ONE of the earliest
writers on St Kilda concludes his account with an apology for what some
of his readers might regard as prolixity, and justifies his narrative by
asserting that “the St Kildans may be ranked among the greatest
curiosities of the moral world.” Concurring in that opinion, the author
has long turned his attention to the vital and social statistics of the
remote islanders; and the large amount of public interest in their
lonely rock which has been aroused by the recent appearance of numerous
letters and articles in the columns of the Scottish press has induced
him to compile the present volume. Upwards of twelve years ago, he
prepared a lecture on St Kilda, which he delivered in various parts of
the country; and since that time, he has collected a number of
additional facts bearing upon its history and circumstances, and has,
moreover, visited the island during the past summer. In referring to the
rare appearance of strangers on its distant shores towards the beginning
of the present century, Dr Macculloch says that every avatar of that
nature was well remembered, and that he who had no other means of
reaching the temple of fame had only to find his way to St Kilda, in
order to be recorded in its archives. Even in these later days of rapid
locomotion and increased intercourse, the visitors to the island are
comparatively few and far between; and for one that has landed on its
rocky coast, probably tens of thousands have accomplished the hackneyed
“ Swiss round,” or even penetrated the wilds of Norway.
With the exception of the
incidental notices of Macculloch, Wilson, and one or two later writers,
nearly all the accounts of St Kilda were published before the end of
last century; and hitherto no work has appeared which embraces anything
like a detailed description of the island and its primitive inhabitants.
Besides a careful perusal of all the known literature on the
subject—most of which is comparatively scarce — the author has examined
the various official documents relative to St Kilda in the custody of
the Registrar-General, and has been favoured with a number of notes and
verbal statements by several friends who have visited the island during
the last twenty years, of whom he must specially mention Captain F. W.
L. Thomas, R.N., formerly engaged on the Admiralty survey. He has also
been furnished by Mrs M'Vean of Killin, a native of St Kilda, with an
interesting series of Reminiscences.
For some of his most
attractive illustrations, the author is indebted to the sketch-books of
Mr Alexander Carlyle Bell (kindly lent to him by Lord Young) and of the
Rev. Eric J. Findlater of Locheamhead; while the groups of women and
children are from photographs taken by Captain Thomas in i860.
St Bennet’s, Edinburgh,
15th December 1877.
Chapter I. - The
Hebrides, or Western Isles.
Census of 1871—Definition of “island”—Number and locality of inhabited
and uninhabited islands — Excess of female population—The Northmen—Hebrides
or Western Islands—Fivefold division—Area—'The “Long Island”—Its
physical characteristics— Mountains and lakes—Scenery and
climate—Special beauties of the Outer Hebrides—Scotland and Switzerland—
Influence of the ocean—Maritime nations—The “conversation of the
sea”—Characteristics of the Western Islanders—Solemnity of the Outer
Hebrideans—Their weak points and ultimate doom.
Chapter II. - Published
Accounts of St Kilda.
Martin’s ‘Voyage’—His ‘Description of the Western Islands'— Dr Johnson’s
opinion of the author—Buchan’s ‘Description of St Kilda’ — Anonymous
volume published in 1751 — Macaulay's account of the island—Questioned
authorship—Lane Buchanan’s ‘Travels in the Western Hebrides ’ — Lord
Brougham's notice of St Kilda—Macculloch’s two works on the ‘ Highlands
and Western Islands of Scotland ’ — His character as an author—Maclean’s
‘Sketches of St Kilda’— Wilson’s ‘Voyage round the Coasts of Scotland
and the Isles’ —Article on St Kilda in ‘Edinburgh Encyclopaedia’—Journals
of Rev. John M'Donald—Notices of the island by Muir, Morgan, Angus
Smith, Lady Baillie, Sands, and Macdiarmid.
Chapter III. - Early
History and Ownership.
