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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter XII. - Music, Customs, and Antiquities


EDGAR POE quotes from memory an idea which he found in an old English tale relative to the “springheade and origine” of music—viz., “the verie pleasaunte sounde which the trees of the forest do make when they growe.” In that view of the matter, it is difficult to conceive how the inhabitants of Hirta could ever have become amenable to the charms of the “heavenly maid;” but more than one poet has indicated other sources of the divine science—the dawning morn, the twilight cloud, the depth of night, the sighing of a reed, and the gushing of a rill—from one or more of which the remote islanders doubtless derived their appreciation of music. Martin informs us that he found St Kildans of both sexes “who have a genius for poetry, and are great admirers of music. The trump or Jewish harp," he adds, “is all the musical instrument they have, which disposes them to dance mightily.” Elsewhere, however, he refers to the use of the bagpipe at their marriage festivals. In alluding to the use of the distaff by the women, he states that “they sing and jest for diversion, and in their way understand poetry, and make rhymes in their language.” Macaulay bears still stronger testimony to the islanders’ love of music. “They are enthusiastically fond of it,” he says, “whether in the vocal or instrumental way : the very lowest tinklings of the latter throws them into ecstacy of joy. I have seen them dancing to a bad violin much to my satisfaction: even the old women in the isle act their part in the great assemblies, and the most agile dancers are here, as well as everywhere else, very great favourites. They delight much in singing, and their voices are abundantly tuneful. The women, while cutting down their barley in a field, or grinding their grain on their hand-mills in the house, are almost constantly employed in that way; and the men, if pulling at the oar, exert all the strength of their skill in animating the party, by chanting away some spirited songs adapted to the business in hand. The seamen of Athens practised the same custdm.”

The same writer descants on the unpromising conditions of the sea-girt isle for the votaries of Apollo and the nine sisters, but reminds his readers that the fogs of Bceotia and the mountains of Thrace have produced illustrious poets, and that it is easier to trace the Muses in the cold regions of the north than in sunnier climes. After specifying the subjects which have been handled by the bards of St Kilda in their odes—the beauty of their female favourites, the heroism of the men in climbing rocks and breasting the billows of the ocean, and “the common topics of personal advantages and intellectual merit”—he proceeds to imagine the results of the residence of a great poetical genius amid the wonders of the romantic isle—strange “landskips,” a boundless ocean, lofty precipices, mountains lost in the clouds, a countless variety of birds, “monstrous sea-animals,” a curious race of intelligent beings, noble cataracts, purling streams, and crystal fountains, “equal perhaps to those of Helicon and Castalia”—and comes to the satisfactory conclusion that such a gifted individual might very easily pursue, in the words of Milton,

“Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme! ”

The author of ‘Rasselas’ takes a very different and somewhat matter-of-fact view. Speaking of St Kilda poetry, of which he had heard in the course of his tour, he observed that “it must be very poor, because the inhabitants have very few images.” On Boswell remarking that a poetical genius may be shown in their combination, the Doctor replied: “Sir, a man cannot make fire, but in proportion as he has fuel.” (In a literal sense, at least, this is painfully true at St Kilda!) “He cannot coin guineas but in proportion as he has gold.”

Lane Buchanan refers to the delight which both the men and women took in singing. “Their songs," he says, “are wonderfully descriptive, and discover great strength of fancy.” As time wears on, however, another picture unfortunately begins to present itself, and a later visitor tells a different tale. “All the world,” says Macculloch, “has heard of St Kilda music and St Kilda poetry, just as all the world has heard of the musical and poetical genius of the Highlanders. . . . We were prepared to bring away some valuable relics; the staves were already ruled, the dragoman appointed; but alas! there was neither fiddle nor Jew’s harp in the island, and it was not remembered when there had been either. The Muses, whom the Abb£ Cartaud calls ‘Jupiter’s opera girls,’ seemed to have carried their functions to warmer regions. There was a day when he who had slept on the top of Conochan awoke a poet. ... In the meantime, the poetry has followed the music; and thus common fame maintained its well-earned reputation.” The same writer devotes a good many pages of his earlier work to the subject of “ Highland Music,” in which he makes the following allusion to St Kilda. “Among other subjects,” he says, “which do not appear to have stood the test of examination, St Kilda has been celebrated for its music. That reputation, if it was ever well founded, exists no longer; nor, at the time of my visit, did it appear that there was either a bagpipe or a violin in the island. The airs which are recorded as originating in this place are of a plaintive character; but they differ in no respect from the innumerable ancient compositions of this class which abound in the Highlands.” He classifies Highland music under the two grand heads of pibrochs and simple airs, the former being distinguished by a very irregular character without time or accent, and often scarcely embracing a determined melody, with a train of complicated and tasteless variations, adding confusion to the original air; while the latter are usually of a plaintive description, divisible into a regular number of accented bars, often in a minor key, and presenting very little variety. One peculiar characteristic of nearly all these simple airs is their adaptability to either slow or quick time, constituting, as they frequently do, the ordinary dance-music of the country, there being no essential difference between the reel and the pathetic air.

