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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter I. - The Hebrides, or Western Isles

AS distinguished from the mainland, which is itself but the northern extremity of an extensive island, the Islands of Scotland, territorially, constitute a pretty considerable portion of that kingdom. In point of population, however, they are comparatively insignificant At the census of 1871, their inhabitants amounted to only 161,909 persons — 74.332 males and 87,577 females — being a decrease of about 3000 since the previous census of 1861. At the same period, the proportion of the population on the mainland was upwards of 95 per cent, while the insular population was under 5 per cent. At the census of 1851, the returns relative to the islands were believed to be somewhat imperfect; and accordingly, both in 1861 and 1871, an effort was made to get the omissions supplied. A circular was issued by the Registrar-General to the registrar of every parish or district to which islands were known to be attached, with the view of ascertaining their names, and whether or not they were inhabited. A complete list was thus obtained of all the islands, other than bare rocks, which were either inhabited by man or capable of affording pasturage to cattle or sheep,—the word island having been defined to be “ any piece of solid land, surrounded by water, which affords sufficient vegetation to support one or more sheep, or which is inhabited by man.” All mere rocks which are the resort of wild-fowl were accordingly excluded, and the following proved to be the result in 1861:—

Inhabited islands,.....186
Total, . . 788

Some of the uninhabited islands are of great extent, and furnish pasturage to from three to four hundred sheep. Others, again, are so small as not to be more than sufficient for the sustenance of a single sheep, which is removed, when fattened, to make way for a leaner member of the flock. No fewer than 749 of these 788 islands belong to the six counties of Shetland, Orkney, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness, and Argyll; while the remaining 39 pertain to the counties of Caithness, Bute, Forfar, Perth, Clackmannan, Fife, Haddington, Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Renfrew, Ayr, and Kirkcudbright. Three of these counties—viz., Shetland, Orkney, and Bute—are entirely made up of separate islands. Two of the smaller islands belonging to the county of Bute,

“With verdant link
Close the fair entrance to the Clyde,”

and constitute the parish of Cumbraes, a former minister of which had so exalted a notion of the importance of his little territory, that, after first invoking God’s blessing on his own people, he was in the habit of devoutly remembering, in his prayers, “the ad/ao/cent islands of Great Britain and Ireland! ”

The most populous of the inhabited islands is Lewis, of which the greater part is in the county of Ross—the remaining portion (Harris) pertaining to Inverness-shire. At the last census its inhabitants amounted to 25,947— 12,372 males, and 13,575 females. The least populous islands, at the same date, were Bound-Skerries, in Shetland, inhabited by two males; and Cramond, in the county of Edinburgh, of which a male and a female constituted the entire population. At the census of 1851, it would appear that the island of Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, was tenanted by a solitary man, and Little-Papa, in Shetland, by a solitary woman!

The male inhabitants of these islands are exposed to no little danger, in consequence of their only road or highway being across the channels which separate island from island, or from the mainland, through most of which fierce currents flow. The deaths from drowning are, accordingly, very numerous, and help to make the proportion of the sexes even more unequal than on the mainland, where the “lords of creation" are in a decided minority. In 1871, the proportion of females on the mainland was 109.19 to every hundred males; while in the islands the proportion was as high as 117.82. This striking difference is, to a great extent, accounted for by the fact of an exceptionally large proportion of the insular males being engaged in the whale, seal, and other fishings, or connected with the merchant shipping—such avocations necessarily implying long and frequent absence from their homes.

