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St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter V. - Natural Features of the Island

THE geographical position of St Kilda, and its distance from various points in the Outer Hebrides, have already been referred to. Its remote and remarkable situation is thus described by Mallet, in the opening lines of his “Amyntor and Theodora:”—

"Far in the watery waste, where his broad wave
From world to world the vast Atlantic rolls
On from the piny shores of Labrador
To frozen Thule east, her airy height
Aloft to heaven remotest Kilda lifts,
Last of the sea-girt Hebrides that guard,
In filial train, Britannia’s parent coast.”

Unfortunately, St Kilda has not yet found a place among the trustworthy sheets of the Ordnance Survey. In the ordinary maps of Scotland, its position is indicated by a note in that portion of the Atlantic called by the old geographers Oceanus Deucaledonius, owing to the scale not being sufficiently large to embrace the remote island. So far as I am aware, its earliest occurrence in a map is in the ‘True and exact hydrographical Description of the Sea-coast and Isles of Scotland, made in a voyage round the same by that great and mighty prince James the 5th published at Paris in 1583, and at Edinburgh, by John Adair, F.R.S., in 1688. It there appears as “St Kildar,” and is incorrectly placed a little to the north-west of West Loch Tarbert. Macculloch compares its shape to that of a “ leg of mutton; ” and if the map of the island which he gives in the third volume of his earlier work is anything like a correct representation, it no doubt bears a considerable resemblance to that familiar object. He explains, however, that his plan merely conveys “a general notion of the form of the island,” besides illustrating the hydrographical details of his narrative. Mr Wilson’s ‘Voyage’ also contains a map of St Kilda, furnished by Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, which indicates a much more compact configuration, and bears a general resemblance to the map given by Martin. It appears that Sir George measured a short base on Mulldoh-More, and took angles from its extremities of all the principal points in sight, filling up the remainder by the eye; but he regarded his plan as only approximately and not absolutely correct The three maps have been reproduced for the purpose of comparison. It will be observed that Macculloch’s map gives no indication of the west bay, and that the north-east portion of the island, embracing Conagher, presents a very different appearance from what is indicated in the two other plans. Both Martin and Macculloch represent the adjacent islet of Soa as almost circular, while in Sir George Mackenzie’s map its length is nearly three times greater than its breadth. The extent of St Kilda is considerably understated by Martin, who makes it only two miles long by one broad, and five miles in circumference. In point of fact, however, the island is about three miles long from east to west, by two miles broad, the circumference being somewhere about seven miles. According to Macdonald,1 if we include the adjacent islands, the group comprehends nearly 3000 acres of superficial extent; while in Johnston’s ‘ General Gazetteer’ the area is given as 4000 acres, or upwards of six square miles.

Except at the east or village bay, the island is almost entirely surrounded by stupendous cliffs, rising like walls of adamant out of the dark Atlantic. These cliffs are indented by numerous caves and fissures of very remarkable aspect, many of them bearing descriptive names, such as Gto-na-h-airde, or the creek of the eminence, and Gio-natt-plaideachan, or the creek of the blankets, where the natives lie all night, watching the arrival of the fulmar, covered with thick blankets to protect them from the ocean’s spray.

The number of hills, or rather tops, is variously stated by different writers, of whom some enumerate as many as six. The more important, however, are four in number—viz., Conagher, or Conna-gkdir, the name being descriptive of the increasing noise (gair) of the surrounding waves; Mulldch-scail\ or bald-top; Mulldch-geal, or white-top; and Mulldch-osterveatil, or east-top, sometimes written Mulldch-Oshival, or the top of Oswald. The highest of these is Conagher, which is stated in the Admiralty Chart to be 1220 feet above the level of the sea, consisting of one gigantic precipice (according to Mr Sands the loftiest in Britain), and constituting the summit of the uneven ridge which forms the island. While Martin pretty accurately describes it as 200 fathoms high, Macaulay has the audacity to state that its height exceeds 5000 feet, styling it the “Teneriffe of Britain!” “I made a shift,” Colonel Bayly of the Ordnance Survey Office informs me that the cliff, called the Kaim, at the western extremity of the ridge on the island of Foula, in Shetland, is exactly the same height as Conagher—viz., 1220 feet; but it is not quite perpendicular, having a break in its face. It appears that in consequence of numerous accidents, the practice of fowling was abandoned in Foula about twenty years ago, fishing being now the principal occupation of the inhabitants. The island is from six to seven miles in circumference; and at the last census the population amounted to 257—125 males and 132 females. he says, “to take its height with some degree of exactness, and found it no less than 900 fathoms. Had I never seen the immense mass” (he adds), “I should very probably dispute the credibility of the account now given, just as much as any one else may do after perusing this account” In referring to this grave statement, Wilson sensibly remarks: “Our having seen it is our chief reason for not only disputing but denying the point in question.”

