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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter II. - Published Accounts of St Kilda


NOT the least interesting of the Western Hebrides is the lonely island of St Kilda, which lies in the midst of the wide Atlantic,

Nature’s last limit, hemmed with oceans round—

in lat. 57º 48' 35" N., long. 8° 35' 30" W., between forty and fifty miles to the west of North Uist and Harris, which are themselves about fifty miles from the mainland. From Shillay island, which is situated at the north-west entrance to the Sound of Harris, the course for St Kilda is W.N.W. ^ N.; the compass course being N.W. by W. Lowestoft Ness (1° 46' E. long.), on the east coast of Suffolk, and the island of St Kilda (8° 35' W. long.) lie 10° of longitude apart; consequently the sun rises and sets on the east coast of England 39 minutes before it rises and sets on St Kilda. At one time belonging to North Uist,1 St Kilda now forms a part of the parish of Harris —the southern portion of Lewis, in the county of Inverness—the northern and larger portion, as already stated, pertaining to Ross-shire. The parish of Harris includes six other inhabited islands besides St Kilda, ranging in population, at the census of 1871, from 6 to 421.

The notices of St Kilda in the pages of Fordun, Boethius, Buchanan, Camden, and Sir Robert Moray (to be afterwards referred to), besides being very brief, are merely statements at second hand. The earliest account of the island, from personal observation, is contained in the work of Martin, a factor of the Macleod family, who visited St Kilda along with the Rev. John Campbell, minister of Harris, in the summer of 1697—ten years before the union of England and Scotland. The following is the title of his somewhat scarce and curious work :—

“A late Voyage to St Kilda, the remotest of all the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland, with a History of the Island, Natural, Moral, and Topographical. Wherein is an Account of their Customs, Religion, Fish, Fowl, etc. As also a Relation of a late Impostor there, pretended to be sent by St John Baptist. By M. Martin, Gent. London: Printed for D. Brown and T. Goodwin: At the Black Swan and Bible without Temple Bar; and at the Queen’s Head against St Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street, mdcxcviii.”

It appears from the preface that the said voyage was undertaken in an open boat, “to the almost manifest hazard of the author’s life;” and the adventurous crew reached their destination after a prolonged passage. He also informs us that, “besides his liberal education at the university, he had the advantage of seeing foreign places, and the honour of conversing with some of the Royal Society, who raised his natural curiosity to survey the Isles of Scotland more exactly than any other.” This probably refers to a communication which he made to the Royal Society, entitled “ Several Observations on the North Islands of Scotland,” in which he is described as “Martin Martin.”  He is similarly described in the index to Gough’s ‘British Topography.’ He took the degree of Master of Arts at the University of Edinburgh; and in 1681 subscribed his name to the usual forms of oath as “Martinus Martin.” Gough says that he was a native of one of the Western Islands, where he lived as a factor; the authority for which statement was no doubt derived from the preface to the edition of Buchan’s ‘ Description of St Kilda,’ published in 1773, to be afterwards referred to. The ‘ Voyage to St Kilda’ passed through four editions, of which the latest was published in 1753 ; and it again appeared in the volume embracing Donald Monro’s ‘Description of the Western Isles,’ published at Edinburgh in 1774.

In the year 1703 Martin published a larger work, entitled ‘ A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland,’ which contains a short account of St Kilda, and of a visit of a native of that island to Glasgow. The following note is endorsed on the title-page of the copy in the Advocates’ Library:—

“This very Book accompanied Mr Samuel Johnson and me in our Tour to the Hebrides in autumn 1773. Mr Johnson told me that he had read Martin when he was very young. Martin was a native of the isle of Sky, where a number of his relations still remain. His book is a very imperfect performance; and he is erroneous as to many particulars, even some concerning his own island. Yet as it is the only Book upon the subject, it is very generally known. I have seen a second edition of it.1 I cannot but have a kindness for him, notwithstanding his defects.”—

“James Boswell.”

“ 16 April 1774.”

In his Life of the great lexicographer, Boswell also mentions Johnson’s early perusal of Martin’s work, with which he was then much pleased, having been particularly struck by the St Kilda man’s quaint notion that the High Church of Glasgow had been hollowed out of a rock! At a later period, however (1778), when speaking of the inelegant style of books written towards the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Doctor said: “No man now writes so ill as Martin’s ‘Account of the Hebrides’ is written. A man could not write so ill, if he should try.” In common with Macculloch, he elsewhere laments the fact of Martin having failed more fully to record the “ uncouth customs ” and “ wild opinions ” which no longer prevail in the Western Islands. “The mode of life which was familiar to himself, he did not suppose unknown to others, nor imagined that he could give pleasure by telling that of which it was, in his little country, impossible to be ignorant. What he has neglected cannot now be performed. In nations where there is hardly the use of letters, what is once out of sight is lost for ever.”

