fact, which was solemnly vouched for
by the Rev. Kenneth Macaulay in 1764 (but which I confess that I for one did
not believe, till it was gravely repeated to the Royal Commissioners in 1883
by the Rev. John Mackay), is, that so certainly as strangers visit the isle,
a form of influenza breaks out among the islanders. The Rev. Kenneth says
that it has nothing whatever to do with infection, for there may not be any
sort of illness on board the vessel which brings the stranger (perhaps a
most welcome friend); but nevertheless, first one, then another, will begin
to sneeze and snuffle, and in the course of a few days every creature on the
isle will be affected with severe cold, and this, without apparent rhyme or
reason, in the finest summer weather! There is no possible way of accounting
Ordinarily the people are not subject to colds; and
they are singularly exempt from that terrible heritage of most communities
in which constant intermarriage is the rule, instead of the exception
—namely, consumption. This immunity is attributed to the very large amount
of oil which they swallow with their sea-bird diet, especially the fulmar
oil. They are also singularly free from any form of skin disease, a point
which is worthy of note, inasmuch as a diet of sea-fowl is generally
supposed to produce this evil.
Wild and tempestuous as are the wintry storms which
sweep over these lonely rocks, the severity of actual cold is certainly
tempered by the influence of the warm Gulf Stream--a kindly current which
befriends these islanders in many ways, chiefly, as we have seen, by
bringing gifts of timber, the most priceless of boons to people who have
never in their lives seen a bush growing. Here, indeed, the precipitous
coast offers no tempting shore where old ocean may cast its treasures of
flotsam and jetsam; nevertheless many floating trophies are brought home by
the fishers, and find welcome in the village—a village which is now as tidy
as can reasonably be expected of a fisher town.
It has a neat Free Church, and a long-resident pastor,
the Rev. John Mackay, who has stuck to his lonely post for eighteen years,
for a considerable part of which time he was the only inhabitant of the isle
who could speak English. At last one woman arrived who had the English"; she
came from Sutherland, where she had been wooed and won by a St. Kilda man,
who had gone to the mainland to seek his fortune. Only think what a strange
home for the bride who was not born on the isle I How she must sometimes
long to escape from the ceaseless sound of the waves and the screams of the
Yet in the interior of the isle there are pleasant bits
of green pasture land, where the fragrant clover scents the air, and lilac,
orchis, and many another sweet wild-flower, make earth beautifuL And there
are many land-birds too, to bring unspoken messages from home—larks and
starlings, wrens and sparrows, plovers, pigeons, curlews, and herons.
As for the minister, his is indeed a life of exile,
with hardly ever a chance of exchanging even a few words (certainly never
more) with men from the outer world. What a red-letter month it must be for
him when Miss Macleod of Macleod comes here from Dun- vegan Castle to look
after her brother's far-away tenants, and rejoice their hearts with her
sympathetic deeds, and words spoken in their own tongue. But never has the
sound of these been so precious as when uttered by the same kind lips to
sick and sad-hearted men and women from the Isles, many of whom go to the
mainland in search of work, and there find themselves left stranded, with
none near who can understand their feebly-whispered words in the hour of
sickness or of death. To minister to such as these, this true daughter of
the Isles was content for a lengthened period to make her home in the dull
and smoky atmosphere of Greenock, until family ties recalled her to Dunvegan.
As regards statistics of morality, few districts stand
so high as St. Kilda, and these poor islanders may well shame some of our
highly-educated country villages and towns.
Strange as it may sound to such as know anything of the
state of many of these, it is a fact that here illegitimacy is a thing
almost unknown. There have only been two cases on the isle in the last
So great an event as a St. Kilda wedding does not occur
very frequently. Sometimes a whole year passes without one, and two within a
twelvemonth is the highest number on record. As the people very rarely leave
the island in search of work, it is almost unheard of, that one of them
should marry an outsider. On the isle they are born, and on the isle they
are wedded and buried.
As a matter of course, this perpetual intermarriage of
near kinsfolk—generation after generation of first cousins, marrying in
extreme youth—must tend to the deterioration of the race, and fully accounts
for the feeble constitutions and tendency to divers forms of disease which
are, alas, so prevalent in our isles and highlands.