“Not many yards beneath the summit of Conagher,” says Macculloch, “the hill is cut almost abruptly down to the water,—a dizzy height to the spectator who looks -down upon the almost inaudible waves dashing below. At the foot of this fearful precipice some lower rocky points project, which in any other situation would attract notice, but are lost in the overpowering vicinity of the cliffs that tower above them.” “On reaching the summit of the same mountain,” says Morgan, “a startling prospect opened before us. Behind, the moss-grown sides of the hill gradually terminated in the richer hues of the village pastures; before, in outstretched majesty, the wide Atlantic foamed and eddied at our feet—one step beneath our feet—but what a step! 800 feet—without a break— without one resting-place—steep, mural precipices, adamantine ramparts of this sea-girt isle. To obtain a good view of the cliffs, we lay down on a large flat slab of rock, and looked over its side. A plumb-line suspended from the spot would have alighted in the sea. . . . These cliffs vary considerably, both in height and abruptness, ranging from about 1200 to 400 feet,—here cold and bare, there padded with narrow moss-clad terraces, rising one above the other, their sides decked with yellow primroses.” ,

It is not easy to convey anything like a correct or adequate conception of the magnificent and fantastic outlines presented by the rugged promontories and beetling headlands of St Kilda and the adjacent islets. The vast variety of form and colour which delighted the party on board the “Dunara Castle” on the afternoon of the 2d of July will not soon be forgotten. Being in water of forty fathoms, we were able to keep very close to the shore ; but the rate at which we steamed round the island—although probably not exceeding nine knots an hour—was not sufficiently slow to enable the most rapid observer fully to realise the grandeur of the remarkable scene. I almost feel disposed to summarise my impressions by quoting part of an American author’s description of Inspiration Point in the Yosemit6 Valley. “In all my life,” he says, “let it lead me where it may, I think I shall see nothing else so grand, so awful, so sublime, so beautiful. ... It was only yesterday evening;—I cannot write of it yet. How long I sat there on the rocks I never shall know. I brought the picture away with me. I have only to shut my eyes, and I see it as I saw it in that hour of hours! ”

The first object that presented itself, as we left the crescent-shaped bay, was the Dune, a long craggy islet, separated from Mulldch geal by a narrow rocky channel, nearly dry at low water, and forming the southern horn of the bay. Although not particularly lofty, its jagged peaks exhibit a very striking appearance; and, like the remarkable rock in the Shevroy range of mountains in Madras, it has been compared to a vast cathedral, with a central tower and flanking spires, the resemblance being increased by a lofty opening, not unlike an arched doorway, through which the ocean flows.

Rather more than a mile and a quarter south-east of the extremity of the Dune is the bare, flat-topped, and inaccessible islet of Levinish, of which the summit is about two hundred feet above the level of the sea. Martin considerably underestimates the height of Levinish, but his description of its form and position appears to be tolerably correct He mentions that it has a spring of fresh water, and that, by an ancient custom, it belonged to the crew of the steward’s galley; but it is not easy to conjecture what practical benefit could have been derived from an inaccessible rock. About a hundred and fifty yards N.N.E. from the northern end of Levinish is the only dangerous rock—a low-water one—in the neighbourhood of the St Kilda group. It is, however, generally visible, except in very smooth water.

