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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter VI - Voyage to St. Kilda


My next experience was what I might almost call “ The Voyage to St. Kilda,” for so it seemed to me as a boy. The following detailed narrative was written by my dear mother on our return. In that far-off island I found what to me were quite new birds, such as gannets, fulmars, shearwaters, fork-tailed petrels and eider-ducks, specimens of which I was able to shoot with my own little gun.

“On Monday, the 30th of May, 1853 (having had all our provisions and packages prepared on the Saturday), we were called at three o’clock in the morning with the good news that it was a beautiful day for our start to St. Kilda. Dressing was soon accomplished, and off we set on foot for the quay, about half a mile from the Tigh Dige. The weather did not please me so well as it did my housemaid, for I found on looking on the bay that it was a perfect calm with a sea mist over the Isle of Skye; so, instead of getting into the Jessie, the vessel we had hired for the occasion, we continued in the smaller rowing-boat, proposing that Osgood should shoot and amuse himself in some way. We, for a wonder, could not see any guillemots or cormorants, and then George Ross, the keeper, said spearing flounders would be grand sport, so to shore we went for a spear, and in about an hour we got seventeen fine flat-fish, besides a large cat-fish or £ father lasher/ and also a sea-devil, both frightful in the extreme. I had never seen a sea-devil before, and when the spear went into it it turned round and bit the spear, leaving the distinct marks of its teeth on the steel prongs. We also found a rock-pigeon’s nest with two- young ones in it, but left them till they should grow larger and be fitter to leave their nest.

“We stopped at Little Sand, where the fish were cleaned and some of them sent to a cottage to be boiled, whilst we sat on the rock, and along with the excellent fish came fresh oat-cakes from Iain Buidhe's wife. There we made a good breakfast, and then got again into the small boat to go to Longa Island, at the farthest end of which I had ordered the Jessie to call for us. It was nearly midday before we went on board, and by that time a nice breeze had sprung up from the northeast. Our crew consisted of the Skipper Ali Ban, the Gillemor (or Alexander Fraser), and Sandy Longa (a Maclean). Besides these three, I had engaged two extra hands, Alexander Macmillan and William Grant, both capital fellows. The former is considered the best seaman in Gairloch, and neither of them cared what they did nor how much they worked so that they did but please us and 'add to our comfort.

“Besides the five seamen and myself, Osgood and his tutor, there were four more persons—namely, George Ross, the keeper, Simon Fraser, the butler, and the two hall-boys Ali and Duncan—just a round dozen of folks leaving home with the determination to be delighted with the voyage of discovery. I am at least sure that eleven of them were joyous: I am not quite so sure about the captain. I think he was too anxious for our safety and satisfaction to be quite happy.

“We went sailing along the Minch nicely for a while, but the breeze lulled at four or five o'clock, and by degrees it became perfectly calm. We were then within about three miles of Eilean Trodda, at the north end of Skye, so we got into our boat and rowed to it, and there Osgood shot away at some puffins and guillemots. The rocks were very picturesque, and I saw several stacks or rocky pillars and some dark, deep chasms. After remaining about an hour, we saw our vessel slowly rounding the island, and, thinking it time to join her, we rowed to meet her. There was a swell, but no wind. We found that the tutor during our absence had not been so good a sailor as he had expected, and Osgood immediately he went on board was ill, so to bed we went. To those who may wish to know what sort of beds ours were I will describe them, and also the arrangement of the vessel.

“As to her make, she was neither yacht nor clipper built, but a good ordinary-sized sailing smack. She had one cabin aft with two small berths. These I gave to the tutor and the keeper, whilst Osgood and I had two grand beds, with mattresses, blankets, and sheets, made in the stern end of the hatchway or cargo-place, and a long curtain placed across to make our bedrooms snug. The middle of the hatchway was open and contained sundry hampers, boxes, etc.—in fact, it was our larder and crockery-place and sort of general receptacle for waterproofs, plaids, guns, ammunition. Beyond this open space was another curtain concealing the sleeping apartment of Simon and the boys, and occasionally William Grant and Macmillan. In the bow was the crew's lodging-place.