Not that this inherent delicacy is apparent to the
casual observer. Except that they are evidently afflicted with rheumatism,
the people of St. Kilda are a comely, healthy-looking community,
representatives of six good Scotch names - McQueens and McCrimmons,
McDonalds and McKinnons, Fergusona and Gillies.
The men are of middle stature, closely knit,
sturdy-looking fellows, and the women rather small, and some are
good-looking--- a bright, intelligent community, all clad in homespun of
their own production; many of the women wearing gay cotton handkerchiefs
fastened with a home-made bone pin, the gift of sweetheart or brother.
So careful are they in the upbringing of their little
ones, that I have been told by one well acquainted with these kindly
islanders, that there is scarcely a child of six years old among them who
cannot read at least some part of the Bible in the native Gaelic. The same
friend gave me a most touching description of the kindness shown him by the
people, when a terrible storm threatened his ship with destruction, and it
seemed as if nothing could save her from drifting right on to the cruel
rocks, where no assistance could be rendered, and all hands must perish. In
the bitter storm the islanders, one and all, left their firesides and
repaired to the lowly little church, whore they remained for hours in a
ceaseless agony of prayer, till at last, just when all hope seemed past, the
wind changed as if by a miracle, and the ship was saved. Thus their prayer
was turned to thanksgiving; and before many hours were passed, the storm
abated, and they were able once more to welcome the crew and her captain to
their little rocky isle.
The isolation of St. Kilda and the simplicity of its
people are points of much interest to the other islanders, who, by
comparison, feel themselves to be quite the Great World. So they love to
tell how, after the death of King William, the good old minister continued
to pray for him for three years, at the end of which he accidentally heard
of the occurrence!
The inhabitants of Portree also take great delight in
telling how some old men once came there from St. Kilda, and were so much
alarmed by the size and height of the houses that they could hardly venture
to walk along the street; and of all eccentricities of civilization, that
which amused them most was an umbrella, which they borrowed and hoisted in
the sunshine. They were especially amazed at the sight of a few small trees,
their only notion of vegetation being stunted grass, oats, and barley; but
when they beheld a coach and pair, their amazement at the house on wheels
knew no bounds, more especially when they observed that the horseshoes were
fastened to the horses' hoofs with iron nails— most startling novelty.
What would they say, could they now return to Portree,
to see the marvellous telegraphic needle, bringing ceaseless messages from
all parts of the earth, more especially in the tourist season, when Skye now
attracts such multitudes of busy men for a brief holiday. Surely they would
accuse the clerks of dabbling in the black art! Still more would they marvel
if, passing on to the opposite shore, they could see the swift iron horses,
with fiery breath, rushing to and fro with interminable strings of wheeled
houses crowded with Sassenachs.
The pottery of St. Kilda is curious, being the simplest
clay, rudely shaped by hand and baked in the sun, having previously been
glazed with milk. Jars, bowls, and all manner of culinary dishes are thus
made, and answer all purposes, a metal cooking-pot being still a rare
treasure. Even in some parts of the Isle of Lewis it is said that metal pots
were almost unknown a dozen years ago, and I have seen various specimens of
craggans—i. e. the home-made crockery of Barvas—such as no South Sea
Islander would condescend to acknowledge.
When Martin visited St. Kilda in A.D. 1692, he found
that the ancient measures of omer and cubits still continued to be used in
this isle. Macleod's steward was entitled to receive one omer of barley from
every family. He was much struck by the simplicity of a young woman's
marriage dower, which often consisted only of one pound of horsehair,
wherewith to make snares for her husband's fowling. There was at that time
only one boat belonging to the isle, and it so happened that on one occasion
this boat, containing six or eight men, was wrecked on a neighbouring islet.
These men contrived to swimi ashore, and collecting heaps of dry sea-weed,
they made one fire to represent each man. So the wives, understanding the
sign, were comforted, and set to work diligently to carry on the men's work
till such time (after some months hadelapsed) as the steward should visit
the isle, and could sail across and rescue the men, who had kept themselves
alive with fish and dulse.