The “Apostle of the North” incidentally alludes to the “musical turn” of the St Kildans at the time of his second visit to the island in 1824; but a more recent writer confirms Macculloch’s statement relative to the departure of a taste for music from the shores of St Kilda. “At one period,” he says, “they were fond of music, although the Jew's harp was the only instrument they possessed, and to its feeble twang they danced and were gay. None of them perform on any instrument now, and dancing is unknown.” In his notice of one of the oldest men on the island, still bearing the name of Donull Og, or young Donald, the same writer says that he may be seen daily, sitting on the low wall opposite his cottage, sewing clothes or making gins, and humming an oran Hirtaich or St Kildan song.

Donald M'Kinnon, the Obbe precentor, informed me that Finlay M'Leod, like himself a native of St Kilda, who died about fifty years ago, composed an air—a species of lilt—which embraces no fewer than sixteen “ turns,” and is very difficult to play. It received the name of “The St Kilda Wedding” from Mr Angus M'Leod, formerly a banker in Edinburgh, and son of one of the ministers of St Kilda. Christopher Macrae, an old piper in the same quarter, whom I also saw, plays the tune, but was unable to write the score. I understood M'Kinnon to say that the words by which the air is usually accompanied describe the performances of a skilful cragsman, and other exciting incidents.

On the occasion of his visit to St Kilda in 1838, Mr Maclean was much affected by the tremulous but musical voice of an old woman—Margaret M'Leod by name— seated on a stone by the side of her cottage, and busily plying the spindle, as she sang an elegiac song or “lament,” composed by a sorrowing mother in memory of a favourite son, who met his death on the cliffs of Soa. As a tribute of respect to my esteemed friend, the professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh, I subjoin the original words :—

Air—M'Gregor’s Lament.

'Dh’ fhag mi thall ann a* So’a,
Macan bg nach robh leumrach;
Thu bhi mach sa Gheo'-chumhann,
Gur aonail dubhach nad dheigh mi

Cha tig thu gud’ mhkthair,
Ged is fail’neach a* leirsinn ;
’Stu nach 61adh le macaibh,
’Snach innseadh dhachaidh na breugan.

Dh’ fhag thu d’fhuil air a chloich ud,
Rinn do chorpan a reubadh;
’S fuar do leaba fo’n tuinne,
Stu nad spurt aig na beistean!”

Not many months ago, the following “tolerably literal” translation of a St Kilda song appeared in the columns of the ‘ Scotsman ’ newspaper, where it was stated to be at least as old as the middle of last century, and possibly much older. The contributor of the translation — Mr Alexander Stewart—first heard it sung some five-and-twenty years ago by one of the crew of the Revenue cruiser “ Harriet,” a native of Lewis or Harris. He describes the air as one of the wildest and eeriest he ever listened to, “ the burden or refrain being manifestly an imitation, consciously or unconsciously, of the loud discordant clamour of a flock of sea-fowl over a shoal of fish.'

THE ST KILDA MAID’S SONG.

“Over the rocks, steadily, steadily;
Down to the clefts with a shout and a shove, O!
Warily tend the rope, shifting it readily;
Eagerly, actively, watch from above, O!
Brave, O brave, my lover true, he's worth a maiden’s love;
(And the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above!

Sweet 'tis to sleep on a well-feathered pillow;
Sweet from the embers the fulmar's red egg, O!
Bounteous our store from the rock and the billow;
Fish and birds in good store, we need never to beg, O!
Brave, O brave, etc.

Hark to the fulmar and guillemot screaming,
Hark to the kittiwake, puffin, and gull, O!
See the white wings of the solan goose gleaming;
Steadily, men, on the rope gently pull, O!
Brave, O brave, etc.

Deftly my love can hook torse, ling, and conger,
The grey fish and hake with the net and the creel, O!
Far from our island be plague and be hunger;
And sweet our last sleep in the quiet of the keel, O!
Brave, O brave, etc.

Pull on the rope, men! pull it up steadily;
There’s a storm on the deep, see the skart claps his wings, O!
Cunningly guide the rope, shifting it readily;
Welcome my true love, and all that he brings, O!
Now God be praised, my lover's safe, he's worth a maiden’s love;
(And the sea below, etc.)"

In the fourth volume of the ‘Scots Musical Museum,’ I recently found a very sweet and plaintive air entitled “St Kilda Day” The words by which it is accompanied are said to be a translation, by the Rev. Andrew M'Donald,1 of a favourite Gaelic song sung by the natives of St Kilda to the air in the ‘ Museum,’ from which both words and music were reprinted by Mr Charles Stewart in his ‘Vocal Miscellany,’ published in 1798. I venture to think that the introduction of the air will be generally appreciated. The disconsolate songstress appears to be in search of her lover, who, we may suppose, has met with an untimely end in the course of a fowling expedition. As in the poetical epistle from “ Matilda,” referred to in a previous chapter, Mr M‘Donald’s verses embrace some allusions not quite appropriate to the sea-girt isle, which, so far as I am aware, can boast of neither “waving ivy” nor “twisted willow.”


By the stream so cool and clear, And thro’ the caves where  It would appear that, in recent times, all ordinary vocal music of a secular character has been in a great measure superseded by psalms and hymns. One of my fellow-passengers in the “ Dunara Castle ” was the bearer of some perfectly unobjectionable Gaelic song-books, and on his presenting them to the islanders, they were immediately submitted to the censorship of the minister, who decided that as they were “ neither psalms nor spiritual hymns,” they could not be accepted! Even when I distributed my fairy tales and other picture-books among the children, I had a vision of the index librorum pro-hibitorum, but the “holy father” of Hirta made no sign of disapproval.

