Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter XIII. - The Future of St Kilda—Recent Newspaper Correspondence, etc.


DURING the past year, a large amount of correspondence has appeared in some of the leading Scottish journals relative to the present condition and future prospects of the inhabitants of St Kilda. As one of the writers in the ‘Courant’ jocularly alleged, there was, at one time, an indication that the “Eastern Question” would be eclipsed by the momentous considerations connected with the remotest of the Hebrides; and that, ere long, the words “Western Question" would find a prominent place among the headings of the daily press! Meanwhile, however, a lull appears to have occurred; and accordingly, we are probably now in a better position to estimate the numerous suggestions that have been made respecting the natives of Hirta. One class of correspondents adopts the Gladstonian theory of sweeping the St Kildans, not, indeed, out of the world, but out of what has always been the world to them—to wit, their lonely rock. Others, again, consider that such procedure would be both unkind and impolitic, and advocate their continuance on their native shores, subject, however, to various modifications of existing circumstances. Lastly, a sort of intermediate plan has been propounded—thus making up the celebrated “three courses” of the distinguished statesman to whom I have already referred— viz., the temporary removal of the inhabitants to the mainland, during the tempestuous months of winter, with the view of their returning to their native rock in the spring, to prosecute fowling and the other avocations to which they have so long been attached. With regard to the first and second of these proposals, I am disposed to prefer the second; but perhaps the last of the three expedients might at least be worth a trial, pending a gradual endeavour to accomplish the modification to which I have referred in connection with the second alternative. On the assumption that Mr Sands is correct in stating that the islanders are “not unfrequently brought face to face with famine,” an anonymous writer, in one of the Edinburgh newspapers, advocates the propriety of an effort being made to induce them to leave their isolated rock. Without basing his proposal on the “famine” outcry, Sir William Baillie, in a letter addressed to the editor of the ‘Courant’ in March last, also pronounces in favour of removal, suggesting that the proprietor might send well-equipped parties of fowlers to the island, at certain seasons of the year, for the purpose of procuring the feathers of the sea - fowl. The same proposal is made by Lady Baillie in the paper which she contributed to the ‘ Church of Scotland Missionary Record ’ for January 1875, on the ground that such an arrangement “would be the most humane and benevolent in the end, although the people might rebel against it in the first instance.” Those who incline to take this view will not have much sympathy with Dr Johnson’s reflections on the evils resulting from Scottish emigration. “In more fruitful countries,” he says, “the removal of one only makes room for the succession of another: but in the Hebrides, the loss of an inhabitant leaves a lasting vacuity, for nobody born in other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence; and an island once depopulated will remain a desert, as long as the present facility of travel gives every one who is discontented and unsettled the choice of his abode.” We ought to bear in mind that the circumstances of St Kilda are very different from those of such islands as Pitcairn or Tristan d’Acunha. Apart from other points of distinction, the history of the two solitary colonies of the Pacific and South Atlantic is a thing of yesterday compared with that of St Kilda ; and accordingly, the influence of its local associations is proportionally much more powerful. If, again, we contrast the St Kildans with the inhabitants of the more accessible islands, and still more with the population of the mainland, I am inclined to think that the very fact of their isolation adds to the strength of the chain which binds them to their native rock. An Inverness-shire man shows comparatively little hesitation in transferring his “ household gods” to the adjoining county of Perth, from which he is only separated by an imaginary boundary. Even an inhabitant of the Long Island thinks nothing of transporting himself and his belongings to almost any portion of the mainland, with which his communication, if not frequent, is at least regular and continuous. But the natives of Hirta are in a very different position. With rare, though gradually increasing opportunities of intercourse with other parts of Scotland, they are necessarily much more ignorant of the ways of the outside world; and the natural result is an exceptionally strong attachment to their sea-girt isle:

“There’s a strange something, which, without a brain,
Fools feel, and which e’en wise men can’t explain,
Planted in man, to bind him to that earth,
In dearest ties, from whence he drew his birth.”

It is pleasant to be able, once in a way, to agree with Mr Sands. In one of his letters he objects, for “ sentimental reasons,” to a well-behaved and ancient community being scattered over the earth, and tells us that, although it is the fashion to sneer at sentiment (which I fear is too true), the great Napoleon declared that “imagination (or sentiment) rules the world!” In another effusion he gives three reasons why the St Kildans should be allowed to remain on their native shores. “1st, Because there is such a faculty in the human soul as amor patrice. 2dly, Because there is plenty of food and materials for clothing. 3dly, Because the little commonwealth ought to be preserved as a curiosity, it being the only part of Scotland where drunkenness is unknown.” To all of these reasons I feel very much disposed to subscribe; indeed the first is practically a reiteration of what I have already said regarding the natural attachment of the islanders to their natale solum. The force of the second reason—so far at least as food is concerned—is amply confirmed by Macaulay, who states that “ if other countries are furnished with a variety of the luxuries, St Kilda possesses, in a remarkable degree, the necessaries of life.” After recapitulating the various sea-fowl which contribute to their “plentiful repasts,” and referring to the abundance of bread, mutton, and fish with which they are blessed, he says: “Upon the whole, in spite of hard usage and peculiar disadvantages, they feed more luxuriously, if that be a part of human felicity, than perhaps any small or great nation of slaves (?) upon the face of the whole earth.” While at Obb, on his way to the island, in the summer of 1876, Mr Sands came across two St Kilda women, who were yearning to be home again. “They looked thin,” he says, “and grumbled afterwards at the Harris fare, which consisted chiefly of tea and bread. No fulmars, no solan geese, no mutton. Ah! aite doc/id." With regard to the third and last reason, a sober colony is indeed a rare spectacle on the northern side of the Tweed; and so long as the threatened still (to be afterwards referred to) is kept away from the shores of Hirta, the disciples of Father Mathew will have reason to rejoice.