In the earliest period of our written history, these islands were peopled by the Celtic race. A large number of them, however, bear names given by the Northmen, by whom they were seized, partly for the purposes of commerce, but principally as naval stations, from which they could make inroads on the mainland. In their ships, or “sea-horses,” they braved the dangers of the deep, and succeeded in effecting permanent settlements in various parts of the kingdom—the Jutes and Saxons on the south coast of England, the Danes on the east coast and in the Lowlands of Scotland, and the Norwegians in Shetland and Orkney, from which they , extended their power over the Hebrides. The Western Islands, however, were gradually recovered by the mainland population; but the Northmen held their ground in Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland, where their language has latterly given way to English—Gaelic being spoken in the Western Isles. The impress of the Northmen, however, is still very perceptible. In the words of the lamented author of ‘ A Summer in Skye : ’ “ Old Norwegian castles, perched on the bold headlands, yet moulder in hearing of the surge. . . . Hill and dale wear ancient names that sigh to the Norway pine. The inhabitant of Mull or Skye perusing the ‘ Burnt Njal’ is struck most of all by the names of localities—because they are almost identical with the names of localities in his own neighbourhood. . . . The Norseman found the Hebrides convenient stepping-stones, or resting-places, on his way to the richer southern lands. . . . Doubtless, in course of time, he looked on the daughter of the Celt, and saw that she was fair, and a mixed race was the result of alliances. To this day in the islands the Norse element is distinctly visible—not only in old castles and the names of places, but in the faces and entire mental build of the people. . . . The Hebrideans are a mixed race; in them the Norseman and the Celt are combined, and here and there is a dash of Spanish blood which makes brown the cheek and darkens the eye. . . .

The Islesman is a Highlander of the Highlanders; modern life took longer in reaching. him; and his weeping climate, his misty wreaths and vapours, and the silence of his moory environments, naturally continued to act upon and to shape his character.”

It is necessary, however, to speak with considerable caution on the subject of race, as supposed to be indicated by complexion or physique. Broadly stated, the Celt may be described as being generally characterised by black hair and a dark complexion, and the Norseman by the opposite attributes. But we must bear in mind that Tacitus and other early writers refer to the rutilce comee of the Caledonians; and we all know that both Bane and Roy—indicating white and red—are very common epithets among the Highlanders proper; a red-haired, blue-eyed Celt being by no means rare. Complicated alliances necessarily affect and modify their results; and not unfrequently a remote influence is strikingly displayed many generations after it first began to operate. Not a few remarkable examples of this have occurred in our historic families; and doubtless the same effects would be observed among the humbler classes, if their pedigrees could be established.

The Hebrides, or Western Islands, consist of an elongated group flanking nearly the whole west coast of Scotland. Anciently called Hebrides, ^Ebudae, etc., they at one time comprehended the various islands and islets in the Firth of Clyde, the isle of Rathlin off the north-east comer of Ireland, and even the Island of Man on the Cumberland coast. The modern Hebrides, however, only include the islands and islets extending from 550 35' to 58° 37' N. lat., and lying westward of the peninsula of Cantyre on the south, and of the mainland of Scotland in the middle and on the north. They may be classified under five divisions :—

1st, The Islay and Jura group.
2d, The Mull group. Inner Hebrides.
3d, The Skye group.
4th, The Long Island group. Outer Hebrides.
5th, The St Kilda group.

The estimated area of the Hebrides, measured on the plane, is about 3000 square miles,1 or 1,920,000 imperial acres, thus constituting nearly a tenth part of Scotland. When Dr Walker published his ‘Economical History of the Hebrides' in 1812, the arable land in the Western Isles was estimated at only i-8oth part of the uncultivated ground; but the proportion is, no doubt, now considerably larger.

In addition to the St Kilda group, the Outer Hebrides (or the “Long Island”), include Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra, and are inhabited by an interesting race of people, who still exhibit the purest vestiges of Celtic manners and customs. With regard to the physical characteristics of these islands, while Harris and Barra are entirely mountainous—the former consisting of two extensive ranges—in Lewis there are four principal groups of mountains, of which one is a ramification of one of the Harris ranges. North Uist presents two ranges of inferior elevation, while South Uist chiefly consists of one extended group. The loftiest of these mountains are Hecla, or Eachcla, in South Uist, and Clisheim in Harris, of which the latter was recently ascertained to be 2430 feet in height, many of the Lewis mountains being only a little inferior. Speaking generally, the Outer Hebrides are greatly indented by lochs and creeks. Beaches and sands are of comparatively rare occurrence; and although on the eastern coasts there are several excellent harbours, very few are to be found on the west, except in Lewis. One of the most characteristic features of the Outer Hebrides is the large number of lakes, more particularly in North Uist, and in the lower parts of South Uist, Benbecula, and Lewis. In the eastern portion of North Uist, it is said to be difficult to determine whether land or water predominates; and Macculloch, speaking of Benbecula, says—“The sea is here all islands, and the land all lakes.” Some of these lakes are of considerable extent, the largest being Loch Langavat, in Lewis, which is upwards of ten miles in length, and singularly tortuous.