In describing the Sunday services at St Kilda, Mr Macdiarmid says that “the singing baffles description. Everybody sang at the top of his voice, and to his own tune; there was no attempt at harmony.” According to Mr Wilson, the Irish melodies are unknown to the islanders. “ Dancing,” he says, “ is also now regarded by them as a frivolous amusement, and has ceased to be practised even during their more joyous festivals, such as marriage or baptism.” Captain Thomas attributes these changes in their habits to the instruction of fanatical teachers, the result of which is merely the exchange of one superstition for another. “ One prominent instance,” he writes to me, “ is the belief that all secular music is vicious; and both in St Kilda and the Long Island, one of the ruling canons is that ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a piper, etc.’ I have been told,” he says, “ that, in Uig, it was proposed by some of the ascetics to give church censure to a man who received his brother, who was a piper, into his house, but that the minister refused. An Established minister may play the accordion, but not the fiddle^—a Free Churchman is restricted to the Jew’s harp!" My correspondent’s statement reminds me of an amusing story which is told of a Dissenting minister who was appointed to a charge in Paisley, and whose musical fame reached the town before he himself arrived. He had not been many hours in his new sphere of labour, when a female member of the congregation, who highly disapproved of his fiddling propensities, waited upon the divine and said, in a censorious tone, “So I hear you play the violin ” “Yes,” said the minister, seizing a huge violoncello which happened to be within his reach, “and I will play you a tune.” Before the astonished frondeur could interpose an objection, he proceeded to discourse in most melodious strains, and after finishing an exquisite air, he asked her what she thought of it? “Very bonnie,” she immediately replied, “ very bonnie; but then, you see, that’s no the sinfu’ little fiddle,” — a fair example, by the way, of Scotch meta^iisics!

A few of the customs of the St Kildans have been incidentally mentioned in a previous chapter. In his description of Christ’s Chapel, the site of which is occupied by the necropolis of the island, Martin mentions a brazen crucifix which lay upon the altar, not exceeding a foot in length, and the head bearing a crown. “ They hold it,” he says, “ in great reverence, though they pay no kind of adoration or worship to it, nor do they either handle or see it, except upon the occasions of marriage, and swearing decisive oaths, which puts an end to all strife, and both these ceremonies are publicly performed.” He also mentions that the islanders observed the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, St Columba’s Day, and All Saints, on the last of which “ they have an anniversary cavalcade, the number of their horses not exceeding eighteen; these they mount by turns, having neither saddle nor bridle of any kind, except a rope, which manages the horse only on one side. They ride from the shore to the house, and then after each man has performed his tour, the show is at an end” Macaulay connects the St Kilda “ Derby” with Michaelmas, when, he informs us, “ the ablest horsemen among them ride their little high-mettled nags, like so many Numidians or old Britons, without saddles, stirrups, or bridles. Those who distinguish themselves in these races, are supremely happy in the rewards of honour and glory which they obtain, though strangers to the royal plates of the modems, and the palm crowns of ancient times.” The nature of the ground could not have been very suitable, one would think, for rapid riding; but to this day the inhabitants of Siena, in North Italy, indulge in the ancient horseraces of their ancestors—some of the steepest streets in the city being selected for the course. Macaulay gives a detailed account of the festivals of St Kilda, specifying New Year’s Day and Michaelmas, in addition to those mentioned by Martin. It appears that the festival of St Columba was held on the sixteenth of June, although, according to the calendar, it falls upon the ninth—St Brendan’s festival being observed on the twenty-seventh of May, instead of the sixteenth, as in the calendar. He tells us that Brendan, in Gaelic Brianin, was an Irish saint, a contemporary of St Columba, and that a great number of churches were dedicated to his holiness in the Western Isles. On these two saints’ days, all the milk of the commonwealth was delivered to the steward or his deputy with the view of its being equally distributed among every man, woman, and child in the island, after the manner of the agapce or love-feasts of early times; and our author conjectures that the practice was probably introduced into St Kilda by the Culdees. On Christmas and New Year’s Day, besides eating and drinking “the best things their land affords," the islanders danced with great skill and agility, while a grave demeanour was the order of the day on Easter Sunday. The same writer informs us that “till of late,” it was the custom of the islanders to prepare in every family, on Michaelmas Day, an enormous cake, compounded of various ingredients. “This cake belonged to the archangel, and had its name from him. Every one in each family, whether strangers or domestics, had his portion of this kind of shew-bread; and had, of course, some title to the friendship and protection of Michael.”

I have already referred to the altar on Mulldch-geal, where the ancient St Kildans offered sacrifices to the god of the seasons. Macaulay mentions a large stone, “ white and square,” on the face of another hill between the village and the north-west side of the island, on which the islanders formerly poured libations of milk, every Sunday, to a “good-humoured, sportive, and placable deity,” named in Gaelic Gruagach, or the divinity with fine hair or long tresses—the Grannus of the Britons, and the Apollo of Greece and Rome. A little above the Gruagach stone, there appears to have been a small green plain, called by the St Kildans Liani-nin-ore, or the plain of spells, exorcisms, or prayers, where they implored God’s blessing on their cattle, and lustrated the animals with salt, water, and fire, with the view of removing “the power of fascinations, the malignity of elves, and the vengeance of every evil genius! ”1 Below the field of spells and lustrations was another fertile spot, which the natives declined to convert into arable ground, under the idea that it ought to be kept sacred, and that any encroachment upon it “ would be infallibly attended with the loss of their boat, or some other public calamity.” Although they had forgotten the name of the divinity to whom this piece of ground belonged, like the Athenians of old, they continued to worship the “unknown god.”

