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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter III. - Early History and Ownership


VERY little seems to have been ascertained respecting the early history of St Kilda, by which name the island has been known for less than three centuries. Its ancient appellation was Hirt, Hirth, Hirta, or Hyrtha, a contraction of h-Iar-tir, the Gaelic for west-land or west-country, and not a corruption of Jdrd, the Norse word for earth or land, as indicated by Macaulay in a very elaborate argument. Hirt is pronounced Hirst by the inhabitants, who have a proverb indicative of the great distance of their abode from the centre of Scotland,— viz., “From Hirst to Perst” (i.e., Perth). The island is referred to under its old designation by Fordun, Camden, and other early writers, and also in Scott’s “ Lord of the Isles,” where “grey Morag” thus commences her address to “bright Edith” of Lorn, in praise of the heir of mighty Somerled :—

“‘Daughter! she said, these seas behold,
Round twice a hundred islands rolled,
From Hirty that hears their northern roar,
To the green Hay’s fertile shore!”

The “father of Scottish history,” whose work was completed towards the end of the fourteenth century, after enumerating the most important of the Hebrides, speaks of “Insula de Irte, quae sub Circio (north-west) constat esse, et in margine mundi; ultra quam, in illis finibus non reperitur terra.” In connection with the island of Lewis, he elsewhere describes “Hirth” as “omnium insularum fortissima; juxta quam est insula quaedam (Soa?) viginti milliarium longa (!), in qua dicitur oves inesse sylvestres, quae nequaquam, praeter a venatoribus, capiuntur.”  After an allusion to the Isle of Man (Mona), Boethius says : “Ab ea, quae prima est, ad Hirtha, quae Hebridum est postrema, intercapedinem septuaginta septem ac trecen-torum millium passuum interesse. Nomen huic insulaeab ovibus, quas prisca lingua Hierth vocamus, inditum est.”

to wit, David Mallet or Malloch, who died more than a hundred years ago —adopted St Kilda as the scene of a touching, but somewhat improbable, episode in the latter part of the reign of Charles II., which he describes in a poem of three cantos, entitled “Amyntor and Theodora; or the Hermit/, Originally intended for the stage, it was afterwards altered to its present form, and is now known to a very limited number of readers. It contains a few interesting allusions to the scenery of the island, the simple lives of the natives, and the transmigrations of the birds.

Then follows a short notice of the sheep, the annual visit of the steward and priest, and other particulars, which are substantially repeated by Buchanan in connection with the following passage: “ Sexaginta fere ultra hanc (Haskeir) millia ad occidentem sestivum recedit Hirta, frugum, pecorum, ac maxime ovium ferax; procerioresque gignit quam ulla aliarum insularum. . . . Tota insula non superat longitudinem mille passuum, totidem prope lata: nec ab ulla aliarum insularum videri pars ejus ulla potest, praeter tres montes in littore attollentes, qui ex locis edi-tioribus cemuntur. In iis montibus sunt oves eximiae pulchritudinis; sed ob violentiam aestus marini vix cui-quam est ad eos aditus.” In his description of the Western Islands, Bishop Lesley says: “Omnium ultima est Hirtha, in polaris quidem elevationis sexagesimo tertio gradu constituta. . . . Accipit autem Hirtha nomen ab ove quadam, qui Hirth appellant, qua ilia, et ea quidem sola insula abundat. Haec caprum altitudine, cornuum quidem longitudine bubalum superat, magnitudine vero exaequat.” After speaking of the islands of Skye, Lewis, and Uist, Camden informs us that “ all the rest, save onely Hyrtha, are of small account, being either very stonie, or else inaccessible by reason of craggy cliffes, and skarce clad with any green sord.”

In the ‘Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, called Hybrides,’ by Mr Donald Monro, High Dean of Isles, “who travelled through most of them in 1594, is a short reference to St Kilda, under the name Hirta, which he describes as being situated “to the west-northwest ” of the isle of Haysker, stating (in addition to some curious particulars, to be afterwards referred to), that “the streams of the sea are starke and very eivil entring.” Eighteen years later (16x2), a similar and still briefer notice of the island appears in John Monipennie’s ‘Abridgment of the Scots Chronicles,’ to which is annexed a “true description” of Scotland, including its cities, castles, rivers, islands, etc. “This Hirta" he says, “is the last and farther isle in Albion; so that betwixt the Isle of Man, being the first isle in Albion, and this isle, there is (as stated by Boethius) 377 miles.” Both of these works are reprinted in the first and second volumes of ‘Miscellanea Scotica,’ published at Glasgow in 1818. The same collection (vol. ii.) contains a very brief ‘Account of Hirta and Rona, given to Sir Robert Sibbald by the Lord Register, Sir George MacKenzie of Tarbat, afterwards Earl of Cro-martie’ (dr. 1680). “Of all the isles about Scotland,” says the writer, “the island of Hirta lyeth furthest into the sea, is very mountainous, and not accessible but by climbing.”

