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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter VIII. - Population of St Kilda—Surnames, Occupations, etc


ST KILDA was, for1 the first time, officially enumerated in 1851. The report of the census of that year refers to a tradition that the population of the island had been nearly stationary for two hundred years, sometimes falling below, and sometimes exceeding, one hundred persons. Martin, however, informs us that at the time of his visit in 1697, the inhabitants amounted to about 180; but twenty-seven years afterwards, as already stated, a contagious distemper, believed to have been smallpox, swept away the greater part of the population. Since that date—that is, for a period of rather more than 150 years—the number of the islanders has not very materially fluctuated, .ranging from a maximum of no to a minimum of 71. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the diminution of the population was very marked, falling, as it did, to 88—38 males and 50 females—at the time of Macaulay’s visit in 1758. Thirty-seven years later (1795), the number of the inhabitants was almost precisely the same; but from that date it gradually rose till it reached 110—48 males and 62 females—at the census of 1851; while, during the last twenty-six years, the movement has been in the opposite direction. For upwards of a hundred years, the average population of the island has been, as nearly as possible, 93 souls. The number of inhabitants at the several dates already referred to, and also at various other periods since the middle of last century, is set forth in the following table, males and females being separately stated, wherever it was possible to distinguish them :—

It appears from a statement in the ‘Gazetteer of Scotland,’ that the first epidemic of cholera (1832-33) was fatal in this remote region; but I have been unable to find any definite information on the subject Any consequent diminution of population that may have occurred appears to have been very nearly made up a few years' afterwards. It ought to be borne in mind that 36 of the inhabitants of St Kilda emigrated to Australia in the year 1856; and accordingly, but for that circumstance, the natural increase of the population in 1861 would have been 4 (that is, 114 instead of 78), on the assumption that all the emigrants survived to that date. It appears, however, that several of them died on the passage, and others after their arrival in the colony. About fifteen years ago, only 13 of the 36 survived, and appeared to be doing well, as they sent occasional remittances to their relatives in St Kilda. The same decrease in the population between the censuses of 1861 and 1871 is fully accounted for by the eight deaths by drowning which occurred in the spring of 1863. Had all the deceased survived till the summer of 1871—and the oldest of the party was only 46—the population at that date would have been almost exactly the same as ten years previously. Notwithstanding their precarious mode of life and the hardships which they are called upon to endure, it must not be supposed that the inhabitants of St Kilda are not strongly attached to their island home. “The very reverse of this,” says Mr Wilson, “may be inferred from the few examples of their migrating to foreign countries, or even settling in other Scottish islands, or on the mainland”—the devotion of the St Kildans to their native shores thus forming a confirmation of the sentiment implied in the sarcastic lines of one of the most distinguished travellers in the Western Islands:—

“For who could leave, unbribed, Hibernia’s land,
Or change the rocks of Scotland for the Strand?”

With regard to the supposed capacity of the island in respect to population, Macaulay ventures to affirm that, “if under proper regulations, it might easily support 300 souls;” while an embryo Lord Chancellor, some forty years later, indicated as his opinion that “with crops, cattle, and the vast resources of sea-fowl, eggs, and fish, St Kilda is capable of supporting a population of 1500 souls with ease.”  If even the former of these calculations may be regarded as approximately correct, the prospects of the present inhabitants cannot be regarded as particularly gloomy. There are two other Scottish islands which, in respect to magnitude, geographical position, and general characteristics, bear a very considerable resemblance to St Kilda—namely, Fair Isle and Foula, both in the county of Shetland. The population of the former fell from 380 to 226 in the ten years ending 1871, in consequence of the removal of a large number of the inhabitants under the auspices of the Board of Supervision for the Relief of the Poor; while that of Foula increased from 233 to 257 during the same period. The present population of Fair Isle is 187, and that of Foula about 240.