Both Martin and Macaulay allude to the consecrated wells, already referred to, which were formerly held in great veneration. The latter specially mentions three —viz., Tobimimbuadh, or the spring of diverse virtues, situated near the Camper, or crooked bay; Toberi Clcrich, or the clerk’s well, below the village; and Tobir Childa Chalda, or Kilder’s fountain, from which the island is supposed to have derived its modern name. “At every full tide the sea overflows the clerk’s well, but how soon that ebbs away, nothing can be fresher or sweeter than the water.”

Martin gives a short account of what appears to have been a species of anachdor shinty, a game which the Scottish Highlanders have long enthusiastically practised. “They use,” he says, “for their diversion short clubs and balls of wood. The sand is a fair field for this sport and exercise, in which they take great pleasure, and are very nimble at it. They play for some eggs, fowls, hooks, or tobacco; and so eager are they for victory, that they strip themselves to their shirts to obtain it. They use swimming and diving, and are very expert in both." Curiously enough when Mr Wilson visited the island .in 1841, not a single inhabitant could swim—“a fact,” he says, “which at first surprised us; but on reflection it is evident that when any unfortunate catastrophe does take place, no human strength or skill in any art can save them from destruction.” No sports or amusements of any kind are now indulged in by the islanders, and even the introduction of a “draught-board” is said to be interdicted by their present spiritual guide! An innocent “rubber" would probably be regarded as highly immoral, on the ground that the “picture-books” of the universal enemy, whom the St Kildans “do not so much as once name’’ in the course of their lives, ought to be scrupulously eschewed by them ; and accordingly, it is to be feared that they would not appreciate the genius of our great national poet, who did not hesitate to sing the “horned Deil ” under his various names and guises!

In his interesting little volume, entitled 'Celtic Gleanings,’ Dr M'Lauchlan makes the following statement, relative to the equivalent of the Saxon mote or council which still exists in St Kilda: “In the island of St Kilda, far out among the waves of the Atlantic, is a purely Celtic population, retaining many of the earlier customs of the race. They have never been brought into contact with our civil government, and they have no sheriffs, jails, or policemen. Yet they have important causes to be decided : an annual division has to be made of their rocks for fowling; the birds caught on neighbouring islands have to be allocated; and disputes of various kinds among the community arranged. And how is this done ? J ust by means of the ‘ mod.’ The men of the island, as often as needs be, meet in a certain spot, and there, as round the Indian council fire, settle the affairs of the nation.” He then refers to a visit which he had paid to St Kilda, along with some friends, when they entertained doubts as to how they could apportion among the islanders, without causing offence, the gifts which they carried with them. A reference to the “mad ” was at once suggested by one of the community whom they consulted, and in the course of half an hour the presents were divided without a murmur. On the occasion of one of Dr M'Donald’s visits to St Kilda, he held a sort of justice of peace court along with the steward and the Gaelic teacher, with the view of settling any differences that might happen to exist among the islanders; but he was pleased to find that there were none of any consequence, except one relating to a marriage, the result of which he does not indicate. Mr Sands alludes to the St Kilda “parliament,” or almost daily council of the men, for the discussion of business, in front of one of the houses. “When the subject is exciting, the members talk with loud voices and all at one time; but when the question is once settled, they work together in perfect harmony. Shall we go to catch solan geese, or ling, or mend the boat to-day? are examples of the subjects that occupy the house. Sometimes disputes are settled by drawing lots.” The “obstructives” of St Stephen’s would do well to borrow a leaf from the book of these remote islanders!