Ancient name, Hirt or Hirta—So called in the “ Lord of the Isles ”
—Mallet’s “Amyntor and Theodora”—Notices of Hirta by Fordun, Boethius,
Buchanan, Camden, Dean Monro, etc.— Origin of present name of the
island—Its colonisation—Relative tradition—Charter by John, Lord of the
Isles, in fourteenth century—Subsequent grants—Macleod charter-chest—St
Kilda possessed by the Macleods for several centuries—Origin of that
family—Comparative strength of the clan in 1863—Macleods and Macdonalds—Transference
of St Kilda in 1804 and 1871— Boswell's contemplated purchase in 1771, .
Chapter IV. - Local
Incidents since the beginning of the Seventeenth Century.
Raid of Coll Macgillespick in 1615—Relative letter of Sir Roderick
Macleod to Lord Binning—Coll’s second visit to St Kilda in 1641—Wreck of
French and Spaniards in 1686—Earthquake in Borrera—Egg robbery of
1695—Roderick the Impostor—His expulsion in 1697—Smallpox epidemic of
1724—Story of Lady Grange (1734-42)—Her abode and manner of life in St
Kilda— Long gap in the annals of the island—Visit of the “ Laird of
Islay,” c. 1827—Wreck of the “ Charlotte” of Hull in 1839—Mrs M'Vean’s ‘
Reminiscences'—Sensation caused by first steamboat —Recent visits of
Government vessels, private yachts, etc.—Loss of the St Kilda boat “
Dargavel ” in 1863—Supposed survival of one of the crew till 1875—Wreck
of the “Janet Cowan” of Greenock in 1864—Mr Sands’s two sojourns on the
island,' in 1875 and 1876-77—Wreck of the Austrian ship “Peti Dubrovacki”
in January 1877—Letter from the captain, and gift to the islanders by
the Austrian Government, .....
Chapter V. - Natural
Features of the Island.
Mallet’s description of St Kilda—Its shape and extent—Cliffs and
caves—Principal hills—Conagher—Fantastic outlines of the group—Circuit
of the island by water—The Dune—Levinish—Soa and adjoining “stacks”—Borrera
and its satellites—Vanishing view, of the group—Tendency to
underestimate the height of cliffs—Preconceived notions of St
Kilda—Grandeur of the atmospheric effects—Glen Mor—East or 14 Dickson’s
” Bay—West or “ Macleod’s ” Bay—Argonautics of St Kilda—Anchorage and
landing—Voyage of the “ Dunara Castle ”—St Kilda in a storm —Verdurous
appearance of the island—Springs and wells— Geological formation.
Chapter VI. - Physical
Characteristics of the Inhabitants—Their Dress, Food, and Houses.
Good physique of both sexes—Preponderance of fair complexions— Strength
and healthiness of population generally—Stature of the men—Costume of
the islanders in 1841 and subsequently—Their ancient garb—“Fashion” in
St Kilda—Shawl vice hearth-rug —Modern Sunday dress—Absence of
ornament—Diet of the natives in 1697—The fulmar their favourite
food—Fishing capabilities of St Kilda—Detailed accounts of St Kilda
fare—Succession of sea-birds — Love of tobacco and sweets—Ancient
dwellings—Houses erected about 1837—Their peculiar construction—Wooden
locks and keys—Non-projecting roofs—Wall-beds —Scarcity of fuel—Domestic
usages of the islanders—Present houses and furniture—Effects of storm of
i860—Manse, church, store, and factor’s house—Miss Macleod of Macleod.
Chapter VII. - Climate,
Crops, and Live Stock.
Beneficial effect of Gulf Stream—Autumn and winter gales—Weather
prognostics—Mildness of the climate—Fertility of the soil—Mode of
tillage—Barley and other crops—Implements of husbandry—Indigenous
plants—Land not so productive as formerly—Good quality of the
pasture—Pyramids or cleits—Character of the sheep—Their present
number—Owner’s rate of charges—System of insurance—Existing arrangements
objectionable—Cattle, horses, dogs, etc.—Rental at different periods
—Rents paid in kind (feathers, oil, cloth, etc.)—Good understanding
between landlord and tenants—Recent equitable agreement —Exports and
imports—Periodical visits of the factor—Customs connected with the
steward of former days—Procedure of the tacksman in 1799.