In the year 1705, at the desire of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, the Rev. Alexander Buchan was sent to St Kilda, where he remained till his death in 1730. His ‘ Description of St Kilda, the most remote Western Isle of Scotland,’ was published several years after his death. The earliest edition, with a short introduction, printed at Edinburgh for the author, and “sold by his Daughter,” bears the date 1741; but most of his statements appear to have been taken verbatim from Martin’s work. A later edition, with a preface by his daughter, Jean Buchan (one of thirteen children), was published in 1773, and reprinted at Glasgow in the second volume of the ‘Miscellanea Scotica,’ in 1818. She mentions that she was sent from St Kilda to school in Glasgow when about fifteen years of age, and was shipwrecked upon the Mull of Cantyre; nevertheless, she adds, “ I went to Glasgow for my education, where I continued for some time; from thence I went to Edinburgh, where I had the misfortune to be beat by a horse on the street and broke my jaw-bone, which has rendered me incapable of earning my bread by the needle, to which I was brought up. I had also another misfortune to get my arm broke, and not being carefully sett, is mighty uneasy to me.”

Buchan’s wife survived him, in very destitute circumstances, till her sixty-sixth year. The following entry occurs in the parish register of Findo-Gask, Perthshire, under the disbursements of the kirk-session:—“1731, 15th August. To Katharin Campbell, relict to Mr Alexander Buchan, Minister of the Gospell at St Kilda, eighteen shillings.”

A small anonymous volume, published in London in 1751, entitled ‘A Voyage to Scotland, the Orkneys, and the Western Isles of Scotland,’ contains a few pages relative to St Kilda, which, in the opinion of the author, of all the Western Islands, “deserves the most notice, as it abounds more with singularities.” After referring to the abundance of horses, cows, sheep, etc., he pronounces the solan goose to be “the main support of the inhabitants,” which then consisted of about thirty families. He also alludes to the fulmar, to the genius of the natives for poetry and music, their wonderful feats in fowling, and their morality, and hospitality to strangers.

The next work relating to St Kilda is that of the Rev. Kenneth Macaulay, who paid a visit to the island in June 1758. It was published six years afterwards, under the following title:—

“A Voyage to and History of St Kilda. Containing a Description of this remarkable Island; the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants; the Religious and Pagan Antiquities there found; with many other curious and interesting Particulars. By the Rev. Mr Kenneth Macaulay, Minister of Ardnamurchan, Missionary to the Island from the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. London, 1764.1

Macaulay’s volume embraces considerably more than twice the amount of matter contained in Martin. The authorship, however, is strongly questioned by both Dr Johnson and his biographer. Boswell states that he had been told the book was written by Dr John M'Pherson of Skye, from the materials collected by Macaulay; and the truth of this allegation is confirmed in a note by Mr Croker, in his edition of Boswell. Although Dr Johnson complimented the Rev. Kenneth by describing the book as “ a very pretty piece of topography,” he privately said to Boswell, “There is a combination in it of which Macaulay is not capable.” Macaulay graduated at King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1742, and was ordained assistant and successor to his father, Aulay Macaulay, minister of Harris (who died 1758), in 1751. He was translated to Ardnamurchan in 1760, and twelve years later to Cawdor, where he was visited by Dr Johnson and Boswell on their northern tour. He died in 1779, at the age of fifty-six.1 Kenneth’s eldest brother John, successively minister of Barra, South Uist, and Inveraray, was father of Zachary Macaulay, and grandfather of Lord Macaulay, .who was consequently the grand-nephew of the historian of St Kilda.

In the ‘Travels in the Western Hebrides from 1782 to 1790/ published in 1793, by the Rev. John Lane Buchanan, A.M., missionary minister to the Isles from the Church of Scotland, we find a chapter on St Kilda, extending to about thirty pages. Although the work bears the name of Buchanan, it is said to have been written from his notes by Dr William Thomson. The professed author acknowledges, in his preface, that what he has written “ will give offence to many petty tyrants; ”and assures his readers, in language worthy of the Far West, that he has been “ actuated by motives of humanity and of duty to the common Parent and Lord of all mankind!” He describes the tacksman of St Kilda, “for some time a charity-schoolmaster in that place,” as one who, “having forgot his former insignificance, has assumed all the turbulent pride of a purse-proud pedagogue, to keep the inhabitants under.”