The leading characteristics of the scenery are ruggedness, sterility, and gloom. The total absence of wood, the bleak and dismal aspect of the mountains, the endless tracts of shell-sand hillocks, and the dark and sullen waters of the lakes, complete the picture of desolation which these wild regions present. The climate is moist and variable ; the clouds exhibiting every diversity of form and elevation, and producing the most magical effects upon the landscape. The temperature is by no means low (about 40° in spring and 52º in autumn), open weather being the normal condition of the atmosphere. Snow seldom lies for any length of time, and frost is rarely intense or of long duration. Ozone has been ascertained to be more abundant in the Hebrides than in any other part of the world. Spring commences about the end of March, and is usually accompanied by easterly winds and dry weather, but the green livery of the succeeding season does not appear till towards the beginning of June. July and August constitute the Hebridean summer, during which the wide and sandy stretches of the western shores are carpeted with daisies, buttercups, sea-pinks, and milk-white clover. From September to the middle of October there is usually a continuance of dry weather, after which westerly gales begin to blow, getting more boisterous as the season advances, and being generally accompanied by very heavy rain. Of rare occurrence in summer, thunder is frequently heard in the coldest period of the year; and the violent tempests which then prevail afford undeniable evidence of their severity in the unroofed houses and stranded boats of the inhabitants. But although the first impression of the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, even under the favourable influence of a summer’s sun, is apt to be associated with dreariness and gloom, after a little while the peculiar character of the surroundings undergoes a gradual transformation, and the dullest features of the landscape seem to present a beauty of their own. The barest mountain displays its picturesque scars and “corries;” the loneliest lake is enlivened by its weeds and water-lilies; and even the varied outlines of the arid sandhills contrive to excite our admiration. At one moment the glorious orb of day shines forth with dazzling lustre, and the peaks of the mountains stand out sharp and clear against an azure sky, while the sea is smooth as a mirror, gently and silently laving the golden sand; at another, the black clouds gather from the west, and veil every eminence in mist, the wind drives furiously from shore to shore, and the mighty deep is troubled, tossing its long line of breakers to the heavens. Doubtless the due appreciation of every aspect of nature depends largely upon temperament and association; and many- a dweller in the plains, with their grassy slopes and luxuriant foliage, would fail to discover any form or comeliness in these lonely western lands. “What can be more delightful,” says Macgillivray, “than a midnight walk by moonlight along the sea-beach of some secluded isle, the glassy sea sending from its surface a long stream of dancing and dazzling light—no sound to be heard save the small ripple of the idle wavelet, or the scream of the seabird watching the fry that swarms along the shores ! In the short nights of summer, the melancholy song of the throstle has scarcely ceased on the hillside, when the merry carol of the lark commences, and the plover and snipe sound their shrill pipe. Again, how glorious is the scene which presents itself from the summit of one of the loftier hills, when the great ocean is seen glowing with the last splendour of the setting sun, and the lofty isles of St Kilda rear their giant heads, amid the purple blaze, on the extreme verge of the horizon! ”