Chapter VIII. -
Population of St Kilda—Surnames, Occupations, etc.
First official enumeration in 1851—Population of the island at previous
periods—Its capacity in respect to inhabitants—Fair Isle and Foula—Surnames
and Christian names of St Kilda— Occupations of the islanders—Cragsmen
or fowlers—Spinning and weaving—Industry of both sexes—Their varied
employments— Quern or hand-mill — Neglect of fishing — Description and
number of boats—Proposed landing-place—Conjugal condition of the
inhabitants — Disproportion of the sexes — Ages of the islanders in
1871—Betty Scott's son and daughter.
Chapter IX. - Sea-birds
St Kilda a land of feathers—Harmony of the sea-birds—Island of Handa—“
Clouds ” of birds at St Kilda—Cries of the sea-fowl— Thomson and Mallet
on their transmigrations—Land-birds of St Kilda—Sea-bird Act of
1869—Classification of St Kilda sea-fowl —Birds specified by
Martin—Regularity of arrival and departure —Garefowl or great auk—Martin
and Macaulay’s descriptions —Now believed to be extinct—Present value of
specimens—Professor Newton’s hope—Solan goose or gannet—Favourite haunt
at St Kilda—Barren birds—Description of the solan—Origin of the
name—Principal food—Nests, and thievish propensities—Length of
flight—Young birds or gougs—Mode of capture— Fulmar-petrel—Size and
appearance—The longest resident in the island—An article of
food—Feathers and oil—Voracity of the fulmar—Fulmar-fowling—Estimation
of the bird in St Kilda—The other side of the picture—Puffin or
sea-parrot—Its abundance on the west coast—Description and mode of
catching—Colour of shell—Young birds fed on sand-eels—Fowling in St
Kilda—Sir Robert Moray’s notice—Ropes of the cragsmen— Horse-hair
gins—Feats of the fowlers—Wilson's and Morgan’s accounts—Performance
witnessed by “Dunara Castle” party— Exploits of the cragsmen on the
islets and stacks—Female bird-catchers— Egg consumption by the islanders
— Anecdotes of cragsmen.
Chapter X. - Diseases of
Analysis of death registers of St Kilda, 1830-76—Causes of death and ag££
of deceased—Infantile mortality—Eight-day sickness (trismus nascentiuni)—Symptoms
of the malady—Number of fatal cases—Comparative mortality of the
Westmann islands—Five-nights’ sickness of Barvas and Uig
(Lewis)—Juvenile deaths from tetanus in Scotland—Cause of the
disease—Insanitary condition of the cottages—Dr Collins’s experience in
Dublin—Mortality attributed to foul air—Introduction of ventilation and
beneficial results—Opinions of Dr A. Mitchell and Mr Morgan—Mr
Corfield’s statement, and reply by proprietor of St Kilda—Admiral
Otter’s explanation—Effect of sea-bird food on mother’s milk— General
conclusions—Boat-cough or strangers’ cold—Recent instances of its
occurrence — Principal symptoms — Different opinions regarding its
cause—Scepticism of Johnson and Mac-culloch — Mr Morgan’s testimony —
Analogous ailment at Ega and Tristan d’Acunha—Notice of the Tristan
group of islands —Dysentery and its cause—Immunity of St Kilda from
certain diseases — Smallpox and vaccination — Rheumatism and other
ailments of the islanders—Alleged occurrence of dyspepsia—Love of
medicine — Rarity of violent deaths—High death-rate —Female
longevity—Effect of fowling on the health of the males.
Chapter XI. - Education,
Morals, and Religion.