The annexed table exhibits a comparative statement of the surnames of the inhabitants of St Kilda in 1841, and at the three subsequent decennial periods, under the twofold classification of families and persons. The particulars pertaining to 1841 are derived from Mr Wilson’s work :—

It will be observed that, in 1871, only five surnames prevailed among the native population — viz., Gillies, M'Donald, Ferguson, M'Kinnon, and M'Queen—M'Leod and Morison having disappeared before 1861, and M'Crimmon before the last official census. The M'Crimmons were the hereditary pipers of the M'Leods, and, according to Lane Buchanan, held their lands in Skye from Macleod of Macleod “for attending the chiefs person and family.’’ Among the last of the race in St Kilda was Euphemia M'Crimmon, some of whose stories (sgeulachdan) will be afterwards referred to. In 1871, the prevailing Christian names among the males were John, Neil, Donald, and Finlay; and among the females, Catherine, Rachel, Anne, and Mary. In many cases, for the sake of distinction, a characteristic epithet is added to the Christian name, after the manner of the “tee-names” of the fishermen of Banff and Moray—e.g., Donull Og, or young Donald; Callum Beag, or little Malcolm.

Mr Wilson says that “in addition to whatever slight knowledge a few of them may possess of certain handicrafts, the whole of the male sex who have attained to and have not passed the prime of life, are what we may call practical ornithologists, or cragsmen.” At the census of 1851, while eight of the softer sex were described as “weaveresses in wool,” all the men were designed “farmers and bird-catchers,” each farmer then occupying about three acres of land. In 1861, a few of the females were described as “cottars” or “servants”—the males being designed as follows :—

Accordingly, at that date, it would appear that 29 of the 33 male inhabitants either partially or exclusively followed the avocation of fowling.

In 1871, the occupations were thus specified:—

Martin states that “the women have their assemblies in the village, where they discourse of their affairs, but in the meantime employing their distaff and spinning, in order to make their blankets.” The wool of the St Kilda sheep is very fine, and excellent stockings are knitted by the females—soft and somewhat similar to those made in Shetland. The women, however, who spin the yarn, have no idea of fine work. Some of the men are good weavers; and the cloth which they produce resembles that which is manufactured in Harris, now so well known on the mainland through the philanthropic efforts of Mrs Thomas. Each of the adult males acts as his own tailor and shoemaker; and in every house there is a loom, also a spinning-wheel and a large pot in which the yarn is dyed. “Mr Mantilini” is a familiar character in St Kilda—the dresses of the women, as already mentioned, being made by the men. Macaulay refers to the successful tanning of leather with the root of tormentil, which, as already stated, is also employed for dyeing purposes. “The St Kildans,” he says, “lay the leather, when sufficiently prepared, in the warm infusion of this bark for two nights, and afterwards keep it in the hollow of a rock, which is under water at every full sea, with some of this root pounded about it, until it is sufficiently tanned.” Forty years ago, it would appear that the St Kildans manufactured earthen pots, of clay brought from the Long Island, which they used for boiling milk.

Both men and women are extremely industrious, and the assertions that have been made in some quarters relative to their lazy habits appear to be utterly untrue. Mr Sands alludes to the activity which prevailed during his last sojourn in the island, towards the end of the year, in the way of spinning and weaving—both sexes working from dawn of day till an hour or two after midnight. Their assiduity quite astonished him. “The men vary their sedentary occupation,” he says, “by going to fish when the weather permits. In spring they scale the crags, and visit the adjacent islands for eggs and birds, and cultivate their plots of ground. ... In summer they fish for ling, which they cure and sell to the factor. Abqut the end of July they require to be on the alert to catch the young fulmars, before they are quite ready to take wing; and after their perilous labours during the day, they are often obliged to sit up all night to pluck the feathers. Then comes the season to knock the young solan geese on the head,—and so on.” His account of the industry and activity of the women, which is fully confirmed by Mrs M'Vean, is even more striking—the manner in which they carry heavy loads of turf from every corner of the island; the powerful aid which they render in dragging boats on their arrival over the rocks; their milking, cheesemaking, and herding in all states of the weather; their washing, spinning, and occasionally dyeing of wool; their alertness in knitting stockings while tending the flocks or when engaged in conversation; their snaring of puffins and plucking the feathers; their help in tilling the land; and their grinding the corn in hand-mills, after it has been thrashed with a flail, and scorched in a pot or basket containing hot stones.