When Martin visited St Kilda, there was but one steel and tinder-box in the entire commonwealth, “the owner whereof,” he says, “fails not, upon every occasion of striking fire in the lesser isles, to go thither and exact three eggs, or one of the lesser fowls, from each man, as a reward for his service; this by them is called the firc-penny, and this capitation is very uneasy to them.” Our author advised the natives to try the effect of their knives upon the “chrystal,” which abounded in the rocks, and on their finding that fire was the result of the collision, “ they were not a little astonished; ” and by means of this discovery, the fire-penny tax came to an end. At the same period, the islanders had another impost, called the pot-penny tax, which Martin pronounces to be “much more reasonable” than the other. “The pot is carried to the inferior isles for the public use, and is in hazard of being broken; so that the owners may justly exact on this score, since any may venture his pot when he pleases.” As late as the end of the seventeenth century, it would appear that the St Kildans married very young—the women as early as thirteen or fourteen years of age; and Martin further informs us that before entering into the holy bond, they “ are nice in examining the degrees of consanguinity. . . . When any two of them have agreed to take one another for man and wife, the officer who presides over them summons all the inhabitants of both sexes to Christ’s Chapel, where being assembled, he inquires publicly if there be any lawful impediment why these parties should not be joined in the bond of matrimony? and if there be no objection to the contrary, he then inquires of the parties if they are resolved to live together in weal and woe. After their assent he declares them married persons, and then desires them to ratify this their solemn promise in the presence of God and the people, in order to which the crucifix is tendered to them, and both put their right hands upon it, as the ceremony by which they swear fidelity one to another during their lifetime. Mr Campbell, the minister, married in this manner fifteen pairs of the inhabitants on the 17th of June (1697), who, immediately after their marriage, joined in a country-dance, having only a bagpipe for their music, which pleased them exceedingly.” He elsewhere gives a curious account of the mode in which a youthful St Kilda wooer was expected, in former times, to exhibit some proof of his courage, before securing the plighted troth of the object of his affections. For that purpose he assembled his friends round the inner margin of the “ lover’s stone,” resembling a “ door ” in form, which occupies the very verge of a perpendicular precipice, from twenty to thirty fathoms in height, at the south - east corner of the island, the situation being indicated in Martin’s map under the name of the “ Mistress Stone.” Planting the left heel on its outer edge, and with the sole of the foot entirely unsupported, he extended his right leg beyond the other and grasped the foot with both hands. He continued in this ticklish position sufficiently long to satisfy the spectators of his pluck and devotion; and after the performance of the feat—a practical illustration of the proverb, “Faint heart ne’er won fair lady” — he was accounted “ worthy of the finest mistress in the world.” Our author judiciously declined the grave proposal of one of the islanders that he should try this “piece of gallantry” before his departure, on the ground that the result of the performance, in his case, would probably be the loss of both life and mistress at the same moment!

Mr Maclean quotes a long extract from the Journal of the Rev. Neil M'Kenzie relative to a modern marriage ceremony. The minister states that he was invited to the reiteach or agreement between the young couple, and on arrival at the house of the bride’s father, he found all the men of the island reclining close to the outer wall, the female relatives being inside with the bride. A glass of spirits was handed round to each person to drink to the health of the contracting parties; and on the following Sunday, the banns were duly proclaimed “ for the first, second, and third time.” 2 After various preparations, the young couple, accompanied by their nearest relations and a “ best man ” 3 and “ bride’s maid,” attired in their best garments, found their way to the manse, on Monday afternoon, to be married, and to receive the cap which Mrs M'Kenzie was in the habit of presenting to the bride on such occasions. A considerable number of the villagers attended the “ marriage sermon,”1 immediately after which the parties went “ home.” In the course of the evening, the bride’s brother, with a piece of white cotton cloth attached to each shoulder and the front of his bonnet, came to invite the minister to the “marriage feast.” The viands consisted of mutton, barley-bannocks, and cheese, there being “ neither soup nor drink of any kind." From first to last, it appears to have been a very solemn business. Ignoring the advice of the immortal dramatist—

“Prepare for mirth, for mirth becomes a feast ”—

they seem more disposed to exemplify another of his statements of a somewhat different tone—

“A man may weep upon his wedding-day!”

Mr Grigor was present at the marriage of four couples on the 15th of July 1861, there having been only one marriage for several years previously. Both men and women were very decently attired—the former in jackets and trousers and black silk neckerchiefs, and the latter in printed dresses, bonnets, and shawls. The ceremony was feast, and which he “wellnigh mistook for white-washed peat,” an article which unfortunately does not exist in the island.

St Kilda has been frequently visited by clergymen, chiefly of the Free Church, from Harris, Skye, etc.; and indeed a year seldom passes without a parson presenting himself, and thus affording an opportunity for the due consummation of nuptial vows. On these occasions, also, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are usually celebrated. Captain Thomas informs me that at a comparatively recent date, when a clergyman happened to be in St Kilda, a certain bachelor cautiously considered the profit and loss of a proposed union, and at length intimated the result of his cogitations to another island swain by saying, “If you will take my sister I will take yours!” The latter took the proposal to “ avizandum,” and after giving due weight to the moral of the Gaelic lines, thus Englished—

“Woe is me, if bad she be,
Woe is me to carry her;
She’ll take her food and do no good,
I was a fool to marry her ”—

He arrived at the conclusion that he would not be much worse by the exchange; and no fewer than three weddings was the practical result. The docile character of the women in St Kilda and in the Western Islands generally has been frequently remarked upon—“grey mares" being very uncommon among them. The jocular pilot of the “Porcupine” told a group of St Kilda girls that, as there was a clergyman on board, they could all get married. Their answer was delightfully Delphic in its character— “The lads know best! ”

I have already referred to the civil or conjugal condition of the inhabitants of St Kilda at the three last censuses. Mr M'Kenzie’s register embraces 22 marriages, the bride being in five cases the second wife. 15 marriages appear in the new register during the twenty-one years ended 1876, the ceremony having been performed in the last ten cases by the present minister, Mr M'Kay. In the case of these 15 marriages, the maximum ages of the bridegrooms and brides respectively were 45 and 35, and the minimum ages 21 and 17. The average age of the men was slightly above 28, and of the women 25—a very different state of matters from that described by Martin. I lately endeavoured, with the aid of the registers and the census enumeration books, to draw up some tabular statements illustrative of the ititermarriages of the islanders, but the endless confusion produced by the constant recurrence of the same surnames — particularly Gillies, M'Donald, and M'Kinnon—rendered my attempt comparatively worthless.