Illiterate character of the St Kildans in 1758—Ignorance of the women at
a later period—Their mode of washing—Corrupt dialect of Gaelic—Limited
powers of caligraphy—An opportunity for the Harris school board—The
minister’s library—The “curse” of Gaelic—Drunkenness unknown—Purity of
morals—Rarity of illegitimate births—St Kilda a reproduction of the
“golden age” —Happiness of the islanders—Testimony of Mallet and Collins
—Former disregard of money—Injudicious visitors to the island
—Increasing thirst for gold—Hospitality to strangers—Recent instances of
the virtue—Ignorance of the outside world—Visits of natives to Skye and
Glasgow—Story of the Scalpa lighthouse— Taish or second-sight—Religious
experiences of the islanders— Introduction of Christianity—Coll Ketoch
and Roderick the Impostor—Devotional character of the St Kildans—Ancient
chapels —Rev. Alexander Buchan’s mission in 1705—His useful services
—Macleod’s “ mortification ”—Macaulay’s estimate of the
islanders—Succession of ministers between 1730 and 1844—Rev. Dr
Macdonald’s four visits to the island—His experiences of the
inhabitants—Valuable ministrations of the Rev. Neil M'Kenzie —St Kilda a
Free Church preserve since 1844—Mr Sands’s high character of the present
minister—Sabbatarianism of the St Kildans—A recent example—Gradual
spread of sounder views on the mainland—A Highland Pharisee.
Chapter XII. - Music,
Customs, and Antiquities.
Poetical genius of the islanders—Their love of music—Subjects of their
odes—Dr Johnson’s views—Macculloch’s experiences— Highland music —
Dancing now unknown—The “St Kilda Wedding”—A mother’s “Lament”—St Kilda
maid’s song—Air in4 Scots Musical Museum’—Secular music superseded by
psalms and hymns—The piper at a discount—The “ sinfu* little fiddle ”
—Christ Church crucifix—St Kilda festivals—Annual “cavalcade”—St Brendan
and St Columba—St Michael’s cake—The Gruagach stone—Field of spells—The
“ unknown god ”—Sacred fountains—Attachdor “shinty”—Swimming no longer
practised —Games and amusements interdicted—St Kilda Mbd— Modern
“Parliament”—Fire-penny and pot-penrty—Early marriages in former times —
Relative procedure — The “ Lover’s Stone ”— Modem marriage
ceremonies—Maids and bachelors—“ The lads know best”—Marriages since
1830—Consanguineous unions — Fertility of the women—Former baptismal and
burial customs—Present practice—Necropolis of St Kilda—The last
sennachie of the island—Hirta traditions—“Burning” by Dugan and Ferchar
—Wreck of a king’s son—The fairy hillock—St Kilda Macdonalds—The
Amazon’s dwelling—Its construction and age— Extinct churches—Underground
abodes—“Stone of knowledge”—Fort on the Dune—House of Stallir in Borrera.
Chapter XIII. - The
Future of St Kilda—Recent Newspaper Correspondence, etc.
The “Western question”—Three courses of procedure—Dr Johnson’s views on
emigration — Special circumstances of St Kilda —Reasons against removal
of the islanders—Theoretical philanthropists — Motives for agitation — A
former “improvement scheme”—The champion of St Kilda—His charges
against the proprietor—Macleod’s dignified reply—Additional
accusations—A “divine call” and “strange instrument”—Confidence of the
islanders in their lord—Miss Macleod’s practical benevolence—The “famine” sensation—Facts v. Assertions—Old cry of “Highland oppression”
— Bright side of the shield — Testimony of Buchan and Pennant—Decay of
feudalism—Insinuations of the Sassenach—Suggested reforms at St
Kilda—Lighthouse and telegraphic communication — Observatory and signal
station— Establishments for dipsomaniacs and refractory wives—Postal
service—Necessity of a landing-place—Application to the Admiralty—Supply
of boats, nets, and lines—Instruction in practical seamanship—Possible
return of the “swallows”—Educational improvements—The “Gaelic
nuisance’’—Importation of fuel— Kelsall fund of 1859—Danger of
indiscriminate charity — St Kilda beyond the pale of
pauperism—Introduction of free trade —Commissioners of Northern
Lights—Proposed smack between Harris and Hirta—Imports and exports—Dr
Angus Smith’s reasonable views—Money and wealth confounded—Mr W. M.
Wilson's contributions to the 'Ayr Observer’—Favourable opinions of
Captain Macdonald, etc., relative to St Kilda—Corroborative testimony of
“Dunara Castle” passengers—Macleod’s “ good name”—Gonzalo’s insular
republic a parallel of St Kilda.