Notwithstanding the prohibitory statute of Alexander III. in 1284, the quern or bra, though much disused since the erection of country mills, is still pretty common in some parts of Lewis and Harris, as well as in St Kilda, where it is to be found in every cottage. It consists of two circular stones of granite, from 15 to 18 inches in diameter, and about 4 inches thick, laid flat upon each other. In the centre of the lower stone, which has a hollow of some 5 inches in depth, there is an iron pivot on which the upper stone, which is flat, is turned by means of a wooden handle. The grain is dropped into a round hole in the centre of the upper stone, finds its way between the two stones as the upper one is kept revolving, and is supposed to be sufficiently ground when it comes out at the edge between the stones. Mrs M‘Vean mentions that in her infancy the practice in St Kilda was to place the quern on a sheep-skin, in the centre of the floor, while two women, in accordance with the language of Scripture, sat cross-legged on each side—one feeding the mill with grain, while the other turned the handle with great rapidity. In referring to the same process, Mr Sands describes the present female islanders as working “like furies”! When Pennant wrote (1772), the quern was made on the mainland, and cost about fourteen shillings. In alluding to the tediousness of the process, he states that it occupied two pairs of hands four hours to grind a single bushel of corn. He gives a pictorial illustration of hand-mill grinding, and also of the process of cloth-waulking, at both of which the usual custom was for the women to sing “slow and melancholy ” tunes.

Mr Macdiarmid refers to the well-built walls which surround the patches of cultivated ground, as an indication of the masonic skill of the males. They possess axes and hammers, and in one house he saw a large box of joiner’s tools. “They are rather scarce of nails,” he adds, “which are always of use to them in the case of accidents to their boats.”

