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St. Kilda, Past and Present
By George Seton (1848)


PREFACE

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.

CONTENTS

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 and Cragsmen.
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 the Islanders.
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.


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