"The floor of our bedroom was rather uneven, being merely hay placed on the top of the stone ballast; but once in bed we were well off—at least, whenever the Jessie behaved herself, but when she pitched and tossed, as she did on the following Thursday, then Osgood and I neither praised the bed nor anything else.

"On waking on Tuesday morning we found ourselves; very near Lochmaddy (the Loch of the Dogs), there being-at the entrance of the loch two rocks that bear the name of "The Dogs'' (na maclaidh). We sailed to the head of the loch, and the captain went ashore to try and get a pilot, a Colin Macleod, who was highly recommended. Unfortunately, he had gone seven miles from home,, and thus we were detained five hours waiting for him. During those hours we went on shore. The appearance of the place, which is not at all pretty, is rendered, strange by the very numerous lochs, many of which are affected by the tide. We went to see a small steamer belonging to Lord Hill, the shooting tenant of Macleod's country in Skye, and also of Lord Macdonald's North Uist shooting. He resides chiefly at Dun vegan Castle, but occasionally goes over to Lochmaddy in his steamer from Monday to Saturday. He killed a great many seals last season. One day he got six. We also visited, a small school where the children read English and translated it into Gaelic very well. Osgood saw a strange bird, black with some white. He could not make out whether it were a sort of tern or some dark-coloured gull. He thought it more resembled the former species than the latter.

“Towards three o'clock the pilot arrived. The breeze, that had been very fresh and favourable, was lulling, and fell almost completely soon after we got out of Lochmaddy. As the evening advanced we got .tired of the Jessie, as she was rather going backwards, .so again we ordered the boat and four rowers and away we went to one of the numerous islands that bounded us on the left. There were scarcely any birds there; it was not sufficiently steep and rocky. Osgood had a bathe, notwithstanding that the shore was very rough and stony, and Deantag, our terrier, discovered the former retreat of some kind of petrel. The nest we got after a great deal of tearing up of clods, but, much to our sorrow, there were no eggs. The nest was fresh and much larger than the nests of the stormy petrels—I should think about twice the size—and it must have been that of a shearwater. Deantag scratched and whined at several other holes, but having no spade and no time to spare (for we saw the vessel retreating from us) we were obliged to leave the hidden treasures untouched. Our men did not spare their arms, and by dint of hard rowing we gained upon and at length reached the Jessie, which the current was fast taking back to Lochmaddy, and there, in fact, we were next morning, much to our annoyance. At the turn of the tide the current changed and helped us on our course northwards to the Sound of Harris, and after going at the pace of a snail for hours, and with innumerable tacks, we reached Bun an t-struidh (the Stream End) or Ob (the Pool), three miles west of Rodal, at one or two o'clock in the afternoon. There we cast anchor, as the wind, north-west, was dead against us and it was beginning to blow very hard. We saw one seal in the water, but not near enough to get at it..