The tenth volume of the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society (No. 137, February 1678) contains a short paper by Sir Robert Moray, one of his Majesty’s Council for the Kingdom of Scotland, entitled, ‘A Description of the Island Hirta,’ in which he refers to the great difficulty of landing at Borrera, which he calls Burra, and erroneously indicates its position as six miles northward of Hirta. He also mentions the seal-hunting expeditions of the islanders in Soa, and their still more hazardous attempts to scale the heights of “Stacka Donna” in search of sea-fowl, besides a few other curious particulars.

According to Martin, the present name of the island was derived from one Kilder, who lived on the lonely rock, and after whom the well, near the village, called “Toubir-Kilda,” was also named.2 Macaulay occupies several pages with speculations relative to the origin of the name, in the course of which he discusses the rival claims of a certain female saint called Kilda, who flourished during the infancy of the Saxon Church; of an old British writer named Gildas, who does not, however, appear to have been dignified with the title of “Saint;” and of the ancient clergy of the kingdom, the Culdees, Keledei, or Gille-Dee—i.e., “servants or ministers of God"—one of whose disciples, he conjectures, may have found his way to Hirt, and given the name of his fraternity, in a corrupted form, both to the well and the island. Mr James Wilson adopts the same view, adding that “the Celtic term kilt or rather cille, is applied to a place of sepulture, or it may be also (like the Latin cello) to the cell or chapel of a devotee; and then, by a kind of misty and imaginative personation, the prefix ‘Saint’ is added; thus investing with something of a spiritual character the wild and rocky region of the fulmar and gannet.”

With regard to the colonization of St Kilda, Martin simply states that “the inhabitants of this isle are originally descended of those of the adjacent isles, Lewis, Harries, South and North Vist, and Skiy.” Macaulay, on the other hand, thinks it probable that Hirta was at first peopled by “ pyrates, exiles, or malefactors who fled from justice.” He also refers to the supposed Irish origin of the inhabitants, according to which theory, a Hibernian rover, named Macquin, was the first settler in St Kilda, along with a small colony of his countrymen. The prevailing belief, however, appears to be that the first inhabitants of St Kilda—like the Outer Hebrideans generally—were a compound of Celt and Northman; and this view is assuredly confirmed by the physical aspect of the present inhabitants, as well as by many of the names of places, etc., in the island. There is a curious tradition to the effect that the people of Harris and Uist were both desirous of possessing the remote island; that an agreement was made that two boats (or currachs), with an equal number of rowers, from Harris and Uist respectively, should start at the same time for the island, and that the party which first touched its shores should be the acknowledged lords of St Kilda. A close and exciting race was the result On nearing the wished-for land, the Uist men (Macdonalds?) had got a few strokes ahead, and would, in all probability, have gained the coveted prize, had not Colla Macleod, the leader of the Harris crew, chopped off his left hand at the wrist, and tossed it ashore over the heads of the adverse party! By this plucky act the Macleods are said to have become the possessors of St Kilda.

The version of this story in Euphemia Macrimmon’s statement is somewhat different, being to the following effect: "There were two brothers, one named Colla Ciotach, the other Gilespeig Og or Young Archibald. Each of them had a boat, and both were racing to St Kilda, for he who got there first was to be the proprietor. When they neared St Kilda, Coll saw that his brother would arrive there first; so Coll cut off his hand, and threw it on the east point, which the boats pass as they come into the harbour, and he cried to his brother, ‘ This ’ (the hand) ‘ is before you; ’ and the point is called Gob Cholla, or Coll’s point, to this day; and there is also a well not far from the point called also Tobar Cholla, or Coil’s Well.”

