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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter VI. - Physical Characteristics of the Inhabitants—Their Dress, Food, and Houses


MOST of the writers on St Kilda give a favourable account of the physical characteristics of the inhabitants. “Both sexes,” says Martin, “are naturally very grave, and of a fair complexion; such as are not fair are natives only for an age or two, but their offspring proves fairer than themselves. There are several of them would be reckoned among beauties of the first rank, were they upon a level with others in their dress." The minister of Ardnamurchan (Macaulay) expresses the same opinion in even stronger terms. “The women,” he says, “are most handsome; their complexions fresh and lively, as their features are regular and fine; some of them, if properly dressed and genteelly educated, would be reckoned extraordinary beauties in the gay world.” According to the author of ‘Travels in the Western Hebrides,’ “the women are more handsome, as well as modest, than those of Harris: they marry young, and address strangers with profound respect.” He elsewhere states that, owing to the oily nature of their sea-fowl food the St Kildans “emit a disagreeable odour;” but I am not aware that this unpleasant characteristic has been referred to by any recent visitor. Mr Morgan also alludes to the beauties of St Kilda, and gives a graphic description of the “belle of the island;” but my correspondent, Mr Grigor, pronounces the women to be “stout and squat;” and although he admits that many of them have a blond complexion, he considers them to be generally characterised by “an uncouth comeliness, which is not very taking.” While Dr Macculloch acknowledges the good physique of the males, his estimate of the women is not very favourable. “The men,” he says, “were well-looking, and appeared, as they indeed are, well fed; exceeding in this, as in their dress, their neighbours of the Long Island, and bearing the marks of easy circumstances, or rather of wealth. But the women, like the generality of that little-favoured sex in this country, appeared harsh in feature, and were evidently impressed, even in early life, by those marks so dreaded by Queen Elizabeth, and recorded in the well-known epigram of Plato. This must be the consequence of exposure to the weather; as there is no want of food here as a cause, and as the children of both sexes might even be considered handsome.” The youthful Henry Brougham does not seem to have been favourably impressed by the appearance of the islanders. “ A total want of curiosity,” he says, “a stupid gaze of wonder, an excessive eagerness for spirits and tobacco, a laziness only to be conquered by the hope of the above-mentioned cordials, and a beastly degree of filth—the natural consequence of this —render the St Kildan character truly savage!”

Mr Macdiarmid appears to have been struck by the fresh-looking, rosy complexions of the population generally ; the women, however, appearing to him, as they did to Mr Grigor, to be “more than ordinarily stout.” In the case of both sexes I observed a good many examples of something more than plumpness; and I am very much inclined to agree with Captain Thomas in his opinion that among both men and women there is more than the average amount of good looks. Traces of a Scandinavian origin seemed to me as apparent among the natives of St Kilda as in many other parts of the Western Isles. I believe I came in contact with every inhabitant of the island; and although I did not make an actual reckoning, I feel satisfied that a majority exhibit the fair, or Scandinavian, aspect; while the rest are characterised by the olive complexion, accompanied by dark hair and eyes, which usually indicates the Celtic type of countenance. The remarkably healthy look of the children in arms was the subject of universal comment.

In general appearance, the natives of St Kilda bear a strong resemblance to the inhabitants of the Long Island —the men being somewhat less in height, but decidedly fatter. In respect to weight, they are probably above the national average, and they are said to lose flesh when placed upon the comparatively low diet of the inhabitants of the Long Island. Martin refers to the fact of the generation of his day (1697) having come short of their immediate predecessors in point of strength and longevity; but notwithstanding this circumstance, he informs us that “any one inhabiting St Kilda is always reputed stronger than two of the inhabitants belonging to Harris or the adjacent isles. Those of St Kilda,” he continues, “have generally but very thin beards, and those, too, do not appear till they arrive at the age of thirty, and in some not till after thirty-five. They have all but a few hairs upon the upper lip and point of the chin.” He elsewhere tells us that their sight is “ extraordinary good,” and that they can discern objects at a great distance. Again, in the words of Mr Wilson, “although most of the men were what we Southrons would call undersized, many of them were stout and active, and several of them handsome-featured, with bright eyes, and an expression of great intelligence.” He particularly refers to one of “even noble countenance —a sort of John Kemble rasd ”—who presented a picture of activity and strength combined.