Before proceeding to consider a few of the principal suggestions that have recently been made regarding the modification of existing arrangements and the introduction of various improvements into the social condition of the islanders, I deem it my duty to refer to the crusade that has for some time been carried on against the present owner of St Kilda.

The profession of theoretical philanthropist has long been a favourite avocation with a certain class of individuals. Most sensible people who have reached the meridian of life must have encountered the enthusiastic “social reformer” who has made the important discovery that it is a good deal easier to tell our neighbour how to do his duty, than to fulfil the obligations which lie at our own door—who is in the somewhat paradoxical condition of being both long-sighted and short-sighted at the same time, and who seems to have forgotten a very wholesome and authoritative injunction as to the propriety of removing colossal “beams” at home, before proceeding to deal with microscopic “ motes ” abroad. But the man of enlarged views and energetic character disdains to notice the ill-fed, ill-clad, badly-housed denizens of the city slums, or the insanitary and pestilential arrangements of the country village, and must, forsooth, wend his way to some distant and untrodden shore, where hitherto no murmur has been uttered and no complaint made—where neither the enervating luxury of wealth, nor the depressing cares of poverty, have ever been experienced, and where the simple-minded inhabitants have been contented with their lot, and somewhat jealous of proposed “ameliorations.” Some people, however, are uncharitable enough to suggest that the real motive for the “philanthropic” agitation and sentimental outcry respecting St Kilda is not the improvement of the condition of the islanders, but the enforced transference of the remote rock from the hands of its ancient owners to a “limited liability association,” with some unvouched adventurer as “managing director,” having for its object the development of the vast resources, and the realisation of fabulous dividends from the sale of the precious produce of the sea-girt isle!

"A purchase which will bring them clear,
Above the rent, four pounds a-year.”

Somewhere about seventy years ago, a grand improvement scheme appears to have been contemplated. After referring to the presentation of “two stout boats” to the St Kildans by the then proprietor, with the view of their having regular communication with the Long Island, the author of the ‘ Agriculture of the Hebrides’ informs us that “a young man of knowledge and enterprise from Edinburgh has taken a part of the lands in lease, and bound himself to build a good house, and to improve the island in various ways, especially by teaching the inhabitants the best mode of turning to account the staple production of the place, which is wild fowls and their feathers or down. Of these, large quantities were always exported, but not one-tenth of what might have been secured by the natives. They will now prosecute their labours with additional perseverance and success, having abundance of the requisite tools and the advantage of a ready market.” I cannot, however, find any record of the result of this wonderful project, which probably was never attempted to be carried into execution.

It is not very easy to gather from Mr Sands’s book what first induced him to go to St Kilda; but judging* from the tone of some of his letters in the Edinburgh newspapers during last spring, he appears to regard himself as the champion of the rights, and the exposer of the supposed wrongs, of the remote islanders. Indeed he distinctly informs the public that he was formally appointed Fear-ionad, or representative of the island, by the minister (alias “domineering fanatic”) and all the male population who were not too diffident to write their names;1 and in the forthcoming edition of Oliver & Boyd’s ‘Edinburgh Almanac' we may expect to find a sixty-first representative for that part of her Majesty’s dominions called Scotland — another “friend of the people”—in the person of John Sands, Esquire, M.P. for St Kilda.2 In two of the letters now before me, which appeared in the columns of the ‘Scotsman/ the Fear-iottad makes the following among other grave charges:—

1. “The proprietors of St Kilda have never shown any interest whatever in the inhabitants.”

2. “Macleod of Macleod has never been on the island at all, and he left the poor people without oatmeal last winter, after he had made them depend on his sending it.”

3. “When it was suggested iii the ‘ Spectator’ last year that a mail should be sent to the island, the proprietor was the only one who objected. He wants to keep the inhabitants chained to their rock, that his factor may feed upon their entrails.”

4. The owner’s monopoly is “a cunningly contrived infernal machine—the works of which are so carefully encased and concealed that it requires study and reflection to understand them. . . . Macleod seems to triumph in this concealment ‘How can you possibly know? ’ is his favourite phrase.”