“We landed on Harris, and I like the appearance of the country much better than that of North Uist. The hills are much higher, and I heard that the country was more fertile. The bere gives wonderful returns, they say—sometimes twenty or twenty-five fold. Our sailors got in fresh water for the vessel, for fear we might run short on our passage to the 4 back of beyond/ After a lounge about for some time a young girl addressed us in Gaelic, and asked whether we should like to go to the Ladies' Flowering Work School, so Osgood and I set off with her, and made enquiries as we went. The school was established by the Countess of Dunmore, whose only son, the proprietor, is a minor about twelve years of age. We reached the school-house, a neat little building, in about twenty minutes. Nothing mental is taught there, only the embroidering of collars and sleeves. The teacher was a young Irishwoman, who mentioned that she was under the guidance of a society of ladies for the promotion of fancy work, and that they had offered her services to Lady Dunmore, but that they were going to remove her next year so that other places might have the advantage of her to instruct them, .and whichever girl she recommended to Lady Dunmore as the best worker would be appointed to supply her place. The cleverest hands could earn two or three shillings a week or more did they apply themselves entirely to the occupation. They were working for a shop at Glasgow, and also for the Countess, who had sent them nice patterns from Paris. There were not more than about fifteen girls present when we were there. They are allowed to come any time they like from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“On returning to our people I proposed to go to see Rodal, to which there was a good road. After some trouble I hired a pony for Osgood and myself to ride by turns. It was only a three-year-old, and had never had anything on but a rope round its head, and perhaps creels on its back. It did not look remarkably fresh, yet it managed to throw William Grant over its head when he mounted it to bring it to us. Notwithstanding this freak, we determined to venture, and after borrowing a bridle and a man's saddle from a person who kept a little inn and shop together by the roadside, Osgood mounted with William Grant as his attendant. He is so strong and active and so devoted to Osgood that in his charge I always think my little man in safety.

“As we approached Rodal the scenery became very picturesque. We passed through a gate on the right hand, and on rising ground was a long extent of plantation containing a great variety of trees, apparently about fifteen or twenty years of age. There were larch, birch, beech, oak, elm, alder, and ash. The whole appearance of the grounds was that of the approach to a gentleman's seat, but in reality there is no family mansion anywhere on the property. I had heard there were the ruins of an old cathedral, and I saw it on the left hand, so, having got an intelligent-looking man as a guide, we went into the burying-ground which surrounds the ruins. The ground is high, and the view from there extremely pretty. The broken edifice contains a good many monuments. It was the burial-place of some of the Macleod chiefs of Skye and Harris and other noted folk of the days long gone by. There were some very curious figures on the wall. The building had been, unfortunately, nearly destroyed by fire years ago.

“At Rodal there is a quay with a small snug harbour which can be entered from two directions, but, I believe, not at low tide. We returned as we came. The evening was fine, but the wind high. Having paid for the use of the pony, that had behaved well, and got some m ilk we wished to go on board, but on account of the tide being out our boat could not come for us, so we were obliged to have some men at a cottage roused up (it was past 10 p.m.), and they ferried us across a sort of inlet that was in our way, and then after a little walk we came to the shore, where our boat was waiting us. On our talking to the pilot, he said the tide would serve soon after break of day, and he would then endeavour to proceed. Once out of the sound, which was in all eight miles in length, the north wind would not be so much against us, for as soon as we reached the open Atlantic we should go direct west. The Sound of Harris is considered very dangerous for the navigation of vessels. It is full of rocks, numbers of which are sunken at a short distance from the surface of the water, and, again, the current is always so strong during a calm that there is great difficulty in keeping a vessel off these dreaded skerries.

“The noise of the pulling up of the anchor soon wakened me in the morning, and I quickly found out I was at sea. Poor Osgood, too, was not happy. As we neared the ocean our vessel pitched and tossed even more than our pilot liked. He told me afterwards he was really alarmed for our safety; but the Jessie was a gallant barque, and she bore us bravely, notwithstanding that the rough weather and the great swell in that place tried her goodness. I kept as quiet as I could in the hopes of Osgood's sleeping between the fits of coughing. Everyone was ill except the sailors, even Simon and Ali and Duncan, who had all scorned the idea of being seasick. We had a wearisome day of it. Occasionally I sent for one of my favourite sailors and asked how matters were going on. One of William Grant's replies, translated into English, was: £ She is carrying full sails at present, my lady, so there is no fear of her.' There were as heavy seas where we were as in any part of the Atlantic between here and America, and the passage was rendered worse by these strong currents.

“At seven or eight in the evening we began to draw near to the far-famed St. Kilda. When I heard that we were not above a mile from shore, I begged to get out in the boat, as the wind had sunk, but I was told that four men were in her, rowing away with all their might, trying to keep the vessel from driving on the rocks by the force of the current. The rest of our crew were toiling at two enormous sweeps belonging to the Jessie.