In alluding to the appearance of the St Kildans, Mr Muir says—“ Notwithstanding that their blood must have greatly degenerated from a long course of intermarrying among themselves, they looked healthy and intelligent; ” and subsequent inquiries seem to establish the fact that, contrary to the popular impression, the practice in question is not productive of either physical or mental deterioration. A good many years ago, Dr Arthur Mitchell, one of the Scottish Lunacy Commissioners, sent a series of queries to Mr M'Raild, the factor of the late owner of the island, and also to Admiral Otter, on the subject of consanguineous marriages in St Kilda; and the purport of their replies—which agree in all important particulars—is given in his second paper on these unions in the ‘Edinburgh Medical Journal’ for April 1865. In the case of not one of the fourteen married couples then in the island was the relationship between husband and wife that of full cousins or cousins-german. Not less, however, than five of the fourteen couples were second cousins. “Of these five couples 54 children had been born, of whom 37 died in early infancy, when only a few days old, leaving 17 alive. ... Of the 17 survivors it is distinctly stated that not one is either insane, imbecile, idiotic, blind, deaf, cripple, deformed, or in any way defective in body or mind.” As Admiral Otter remarks, “ It is certainly strange that though they marry so much amongst themselves, there is only one—a spinster—who is weak in intellect.” The inhabitants do not consider that a blood-relationship between the parents is injurious to the mental or bodily health of the offspring. I have already referred to Dr Mitchell’s remarks respecting the connection between the enormous infantile mortality of St Kilda caused by trismus nascentium, and the increased fertility of the women. The average age of the fourteen wives was 43, and the average number of children to a marriage nine; or ten, if we except the case of one couple without children. The same result is found in Iceland, and medical men have little difficulty in explaining the cause. “What influence,” says Dr Mitchell, “this great infantile mortality may have on the surviving offspring, taken as illustrative of the effects of consanguine marriages, it is not easy to say.”

As I have already incidentally stated, the “High Dean of the Isles” informs us that “M'Cloyd of Herray, his stewart, sailes anes in the zeir to Hirta at midsummer, with some chaplaine to baptize bairnes ther, and if they want a chaplaine, they baptize their bairns themselfes.” According to Martin, “the parent calls in the officer, or any of his neighbours, to baptize his child, and another to be sponsor or gosti. He that performs the minister’s part being told what the child’s name is to be, says, ‘ A. B., I baptize thee to your father and mother, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.’ Then’the sponsor takes the child in his arms, as doth his wife as godmother, and ever after this there is a friendship between the parent and the sponsor, which is esteemed so sacred and inviolable, that no accident, how* cross soever, is able to set them at variance; and it reconciles such as have been at enmity formerly.” So far as I am aware, the present procedure at baptism is in accordance with the ordinary practice observed on the mainland, the ceremony being performed either by the pastor of St Kilda or by a clerical visitor.

In olden times, when a death took place in St Kilda, the “cry” went through the whole island, in order that all the inhabitants on the rocks or in the fields might cease from their labours, and return to their homes. A few days after the demise, the body was interred with due solemnity with the face towards the east; and after the burial, a “snuff - mull” went round the mourners. Doleful songs, called “ Laments,” were composed on such occasions. Shortly before Martin’s visit, on the news of Macleod’s death reaching the island, the St Kildans “ abandoned their houses, mourning two days in the fields.”

Mr M'Kenzie, in his Journal, gives a detailed account of the modern course of procedure. On the occurrence of a death, the near relatives and friends, especially the females, weep and wail, and, like Rachel of old, “refuse to be comforted.” In a short time, however, some of those who appear inconsolable, are “nearly as cheerful as ever.” The body of the deceased is usually kept not more than three days in the house; and during that time the coffin is constructed, and a feast of bread and mutton prepared for the use of those who watch the corpse and the other motirners. “ The more sheep they kill, and the more barley they use, the more honour do they intend to confer on their deceased friend ; and those who have lost many relatives have been much reduced by this foolish custom.” Accordingly, it would appear that the funeral extravagance of the mainland, recorded in Dean Ramsay’s ‘Reminiscences,’ has found its way to St Kilda! On the day of the burial, the coffin is tied upon two sticks or bearers, and carried “in the course of the sun”—if necessary, through the corn. When the grave is filled up, the mourners sit down* at all seasons, and partake of the food which has been prepared for the occasion. Adults are interred in the afternoon, and children late in the evening. According to Mr Sands, the interment now takes place on the day of the death; and as deaths are comparatively rare, they occasion a general mourning, which lasts for a week, during which no work is performed. Mr Sands attended the funeral of a child. Prior to the interment, “an elderly man offered up a long prayer in Gaelic, whilst the women chanted a monotonous tune in a low tone.” The cemetery, Cill-Chriosd or Christ’s sepulture, occupies, as already stated, the site of Christ’s Chapel, behind the village. It is surrounded by a stone wall, and the gate is carefully fastened with wooden pegs.