In another letter, the champion speaks of St Kilda as “Macleod’s prison,” and asserts that certain well-known Edinburgh citizens interested in St Kilda, who happened to take a different view from himself, “did nothing but curry favour with the proprietor.” He elsewhere refers to the possibility of “famine” being the result of the uncertain communication with the island, and charitably describes Macleod as “the present arrogant and unsympathetic proprietor, who keeps the St Kildans in darkness and poverty, and has the power to starve them when he feels inclined.” To these sensational insinuations the owner of St Kilda made a dignified and satisfactory reply, which concludes as follows:—

“As it is the practice in these days for the British public to take up the cause of oppressed communities, I suppose I must not permit myself to deprecate uncalled-for interference between me and my tenants, creating discomfort and suspicion when there is no cause for either; nor may I resent the injurious and wholly untrue charges brought against me and my agent. I must, I suppose, be content to defend myself by assuring both the gentlemen to whom I have referred1 that they have, on insufficient information, stated what is not true. The few articles required by the people are supplied at a moderate advance on the cost price to meet the cost of carriage, and a fair price is allowed for the produce, which is sold sometimes at a loss and sometimes at a profit, as the market rises or falls. If the inhabitants of St Kilda can be enabled to buy and sell for themselves, I shall be very glad to be relieved of a very onerous and responsible duty; but the care of the people should not be taken out of the hands of their proper protector, unless there is some security that the change is not one of merely experimental sentimentality.”

Most of Mr Sands’s charges are repeated, along with some additional accusations, in the second edition of his book, which has reached me as these pages are passing through the press.8 In alluding to the owner’s “ monopoly,” he says that “ his serfs—so long incarcerated and cruelly used—are obliged to deal with him on his own terms. It is true he has offered to allow them to go and trade where they choose; but he knows he might as well tell one who has been fettered until his limbs have lost all ability that he is at liberty to run, or bid the ostrich lift its wings and fly.” He elsewhere speaks of a “threatening letter,” which Macleod had written to his “poor tenants" in October 1875, being accompanied by a subsequent communication indited after he had “exposed the condition of the island,” in which “Macleod seemed to come down a peg, and agreed to let the people go to Harris and conduct their own business; but it was evident from the tenor that he meant

‘To keep the word of promise to the ear,
And break it to the hope!”

Again, he tells us that “his heart boils with pity for the poor people, and with unutterable hatred for the cold-hearted wretches who try to keep them in darkness and in prison;” and, in referring to the failure of the factor’s smack to appear at the expected time, he says that “Macleod’s breach of contract on such a serious matter was little short of culpable homicide.” During a “nine-days’ visit” from a certain “treacherous jade” rejoicing in the appellation of “Fame,” the noble-hearted Fear-ionad appears to have been overwhelmed with sympathetic letters “from all parts of Great Britain”—from “people of genuine benevolence,” “haters of oppression," and “firms of cattle-dealers”—a batch of which he thought of sending to Macleod in order “that they might amuse him.” He adds, however, that “ remembering the dog-in-the-manger aversion he has to any one interfering in the management of his rocky estate, I refrained for fear the perusal might throw him into a fit of apoplexy.” The elegant philippic is appropriately closed with a complacent statement, in which the author “ flatters himself that he has kindled a flame which Macleod and his friends will find some difficulty in extinguishing, no matter how many wet blankets and petticoats they may use! ”

I have already said it is difficult to discover the motive which induced the Fear-ionad to espouse the cause of the contented islanders, who it seems must now be described in parliamentary language as his “distressed constituents.” But light is thrown upon the mystery in the second edition of his ‘ Life in St Kilda.’ The Ormiston mission is at last explained. “ Often,” he says, “ when rambling amongst the stern rocks on the tops of the mountains, or sitting listening to the solemn sound of the waves upon the lonely shore, I felt as if I had had a Divine call to perform the work, and must proceed at any cost, and despite of any opposition. Providence often selects strange instruments, with which to execute His purposes — instruments that would seem altogether unsuitable to Doctors Begg and M'Lauchlan.” Possibly, a good many people who take the trouble to think for themselves, and who do not believe every wild assertion that they come across in the daily newspapers, will feel disposed to concur in the opinion of the two reverend doctors as to the character of the “instrument” in question.

If I am correct in my estimate of the motives which have prompted the ungenerous outcry against the proprietor of St Kilda, I hardly consider myself called upon to say a single word by way of defence or reply. Suffice it to state that since the island returned to its ancient owners about six years ago, they have taken a lively interest in its inhabitants; and Mr Macdiarmid informs us, as already mentioned, that “they speak of their landlord in the very best terms, and consider themselves very fortunate in being under his guardianship. I must say,” he adds, “that I did not hear one single word or expression implying want of confidence or distrust in his dealings with them. As one old woman put it in Gaelic, ‘It would be a black day for us the day we severed ourselves from Macleod’s interest’ ” It is quite true that Macleod has not yet set foot on his remote possession; but it ought to be borne in mind that his official duties confine him to London during five-sixths of every year, and I am led to understand that he has made more than one unsuccessful attempt to reach St Kilda. During the past summer, his energetic and warm-hearted sister spent upwards of a fortnight on the island, for the express purpose of making herself familiar with the social condition of the inhabitants ; and, as already stated, she contemplates a second visit in the course of next spring. In Macleod’s own letter he fully explains the circumstances which prevented the smack from reaching the island at the appointed time.