Besides alluding to the strength and healthiness of both sexes, as well as to their capacity for long-continued exertion, Mr Sands makes special mention of the brightness of their eyes and the whiteness of their teeth. The average height of twenty-one male adults whom he measured was about five feet six inches—the tallest being five feet nine inches, and the shortest four feet


ST KILDA MAN.

ten and a half inches. In addition to a woman who is subject to fits, and an aged male of weak intellect, but quiet and peaceable when not contradicted, and who lives by himself in one of the old thatched hovels, there is an elderly man who lost his sight about six years ago. The poor imbecile contrives to cultivate a small patch of ground, and to accompany his neighbours to the fishing; while his blind brother-islesman sits cheerfully at his cottage door, and is still able to sew and make gins. With these three exceptions,- all the other members of the little community are at present sound in both body and mind. In allusion to her recent visit to the island, the “Bartimeus” of St Kilda said to Miss Macleod that “as Solomon did not go to see the Queen of Sheba, the Queen of Sheba kindly came to see Solomon! ”

Mr Wilson describes the prevailing Dress of the males as very similar to that of the fishermen of the Long Island—“small flat blue bonnets, coarse yellowish-white woollen jerkins, and trousers, also of coarse woollen stuff, of a mixed colour, similar to that of heather stalks.” Mr Muir informs us that he found both males and females very decently and comfortably clothed, and, in that respect at least, presenting a very favourable contrast to their equivalents in the Western Islands generally. “ The dress of the females,” he says, “has some peculiarities, the which it would be difficult for any but a man-milliner, or one of their own sex, to describe. A suit, consisting of a round coat, waistcoat, and trousers, made of the coarse kelt manufactured from the short wiry wool of their native sheep, and fashioned very much as such things are in the Lowlands, is the dress universally worn by the men. Even among the children we did not see a single kilt”

According to Martin, the ancient habit of the St Kildans was of sheepskin, which, he says, “has been worn by several of the inhabitants now living. The men at this day (1697) wear a short doublet reaching to their waist, about that a double plait of plad, both ends joined together with the bone of a fulmar. This plad reaches no further than the knees, and is above the haunches girt about with a belt of leather” (apparently an approach to the modern kilt). “They wear short caps of the same colour and shape as the Capuchins, but shorter; and on Sundays they wear bonnets. Some, of late, have got breeches, which are wide and open at the knees. They wear cloth stockings, and go without shoes in the summer time. Their leather is dressed with the roots of tor-mentil. The women wear upon their heads a linen dress, straight before, and drawing to a small point behind, below the shoulders, a foot and a half in length; and a lock of about sixty hairs hanging down each cheek, reaching to their breasts, the lower end tied with a knot. Their plad, which is the upper garment, is fastened upon their breasts with a large round buckle of brass, in form of a circle. . . . They wear no shoes or stockings in summer; the only and ordinary shoes they wear are made of the necks of solan geese, which they cut above the eyes; the crown of the head serves for the heel, the whole skin being cut close at the breast, which end being sewed, the foot enters into it, as into a piece of narrow stocking. This shoe doth not wear above five days, and, if the down side be next the ground, then not above three or four days. . .' . Both sexes wear coarse flannel shirts, which they put off when they go to bed.”

Lane Buchanan informs us that the St Kildans “are possessed of an equal share of pride and ambition of appearing gay on Sundays and holidays with other people;” while Macculloch refers to the remarkable fact of a community so remote having entirely conformed to the Lowland garb. “Not a trace of tartan, kilt, or bonnet was to be seen; so much has convenience gained the victory over ancient usage. The colours of the breachan might indeed have still been retained: but all was dingy brown and blue.” Speaking of the rapidity with which “fashion” travels, he elsewhere mentions that a peculiar kind of shoe-string, which had been invented in London during spring, had reached the distant shores of St Kilda by the following summer. Bonnets have for some time been considered essential for full dress by the female islanders; and the graceful handkerchief fastened under the chin is said to be looked upon as vulgar! When the Rev. Neil Mackenzie went to the island in 1830, his servant-maid, a native, asked permission to take the hearth-rug to church, by way of a shawl. Regarding her proposal as a joke, he innocently assented; and to his infinite astonishment he beheld the girl in his own pew, enveloped in the many-coloured carpet, the envied of an admiring congregation! All the women in the island were eager candidates for the “ shawl ” on the following morning, some of them offering to give “ten birds” for its use.