The Rev. Kenneth Macaulay, writing in 1764, found the
community still possessed of only one boat, which in winter was drawn ashore
and filled with earth and stones, to prevent its being blown away. He tells
how, in October 179, ten men were landed on the pasture isle of Boreray,
which lies two leagues to the north of St. Kilda. The boat in returning to
the main isle was wrecked, and the ten men had to spend the winter on the
islet, where they remained till the factor's boat visited St. Kilda in the
following June. Fortunately they had the run of the sheep, and abundant
sea-fowl, and their clothes being worn out, they made for themselves
garments of sheep-skin and skins of feathered fowl.
They found winter quarters all ready for them, in that
curious relic of prehistoric days known as "the Staler House," which is a
sort of bee-hive building of overlapping stones, near to which stands, or
stood, "a circle of huge stones fixed perpendicularly in the ground, with
one in the centre."
Macaulay noted on St. Kilda one very remarkable trace
of old pagan days. On the face of a hill overlooking the road across the
isle, he saw a very large square white stone, on which the people used to
pour libations of milk every Sunday morning to Gruagach, the fair-haired
daughter of the Sun. As the ancient Romans were wont to offer libations of
milk on behalf of their cattle, so did these poor islanders. Whenever the
cattle of St. Kilda were moved from one pasture to another, they were
sanctified with salt, water, and fire, and prayer was offered on their
behalf at this stone.
Another survival of olden days was the reverence in
which the people of St. Kilda held three sacred wells, which were honoured
with votive offerings of rags, shells, and pebbles. One well was reputed to
As a reminder of early Christian days, there were three
old chapels in different parts of the isle, known as Christ's Church, St.
Brennan's, and St. Columbus'.
But to return to the boats. Mr. Macaulay records
another curious incident of the chances of island life. He notes how the
population of St. Kilda had diminished since Martin's visit—a period of less
than seventy years. Martin found on the isle one hundred and eighty persons,
Macaulay found eighty-four, i.e. thirty-four males and fifty females. (These
have now decreased to seventy-seven.) He learnt that in A.D. 1730 small-pox
had been introduced to the isle by some clothes which had belonged to a man
who had died on Harris, and whose effects had most unfortunately been
carefully sent to his home. In the absence of any medical adviser, the
people were wholly ignorant how to treat this unknown scourge, which of
course carried them off wholesale. Of the twenty-one families, only four
grown-up persons and twenty-six orphans survived.
Strange to say, one-half of the survivors owed their
preservation to the fact that they (three men and eight boys) had gone to
one of the islets to capture solan geese. The boat, as usual, returned to
St. Kilda, and just then the awful pestilence broke out. No one was able to
man the boat, and go to the rescue of the isolated fowlers, who vainly
stormed and lamented over this unaccountable desertion. There they remained,
in strictest quarantine, from August until May, when the usual ministering
angel, in the shape of the factor's boat, came to the rescue, and brought
them back to find the isle depopulated, and the turf growing green over the
graves of wives and parents, brothers, sisters, and little ones.
With this tradition still vividly remembered, we need
scarcely wonder that the first feeling of the islanders on seeing any
unknown vessel approach is one of dread, lest it should prove the means of
bringing from the .mainland some new fever or other infectious malady.
Now St. Kilda possesses four or five boats of
sufficient size to fish just round the island for lythe, hug, cod, and
mackerel (they do not attempt the herring fishery). They have one boat a
little larger, in which (under pressure of great need) the five men of whom
I spoke made their adventurous voyage to Dunvegan, in April 1883 (a voyage
which they themselves said that few men in the Western Isles would have
attempted). Happily the people of St. Kilda have never yet lost one of their
number by drowning, though some time ago they lost their best boat in a
While all other isles are petitioning Government for
aid in impossible forms, the men of St. Kilda only plead for a larger boat,
yet not so large that they cannot haul it up on the shore. A decked boat,
they say, would be useless to them. Their ideal of a desirable boat is one
with twenty-five feet keel, and nine feet seven inches of beam. They also
greatly desire the construction of a pier, to lessen the danger of
attempting to land in foul weather, which they are sometimes unable to do,
and have to face the storm tmd run round the island to seek such shelter as
they can obtain in a little creek on the further side.
They further express an earnest hope that the island
may be endowed with a doctor, and also with a schoolmaster who can teach the
children English as well as their Gaelic mother tongue. Would that all the
grievances of the Western Isles could be as easily remedied as the simple
wants of these hardy men of St. Kilda!