With regard to the proposed mail, I am not aware that he ever offered any objection to the matter being taken up by the proper authorities; and as to the “chains” and “entrails," none of the passengers on board the “Dunara Castle” succeeded in discovering a vestige of either the one or the other. In respect to the alleged “monopoly” —elegantly described by Mr Sands as “a cunningly contrived infernal machine”—there is no mystery or concealment about either exports or imports; and the fair and reasonable principles by which both are regulated are frankly and intelligibly stated in the excerpt which I have given from the proprietor’s reply.

Lastly, the ludicrous insinuations as to the possibility of “famine” are hardly worthy of notice. During last winter, in consequence of a bad harvest and the unavoidable delay in the transmission of supplies, the islanders were for a few weeks compelled to place themselves on short allowances, so far as meal was concerned. But they had abundance of salted meat and fulmar “brew.” “Judging from outward appearance,” says Mr Macdiarmid, “I cannot believe the St Kildans suffered much from want of food;” and after alluding to the large supply of cured mutton in the proprietor’s storehouse, at the time of his visit in May last, he adds: “There can be no doubt, had the St Kildans been in great want, they would have used this mutton, and been made quite welcome to it by Macleod.” Moreover, Mr Sands himself practically contradicts his own insinuations when he tells us that he was well supplied during the winter with mutton, potatoes, and oatmeal; and the nine Austrian sailors informed him that as much meat was offered to each of them at every meal as would have served three ordinary men.

If it should be alleged that, in making the preceding observations, I have been confronting an unworthy foe-man, I have merely to remark that they have been elicited by the reflection that the intelligent section of the community which draws a distinction between facts and assertions is unfortunately very limited, and by a belief in the truth of the saying that where a quantity of mud is vigorously thrown, some of it is apt to stick, especially if the projector is entirely ignored. That which is “vox et prceterea nihil" to a thinking few is gospel to an unthinking many. Hence my sincere, if only human endeavour to examine the authenticity of the grave charges which have been so freely made under the influence of a “ Divine call,” and I confidently leave the verdict in the hands of my readers. Perhaps the champion of the remote islanders, who, on his own admission, had a very limited acquaintance with the “ treacherous jade ” already referred to, may yet prove a striking illustration of the lines of the old dramatist:—

“Fame is swiftest still when she goes laden
With news of mischief.—
Thus are we Fortune's pastimes; one day live
Advanced to heaven by the people’s breath;
The next, hurled down into th’ abyss of death.”

The cry of “Highland persecution’’ is not a thing of yesterday. After referring to the “systematic oppression” which is indicated in Martin’s account of St Kilda, Macculloch says: “The imaginary harsh conduct of Highland proprietors to their tenants, is not therefore a new grievance, as noisy people try now to make us believe.” Lane Buchanan throws the chief blame on the tacksman of his day, and not on the proprietor of the island, “ the imprudent part of whose conduct,” he says, “lies in not placing the inhabitants underhis own protection, as other tenants, and receiving his rents from themselves.” After enumerating a few of their “ grievances,” he expresses his fear that “ to the end of time, these people will be at the mercy of some tacksman or other. Though the infamous pot-penny and fire-penny are dropt, as the people have got pots and flints of their own, yet there may be many other mean practices exercised over these harmless' people, without their having an opportunity of conveying those grievances to the ears of the public, with whom they can have little intercourse.” We have already seen that in alluding to the purchase of St Kilda, at the beginning of the present century, from its ancient possessors, the author of the ‘ Agriculture of the Hebrides ’ informs us that the new owner proves “a blessing to the inhabitants,” adding that “they are no longer fleeced to the skin, or oppressed to downright beggary and starvation as formerly, but encouraged to industry, and amply rewarded for their labours by a humane and enlightened master.”

Fortunately, however, we have a bright side of the shield to present in contrast to these alleged blemishes and stains, and I venture to think that the witnesses to whom I am about to refer will be considered as infinitely more worthy of credence than any of the foregoing accusers. What says the Rev. Alexander Buchan, who, as we have already mentioned, spent nearly a quarter of a century in St Kilda? “None can subsist in this island,” he states, “without the favour and countenance of the laird of Macleod and the steward ; and Mr Buchan gives thanks for the kindness he has had from the managers of that estate during the minority. And now that the representative of that ancient family is near the years of majority, it is not to be doubted but he will go on to encourage the promoting the knowledge of religion among that people, as his predecessor did. Not only the head of that family, but almost the whole name of Macleod have been assertors of the Protestant religion, and against Popery; and will give orders that Mr Buchan meet with all encncouragement in Hirta.” Some forty years later, the Macleod of the day is extolled by Pennant for his estimable qualities. After alluding to the antiquity of his descent, he says that “ to all the milkiness of human nature usually concomitant with his early age, is added the sense and firmness of more advanced life. He feels for the distresses of his people; and insensible of his own, with uncommon disinterestedness has relieved his tenants from their oppressive rents, and has received instead of the trash of gold, the treasure of warm affections, and unfeigned prayer. . . . The noxious part of the feudal reign is abolished; the delegated rod of power is now no more. But let not the good part be lost with the bad ; the tender relation that patriarchical government experiences should still be retained, and the mutual inclination to beneficence preserved.” Such, he states, are the sentiments entertained by the laird of Macleod; and such, I have pleasure in adding, are the principles on which the present representative of the ancient house, as well as every member of his family, desires to act towards the tenants and retainers, whether in Skye or St Kilda, in spite of all the malevolent insinuations of the Sassenach, great or small. “He it is,” says Robert Buchanan, “who abuses the people for their laziness, points sneeringly at their poor houses, spits scorn on their wretchedly cultivated scraps of land; and he it is who, introducing the noble goad of greed, turns the ragged domestic virtues into well-dressed prostitutes, heartless and eager for hire. In the whole list of jobbers, excepting only the ‘ mean whites’ of the Southern States of America, there are few paltrier fellows than the men who stand by Highland doors and interpret between ignorance and the great proprietors. They libel the race they do not understand, they deride the affections they are too base to cultivate, they rob and plunder, and would exterminate wholly, the rightful masters of the soil. They are the agents of ‘civilisation’ in such places as the Outer Hebrides; so that, if God does not help the civilised, it is tolerably clear that the devil will.”