Mr Macdiarmid supplies the following account of the Sunday dress1 of the St Kildans: “The men wore jackets and vests of their own making, mostly of blue colour, woollen shirts, a few had linen collars, and the remainder cravats on their necks; the prevailing headdress was a broad blue bonnet The women’s dresses were mostly home-made, of finely spun wool, dyed a kind of blue and brown mixture, and not unlike common wincey. Every female wore a tartan plaid or large shawl over her head and shoulders; and upwards of twenty of these plaids were of Rob Roy tartan, all from the mainland. They were fastened in front by an antiquated-looking brooch. Several of the women wore the common white muslin cap or mutch; and I noticed one solitary bonnet, of romantic shape, adorning the head


ST KILDA WOMEN.

of by no means the fairest-looking female present. All the men, and a few of the women, wore shoes; the rest of the women had stockings, or went barefooted.” Mr Sands informs us that “ the men all wear trousers and vests of coarse blue cloth, with blanket shirts. On Sundays, they wear jackets in addition. Their clothes are made at hftme from wool plucked (not shorn) from their own sheep, which is spun by the women with the ancient spindle or more modern wheel. The women also dye the thread, and the men weave it into cloth, and make it into garments for both sexes. The dress of the women consists of a cotton handkerchief on the head, which is tied under the chin, a gown of coarse blue cloth, or blue with a thin purple stripe, fastened at the breast with an iron skewer.” (He elsewhere says, “ with a large pin made from a fish-hook.”) “ The skirt is tied round the waist, and is girded tightly above the haunches with a worsted sash of divers dim colours,1 and is worn very short—their muscular limbs being visible from near the knee. They wear neither shoes nor stockings in summer. They go barefoot even to church; and on that occasion don a plaid, which is worn square, and fastened in front with a copper brooch, like a small quoit, made by the men from an old penny beat out thin. All the women’s dresses are made by the men, who also make their brogues or shoes ; for every female owns a pair, although she prefers going without them in summer. . . . The brogues are sewed with thongs of raw sheepskin, and look like clumsy shoes. The ancient Highland brogue, which was open at the sides to let out the water, was in use until a few years ago.” The same writer refers to the entire absence of ornament in all their works, thereby differing from the ordinary Highlander. “The only exception,” he says, “ to this, is in some of their woollen fabrics, where there is a feeble attempt at colour. And yet they seem fond of bright colours. But everything else appears designed solely for utility. The women's brooches are perfectly plain, and the large pins that fasten their gowns mere skewers. There are no Celtic traceries or *uncouth sculptures ’ on their tombstones, or on any building, or any attempt at wood-carving in boat or in house. The aesthetic faculty, if it exists, seems never to have been developed.”

In Martin’s time, the ordinary Food of the inhabitants of St Kilda appears to have been barley and “ oat-bread baked with water,” fresh beef and mutton, and the various kinds of sea-fowl, which were merely dried in the small stone houses or “pyramids” erected for the purpose, without any salt or spice to preserve them. With their fish and other food, they still use an oleaginous accompaniment prepared from the fat of their fowls, termed “giben,” also in a fresh state. It is melted down and stored in the stomachs of the old gannets, like hog’s-lard in bladders. “They are undone,” says Martin, “for want of salt, of which as yet they are but little sensible. They use no set times for their meals, but are determined purely by their appetites.” In one of his letters to the ‘ Scotsman/ Mr Sands states that the islanders usually dine as late as five or six o’clock. That hour appears to be found the most suitable, in consequence of their continuous absence—on fowling expeditions and other avocations— during the greater part of the day. Martin made particular inquiry respecting the number of solan geese consumed by the inhabitants during the preceding year, and ascertained that it amounted to 22,600, which he was informed was under the average. At that time, the common drink was water or whey. According to the same writer, “ they brew ale but rarely, using the juice of nettle-roots, which they put in a dish with a little barley-meal dough. These sowens (t. e., flummery) being blended together, produce good yeast, which puts their wort into a ferment and makes good ale, so that when they drink plentifully of it, it disposes them to dance merrily.”