After coasting along the southern side of the island, with a continuous line of rocky battlements of nearly two miles in length, we reached the little island of Soa, or the sheep-island, at the western extremity of St Kilda, and near the southern entrance to the west bay. About a mile in length, and with an average breadth of a quarter of a mile, its greatest height is 1031 feet:; and on every side, except at the south “nose,” where the natives effect a landing in moderate weather, the cliffs are steep and lofty. Like the well-known table-rock of the Quirang in Skye, it has a grassy top, which affords goods pasturage to a large flock of sheep. When viewed from a certain quarter, Soa is thought to resemble a tiger couching for its prey. It is separated from St Kilda by a narrow passage or sound, about four hundred yards in width, from which rise three lofty needles or “ stacks,” of very peculiar form, one of which is perforated by an arched opening. They are respectively named Stack Biorrach, or the pointed stack, (from four to five hundred feet high, and regarded by the fowlers as the most difficult rock to climb,) Stack Soa, and Stack Donadk, or the bad stack, from the circumstance of its sea-birds not being very numerous. At the northern extremity of Soa is another small but highly picturesque rock, bearing the name of Plasta. One of the former, from a particular point of view, “presented the appearance of a gigantic nondescript animal trying to wade across to Soa; while another assumed at times a somewhat complex aspect, presenting as it were alternately the character of an old beggar-woman, a Scotch preacher, and an Egyptian sphynx!” Having rounded Soa and the western extremity of St Kilda, we shaped our course in the direction of Borrera —called by Mallet “ the lesser isle ”—situated about three and a half miles to the north of the principal island, between the two remarkable rocks Stack an A rmin, or the hero’s rock, and Stack Lii (Leathad), or the sloping stack. About a mile and a quarter long, by a quarter of a mile broad, its formation is somewhat similar to Salisbury Crags, with a verdurous slope towards the east, but without any water; while its dark and precipitous cliffs face westwards, and reach the height of 1072 feet. With its adjoining stacks, it forms a highly picturesque group of rocky islets; in the opinion of Macculloch, “ far eclipsing St Kilda in the landscape, by their more elevated and decided characters.” Stack Lii is a huge insular mass, about the height of the Bass Rock, nearly one-third of a mile from the west side of Borrera, and tenanted by myriads of solan geese. From Harris, to the naked eye, it appears like a ship under sail leaning to the northward. It is described by Wilson as exhibiting on one side “ a sharpish edge, and then a gradual descent a certain way downwards, as if a sloping slice had been cut off it, after which it descends again in a more rugged and precipitous form into the sea. On the other side, it falls at once from the sharp upper edge already mentioned, straight down into the ocean, with a variety of rents and rocky ledges, which do not interfere with its general character of abruptness.” The lofty peaks of Stack an Armin, one-third of a mile N.N.E. from Borrera, form a very striking feature in the group, which presents an endless variety of most magnificent marine views.

For two or three hours after we steamed away from Borrera in the direction of the Sound of Harris, the bold outlines of St Kilda and its satellites continued more or less in sight; and the last glimpse of the wonderful group was eagerly regarded by every member of our enchanted party.

With regard to the noble cliffs on the northern side of St Kilda, it is hard to believe that their height is so great as has been indicated; but it is generally admitted that mere ocular measurements of such objects are very apt to be under the mark, and in other localities my experience has been the same as at St Kilda—viz., a difficulty of persuading one’s self that such cliffs actually reach their ascertained altitude. In coasting along the well-known cliffs of Hoy, in Orkney, about a fortnight after my visit to St Kilda, I had the same sceptical feeling; and on a previous occasion, the stupendous precipices of the Romsdal Fiord, in Norway, failed to impress me with an unhesitating belief in their enormous height. Macaulay seems to have been gifted with a much more imaginative mind, inspired, perhaps, by his classical recollections of Pelion and Ossa! “A view of Conagher from the sea,” he says, “fills a man with astonishment, and a look over it from above strikes him with horror.” I fully concur in the latter part of the minister’s statement; but grand as was the appearance of the cliff from the sea, my sensations partook more of admiration than of astonishment.