A recent volume of the ‘ Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries ’1 contains an interesting letter, dated 9th April 1862, addressed to Captain Thomas by Miss Anne Kennedy (afterwards Mrs Ure), niece of the Rev. Duncan Kennedy, for ten years missionary in St Kilda. The letter embraces several curious traditions, which were communicated to the writer by Euphemia Macrimmon, at that time the oldest inhabitant, and probably the last settachie, or verbal historian, of St Kilda. She died about seven years afterwards (31st May 1869), at the age of 88 —“influenza” being entered in the register as the cause of her death. Among other “stories,” the letter embraces the following: “Before the forefathers of any of the present inhabitants came to the island, two men, named Dugan (Duncan) and Ferchar (Farquhar) Mor, while gathering heather on Oiseval, the most eastern hill of St Kilda, called aloud to the islanders,—‘ The war-galleys are in the Sound of Borrera; flee to the temple (Christ Church) — to the horns of the altar.’ Alarmed by the warning, the injunction was forthwith obeyed, and the two men brought bundles of heather, which they placed and set fire to at the door of the church. All the St Kildans were burnt within the sacred walls, except a solitary woman, who escaped under cover of the smoke and took refuge in St Brendan’s Chapel. Unknown to the two men, she came to the village by night, and stealthily carried off some corn, fire, and a hand-mill, and thus preserved her life till the arrival of a boat at St Kilda. This boat was welcomed by Dugan and Ferchar, and soon afterwards the woman made her unexpected appearance and reported all that had occurred. The boatmen seized the two culprits, and put Ferchar on a stack beside Borrera, from which he jumped after the boat into the sea and was drowned, while they carried Dugan to Soa, and took the woman away with them, thus leaving St Kilda without a single inhabitant. It is not known how long it continued in that condition; but after a time, Dugan’s bones were found in a cave in Soa, with a dirk stuck in the ground beside them! The cave bears the name of Dugan to the present day.”

Miss Kennedy’s communication refers to the wreck of “a son of the King of Lochlin” on a rock to the west of St Kilda. He landed on the island in a small boat, and while drinking at a water-brook near the present church, the natives “ caught him by the back of the neck, and held his head down in the brook until he was drowned.” The rock on which he was wrecked still bears the name of Sgeir Mac Righ Lochlain, or the Rock of the son of the King of Lochlan.

The letter also alludes to the first Macdonald who went to St Kilda—one of two brothers who fled (from Uist ?) after inflicting, as he supposed, a fatal blow on the head of the other. His son Donald, accompanied by John Macqueen, on their way to Oiseval, passed a sithean, or little green hillock—an abode of the fairies—in which they heard churning. Macqueen exclaimed, “Ho, wife! give me a drink”—on which a woman came out, clothed in a green robe, and offered him some milk, which he declined. She then offered it to Donald, who drank it off, “with God’s blessing.” They proceeded to hunt sheep on the hill, where Macqueen fell over a precipice and was killed—as a punishment, it was believed, for his having refused the proffered beverage. Donald Macdonald is said to have died of smallpox in Harris, at an advanced age, about the year 1729 ; and on the assumption that his father—the refugee—died thirty years earlier —i.e., in 1699—and that he went to St Kilda in the prime of life, the date of his arrival there would probably not be before the middle of the seventeenth century. Captain Thomas conjectures that the tradition might possibly refer to Archibald (Gillespie) Dhu, who murdered his two legitimate brothers about the year 1506; but he acknowledges that such a view would not tally, in point of date, with the story relative to the death from smallpox in Harris, nor with Macaulay’s statement that the Macdonalds of St Kilda claimed kinship with Clanranald of South Uist, seeing that Gillespie Dhu was of the clan Huisten of Slate. He considers that of the two clans formerly in St Kilda, Mac Ille Mhoirre (son of the servant of Mary) is plainly Morison from Lewis, but can make no sense out of the other, Mac Ille Ruabhich, which appears to mean “ the son of the servant of the grizzly man.”

A few words on the antiquities of the island must close the present chapter. In Martin’s time, some of the inhabitants of St Kilda occupied, during the summer, the house of the Amazon or female warrior, now called airidh mhbr, situated on the south-east side of the valley or glen of the same name, although it was then believed to have been “some hundred years old.” “The whole,” he says, “is built of stone, without any wood, lime, earth, or mortar to cement it, in form of a circle, pyramid-wise towards the top, having a vent in it, the fire being in the centre of the floor. The stones are long and thin which supplies the defect of wood. The body of this house contains not above nine persons sitting; there are three beds or low vaults that go off the side of the wall, a pillar betwixt each bed, which contain five men apiece. At the entry to one of these vaults is a stone standing upon one end fixed; upon this they say the Amazon ordinarily laid her helmet; there are two stones on the other side, upon which she is reported to have laid her sword.” This remarkable lady is said to have been addicted to the chase, and, in her time, “all the space ” between St Kilda and Harris was a continuous tract of dry land. Some years before the date of Martin’s visit, a pair of large deer’s horns were found about a foot under ground on the summit of one of the hills, also a wooden dish “full of deer’s grease.” Toland, in his ‘History of the Druids,’ after noticing the building, almost in Martin’s words, says that it is similar to “Arthur’s Oven” in Stirlingshire, and according to tradition, belonged to a Druidess. “Just such another house," he adds, “in all respects, but much larger, and grown over with a greei sod on the outside, is in Borrera, an isle adjacent to S Kilda, and was the habitation of a Druid, who 'tis prob able was not unacquainted with his neighbouring Dru idess.” Mr Muir gives a detailed description of th< Amazon’s abode, which, he says, is scarcely distinguish able in its general appearance from any of the innumer able oblong cells or pyramids already referred to—th( internal measurement of the structure being eleven feel by nine. He considers that this “bee-hive” house wa: unquestionably designed for human habitation, and tha it probably belongs to a time not much posterior to thai of St Columba or his immediate followers. The thirc volume of the ‘ Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries ’ contains a joint paper on the subject by Mi Muir and Captain Thomas (16th March 1859), accom panied by elevations and a ground-plan of the remarkable building, with some curious traditions which are supposed to relate to the Diana of St Kilda. It appears from a recent communication by Mr Sands to the same Society, that the ancient dwelling has been almost entirely destroyed by the removal of stones for the purpose ol building cleitan or storehouses—another of many recent illustrations of the necessity of some such legislative measure as that of Sir John Lubbock for the preservation of historical relics.