Mr Wilson states that the St Kildans are frequently very ill off during stormy weather, and at those periods of the year when the rocks are deserted by their feathered occupants. “Their slight supply of oats and barley,” he says, “would scarcely suffice for the sustenance of life; and such is the injurious effect of the spray in winter, even on their hardiest vegetation, that savoys and German greens, which with us are improved by the winter’s cold, almost invariably perish soon after the close of autumn. . . . The flesh of the fulmar is a favourite food with the St Kildans, who like it all the better on account of its oily nature. With it and other sea-fowl, they boil and also eat raw a quantity of sourocks, or large-leaved sorrel—a sad and watery substitute for the mealy potatoes of more genial climes. But happy it is for those who, like many a poor St Kildan, know and remember that *man does not live by bread alone.”  In his extracts from Mr Mackenzie’s Journal, we find the following statement relative to the privations of the islanders during the month of July 1841: “The people are suffering very much from want of food. During spring, ere the birds came, they literally cleared the shore not only of shell-fish, but even of a species of sea-weed that grows abundantly on the rocks within the sea-mark.

“The flesh of puffins is not only extensively used as food by the Icelanders, but it is also considered to be the best of bait for cod-fish. Puffins are in great repute for their feathers in Norway, and also for their flesh in some country parts. Yet if the natives could read what Wecker (quoted in the ‘ Anatomy of Melancholy ’) says of such food, they would avoid these  melancholic meats.’ ‘ All finny fowl (he says) ‘ are forbidden ; ducks, geese, and coots, and all those teals, curs, sheldrakes, and freckled fowls that come in winter from Scandia, Greenland, etc., which half the year are covered up with snow. Though these be fair in feathers, pleasant in taste, and of a good outside, like hypocrites, white in plumes and soft, yet their flesh is hard, black, unwholesome, dangerous, melancholy meat.* . . . Puffin-pie sounds like an abomination, but it is not bad if properly cooked. Experto crede. The backbone must be removed, and the bird soaked in water for some hours before cooking it, or it will taste of fish. Many seabirds are excellent eating, if this precaution is observed. For instance, a cormorant roasted and eaten with cayenne and lemon, is nearly as good as a wild duck, and better than a curlew. A fisherman of my acquaintance has often told me that ‘a fat gull is as good as a goose any day.’ ”—Elton’s Norway, pp. 92-94.

For a time then they were better off, particularly as long as fresh eggs could be got. Now the weather is coarse, birds cannot be found, at least in such abundance as their needs require. Sorrel boiled in water is the principal part of the food of some, and even that grass is getting scarce. All that was near is exhausted, and they go to the rocks for it, where formerly they used to go for birds only.”

Mr Wilson refers to Macaulay’s important inquiry as to “whether St Kilda be a place proper for a fishery? ” and reasonably concludes, from the enormous number of sea-fowl, that the surrounding waters must be well stocked with fish. According to Martin, the coasts of St Kilda and the lesser isles are plentifully furnished with “ a variety of cod, ling, mackerel, congars, braziers, turbot, greylords, and sythes; . . . also laiths, podloes, herrings, and many more. Most of these are fished by the inhabitants upon the rock, but they have neither nets nor long-lines. Their comfhon bait is the lympets or patella, being parboiled ; they use likewise the fowl called by them bouger (puffin), its flesh raw, which the fish near the lesser isles catch greedily. Sometimes they use the bouger’s flesh and the lympets at the same time upon one hook, and this proves successful also.” Mr Wilson estimates the number of solan geese alone in the colony of St Kilda at 200,000, their favourite food being herring and mackerel; and, on the assumption that each of them is a feeding creature for seven months in the year, he computes the summer sustenance of this single species at no less than 214 millions of fish!1 “ Think of this,” he remarks, “ye men of Wick, ye curers in Caithness, ye fair females of the salting-tub. It is also a subject of very grave consideration by all who take an interest in the forlorn St Kildans. A second boat” (he adds) “would probably be of great advantage, and also a good supply of hooks and lines.”