With regard to reforms and improvements at St Kilda, various suggestions have been made, during the past year, of a more or less practicable character. The erection of a lighthouse, for example, has been seriously proposed ; but every one who is conversant with the circumstances of the case appears to look upon such a scheme as entirely visionary. The geographical position of St Kilda has a totally different bearing upon the interests of mariners from that of Fair Isle, in Shetland. During Mr Sands’s second sojourn of eight months on the island, he only saw some three or four sails. Fair Isle, on the other hand, lies in what may be termed an important ocean-highway; and in the course of the last few months, several valuable vessels have been wrecked upon its rocky shores. The proposed establishment of telegraphic communication with St Kilda may also be regarded, at least for the present, as purely Utopian, keeping in view that its distance from Harris or Uist is somewhere about fifty miles, and that the inhabitants amount to only seventy-six, and have no special desire to be kept au courant with the most recent proceedings in connection with Tichborne trials and Penge mysteries. A correspondent of the ‘Scotsman,’ in a letter signed “ B.,” and dated 9th March 1877, suggests that, in addition to a lighthouse station, a meteorological observatory should be established, “whence, especially in stormy seasons, the news of approach might be sent by secret submarine wire of many a disastrous gale. It might also become a valuable signal-sfation for our Atlantic squadron. The Committee of the Board of Trade have decided substantially that the area of weather work should be extended rather than otherwise. They are right; and St Kilda may be made useful to science, to commerce, and to the empire.”

Among other minor suggestions relative to St Kilda, the friends of the temperance movement have proposed the institution of a dipsomaniac establishment on its distant shores. Such philanthropic undertakings are known to be productive of no small advantage in certain other islands somewhat less remote than Hirta, and there seems to be no reason whatever why a branch establishment should not be tried on the lonely rock. The only possible objection that occurs to my mind is prompted by the recollection of a threat on the part of Mr Sands to introduce the “light wine of the country” into St Kilda. In one of his many letters to the ‘Scotsman,’ he says: “If the Government declines to send a mail to the island, I will go out myself and start a small still, by Jovel and compel them to send out a vessel ” A reformatory for refractory wives may perhaps also have occurred to some considerate individuals as a suitable institution for St Kilda, and no doubt the painful episode of poor Lady Grange is calculated to give rise to the idea. In the event of the inhabitants being removed from the island, the expediency of converting it into a penal settlement is perhaps worthy of consideration, now that our colonies naturally object to receive the criminal population of the mother country.

To a limited amount of postal communication no reasonable person will probably offer any objection. In these progressive days, any place that happens to be situated considerably more than “ten leagues beyond man’s life,” and whose inhabitants “can have no note, unless the sun were post,” is surely worthy of our practical sympathy. In the meantime, I venture to think that the proper authorities might be approached with the view of provision being made for at least two mail steamers in the course of each year—say, towards the beginning of April and October. In the event of such arrangement being carried into effect, a special agreement might be made to convey the proprietor’s factor on these two occasions; and through the same medium, regular communication would be secured between the Registrar-General and the registrar of St Kilda. If it should be thought desirable to endeavour to make these steamers available for the conveyance of scientific men and ordinary tourists, one of the trips would probably require to take place during the summer months, unless, indeed, special provision should be made by the advancing enterprise of Messrs Cook and Sons! Of course a very essential preliminary to any such scheme would be the formation of a safe and substantial landing-place, for the cost of which application would probably require to be made to Government. Increased means of communication would in all likelihood result in the introduction of new blood, which would no doubt materially improve the physical character of the islanders, and perhaps also be productive of other important consequences, more especially if Miss Macleod should succeed in her humane and judicious endeavour to secure the services of a qualified nurse.

Not many months ago, Mr Kinnaird, M.P. for Perth, communicated, at the request of a constituent, with the Board of Admiralty, on the subject of increased communication with St Kilda. Admiral Yelverton stated in reply that the question belonged rather to the Home Secretary’s department; adding that “ it would be impossible for the Admiralty to undertake to keep up regular communication with outlying British islands, affording relief when necessary, unless a special grant of money is set apart for the purpose.” At one of the recent Edinburgh meetings relative to St Kilda, a resolution was unanimously adopted, which embraced “respectful representation to the Government, with a view to the establishment of a regular postal system on the island.” So far as I am aware, the result of the representation has not yet been made public.