Well, I waited another hour, and on finding that instead of being nearer we were fast receding, and that we might now have the boat, as we had (against our will) gone out of the little bay and exchanged its steep rugged rocks for the wild ocean, I told Simon to put clothes on Osgood in some sort of way and ordered the boat to the gangway. Poor child, he looked most wretched. Putting on his and my own swimming belts, we somehow or other got into the boat. There was a heavy swell, but fortunately no broken waves. I was not much alarmed, and said nothing at any rate; but the tutor and others who were left on the Jessie watched us a little while, and then we sank so low that they could not see us at all, and were half afraid we had been swamped. But we had been more mercifully dealt with, and landed at length quite safely and comfortably on the shore of this wonderfully striking, picturesque island.

“I had been told there was but one small flat stone on which one could land, and that the natives would pull me up from it. That is not quite the case. There are twenty or thirty yards of shore on which you might put foot, but there is one spot more convenient than the rest and yet not altogether good, for the rock is covered with seaweed of the most slippery sort, and you are almost sure to tumble on your nose. You can never land when the wind is from the south-east, for that is the direction of the bay, and a very little breeze thus raises an awful swell. I was told by the people that the last time the factor came to visit them he was three days before he could land. When at last he did accomplish it, it was by tying a rope round his body and throwing the other end to the people on shore, and waiting till one of the enormous waves went backwards, when he flung himself out and was drawn up on the flat rock, the usual landing-place. Another story was also told me, but after I got home. A man from our parish met William Grant at Poolewe. ‘Weel' said he, *so I hear you have been to St. Kilda. Could you manage to land?" ‘Land?" said William. *Oh yes, we landed safe enough, and passed three days and three nights there.* You were in luck. replied his friend; *the last time I sailed there, when in the service of Macdonald of Lochinver, who had the islands, I was twenty days beating about and round St. Kilda in the Hover’s Bride and never could land after all.

“The only gentleman I ever conversed with about St. Kilda was the Rev. James Noble, Free Church Minister of Poolewe. He went there with one or two other ministers in Lord Breadalbane's yacht about three or four years ago. They intended to remain three days, but a frightful hurricane arose one night after they had gone to the vessel, and they were in great danger for twenty-four hours. It was impossible to put out a small boat, and they were every instant expecting the anchor would give way. Although the anchorage-ground at the end of the bay is fairly good, it is extremely shelving, the sea becoming deep so suddenly, and thus an anchor is liable to shift. The captain had a great many fathoms of spare chain which he threw out to help to steady the vessel. She could not sail out; the wind was right ahead of her. The next night it changed f and then they started, only daring to put up the jib and in the midst of a frightful hurricane reached Harris in nine hours, thankfully wondering that their existence was thus preserved. It was the same storm which on the east coast destroyed so many of the Caithness herring fleet with their crews.

“Besides St. Kilda itself, there are three other islands and the two * Stacks/ Two of the islands, the Dun and Soa, almost join, but the third, Borrera, is near the Stacks of the solan-geese, which are about five miles off. Nearly all the male inhabitants of the island were assembled to meet us when we landed, and well might they welcome us, for they had not seen a creature but themselves for nine long months, and they were very anxious for news from Australia about their friends who had emigrated the previous autumn. Eight families containing thirty-six souls had then gone. Only fifteen heads of families remained, the population now being but sixty persons. Formerly it was always about one hundred, but it never materially increased, and this was owing to the mortality of the infants, the greater part of whom die at the early age of five or six days, owing, it is supposed by medical men, to the heat and dirt in which the child is kept and the want of proper washing and attending to. The poor parents themselves attribute it to no human cause, and calmly say that it is the will of God. In no family are there more than six children. Generally there are not above one or two. I saw one little boy who was the only child left out of fourteen who were born to his parents. The oldest man in the island was fifty-seven, but there was one old woman nearly eighty.