Mr Grigor considers the St Kildans to be much better off, according to their habits of life, than is generally supposed ; and Mr Kennedy, the catechist, assured him that every one of them had some money laid past Captain Thomas informs me that, in the year i860, they were able to pay a half-year’s rent in advance. According to Mr Grigor, “ their food is principally the flesh of marine birds—the gannet, fulmar, and puffin—of which the two first are stored for the winter. They do not care for farinaceous food or fish. They also eat mutton and beef in emergencies, and milk and eggs always. There is plenty of good ling and cod to be got about the islands, and the people have begun to cure.” For that purpose an abundant supply of salt appears to be a great desideratum. In i860, Captain Otter of the “ Porcupine”—engaged on the Admiralty Survey—brought off sixteen cwt of excellent fish, which were sold for ^16, and the proceeds given to the inhabitants. About twelve years ago, some of the younger men having resolved to fish, procured a suitable boat and lines ; and at that time it was considered that, if no disaster should occur, they ought to catch from three to four tons of fish, which would be worth upwards of 50.

According to the ‘Fishing Gazette' this is equal to 305,714 barrels, or much more than the total average of herrings branded at all the north-east stations. To the number indicated must be added what the cod and dogfish and other fowls and fishes devour. The fruitfulness of the herring to balance this enormous destruction by man, fish, and fowl is correspondingly great, as the roe generally contains between 60,000 and 70,000 eggs.

According to Lane Buchanan, the guillemot supplies the wants of the St Kildans when their fresh mutton is exhausted. “Then the solan goose is in season; after that the puffins, with a variety of eggs ; and when their appetites are cloyed with this food, the salubrious fulmar, with their favourite young solan goose (called goug), crowns their humble tables, and holds out all the autumn. In winter they have a greater stock of bread, mutton, potatoes, and salad, or reisted [salted] fowls, than they can consume.” While the sea-birds are eaten in a fresh state during summer, they are salted for consumption in winter. I have somewhere seen the number so salted stated at 12,000, which is equal to about 150 birds for every man, woman, and child. Mrs M'Vean mentions that every family has about three or four barrels of fulmars salted for winter use, the flavour of which she considers similar to that of salted pork. Their principal food in summer is roasted puffin. “ For breakfast,” she observes, “ they have some thin porridge or gruel, with a puffin boiled in it to give it a flavour. Dinner consists of puffin again, this time roasted, with a large quantity of hard-boiled eggs, which they eat just as the peasantry eat potatoes; They use no vegetables, except a few soft potatoes, not unlike yams. They consume very little meal, as their crops are not good, and are liable to being swept off by the fierce equinoctial gales. ; Bread is considered a great luxury, and is only used at christenings, weddings, and the New Year. The latter is quite a time of feasting, as each family kills a sheep, and bakes oatmeal cakes. The principal drink is whey. No vegetables can be raised (as in Martin’s time), owing to the showers of spray that dash over the island. Even kail plants are with difficulty reared.”

Mr Sands also states that “the St Kildans subsist chiefly on sea-fowl, the flesh of the fulmar being preferred. This they eat both in a fresh and in a pickled condition. The men when out in their boats dine on oat-cakes and ewe-milk cheese, washed down with milk or whey. The women when herding use the same viands. The sea-fowl must be nutritious, judging from, the lusty looks, strength, and endurance of the people. They have a prejudice against fish, and use it sparingly, alleging that it causes an eruption on the skin. They care little for tea, but are fond of sugar, and the women are crazy for sweets. The men are equally fond of tobacco, although they consume it little, probably because it is too costly.”

Mr Macdiarmid specifies the following as the ordinary diet of a St Kildan :—

Breakfast.—Porridge and milk.

Dinner.—Potatoes, and the flesh of the fulmar, or mutton, and occasionally fish.

Supper.—Porridge, when they have plenty of meal.

He also mentions that they take tea once or twice a week, and appear to be rather fond of it “They seemed surprised,” he adds, “at the small quantity of tea sent to them in proportion to the amount of sugar.” While he confirms Mr Sands’s statement regarding the fondness of the men for tobacco, he says that he “saw no signs whatever of the partiality for sugar and sweets which has been attributed to them.” I believe, however, that, in common with the other islanders of Scotland, and especially the Shetlanders, the inhabitants of St Kilda have a very decided weakness for sweets. On the occasion of my recent visit, in addition to a number of showy picture-books for the children, I took a supply of sweets, for both adults and juveniles, in the shape of peppermint-drops and “gundy” — a species of strongly-flavoured “rock” — having previously ascertained, on the best authority, that these two confections would be especially acceptable; and judging from the demonstrations which accompanied the distribution, the common opinion regarding the penchant in question seemed to be fully corroborated. The large quantity of salt food consumed by the St Kildans during winter has been suggested as the possible cause of their addiction to sweets. Teetotalism does not appear to have reached St Kilda. Mr Grigor partook of both wine and whisky at the house of the cate-chist, and he was informed that some spirits were to be found in every household—being only used, however, “on great occasions, or medicinally.”