One or two additional boats of a suitable and superior construction, and a good supply of nets and lines, would be a great boon to the islanders, to whom greater encouragement ought to be given to induce them to prosecute fishing as an important source of profit; and the introduction of the appliances used by the Faroe fowlers, in lieu of the uncomfortable, not to say dangerous system of ordinary ropes, would also be a very desirable reform. Dr Angus Smith informs me that the St Kildans do not quite know their own minds as to the boats best adapted to their requirements. Mr James Young, F.R.S., in whose yacht Dr Smith visited the island in 1873, was requested to provide the inhabitants with a ten-ton boat; but before it was constructed, the minister (Mr M'Kay) wrote asking for one of smaller dimensions, which was duly transmitted from the Clyde. Immediately after it reached the island, a commotion was caused by Mr Sands on the plea of Mr Young’s gift being unsuitable for the passage between St Kilda and the Long Island; and he himself raised a subscription to procure another craft, which was built at Ardrishaig, and conveyed by him to St Kilda in the summer of 1876, as fully described in the second edition of his book. Besides the supply of proper boats, the St Kildans seem to require some instruction in practical seamanship. Whatever they may have been in former times, they now appear to be very timid and unskilful sailors; and if the belles of Hirta could induce a few stalwart Orcadians to find their way to its shores, the result would no doubt be highly satisfactory in more ways than one.

Bearing in mind the consistent adherence on the part of Highland and insular Free Churchmen to the principles of a national establishment, the Endowment Committee of the Church of Scotland is no doubt keeping its eye upon the sea-girt isle; and perhaps the day is not far distant when the “ swallows ” will peaceably resume possession of their former nests! Probably the most beneficial influence that could be brought to bear upon the St Kildans would be of an educational kind. Through the instrumentality of the Harris school board or otherwise, an energetic effort ought to be made to introduce a systematic course of instruction in English, with the view of the inhabitants enjoying the vast benefits which would inevitably ensue. At present, they are not only cut off from regular communication with the mainland, but in consequence of their ignorance of the language of the United Kingdom, they are debarred from the means of enlarging their minds and subverting their prejudices, by the perusal of English literature. A recent number of 'Chambers’s Journal’—to which every English-speaking section of the globe owes such deep obligations—contains an admirable article, from the pen of the veteran senior editor, on the subject of “The Gaelic Nuisance," to which I venture to call the attention of all who are interested in the future welfare of the inhabitants of St Kilda. The writer points to Galloway on the one hand, and to the Orkney and Shetland Islands on the other, as illustrative examples of the blessings which have flowed from the substitution of English for Gaelic and Norse respectively; and in the course of his remarks, he makes special allusion to St Kilda Even after the entire abolition of Gaelic, Professor Blackie need have little fear as to the survival, for many a long day, of “provincial peculiarities and local diversities,” as well as “marked individualism and a characteristic type,” among the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

In a previous chapter I have referred to the want of peat and other kinds of fuel from which the islanders continue to suffer; and to the disastrous practice of stripping the precious turf as a substitute for the peat with which the inhabitants of Skye and the Long Island are so abundantly supplied. I have also mentioned the rarity of drift-wood, in consequence of the very small extent of the beach. Rare as it is, it is somewhat difficult to believe what Mr Sands states, that “the Receiver of Wrecks at Stornoway claims the half of the flotsam and jetsam!” Surely a representation in the “proper quarter” would put an end to so unreasonable a demand. Apart, however, from that special matter, the best mode of furnishing the remote islanders with proper fuel appears to be a question requiring immediate attention. As the bulk of the material is an important consideration, probably coal ought to be preferred to peat, as more lasting and cheaper in the end. A supply of the best kind of firelighters might perhaps also be occasionally transmitted.

At the Edinburgh meeting to which I have already referred, Mr Fletcher Menzies, Secretary to the Highland and Agricultural Society, made a statement relative to the fund left, for behoof of the islanders in seasons of emergency, by a West Indian gentleman named Kelsall, in the year 1859. Originally amounting to upwards of £(>00, on various occasions payments have been made from it by the Society to meet the cost of supplying the St Kildans with boats, ropes, seed-corn, potatoes, and other commodities—the balance of the fund at present in hand being about £350. It is expressly provided that the money is not to benefit the proprietor; but, as Mr Menzies truly said, “ it is not very easy to benefit the inhabitants without in some way benefiting the proprietor.” It appears that the late owner of the island was extremely jealous of the interference of the Highland Society, on the ground that he considered himself able to look after his own people; but Mr Menzies indicated that no difficulty in regard to the administration of the fund would be raised by the present proprietor. In the second edition of his ‘Life in St Kilda! Mr Sands comments, in severe terms, on the mode in which the Kelsall fund has been managed and applied, and makes various suggestions relative to its future disposal. He considers that the best plan would be to keep a store of bread-stuffs in the island, to be paid for out of this fund, and that “the interest on the original sum (if the principal was invested, and not kept in a ram’s horn) would have been more than sufficient to meet an emergency.”