Passing, however, from unsupported tradition to authentic history, it would appear that the fourteenth century is the earliest date to which the name of Hirta can be traced. According to Macaulay, in a charter granted (before the year 1380 ?) by John, Lord of the Isles, and confirmed by Robert II., the island of St Kilda, under the name of Hirt, was made over to his son Reginald, along with certain other places. In the course of two or three generations St Kilda was transferred by one of Reginald’s successors—the predecessor of Clan Ranald— to the Macdonalds of Sleat; and again, at a later period, by the Macdonalds to the Macleods, by whom it has now been possessed for upwards of three hundred years. On the other hand, it appears from the ‘ Fragment of a Manuscript History of the Macdonalds, written in the reign of Charles II.’2 that the grant, which included “ North Uist, Benbecula, the one half of South Uist, Boysdale, Canna, Slate, and Knoydart,” was made to Reginald’s elder brother Godfrey; and that, in the words of the MS., “it was he gave Boysdale to MacNeill of Barra, and gifted Hirta or St Kilda to the Laird of Harris.” According to that statement, seeing that Godfrey is said to have died before the close of the fourteenth century, the Macleods may have been the possessors of St Kilda for nearly five hundred years.

In the account of the family of Macleod of that Ilk in Douglas’s *Baronage of Scotland,’ reference is made to a grant in the time of Alexander III. (1249-86) of the lands of Harris, etc., by Paul, son of Boke, sheriff of Skye, to Leod, son of King Olaus, by Christina, daughter of Far-quhar, Earl of Ross, and brother of Magnus, last king of Man and the Isles, which Leod is regarded as the ancestor of the Macleods of Lewis and Harris. Of this grant, however, it is to be feared there is no legal evidence. Somewhere about a hundred years later (1372) we find, in the Register of the Great Seal, a charter of confirmation by Robert II. to Reginald de Insulis, son of John of the Isles, of various lands and islands, including “insula de Here (Harris) cum omnibus aliis minutis insulis ad dictas insulas pertinentibus.’’ In 1475, the lands of Harris, etc. were forfeited by John, Lord of the Isles; and although restored by James III. the following year, they were again finally forfeited in 1493. There can be no doubt, however, that for several centuries the lands of Harris were held by a family known as Macleod of Glenelg, Harris, or Dunvegan. The first that seems to have been styled “of Harris” was William McLoyd of Glenelg, who appears on record between 1449 and 1478. Twenty years later (1498), James IV. granted in heritage to Alexander Makloide,1 son and heir of the deceased William John Makelodeson of Dunbegane, the lands commonly called Ardmanach in Herag of Lewis, with the small isles belonging to them, and other lands, which were formerly held by William Makcloid of John, Lord of the Isles. In 1547, Queen Mary granted to Archibald, Earl of Argyll, the ward of all the lands that belonged to the deceased Alexander McCloid of Dunvegane, including, of course, the lands of Harris; and in 1588, Alexander’s grandson William appears as the heir of his father, Tormod, “ in terris de Herre nun-cupatis Ardmannach de Lewes cum totis minutis insulis pertinentibus ad terras Ardmannach de Lewes.”

Through the courtesy of Macleod of Macleod, the proprietor of St Kilda, I have had access to his charter-chest, the earliest writs in which pertain to the very end of the fifteenth century. The descriptive clause in all the deeds relating to Harris makes no special mention of St Kilda. It usually runs as follows: “All and whole the lands of Harries, called Ardmeanach of Lewes, with the whole small islands thereto belonging.” The name of the remote island first occurs in a Precept from Chancery, dated 6th January 1776, for infefting Norman Macleod of Macleod as heir to his grandfather, Norman Macleod of Macleod, in all and whole the lands of Harries called Ardmeanach of Lewes, with the small islands thereto belonging, excepting, amongst others, the island of St Kilda, in the parish of Kilbryde called Harris, which was sold by the said grandfather of the grantee to the deceased John Macleod, younger of Macleod, his eldest son.

Unlike that of many Highland families, the pedigree of the Macleods seems to be unusually well vouched. The author of a detailed account of the Mackenzies in Mr Fraser’s recent work on the ‘ Earls of Cromartie,’ informs us that the origin of that family is not so remote, ut caput inter nubila condat. The word nubila is irresistibly suggestive of the name borne by the Lairds of Harris, and their extensive possessions in Skye might reasonably be supposed to indicate the possibility of a mysterious origin! Joking apart, however, it appears to be generally believed that the Macleods spring from a Scandinavian source —deriving their descent from Leod, son of King Olaus, already referred to, from whom, according to some writers, the island of Lewis or Leodhus (the habitation of Leod) received its name. Some of Leod’s descendants are said to have obtained settlements in the west of England, Wales, and Ireland, where they assumed the surnames of Lloyd and Floyd. In later times, besides the entire island of Lewis and Harris, the Scotch Macleods possessed the greater part of Skye, and a considerable portion of the western coast of Inverness-shire.