In Martin’s time, the St Kilda Houses were of a low form, rounded at the ends, and with all the doors to the north-east, to secure them from the tempestuous shocks of the south-west winds. The walls were rudely built of stone, and the roofs—of wood, covered with straw—secured by ropes of twisted heather, to prevent the thatch from being carried away by the gales. They were built in two rows, with a causeway between called “ the street” Mr Wilson believes that the houses which existed up to the beginning of the reign of George IV. were the same as those in which the inhabitants had lived during the entire period of their authentic history. He describes these primitive dwellings as consisting of “ a low narrow entrance through the thick stone wall, leading to a first apartment, in which, at least during the winter season, were kept the cattle; and then to a second, in which the natives dwelt. These inner rooms, though small, were free from the incumbrance of beds, for the latter were placed in, or rather formed by deep recesses of the walls, like low and horizontal open presses, into which they This primitive practice is referred to by both Herodotus and Juvenal. crept at night, their scanty bedding being placed upon stones, in imitation of the puffins.”1 The same author attributes the improved system of house-building to an accomplished and liberal Englishman, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, who visited the island in his yacht upwards of forty years ago, and left a premium of twenty guineas with the minister (the Rev. Neil M'Kenzie) for the first person who should demolish his old house and erect a new one on an improved principle. A tenacious adherence to uniformity had long formed a characteristic feature in the social polity of the inhabitants, and it was some time before any one was bold enough to take a step in advance. At length a comparatively energetic individual commenced the double work of demolition and reconstruction, which resulted in a general movement; and under the judicious superintendence of the worthy minister, “ the ancient city of St Kilda was razed to its foundations, and one of modern structure erected in its place.” When Mr Wilson visited the island in 1841, only a single roofless hut of the olden time remained to illustrate the peculiar construction of these rude dwellings.

There are at present eighteen inhabited houses on the island—viz., sixteen cottages with zinc roofs, and two thatched huts, arranged in the form of a crescent, from fifteen to twenty yards apart, and numbered from right to left. The occupants of each of the cottages range from two to seven, while the two huts are respectively tenanted by a bachelor and a spinster. The cottages were built about fifteen years ago by Sir John Mac-pherson Macleod, the late proprietor of St Kilda. Most of the other old huts still stand, alternating with the cottages, and are used by the inhabitants as byres and cellars.2 They are constructed of rough stones, without mortar. The walls are of great thickness, varying from five to eight feet, and about five feet high on the outside; or, rather, they really consist of two strong dykes within a foot or two of each other, the intermediate space being tightly packed with earth, so as to fill up all the interstices. The doorway is very low—somewhere about three feet in height—and in consequence of the great thickness of the double walls, the entrance may be almost termed a passage, resembling, in miniature, that of the celebrated Maeshowe in Orkney. The shape of the huts is oval, and internally they are divided into two apartments by a removable partition of loose stones. Most of them can boast of a small four-paned window, which, however, admits a very limited amount of light, in consequence of the great thickness of the walls. The door is secured by a wooden lock, worked with a key of the same material.


COTTAGES.

and of ingenious construction. “One feature,” says Mr Muir, “belonging to the houses rather amused us. On our return from the day’s excursion, the people being assembled in the church, we found the doors in most instances secured by a large wooden lock, so ingeniously contrived that we were utterly unable so much as to conjecture by what means it could be opened. The thing, made up of a square of several sturdy bars immovably jammed, ends and sides together, and without catch or keyhole, was certainly a puzzle that would have honoured a Chubb or a Chinaman. Yet more puzzling than the lock seemed the necessity for its existence.”