At the same meeting, the Rev. Dr M'Lauchlan, who, besides having visited St Kilda, has communication with the inhabitants once every year, had the good sense to refer to the danger of destroying the independent spirit of the islanders by indiscriminate charity, and expressed a hope that some action would be taken to enable the people to help themselves. Such a course of procedure seems to be unusually necessary, if Dr Angus Smith is correct in his estimate of the islanders. “We had proof,” he says, “that the St Kilda man is not loath to make demands. In this he differs from the Highlander, who is generally too proud and dignified, except perhaps when tourists may spoil him.” He elsewhere says: “It would be a sad thing to do anything to make them feel dependent, or to pauperise them : we obtained too high an opinion of the people to wish them such an ending. They are evidently rising in the social scale, and their keenness made us believe that they would be quite a match for their fellow-men eastward.”

A recent writer in the ‘ Courant,’ in commenting on the Edinburgh St Kilda Committee assuming the guardianship of the islanders, suggests that they ought to have asked the Board of Supervision for the Relief of the Poor to allow their visiting inspector to proceed to the island, with the view of investigating the condition of the inhabitants. Without actually indicating an adverse opinion to the proposal, I confess that I am not sorry that there is still one little spot in the kingdom of Scotland which has not yet been embraced within the domain of pauperism; and until the Education Board of Harris has made an effort to supply the intellectual wants of the islanders, I, for one, am quite prepared to postpone the consideration of the question as to whether another Board of older standing in the same parish should take any steps to provide for the physical requirements of the inhabitants of Hirta.

In common with many others, Mr Fletcher Menzies considers that the main object to be aimed at in connection with St Kilda is the introduction of free trade; and with that view he suggests that the Long Island steamer (“ Dunara Castle ”) should call at least four times a-year at the remote island. Each journey would imply a detour of only 140 miles, and arrangements could of course be made for the conveyance of the mails. Mr Sands informs us that he made an attempt to get the Commissioners of Northern Lights to act the part of the good Samaritan, on the ground that one of their steamers is in the habit of calling once a-month at the lighthouse on one of the small islets beside the island of Monach, which is only 34 miles distant from St Kilda; but that Mr Duncan, the secretary—who seems to Mr Sands to be “ invested with extraordinary powers” — informed him that his request is not very likely to be complied with.

A good many years ago, a capacious boat was supplied to the islanders by a few gentlemen connected with the Highland Society, in order that they might have an opportunity of carrying on trade with the Long Island. Unfortunately, however, as already stated, it was lost in 1863, and shortly afterwards a boat of smaller dimensions was sent to St Kilda by the Society. Probably, for such a purpose, the craft ought not to be less than from nine to ten tons. Others have suggested that a smack should be kept at some suitable place in Harris, with the view of plying to and from St Kilda in favourable weather. Apropos to that recommendation, Mr Sands states that the inhabitants of Harris and those of St Kilda “ have no great respect for each other.” They' are said to speak of each other in no very respectful terms; and when a Harris child is naughty, its mother invariably threatens to send it to Hirta! Possibly, however, a more friendly feeling would spring up between the two islands if intercourse were to become more frequent. Mr Macdiarmid suggests the establishment of a shop or store in St Kilda, which he thinks might be presided over by the wife of Neil M‘Donald, already referred to as a woman of education and intelligence.

Mr Sands refers to the large profit obtained by the proprietor’s factor on all the imports, and to the comparatively small price which, on the other hand, he pays for feathers, cloth, and other articles exported, to which reference has been made in a preceding chapter. Various important circumstances, however, must be taken into account, if we wish to arrive at a just conclusion. The position of matters is very fairly stated by Dr Angus Smith, who writes as follows: “We cannot expect a landlord, or any business man, to send out a vessel with goods to be sold at the price at which they are sold in the nearer towns. It costs fifteen pounds, we were told, to send out a small schooner of eighty tons from Skye. Neither can we expect the business man to give for the produce as much as he could give at a nearer port. On the other hand, no landlord can make much of the island, and to be a constant giver is more than we can demand of him. But ninepence a-head for feeding sheep seems very low. It is, I am told, from two to five shillings in Scotland. Even allowing the sheep in St Kilda to be very small, the price is low. The price for a cow feeding will bear the same remark. Again, it is easy to calculate thirty pounds as divided among seventy-two people, the schooner going twice in the year. It is eight shillings and fourpence a-head. Even this may be reduced by having all their marketing done once a-year, if this is possible, leaving only four shillings and twopence caused by disadvantage of position.”

Upwards of a hundred years ago, in referring to the small amount of internal commerce in the Western Islands, Dr Johnson remarked that hardly anything, at that period, had “a known or settled rate,” and that “ the price of things brought in or carried out had to be considered as that of a foreign market” He further states, in illustration of the common error which regards money and wealth as similar terms, that “when Lesley, two hundred years ago, related so punctiliously that a hundred hen-eggs, new-laid, were sold in the islands for a penny, he supposed that no inference could possibly follow but that eggs were in great abundance. Posterity has since grown wiser; and having learned that nominal and real value may differ, they now tell no such stories, lest the foreigner should happen to collect not that eggs are many, but that pence are few.”