“Both the men and the women are rather undersized and not at all strong-looking. Their complexions are a sort of dingy yellow. I did not see anyone with red hair, but many with light hair, sandy and brown, and several of the women had black hair and very dark eyes. Their persons and houses and everything belonging to them smell of fulmar petrel oil, which, by the way, is not at all fragrant. They told me they were usually healthy, and they were not subject to any particular disease, but the poor men often meet with accidents among the rocks, and thus their days are shortened. As to their dress, I remarked that they wore homespun and home-woven woollen shirts sewn together with worsted yarn. Their trousers were of a sort of blue tartan check, probably dyed in the island, the indigo being purchased by them from elsewhere. Nearly all of them were without shoes or stockings. Some of them had a little piece of blue cloth under their heels. The few shoes I did see were very round and ill-shaped. They are all able to do shoemaking and tailoring, and many of them wove, but not all. They have no mill, but grind with the quern. One woman works the quern alone. They did not appear to grind above a quart or two of corn at a time. I observed several men and women with lamb-skin caps. The girls had a great deal of hair, very untidily arranged, and the wives had equally untidy caps, and, for what purpose I know not, they had two strings tied round their bodies, one just under their arms and the other a quarter of a yard below, making their second waist very low. Their gowns were some of them of dark cotton and some of homespun.

Neither the men nor the women had any politeness in outward manner. I did not notice any of them bow or curtsey at any time, but they are kind and gentle in speech and obliging and friendly in actions. Yet this does not prevent them from being keen for money and still more for tobacco. They would part with any of the commodities of the island for half their value if paid in tobacco.

"Their houses are built rather in a crescent form about one hundred yards above the shore at the head of the bay, and extend for nearly a quarter of a mile I counted twenty-five dwelling-places besides the little barns or outbuildings. The byre is on the left-hand side as you enter, and above it is the only aperture for letting out smoke, which, in fact, they wish to keep in as much as possible for the sake of the soot, which they use to enrich the land for the barley and the potatoes in the spring. I was told that they never clean out their byres at all till they take away the manure in April, and previous to that time it is almost impossible to get in and out of the door. I visited the island too late in the season to see this bad arrangement, and was surprised at the cleanly appearance of the walls and roofs of the houses, and the nice dry walk which went all along the sides of the houses. The walls of the houses are built just as they are in Harris—that is, double, being very thick and the middle filled with earth. The roof extends only to the inner wall, and you can walk round the top of the wall quite easily. The form of the roof is oval, like a big bee-hive. They are made with wood covered with turf and then thatched with straw above, and on the outside are straw ropes like a network put across to keep the wind from blowing away the thatch. The houses have generally a sort of window with a tiny bit of glass, and they have a plan of their own for locking their doors with a wooden key made by themselves . It appears to keep matters quite secure. Osgood observed that the beaks of the solan-geese were used as pegs to keep down the straw on the buildings. The houses are built on a gentle slope, the highest hill, Conacadh, gradually rising to the west. The land between the shore and the houses and up some way above them is cultivated, and at the back is a capital high, strong dyke to keep the cattle and sheep out. I did not hear how much arable land they have, but by making a rough guess I should say between thirty and forty acres. Each head of a family or crofter pays £1 for the arable land, 7s. a year for his cow’s grass, and 10s. for ten sheep at Is. per head. Besides this £1 17s., he has to pay 7 stones of 24 pounds weight of feathers, which is reckoned to him at 5s. a stone. I heard various accounts as to how many birds would be required to supply sufficient feathers to make up a stone weight. One lad told me about two hundred fulmars and another eight hundred puffins; the latter, of course, are much smaller, and the feathers are not so plentiful nor of such good quality, I should think.