Incidental reference has already been made to the capabilities of St Kilda as a fishing station, and several writers have noticed the disregard, on the part of the islanders, of that important source of food and emolument “The neglect of fishing,” says Macculloch, “proceeds from the wealth of the inhabitants. They possess already as much food as they can consume, and are under no temptation to augment it by another perilous and laborious employment added to that to which they seem to have a hereditary attachment; while their distance from a market, and the absence of commercial habits, prevent them from undertaking a fishery for the purpose of foreign sale. Yet the coast abounds in cod and ling, and may perhaps hereafter prove a source of increased population ; if not of a greater disposable produce, and consequent increase of rent to the proprietor.” At the time of the doctor’s visit, the islanders possessed only two boats, one of which was not serviceable, in consequence of its having been allowed to go to decay for want of some trifling repairs. A few years later, Dr Macdonald refers in one of his journals to the abundance of fish in the immediate neighbourhood of St Kilda, and to the disinclination of the inhabitants to secure the treasures of the deep. Martin gives a curious account of the solitary boat, sixteen cubits in length, which the islanders possessed at the end of the seventeenth century. It was divided into apartments proportioned to their lands and rocks; “every individual having his space distinguished to an hair’s-breadth, which his neighbour cannot encroach so much as to lay an egg upon it.” Mr Maclean describes the sail of the Lair-dhonn (or brown mare), the designation of the St Kilda boat at the time of his visit in 1838. “It is made up,” he says, “of twenty-one patches of varied sizes and shades, like what you would have fancied Joseph’s coat to have been, and of coarse plaiding, the contribution of twenty-one partners, in proportion to their share of land and rocks severally. The reefs are as varied as the sail, made of old garters or woollen ropes.” An anonymous visitor to St Kilda in August 1875, in a relative contribution to the ‘ Scotsman ’ newspaper, stated that there were then no fewer than eight boats upon the island, but that the fishing seemed to be carried on “in a kind of scrambling way.” Mr Sands, on the other hand, states that two boats, with crews of eight and nine men respectively, went to sea almost every night during the time he resided on the island, to fish for ling with long lines. “Each boat would return in the morning, with perhaps, on an average, about thirty-five ling and a few cod, besides other fish,” such as lithe, halibut, black-mouths, skate, and conger-eels. He also mentions that, in the July evenings, a number of elderly men were in the habit of angling for mullet from the top of the crags near the village. Mr Macdiarmid found four boats on the island in May 1877, two of which had been recently presented to the islanders by casual visitors. Although very good of their kind, he does not consider them sufficiently strong to withstand the rough usage of being hauled over the rocks at landing. He states that, on the recommendation of Captain Digby of the “Jackal,” Government intends to send another boat forthwith, and suggests that the most judicious course would have been for the authorities to have ordered a boat to be specially built at Stornoway, on the model of the ordinary herring-boats of that seaport He also refers to the important question of a suitable landing-place, in which Captain Otter took a deep interest, the continued want of which is the source of so much inconvenience and danger. In his ‘ Sailing Directions for the Hebrides,’ Captain Otter states that a very fair landing-place was actually constructed at the north edge of the nearly vertical rock below the manse. The large boulders when blasted were cleared away to some distance, and a small breast-work erected; but, in the course of two years, the drawback of the winter swells rolled back the stones and destroyed it It appears that the Captain intended to have cleared away the rock, and then to have made a cutting of about 40 or 50 yards into the bank to the right of the minister’s house, with the view of letting the sea run in at high water. Mr Macdiarmid considers that some such project might be carried out at a comparatively small cost, and judiciously suggests that any public fund which may hereafter be raised on behalf .of the St Kildans could not be better applied than to the construction of a proper landing-place. The islanders are known to be very expert in the management of rowing-boats, but inexperienced in the use of sails, as is believed to have been indicated at the loss of the “ Dargavel” in 1863. Judging, however, from their unequalled daring as cragsmen, to which reference will be made in the following chapter, it may fairly be conjectured that, with proper training, they would prove themselves to be intrepid and skilful sailors.

With regard to the civil, or conjugal condition of the St Kildans, it appears from the report on the census of 1861, that, at that date, the island contained 13 married couples, 1 widower, and 4 widows; while there were 8 bachelors and 9 spinsters between the ages of twenty and forty-six. In 1871, however, the proportions of the latter were materially altered—the spinsters between twenty and forty-six then amounting to no fewer than 14, and the bachelors of the same age to only 3. The condition and ages of the entire population at the last census (1871) are exhibited in the two following tables, from the first of which it will be observed that the number of unmarried and widowed females was then 29, while the males in the same conditions amounted to only 12 :—

All the inhabitants of St Kilda enumerated at the census of 1861 were natives of the island except two,—viz., Mr Kennedy, the catechist and registrar, who was born at Ardchattan, Argyllshire; and poor Betty Scott — who perished with the “Dargavel” in 1863—wife of one of the M‘Donalds, and mother of the belle of the island, already referred to, whose birthplace was Lochinver, in the county of Sutherland. Mr Morgan describes her as “the Mrs Poyser of the village—smart, energetic, talkative and shrewd”—and appears to have been equally impressed with her pretty, fair-haired daughter, and her “firmly-knit, frank-looking son”—a lad of seventeen or eighteen summers—whose elastic step, and cool, daring expression of eye, induced that gentleman to single him out as one of the boldest cragsmen in St Kilda. Such was the Duke of Athole’s admiration of these two young islanders, that he seriously proposed to transplant them, along with their vigorous mother, to his Perthshire estate.

In 1871, all the inhabitants were natives of the island except Mr M'Kay, the minister, and his sister (since deceased)—who were respectively born in the town of Inverness, and at Jean town in Ross-shire—and Isabella Munro, daughter of a surveyor in Glasgow and wife of Neil M'Donald, afterwards referred to.


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