In one of his contributions to the ‘Ayr Observer,’ Mr W. M. Wilson makes some very sensible remarks on the alleged grievances of the St Kildans. “Their social condition,” he says, “is much higher than that of the Hebrideans generally, from whom we hear no complaints, and for whom we hear no mawkish and maudlin sympathy. They are well housed, well clad, and well fed, and live natural and comfortable lives. . . . If they wish to trade to Harris, they can trade to Harris. If their present boats are not seaworthy, they have resources available to procure a suitable smack. If Mr Mackenzie, the factor, can bring Dunvegan to St Kilda, they can carry St Kilda to Dunvegan. That Macleod does not grind the face of St Kilda might at least be presumed, in the first place, from his own character and the character of Miss Macleod, as well as from the character of his factor, Mr Mackenzie, and the spirit and character of the islanders themselves. They are not pigeon-livered. They do not ‘lack gall to make oppression bitter,’ were it practised. They have sense enough to feel it, and wit and courage enough to devise and secure redress, were there any grievance to be redressed. But there is none.” He then alludes to the concurrent testimony of Mr Macdiarmid (already referred to), Captain Macdonald of the “Vigilant,” the Rev. Roderick M'Donald of South Uist, and the captain and purser of the “Dunara Castle,” relative to the comparatively satisfactory condition of the islanders. The captain of the “Vigilant” considers that there is not a more comfortable set of people between Cantyre and Cape Wrath, or from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head, than the St Kildans. The genial old minister of South Uist, formerly pastor of Harris, has paid several visits to the island, and knows the people well. He agrees with Captain Macdonald, and warmly protests that it is due to truth and honesty, as well as to Macleod of Macleod, that the aspersions on his character should be exposed and condemned. Captain M'Ewan and Mr Donald of the “Dunara” are thoroughly familiar with the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and entertain the same opinion regarding the inhabitants of the most distant isle. Lastly, Mr Wilson fairly asks: “Shall any one gainsay the corroborative testimony of the clergy, and lawyers, and doctors, and civil engineers, and artists, and merchants, and travellers—the passengers of the ‘Dunara Castle,’ who spent that Monday in July last upon the island of St Kilda? They landed with minds open to truth. They observed, for themselves, the St Kildans, their appearance and character, and social economy. Some of them, acquainted with Gaelic, entered freely into personal communication with the islanders, and had their confidence. And these visitors left St Kilda with the intelligent conviction that presumption, probability, experience, and fact, were all in favour of Macleod of Macleod; and that never was public agitation more delusive and mischievous than that based upon the fictitious oppression and misery of the poor islanders of St Kilda!”

I have already incidentally referred to the great modification, if not the absolute decay, of the feudal system. That day has probably passed away for ever wherein we shall witness that mutual attachment which prevailed when the chieftain reigned in the hearts of his clan, while they bore his exactions without a murmur, and followed his fortunes without a call. The “times are altered.” The commercial spirit of the age has substituted money for men, and the lawyer’s contract for personal affection ; and it is somewhat difficult for the most humane of masters to counteract the natural results. In many parts of the kingdom, however, a legitimate reverence for the past still influences a not inconsiderable section of our countrymen, even in the humblest ranks of life. The prestige of birth, when accompanied by honourable conduct and personal worth, can still accomplish some things that mere wealth signally fails to achieve. In that respect, the representative of the ancient owners of St Kilda has an advantage over even the best-intentioned “ men of yesterday,” who now occupy the domains of many a historic race; but in addition to his “ blood ” and his time-honoured appellation, he has also that " good name ” which is better than “ precious ointment.” On the grounds already indicated, I feel satisfied that the inhabitants of Hirta have no just reason to desire a more considerate patron than their present lord, who might apply, with some slight modifications, the honest Gonzalo’s description of the insular republic, in the “Tempest,” to the circumstanccs and condition of his lonely rock :—

Letters should not be known; no use of service,
Of riches or of poverty; no contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure :
No sovereignty. . . .
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have ; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people. . . .
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.”

ADDENDUM.

As the last sheet is passing through the press, I am informed by Mr A. B. Stewart of Ascog Hall, Bute, that, accompanied by the Earl of Dunmore, he visited St Kilda in his yacht in the beginning of last September—his father having formed one of the party which embraced Doctors Dickson and Macleod in 1838, and being still remembered by some of the oldest islanders. Mr Stewart also informs me that Lord Dunmore, as the proprietor of South Harris, is the superior of St Kilda, the annual feu-duty for which amounts to the formidable sum of one shilling sterling.

My attention has been called to a little volume, published in 1825, and said to be uncommonly rare, of the existence of which I was not previously aware, entitled "A Critical Examination of Dr Macculloch’s Work on the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, attributed to James Browne, Advocate, LL.D., author of the 'History of the Highlands and Highland Clans, and celebrated for his bloodless duel with Charles M'Laren of the 'Scotsman.' According to the writer of the 'Scottish Nation' he was to always remarkable for his tendency to strong statement;” and notwithstanding his criticisms, I feel disposed to adhere to my remarks on Macculloch as an author.

THE END


Return to Book Index Page