The roofs, which are of thatch, are circular or somewhat rounded, and are secured by ropes of straw with heavy stones attached to their extremities, as in many other parts of the Hebrides, for the purpose indicated by Martin. Instead of the thatch projecting beyond the walls, in accordance with the ordinary practice, its edge springs from the inner side of the thick wall, and thus counteracts the effects of the wind. In the case of a few of these old houses, the walls contain boot-shaped vaults or recesses, similar to those described by Martin, which were formerly used as beds, and which are accessible through small apertures, about two feet from the floor, resembling the mouth of a baker's oven. One of these, which I inspected with the aid of a light, was certainly not very inviting. The fireplace used to occupy the middle of the room, being a circular cavity in the floor, round which the natives sat before smouldering ashes of dry turf, cut or scraped together from the hills. Most of the smoke made its exit through the doorway; but, owing to the scarcity of fuel, the smoke was not very troublesome. The absence of chimneys, however, was to some extent compensated for by the accumulation of soot on the under side of the thatch. . Once a-year, usually in May—as is still the practice in Lewis and other parts.of the Hebrides —the huts were unroofed, in order to remove the lower portion of the sooty straw for the purpose of manure, and in October a fresh coating of thatch was laid upon the part that remained. The want of peat in St Kilda makes a glowing fire a rare spectacle. Occasionally a log or other fragment of wood is cast upon the island; but owing to the limited extent of shore, such godsends are not very frequent The memoranda furnished to Mr Wilson by the Rev. Neil M'Kenzie contain several allusions to the scarcity of fuel. Sometimes when the islanders run short of turf, they are compelled to burn grass (phiteach) as a substitute. In referring to the important subject of fuel, Mr Macdiarmid very naturally speculates on the probable result of the present disastrous but apparently unavoidable system of stripping the turf from the pasture as a substitute for peat Many hundreds of acres have already been thus bared; and only where a little soil is left on the surface of the rock is there anything like an approach to the original sward. In other parts of the Western Isles, such as Iona, Tyree, and Canna, the deficiency of fuel is a very serious circumstance. The author of the ‘Agriculture of the Hebrides’ says that “the man who opens a colliery in the Hebrides, or opposite the mainland of the west of Scotland north of Cantyre, will confer a greater favour on those sequestered regions than the whole dictionary of praise can express. He will literally kindle the flame of gratitude, and ‘ cheer the shivering native’s dull abode.’ ”

Mr M'Kenzie gives the following account of the domestic usages of the St Kildans, as they continued up to a comparatively recent date (1863), when they took possession of their present abodes: “The apartment next the door (as in Martin’s time) is occupied by the cattle in winter, and the other by themselves. Into their own apartment they begin early in summer to gather peat-dust, which they use with their ashes, and moisten by all the foul water used in making their food, etc. By these means the floor rises gradually higher and higher, till it is, in spring, as high as the side-wall, and in some houses higher. By the beginning of summer a person cannot stand upright in any of their houses, but must creep on all fours round the fire."

The modern cottages, which, as already stated, were erected by the late proprietor of the island in 1861-62, present a favourable contrast to these squalid abodes, and in respect of house accommodation, the St Kildans may now be regarded as far ahead of the inhabitants of the Long Island. Mr Macdiarmid furnishes the following detailed account of their construction: “The walls are well built, with hewn stones in the corners, and about seven or eight feet high; chimney on each gable; roof covered with zinc; outside of walls well pointed over with cement, and apparently none the worse as yet of the many wild wintry blasts they have withstood. Every house has two windows, nine panes of glass in each, one window on each side of door; good, well-fitting door, with lock. The interior of each house is divided into two apartments by a wooden partition, and in some a bed-closet is opposite the entrance-door. Every house I entered contained a fair assortment of domestic utensils and furniture—kitchen-dresser, with plates,6 bowls, pots, kettles, pans, etc., wooden beds, chairs, seats, tables, tin lamps, etc. There is a fireplace and vent in each end of the house, which is certainly an improvement on the majority of Highland cottars’ dwellings, where the fire is often on the middle of the floor, and the smoke finds egress by the door or apertures in the wall, or it may be a hole in the roof.” The zinc plates are nailed down over wooden planks. The minister told Dr Angus Smith that he considered the roofs to be a failure, “ since it rained inside whenever it rained outside,” the plates not being made to overlap sufficiently to produce perfect security. When the inhabitants first took possession of these new houses, they found them colder as well as airier than their former abodes; but this is the ordinary experience among the humbler classes, when they are persuaded to occupy improved dwellings. At the time of Mr Wilson’s visit to St Kilda in 1841, the furniture was very scanty, each house then having “ one or more bedsteads, with a small supply of blankets, a little dresser, a seat or two with wooden legs, and a few kitchen articles.” About twelve years later, an assortment of crockery was furnished to the islanders by the Rev. Dr M'Lauchlan and a small party of friends, on the occasion of an expedition to St Kilda; and before they left the island, they were not a little amused to find certain utensils, to which I cannot more particularly allude, freely used as porridge-dishes!