In the first volume of his ‘ Life and Times,’ published in 1871, Lord Brougham gives an amusing account of a visit which he paid to St Kilda, along with two friends,1 in August 1799, when in his twenty-second year. It is embraced in a long letter, written at Stornoway, to his kinsman Lord (William) Robertson, an occupant of the Scottish Bench; and some of the statements which it contains will be afterwards referred to.

There is an interesting notice of the hydrography, scenery, and geology of St Kilda in the second volume of ‘A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland,’ by John Macculloch, M.D., published in 1819; and the third volume of the same work contains an engraving of the island. The later publication of the same author2 (vol. iii. pp. 168-197) embraces some curious particulars relative to St Kilda, which he appears to have visited in the year 1815. I feel called upon to say a word on behalf of Macculloch. In his ‘ Land of Lome,’ Mr Buchanan speaks of him as “the author of a very clever but otherwise worthless book on the Highlands ; a. writer who, with all his great ability, lacked the two great gifts of spiritual imagination and human insight. He was a foolish scholar; and his book would be worthless on the ground of its pedantry alone. His remarks on landscape are sometimes singularly astute, but he never seems to be greatly moved. . . . His book is amusing, and nothing more. . . . Yet his letters were addressed to Walter Scott, who was doubtless much edified by their familiarity and endless verbiage.” A later writer, who, I suspect, has only dipped into his pages, and who evidently has never even heard of his earlier work, summarily declares that “ he might as well not have gone near St Kilda, for all the information he has given on the subject;” and that although geology was his specialty, he makes no allusion to it in the account of his visit to the island! These are severe criticisms. The Doctor’s writings have, no doubt, a perceptible flavour of the pedant, and perhaps he does not entirely apprehend the Highland character; but I venture to think that he must have been a man who, on the whole, observed accurately, besides appreciating and describing with considerable humour the pride, solemnity, and caution of the Celt. Dr Macculloch, who was of Scottish extraction, was born at Guernsey in 1773, and died at Penzance in 1835, in consequence of an amputation rendered necessary by an accident.

In 1838, a little work was published by Mr M'Phun of Glasgow, entitled, ‘ Sketches of the Island of St Kilda, . . . taken down, for the greater part, from the oral narration of the Rev. N. Mackenzie, clergyman of the island, by L. Maclean, author of “Adam and Eve,” “Historical Account of Iona,” etc.’ It contains some curious anecdotes illustrative of the dangers to which the fowlers are exposed, and other interesting details.

Probably the best account of St Kilda is embraced in the second volume of ‘ A Voyage round the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles,’ published in 1842, by James Wilson, the well-known writer on ornithology, and brother of the better-known “ Christopher North,” who visited St Kilda, along with Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, secretary to the Board of Fisheries, in August 1841. A portion of this account is contained in a letter addressed to the secretary of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and published, with three interesting engravings, in the Appendix to the Report of that Society’s proceedings for 1841.

There are also several other shorter notices of St Kilda, of which I may mention the article in the ' Edinburgh Encyclopaedia,’ by an intelligent eyewitness; the ‘Journals’ of the Rev John M‘Donald of Urquhart, who visited the island on four different occasions, between 1822 and 1830, at the request of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge; the incidental account by Mr Thomas S. Muir of Leith, who touched at St Kilda in 1858, in his excellent work on the ‘Characteristics of Old Church Architecture, etc., in the Mainland and Western Islands of Scotland; ’a short sketch of a visit to the island in June 1860, published in ‘ Macmillan’s Magazine’ for June 1861, under the title of ‘ The Falcon among the Fulmars; or, Six Hours at St Kilda,’ by John E. Morgan, M.A. Oxon., at that time tutor in the family of the late Mr Rainy of Raasay; ‘A Visit to St Kilda in 1873,’ by Dr R. Angus Smith, described in two papers in ‘ Good Words’ for 1875; ‘A Visit to St Kilda,’ “ by a Lady” (Lady Baillie 6f Polkemmet), embraced in the January number of the *Church of Scotland Missionary Record ’ for the same year; a little volume,published in 1876 (and a second edition in 1877), entitled ‘ Out of the World; or, Life in St Kilda,’ by J. Sands, Ormiston, Tranent, with illustrations etched on copper by the author; and a pamphlet of thirty pages, bearing the name of ‘ St Kilda and its Inhabitants ’ (recently issued under the auspices of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland), by Mr John Macdiarmid, who accompanied H.M.S. “Flirt” to the island, with a supply of seeds and provisions, towards the beginning of May 1877.


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