In more than one instance, the actual appearance and general features of St Kilda seem to have greatly differed from the preconceived notions of its casual visitants. Mr Morgan says that “the whole character of this solitary isle was less like what I had pictured to myself than any other place I ever beheld. There was a strange, indescribable look about all we saw, as though we had sailed into another planet, or made a voyage to one of the little asteroids.” In like manner, in the case of Mr Wilson, the group of islands far transcended his previous expectations; in alluding to which he states that “ the whole combined form a really magnificent mountain-range, as seen from the sea, and assume a vast variety of shape and aspect in relation to each other, as the vessel from which they are beheld turns round the various points, and passes through the intermediate narrow seas by which they are surrounded.” Dr Angus Smith appears to have first seen St Kilda under a cloudy aspect, the dusky precipices jutting out on every side from the mist, and appearing like huge pillars beneath an impending roof. “Had it been an island of demons,” he says, “it could not have appeared more dreadful, and had we not heard of it before, we should have said that, if inhabited, it must be by monsters.” Speaking of the sublimity of the atmospheric effects produced by the isolated position of St Kilda, Macculloch says: “Fertile as are the other islands of this sea in all the accidents of colour and light that arise from these changes, they fall far short of this one, where the variations of the atmosphere are incessant, where they are accompanied by effects, equally various and changeable, of light and shadow, of rain, and mist, and storm, and of clouds in a thousand new and romantic forms, and colours such as neither poet nor painter ever imagined; the whole producing the most splendid and unexpected combination with the land, and with an ever-restless and changing sea. ... If the uniform tints and outlines of grey precipices or brown mountains require splendid contrasts to give them interest, so the wider sweep of hill and dale must be rendered effective by shadows, not by shade, which it seldom displays with advantage. It is to the pencil of a Turner alone that St Kilda will furnish employment. A dizzy height from which the eye looks down over jutting crags, retiring till they are lost in air; a boiling sea below, without a boundary ; dark cliffs beaten by a foaming surge, and lost in the gloom of involving clouds; the mixed contest of rocks, ocean, and sky,—these are the subjects which it offers to him who, seeing with the poet’s eye, knows how to speak the language of poetry with his pencil.”

Glen Mor, or the Amazon’s glen, is situated at the west end of St Kilda, affording extensive pasturage for sheep and cattle. The cliffs at the extremity of the glen are comparatively low; and at that point a landing can sometimes be effected, when the weather is too boisterous on the eastern side. The bay on which the village stands is divided from Glen Mor by a lofty ridge, and presents the appearance of a crescent or half-moon, of which the southern horn is the Dune already referred to; while on the northern horn is the mountain of St Kilda proper, with its steep but not altogether precipitous aspect. The intermediate semicircular shore slopes gently upwards to the village, which stretches in a line nearly parallel to the curve of the bay, from the margin of which it is separated by an interval of two or three hundred yards of ground, all under cultivation. About thirty-nine years ago, the Rev. Drs Dickson and Macleod paid an ecclesiastical visit to St Kilda, besides making many active exertions in behalf of the inhabitants, by whom the eastern or village entrance has since been sometimes called “ Dickson’s Bay,” while the western bay has been named after Dr Macleod. Mr Wilson justly regards these designations as “ a fine illustration of the good spirit which pervades the people. They knew nothing,” he continues, “ of Lords of the Admiralty, or of great circumnavigators, or other * men of renown; ’ but they knew that two kind-hearted, pious individuals had come to their almost forgotten shores with ‘glad tidings,’ seeking to diffuse the blessings of the Gospel, at their own personal inconvenience and discomfort; and they seek to mark their sense of that holy kindness by the names in question, which are at least as appropriate as Melbourne Mount, or Russell’s Reach, or Point Palmerston.”