On the 3d of October i860 a dreadful storm swept across St Kilda, and the roofs of some of the houses were carried away by the gale. A large sum was collected in Glasgow to provide for the destitution which it was believed to have occasioned, and it was proposed to devote a portion of the fund to the erection of new houses. It appears, however, that this was opposed and prohibited by the proprietor, who himself sent masons and carpenters from Skye the year following, for the purpose of building four houses, each containing two rooms and two closets.

Besides the cottages of the islanders, the little township of St Kilda embraces four other fabrics of a more pretentious kind—to wit, the manse, church,7 store, and factor’s house. Situated on the north-east side of the bay, about a hundred yards from the beach, and twice that distance from the village, the manse is a one storeyed, slated building, with a porch, and contains four apartments. It is protected on one side by a high wall by way of shelter, and in front is an enclosed patch of tilled-ground, where a rain-gauge is placed. On looking into the rooms* I was struck by their unfurnished and comfortless aspect— the absence of a helpmate being painfully apparent. The manse must have presented a better appearance at the time of Mr Wilson’s visit. He describes the apartment in which he was received by the minister as “ a neat enough room, carpeted, and with chairs and tables, but with some appearance of damp upon the walls, which, on tapping with our knuckles, we found had not been lathed.”

At the same period, the minister—or rather the prime minister—of St Kilda was the Rev. Neil Mackenzie, now pastor of Kilchrenan, Argyllshire, who also acted in the capacity of teacher, and who appears to have done everything in his power to improve both the spiritual and physical condition of the inhabitants. Some interesting extracts from his MS. memoranda relative to the weather, the condition of the people, and the arrival of the various sea-fowl, to which I have already referred, are printed in Mr Wilson’s work.

The church, built at a cost of about 600, is situated immediately behind the manse—a plain, substantial structure, with a door and four windows. Like the manse, it has a slated roof, but only an earthen floor—the pews consisting of rude deal benches. On each side of the pulpit, which is accompanied by the ordinary precentor’s desk, is an enclosed pew, of which one is for the use of the elders, and the other for visitors. Two wooden chandeliers, recently presented by Sir Patrick Keith-Murray, are suspended from the ceiling, each charged with three excellent candles made from the tallow of the sheep; and the islanders are summoned to worship by a small bell which was recovered from a wreck.

The little burial-place, elliptical in form, and surrounded by a wall, is situated behind the village, and, like most Highland churchyards, is overgrown by nettles, and otherwise in a very neglected condition. A better state of matters appears to have prevailed at the close of the seventeenth century. Martin says,—“They take care to keep the churchyard perfectly clean, void of any kind of nastiness, and their cattle have no access to it” With the solitary exception of a slab, erected by a former minister, none of the tombstones bear any inscriptions. The ruins of one of the ancient chapels—removed a few years ago—occupied the centre of the burial-ground. One of the stones bearing an incised cross, which I unfortunately neglected to look for, is built into the wall of a cottage. Gray’s well-known lines seem peculiarly applicable to the “God’s acre” of St Kilda

“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear :
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Close to the landing-place is the store, built of stone and lime, and with a slated roof, in which feathers and oil—the staple exports of the island—are deposited; and in its immediate neighbourhood is another very tolerable house, resembling the manse in form, in which the factor resides during his periodical sojourns. On the occasion

of my visit, we found that it had been occupied, for upwards of a fortnight, by Miss Macleod of Macleod, the sister of the proprietor of St Kilda, who returned with us in the “Dunara.” As already mentioned, she had accompanied Lord and Lady Macdonald in their yacht on the 15th of June, and had spent sixteen days on the island, with the view of making herself acquainted with the condition of the inhabitants. The scene at her departure was not a little touching. While she was affectionately kissed by the women, the men “lifted up” their voices. I was, however, fully prepared for this display of attachment, having heard so much of the benevolent lady’s acts of kindness at Dunvegan, where a woman, to whom I happened to speak of Miss Macleod’s absence from Skye being a cause of regret in that quarter, warmly informed me that she was “an angel in human form! ”


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