It appears from the *Twelfth Detailed Annual Report of the Registrar-General’ that, in the year 1863, Macleod occupied the thirtieth place in the list of the most common surnames in Scotland. At that date, the clan amounted to upwards of 14,000 persons, of whom more than 5000 were in Ross and Cromarty, and the rest chiefly in Inverness-shire. They were, however, surpassed by four other Macs—viz., the Macdonalds, their ancient rivals (36,000), who were only beaten by the Smiths; the Mackenzies (21,000); the Mackays (18,000) ; and the Macleans (16,000). The only other Macs among the fifty most common Scottish surnames were Mackintosh (11,000), and Macgregor (10,000).

In 1861 the Macleods were slightly more numerous in Harris than the Macdonalds, by whom, however, they were quite eclipsed in North and South Uist. The comparatively small strength of the former clan, however, is of little consequence, so long as the “Fairy Flag” at Dunvegan retains its magical power. According to Pennant, the first time it was produced was in an unequal engagement with the Clan-Ranald, “to whose sight the Macleods were multiplied ten-fold! ” In alluding to these two distinguished clans, the author of ‘A Summer in Skye ’ says that “both are of great antiquity, and it is as difficult to discover the source of either in history as it is to discover the source of the Nile in the deserts of Central Africa. . . . The two families intermarried often, and quarrelled oftener. They put wedding-rings on each other’s fingers, and dirks into each other’s hearts. Of the two, Macleod had the darker origin; and around his name there lingers a darker poetry. Macdonald sits in his castle in sunny Sleat with a southern outlook—Macleod retains his old eyrie at Dunvegan, with its drawbridge and dungeons. ... The rocks and mountains around him wear his name even as of old did his clansmen.”

At the time of Martin’s visit, in .1697, St Kilda “belonged in property to the Laird of Mack-Leod (Roderick Macleod of Macleod), head of one of the ancientest families of Scotland; ” and, some sixty years later, Macaulay informs us that the proprietor was Norman Macleod of Macleod, whose ancestors were then said to have possessed it for at least two hundred years. In 1779, Norman’s grandson, General Macleod of Macleod—the grandfather of the present Macleod of Macleod—sold “the Herries and St Kilda” to Captain Alexander Macleod, “late of the ‘ Mansfield’ Indiaman,” for the small sum of ,£15,000. By feu-charter, dated 26th April 1804, Alexander Hume, formerly Alexander Macleod of Harris, son of the aforesaid Captain Alexander Macleod, in consideration of the sum of £1350, disposed to Colonel Donald Macleod of Achagoyle “ all and whole the island of St Kilda, being a part and portion of the lands and estate of Harries, which are parts of the lands of Ardmeanach of Lewes and of the barony of Dunvegan, together with the following smaller islands, being pertinents of the said island of St Kilda, or contiguous thereto—viz., Borora, Soa, and Duun, with the several insular rocks adjacent to the said islands on which the sea-fowl are in use to breed, with the sea fishings,” etc. Colonel Donald Macleod, son of a former minister of St Kilda (?), was father of Sir John Macpherson Macleod, K.C.S.I., by whom St Kilda was sold, for £3000, to the present Macleod of Macleod, in 1871.

Speaking of St Kilda a hundred years earlier, Boswell told Johnson that he thought of buying it The Doctor at once replied, “Pray do, sir. We will go and pass a winter amid the blasts there. We shall have fine fish, and we will take some dried tongues with us, and some books. We will have a strong-built vessel, and some Orkney men to navigate her. We must build a tolerable house ; but we may carry with us a wooden house ready made, and requiring nothing but to be put up. Consider, sir, by buying St Kilda, you may keep the people from falling into worse hands. We must give them a clergyman, and he shall be one of Beattie’s choosing. He shall be educated at Marischal College. I’ll be your chancellor, or what you please.” Boswell. “Are you serious, sir, in advising me to buy St Kilda? for if you should advise me to go to Japan, I believe I should do it.” Johnson. “Why yes, sir, I am serious.” Boswell. “Why then, I’ll see what can be done.” The contemplated purchase, however, was never effected.


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