Many of the published descriptions of the island give a far too unfavourable account of the means of landing. This circumstance is referred to by both Macculloch and Wilson, the former of whom furnishes the following encouraging information to future visitors respecting the Argonautics of St Kilda. “ The whole shore of St Kilda is so clean that vessels of any draught may range it within gunshot; and the stream of tide is so inconsiderable that there is no danger from calms, if a moderate offing is secured. The bay opens to the south-east, and is perfectly sheltered on three quarters of the compass. Hence it is exposed to few winds, and those not the predominant ones; while, from its depth and semicircular form, the westerly swell cannot often raise such a sea on the shore as to prevent a boat from landing. In this operation, indeed, the natives are uncommonly alert and dexterous; and, with a tolerable steersman, there cannot often be a sea in which a boat might not land, unless that were from the westward. There is good clean holding-ground in depths ranging from four to seven fathoms, where a vessel of any size may lie for a tide or more, with fully as great security as in most ordinary harbours; nor is there any difficulty in weighing and running to sea on either tack, should the wind shift so as to blow in shore.” The only landing-place is under the manse, a little to the northward of the store. Captain Otter informs us that the head of the bay is sandy and deepens gradually from the shore. He considers that the best place to anchor is in the middle of the bay, “with the narrow sound of the Dune open in ten or eleven fathoms, with a sandy bottom and good holding-ground. Great care must be taken to keep the anchor clear, as, except in southerly winds, terrible squalls veer all round the compass, and frequently, in northerly winds, a vessel will be lying with her head out. It is scarcely necessary,” he adds, “to warn the careful seaman to leave this exposed position the moment the wind comes to the south.” Macculloch states that it is high water at St Kilda when the moon is south-east, and that the course of the flood is northerly. According to Captain Otter, “ it is high water, full and change, at 5I1. 30m. The ebb sets S.W. by W., and the flood in the opposite direction; near the islands, and especially at point of Dune, it runs at the rate of three miles an hour.” With certain southerly or easterly winds, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to land; and consequently, in the case of sailing vessels at least, it is not desirable to have a fair wind for the voyage. On the other hand, if the wind happens to be favourable, vessels of the same description find it very difficult to get out of the bay, owing to its being open to the south-east—a circumstance which also makes it a dangerous anchorage when the wind blows strongly from that quarter. Accordingly, as Mr Sands informs us, the few adventurous yachts that find their way into the bay usually adopt the precaution of remaining not more than a few hours. In his description of the bay, Martin says that “ the only place for landing here is on the north side, upon a rock with a little declination, which is slippery, being clothed with several sorts of sea-weeds; these, together with a raging sea, render the place more inaccessible, it being seldom without a raging sea, except under favour of a neap-tide, a north-east or west wind, or with a perfect calm; when these circumstances concur, the birlin, or boat, is brought to the side of the rock, upon which all the inhabitants of both sexes are ready to join their united force to hail her through this rock, having for this end a rope fastened to the fore part; a competent number of them are also employed on each side ; both these are determined by a crier, who is employed on purpose to warn them all at the same minute, and he ceases when he finds it convenient to give them a breathing.”

On the occasion of my recent visit to the island, both wind and weather were sufficiently favourable to render our landing a matter of easy accomplishment On re-embarking, however, most of our party took their places in the large boats belonging to the islanders, which were drawn up on the shore, and supported on each side by two or three of the natives, who ran the craft down into the sea, on entering which the rowers immediately dipped their oars into the surf. Leaving Obb, in the Sound of Harris, about 3 A.M., we soon emerged from the Hebridean archipelago into the wide Atlantic; and between four and five, the islet of Borrera and its adjacent stacks began to disclose their picturesque outlines. Masses of white clouds were resting on the summits of St Kilda as we approached its rocky shores from the north-east side. We dropped anchor at half-past eight, in smooth water, within a gunshot of the shore, and the impression produced by the surrounding scenery was heightened by the stillness that prevailed. After breakfasting on board the “Dunara,’' the passengers began to land in detachments about half-past nine. Heavy rain fell during breakfast; but the weather speedily improved, and the sun shone forth most auspiciously. Some of the party landed in one of the boats of the islanders which came out to the steamer, while others went in the gig belonging to the “Dunara.” We received a warm and hearty welcome from the inhabitants, who had all assembled on the beach when the steamer entered the bay.