The scenery of Scotland and of Switzerland present some remarkable contrasts. Every observant traveller in the Western Islands will readily acknowledge that the beauty of our rugged shores is greatly enhanced by the sea and its surroundings. Grand as are the snow-clad peaks of the Alps, the absence of the ocean in the land of William Tell cannot fail to be regarded as a serious want by any one who has been accustomed to watch the various aspects of that wondrous element. Independently of the picturesque effects of the sea, its important influence on the commercial as well as on the political and intellectual character of certain nations—Greece, Italy, Spain, and England—has been noticed by various historians. Goethe suggests that “ perhaps it is the sight of the sea from youth upward that gives English and Spanish poets such an advantage over those of inland countries; ” and other writers have remarked upon the impression of the illimitable which is derived from the majesty of the ocean. In his interesting little volume on ‘Iona,’ the Duke of Argyll makes some very pertinent remarks on the characteristics of marine scenery. That of the Hebrides, he says, “is altogether peculiar; and by those whose notions of beauty or of fertility are derived from countries which abound in corn and wine and oil, the charms of that scenery can perhaps never be understood. And yet these charms are founded on a wonderful combination of the three greatest powers in nature—the sky, the sea, the mountains.1 But these stand in very different relations to the early memories of our races. As regards the sky, there is no speech or nation where its voice is not heard; there is no corner of the world where the sweet influences which it sheds do not form, consciously or unconsciously, an intimate part of the life of men. But it is not so with the ocean. There are millions who have never seen it, and can have no conception of the aspect of the most wonderful object upon earth. ... To eyes that have been accustomed to rest upon the boundless fields of ocean, there is nothing in nature like it. The inexhaustible fountain of all the fertility and exuberance of earth—the type of all vastness and of all power—it responds also with infinite subtlety of expression to every change in the face of heaven. There is nothing like its awfulness when in commotion. There is nothing like its restfulness when it is at rest. There is nothing like the joyfulness of its reflected lights, or the tenderness of the colouring which it throws in sunshine from its deeps and shallows. I am sorry for those who have never listened to, and therefore can never understand, the immense conversation of the sea.”

A single word about the inhabitants of the Western Isles. The author of the ‘Land of Lome’ tells the Princess Louise of the destitution and hard lives of the Hebrideans, notwithstanding which he says that, “though all the powers of earth seem leagued against them, these people are as fresh and wholesome-hearted, as generous and guileless, as any men or women you will meet with in your earthly pilgrimage.” He quotes the favourable estimates of the accomplished writer of the ‘Tales of the West Highlands,’ and of the large-hearted Norman Macleod, relative to their good feeling and intelligence, and speaks of the “quaint thoughts and dreams with which they cheer their otherwise melancholy firesides ” —pronouncing them “a race apart.” Solemn in aspect, and with faces rarely illumined by a smile, the denizens of the Outer Hebrides are indisposed to be gay and sportive. Unlike those of more brilliant nations, “their visions are steady rather than fitful,” and by them the world and the things thereof are always contemplated under a sober and unchanging light. Essentially a home-loving people, they show little inclination to find their way to distant lands—and their hospitality to strangers has long been proverbial. Even in the humblest of huts the visitor is asked to partake of something—a glass of luscious milk, or, at least, a draught of sparkling water; and “ the smile that sweetens such gifts is like Christ’s, turning water into wine.” They have, of course, their weak points—a slow and listless demeanour, a want of life and energy, a tendency to huddle together and to neglect ablution, an unwillingness to change old ways; and Mr Buchanan does not hesitate to acknowledge that “ they must inevitably sink and perish ” in the race with the Southron. But with all their faults, they are devout and spiritual; “ the voices of winds and waters are in their hearts, and they passionately believe in God.” “The Celt,” says Alexander Smith, “is the most melancholy of men. He has turned everything to superstitious uses, and every object of nature, even the unreasoning dreams of sleep, are mirrors which flash back death upon him.

. . . In his usual avocations, the Islesman rubs clothes with death as he would with an acquaintance. Gathering wild-fowl, he hangs, like a spider on its thread, over a precipice on which the sea is beating a hundred feet beneath. In his crazy boat he adventures into whirlpool and foam. He is among the hills when the snow comes down, making everything unfamiliar, and stifling the strayed wanderer. Thus death is ever near him, and that consciousness turns everything to omen.”

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