“There are two burns or very small streams running from Conacadh by the houses to the shore. There is a capital natural well or spring in the arable land, and another in the glen two or three miles off. This one is celebrated. On the right side of the village and near the shore is a storehouse where the feathers and cloth and wool, etc., are kept. The factor also keeps a small supply of meal, planks, and coals there, and the elder has the key. Not far from the store are the manse and the church, both of which are built with stone and slated. The former is always kept locked during the factor’s absence, and he inhabits it during his visits. The church is a plain building, probably thirty feet by eighteen feet, and in it we slept on hay and ate our meals. The famous Dr. Macdonald of Feristosh visited St. Kilda four times. His first visit was in 1822, when he remained eighteen days. I believe it was through his instrumentality that the church and manse were built, but being erected before the Disruption, they belonged to the Established Church. The Rev. Neil Mackenzie was minister there for fourteen years, and left, I think, in 1843. Since then there has been no regular pastor, but the Breadalbane yacht with a Free Church minister generally visits them or a few days once every summer. Neither have they any schoolmaster just now, but all can read Gaelic except the younger children, and they have a little library of all the Gaelic books, which are circulated among them. They told me they assembled in the church for worship every evening of the week excepting Saturdays and Mondays, and met on the Sabbath before breakfast and in the evening.

“Though the people are far from large and robust-looking, yet they informed us that they were very healthy, and were not subject to any of the great diseases of the Long Island or the mainland. There did not appear to be any abject poverty or scarcity of food amongst them.

They all at that season (the 3rd of June) had still a little corn. Barley grows best with them. I thought the grain looked small, and they told me that the reason was the sea-breeze dries and whitens it too soon before it is properly ripened. There is one small elder-bush near the manse. I did not remark any other kind of bush or tree of any description. The grass on the hills was looking very dry and apparently suffering from drought, but on the Dun amongst the cairns, where the puffins built, the grass and natural clover was most beautiful and luxuriant. The people described the weather as being usually very dry during May and June, but dreadfully stormy in winter, with frequently much snow. I wondered to hear them say so, as, being so exposed to the sea-breezes on all sides, even if the snow fell I could not have imagined it would have lain long. Perhaps they think more of a little snow than a Perthshire man would of three times the amount.

“There are four sorts of sheep—the lachdann, which are of a dull yellow or amber colour; the gorm, which are of a bluish-grey; the white sheep and the black. In Soa the sheep belong to the proprietor, a Mr. John Macleod, son of a Colonel Macleod and grandson of a minister that was at St. Kilda. I was told that there were in all between two and three thousand sheep on the islands. The ewes belonging to the people are milked every morning, and the lambs shut up every night to keep them from their mothers. The milk is chiefly made into cheese. The cows seem to me of a good size, rather larger than many in Gairloch, and of ordinary Highland colour, not spotted. There are no peats to be got anywhere in the island, and the poor people are obliged to burn the green turf, which they cut and dry and put into little stone buildings with great trouble and care.

“The bird that is most esteemed amongst the natives for its flesh and feathers is the fulmar. It much resembles the herring-gull, but has no black tips to its wings, which, along with the back, are of a French grey, the head, throat, and breast a pure white. They belong to the petrel tribe of birds, and have a bill, curved at the point, which is yellow, and nostrils in a tube which has only one external hole. They have a great many soft and rather long feathers, and skim along the air noiselessly. They I are very tame, and when we were rowing they passed close over our heads. None of our party shot at them, for fear of vexing the people. They did not mind the other birds being fired at. The fulmar builds on the grassy ledges of the highest and most precipitous rocks, some twelve hundred feet high. They lay but one egg, which is white and larger than a very large hen's egg and quite oval. The St. Kilda folk catch these birds with a noose made of horse-hair and fastened to a stick like a short fishing-rod. Near the ends it is rendered stiffer by pieces of the shafts of the solan-goose's feathers plaited amongst the horsehair. The man who is to descend the rock has two ropes, one of which is fastened round his waist and the end held in the hands of his companion, who stands on the top of the rock. The other rope is in under the foot of the man above, who plants his heel firmly on it in a sort of hollow he has made for the purpose, and it is with this rope that the fulmar-hunter descends, letting the rope slip through his hands as a sailor does. They are very expert in killing the birds by breaking their necks in an instant, and as the fulmars are killed they are tucked into the waist rope. When many are taken they are tied together to the end of the loose rope, the bird-catcher meantime standing on a ledge, and they are drawn up to the top. It is said that the fulmar lays but one egg, and if this be taken she does not lay again that year. It was from the face of Conacadh that we saw them descend for the fulmars. One, a little boy apparently not more than twelve years of age, was let down by his father. They all say the same Gaelic words, Leig leatha (‘Let her go! meaning *Let out the rope*), in going down. They use their feet much in descending, and go, as it were, by starts and bounds. They seem to have no fear, though so many have been killed on the rocks.