As already mentioned, not a vestige now remains of the three chapels which existed in the time of Macaulay; but their respective sites are well known to the St Kildans, and are distinctly specified in Mr Muir’s *Characteristics.’ The occurrence of so many ecclesiastical buildings in St Kilda might be supposed to indicate a much larger population at some former period than is known to have existed during the last three hundred years. In alluding to the numerous remains of sanctity in the various Western Islands, Dr Johnson truly observes that  these venerable fragments do not prove the people of former times to have been more numerous, but to have been more devout. . . . The religion of the middle age is well known to have placed too much hope in lonely austerities. Voluntary solitude was the great art of propitiation, by which crimes were effaced, and conscience appeased; it is therefore not unlikely that oratories were often built in places where retirement was sure to have no disturbance.” Miss Kennedy’s letter refers to two underground structures, or “Picts’ houses,” one of which was discovered in a hillock, about forty-four years ago, when the St Kildans were making a level space for the new houses then erected. It had croops in the wall, and “ seems to have been a fairy’s residence! ” The other was discovered a few years afterwards above the present burial-ground, and is probably the subterranean dwelling which was explored by Mr Sands in July 1876, and described in his communication to the Society of Scottish Antiquaries already referred to. It was ascertained to measure twenty-five feet long by three feet eight inches wide, and about four feet in height Among the ddbris on the floor “ numerous stone axes, knives, and fragments of a lamp, as well as pieces of rude pottery,” were found.1 Mr Sands also refers to an “ old cellar ” at the back of the village, built of huge stones, and indicating an approximation to the principle of the arch. It is said to have been erected by one man in a single day, and the St Kildans point to this structure as a proof of the superior strength of their progenitors. Close to the burial-ground is a stone called the “Stone of Knowledge,” which is said to have possessed magical qualities, in the way of conferring the gift of second-sight for a limited period on any one who stood upon it “the first day of the quarter.”

Both Martin and Macaulay refer to an old ruinous fort on the southern side of the bay called the Dune, and the latter writer comments upon the natural protection against invasion afforded to the islanders by the proximity of the hill Osterveaul, immediately above the landing - place, from which “ it is very easy to discharge volleys of loose stones.” Macaulay tells us that the stones of which the fort was constructed were “ large and nearly square,” indicating a knowledge of masonry not displayed by the St Kildans of the eighteenth century; and he has some learned speculations on the origin of the name—Dun-Fir-Bholg, or “ the castle of the men of the leathern bags ”1— by which the structure was known. Mr Sands was unable to find any remains of the building, but he discovered the wall described by Wilson, which is still in good preservation, and seems to present the appearance of fortification. He also found the site of an ancient altar, from which, however, the stones used in its formation have been removed. Toland makes the following allusion to the St Kilda fort:“ Dun is a general Celtic word for all fortifications made on an eminence, and the eminences themselves are so called. . . . There’s none of the lesser isles but has one fort at least, and they are commonly in sight of each other. But the Dun in St Kilda (for so they call the old fort there) is about eighteen leagues distant from North Uist; but a large fire there would be visible at night, as the ascending smoke by day.” I have already incidentally referred to the ancient dome-roofed house called Tigh an Stallair on the island of Borrera, a detailed account of which is given by Captain Thomas in his elaborate and interesting communication to the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, on “Primitive Dwellings and Hypogea,” where he quotes the descriptions of Martin and Macaulay, as well as the circumstantial statement by Euphemia Macrimmon embraced in Miss Kennedy’s letter. The building is supposed to have derived its name from a devout hermit called Stal/ir, or “the man of the rocks,” and is considerably larger than the Amazon’s dwelling, being, according to Macaulay, eighteen feet high, and containing four large wall-beds, or croops, roofed with strong lintels. The only apertures were a low doorway on the side facing the sea, and a small hole in the top for the egress of smoke; and Euphemia Macrimmon remembered having seen stones in the structure “on which there were writings.” Before the roof fell in, about thirty-five years ago, it was occasionally occupied by the St Kildans during their fowling expeditions. Besides the house of Stallir, it would appear that there formerly was an altar on Borrera, and also a temple or chapel built of hewn stones, which, like those of the Amazon’s dwelling, were used by the St Kildans for constructing cleiiati or storehouses.


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