Judging from the effect of the surging waves of the Atlantic upon the rocky shores of' St Kilda in a comparatively calm day, a storm must be a very magnificent spectacle, On the 28th of January 1877, Mr Sands witnessed a violent gale, when the wind blew from the north-east, accompanied by heavy showers of sleet “The huge waves came rolling into the bay against the wind, which caught them as they fell on the shore, and carried them off in spindrift.” The author of‘ Sketches of St Kilda’ gives the following description of the war of the elements against the bulwarks of the lonely isle: “If one would see Nature in her giant gambols, let him go to St Kilda. When the liquid foe, which knew no opposition from the time he left the North Pole—except perhaps an unfortunate ship, which he swallowed—sees St Kilda determined upon breaking his line, he retires a little, swelling as he retires in sullen wrath, and hurling with him stones, or rather fragments of rock, some of them twenty-four tons in weight; then with these rude bullets in his grasp, hurling them against the rocks, he makes one desperate charge, as if in hope to push the island from its seat! The war is vain ; but the noise would drown a thousand thunders. The purpose of the assailant is answered, however, in so far that, having mounted a rampart 1500 (?) feet high, he gets sheer over the island in white spray ; dropping salt tears of disappointment upon the natives as he passes. His old grudge may also be satisfied so far that these fragments of rock, thus battered, have literally perforated the island through and through at its foundation.”

Both Morgan and Wilson appear to have been struck by the bright, fresh colour of the vegetation. The former was greatly surprised by the rich green hue of the crops in a place where he expected to find a “howling wilderness;” while the prevailing verdure, the gradual uprising of the land, the absence of trees, and even a certain smoothness and uniformity of aspect and outline in the hills which formed the intermediate background, rather reminded the latter of the pastoral uplands of Peeblesshire and the far-inland shores of “still Mary’s Loch,” than of a remote and rocky sea-girt isle. Forewarned of the verdant appearance of the island, I was not, of course, surprised by the brilliancy of its emerald hue, which the rains of the preceding weeks had probably rendered even brighter than usual.

Martin gives a detailed account of the “excellent fountains or springs ”—called by old Isaac Walton the “eldest daughters of Creation”—with which the island abounds. One of these, named “St Kilda’s Well,” is near the little village, between the manse and the factor’s house; while another, of which the Gaelic name signifies the “Well of Qualities or Virtues,” in consequence of the supposed efficacy of its water, is situated in Glen Mor, beside the house of the “Amazon” or “Female Warrior,” to be afterwards referred to. “The taste of the water of these wells,” says Martin, “was so pleasant, that, for several weeks after, the best fountains in the adjacent isles did not relish with me.” Macaulay speaks in equally strong terms* besides alluding to the “inexhaustible quantities” of water in every corner of the island. “The whole island,” Martin elsewhere states, “is one hard rock, formed into four high mountains (already enumerated), three of which are in the middle, all thinly covered with black or brown earth, not above a foot, some places half a foot deep, except the top of the hills, where it is above three feet deep, and affords them good turf; the grass is very short but kindly, producing plenty of milk.”

According to Macculloch, who briefly describes the geology of St Kilda in his earlier work, the rocks are all of modern volcanic origin, consisting principally of a dark trap, with a small proportion of syenite, of which the latter occasionally presents cavities containing crystals of both quartz and felspar. As the state of the weather prevented him from approaching Borrera, he only conjectures, from its form and colour, that it consists entirely of the first-mentioned rock. His observations, however, were probably not sufficiently exact to satisfy the accurate research of modern geologists, none of whom, so far as I am aware, have as yet paid a professional visit to the island. Macculloch seems to be quite at fault when he asserts that no stratified rocks can be discovered. Mr Sands states that, “ for several hundred feet, the hills are composed of sandstone; the stratification very distinct, and of different colours. Cliffs of igneous rock, trap, or granite, arise on the top of the sandstone, marked with vertical furrows, ploughed apparently by the weather. The ridges are brought into bolder relief by the rock-plants which grow in the flutings. To an unscientific eye, it would seem as if the island of St Kilda had been much larger at some time, and that the land had sunk into the sea all around it. It looks as if it had been chopped into its present form by the axe of an earthquake— chopped indifferently through hill and glen,” Professor Geikie informs me that all the specimens of St Kilda rocks submitted to him by Mr Sands were of igneous formation. Along with Mr Dudgeon of Cargen, he contemplated a geological expedition to the island in the course of last summer; and it is to be hoped that, at no very distant date, he will be able to carry his intentions into execution.

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