“The puffins, or sea-parrots, are very numerous, but are chiefly caught by the dogs under the stones or cairns or by snares. They are very plentiful on the Dun, and where they build the grass is beautiful. The dogs appear to be of a small, lean, mongrel kind of collie dog. There seem to be numbers of them, and some I saw at the houses had a rope round their neck, and one foreleg passed through it to prevent them running far away.

“The people have no means of killing the eider-ducks, as they have no gun on the island. Osgood and George Ross went after them on Friday and killed between them three drakes. Osgood killed one positively and another doubtfully. Two other drakes were killed afterwards. They are very beautiful large birds with much white in their plumage, the top of the head velvet black, and a pea-green colour at the back of the neck. The duck is of a handsome, dark, mottled brown plumage, something in colour like a grey hen. The eggs are large and of a light opaque-looking green. It was in the East Bay that we saw the eiders, perhaps a dozen or twenty pairs. The people said they were getting much more plentiful on the other side, between Soa and the Dun. Their nests are composed entirely of the softest down, which in Norway is collected in such quantities for pillows and quilts.

“The solan-geese build on the two Stacks, Stac an Armuin and Stac an Ligh. We went to the latter on the Friday in the afternoon, about three o’clock. I ordered the only boat in the island. It is large and heavy, with mast and sail and eight oars. It is used for going to the Stacks and to Borrera and Soa, and also generally once a year, about Whit-Sunday, a party of the natives go over in it to Harris to purchase little things and to hear the news. Osgood and I had gone to the Jessie for our luncheon, and when the big boat came alongside there were no fewer than nineteen persons in it. We sent nine of them on shore, taking ten St. Kilda men and six of our own men with us. The Stacks are a good five miles away from the main island, and though the day was fine there was a pretty heavy roll. The whole of the way the ten St. Kilda men kept singing a sort of song at the pitch of their voices, the refrain of which consisted of the following words of encouragement in their rather funny St. Kilda Gaelic:

“{ Iomru illean, iomru illean,
Kobh mliath na gillean, robh mhath na gillean,
Shid i, shid i, shid i, shid i.’

A rough translation of which is—

“Kow, lads, row, lads.
Well done, the lads ! well done, the lads!
There she goes, there she goes.’

As we approached the Stacks the gannets came to meet us in their thousands, and one could hardly see the sky through them. There is no possible landing-place on the Stacks where a boat can be drawn up, as they rise sheer out of the ocean. At one place for which we steered there had been an iron pin three feet long let into the rock perhaps ten feet above high-water mark, and from the boat a rope with a loop at the end of it ; was thrown over this pin and the boat drawn in near enough for some of the best of the St. Kilda climbers to j spring on to a small ledge. Then they ascended very carefully and very slowly with their rods with the nooses at the end, and soon they had caught and killed a large number of the solans who were sitting on their eggs. The Stacks and their feathered inhabitants were a sight never to be forgotten. The gannets are the main food-supply of the St. Kilda people. They told us they caught the old ones when they first arrived in the spring, and made their chief raid on them just before the fat young ones leave the nests. They salt them down by the thousand, and they told us they tasted like salted bull beef. Of course, the natives live very much upon eggs all through May and June, and we asked them whether they were very particular as to the eggs being quite freshly laid. From their answers we inferred they ate a lot of eggs that had been more or less sat upon, for they said: ‘ Of course, if you don’t like the young bird you can throw it away, and just eat the rest/

“On our return to Uist to land the pilot at Lochmaddy we noticed that he had a large washing-tub on deck full of guillemots’ and razor-bills’ eggs, most of them evidently quite hard set, and we. asked him what he was going to do with them, and he said they were to be given as a present to Lady Hill, who was so fond of blowing eggs!

“The return voyage to Gairloch was uneventful and safely accomplished, and the trip to St. Kilda was most thoroughly enjoyed by every one of us.”

Thus ends my mother’s story, but just to show the very primitive manner in which not only the St. Kilda islanders, but also more or less the whole population of the Long Island, lived in the early fifties, I must tell the story of a visit I paid as a boy to a typical house in South Harris on our way back from St. Kilda.

We reached Bun an t-strmdh (Stream End) or, as it is now more often called, &b (the Pool), on the Sound of Harris, late on a Saturday night, and having no milk for our Sunday breakfast porridge, I was landed, accompanied by our faithful butler Sim Eachainn (Simon Hector), to try and get some from one of the many crofters’ houses which were dotted about among the rocks opposite to where we were anchored. The habitation we selected for our visit was, like most of the native houses, very long, considering its height and its width inside, because these Hebridean houses have to contain not only the family, but also the whole stock of cattle, not to mention sundry pet sheep and innumerable hens, with no division of any kind between the animals and the human beings ! I should say the house was a good forty-five feet long, with the usual low, broad walls, six feet thick, built partly of stones, but mostly of turf, and only some five feet in height, on which grass grows and sheep and sometimes even a calf may be seen grazing happily. What surprises a stranger at first sight is that instead of the thatched roof extending, as in all other parts of the world, a little beyond the outside of the walls, so that the drip from the roof may fall clear of the dwelling, the couples which sustain the roof invariably rest on the inside edge of these wide walls. This arises chiefly from the fact that there is no wood on the Long Island, with the exception of the few; comparatively young trees in the plantations round the ; policies of Stornoway Castle and Rodal; so the natives have always had to do their best with very short lengths of timber, such as stray bits from wrecks washed up along the coast or wood brought with great trouble in their fishing-boats from the mainland. That houses built on apparently such a wrong principle as this must be frightfully damp goes without saying, but notwithstanding, they often turn out as fine specimens of men and women as can be found in any part of Britain.

We entered the house, which was very narrow (only about twelve feet wide inside), by a door near one end, and had to make our way along through manure and litter, there being only just room between the tails of the eight or ten cattle beasts and the wall for us to squeeze up to the end where the fire was burning against the gable and where was also the bed. We were most politely and hospitably welcomed. The good wife, like all the Harris people, had most charming manners, but she was busy preparing the family breakfast, and bade us sit down on little low stools at the fire and wait till she could milk the cows for us.

Then occurred a curious scene, such as one could hardly have witnessed elsewhere than in a Kaffir kraal or an Eskimo tent or Red Indian tepe. There was a big pot hanging by a chain over the peat fire, and a creel heaped up with short heather, which the women tear up by the root on the hillsides and with which they bed the cows. The wife took an armful of this heather and deposited it at the feet of the nearest cow, which was tied up within two or three yards of the fire, to form a drainer. Then, lifting the pot of! the fire, she emptied it on to the heather; the hot water disappeared and ran away among the cow’s legs, but the contents of the pot, consisting of potatoes and fish boiled together, remained on the top of the heather. Then from a very black-looking bed three stark naked boys arose one by one, aged, I should say, from six to ten years, and made tor the fish and potatoes, each youngster carrying off as much as both his hands could contain. Back they went to their bed, and started devouring their breakfast with apparently great appetites under the blankets! No wonder the bed did not look tempting! We got our milk in course of time, but I do not think it was altogether relished after the scene we had witnessed, which impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it!


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