Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

St. Kilda, Past and Present
Chapter XI. - Education, Morals, and Religion

THE state of education in St Kilda has long been very far from satisfactory. At the time of Macaulay’s visit in 1758, all the inhabitants of the island, “except three or four smatterers,” were perfectly illiterate. He gives the credit of the introduction of letters to the Rev. Alexander Buchan, who officiated as a catechist during the reign of Queen Anne, and who was afterwards sent, as already mentioned, by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, in the capacity of an ordained minister. With the aid of some charitable persons in the Scottish metropolis, he was enabled to train up some Hirta boys at his school; and, according to Macaulay, the progress which they made was “considerably greater than anything that has been done there during the incumbency of his successors.” He admits, however, that the aversion of the islanders to a foreign tongue, and the rarity of their intercourse with an English-speaking population, constituted a formidable barrier in the way of educational improvement

Mrs M'Vean informs me that when her father went to the island in 1830, the people were deplorably ignorant Only one woman could read and write a little, and none of the females even knew how to hold a needle. Mr M'Kenzie started a daily school for the purpose of teaching reading, writing,1 and arithmetic ; and in the same class, three generations of the same family might occasionally be seen. He also instituted a Sunday-school, which all the inhabitants attended, their religious knowledge being then very deficient. Mrs M'Kenzie gave the women instruction in sewing, in order that they might themselves make the white calico frilled caps which they then wore, and for which they had formerly to pay the Harris women pretty heavily in “kind.” Unfortunately, however, they knew not how to wash the head-dresses of which they were so proud. Their mode of proceeding was to carry their clothes to a pool of salt water, and to pound them with a wooden mallet, till they were almost beaten to shreds! They never could be brought to understand washing upon scientific principles, preferring to adhere to their own peculiar style.

When Mr Grigor visited St Kilda in.1861, only two of the inhabitants—neither of whom were natives—could speak English. Two men, besides the catechist, who acted as registrar, were able to sign their names, which was the maximum of their caligraphic powers. The catechist gave instruction in Gaelic reading, and also to a small extent in writing, while his niece assisted him in his tuition, and taught the young women sewing and knitting. According to Macaulay, the language of the St Kildans is “ a very corrupt dialect of Gaelic, adulterated with a little mixture of the Norwegian tongue. They have many words and cant phrases, quite unintelligible to their neighbours. Their manner of pronouncing is attended with a very remarkable peculiarity; every man, woman, and child has an incorrigible lisping; not one of them is able to give their proper sounds to the liquid letters.” Dr M'Donald, on the other hand, informs us, from frequent conversations with the islanders, that their language is purely that of the Western Isles in general, and has no Scandinavian or other foreign mixtures, that can be regarded as peculiar to St Kilda. At present, only one of the islanders (a married woman from Ross-shire) understands English; and in the various registers kept since 1856, all the native “informants” sign by mark. All the adults are able to read the Gaelic Bible, and Mr Macdiarmid was informed that one or two of them could repeat the whole of the Psalms from memory. “ They all,” he says, “ have a pretty fair idea of numbers and dates in Gaelic, and know the value of the current coins.

. . . They are anxious, and desire very much to be educated in English and arithmetic, and many earnestly beseeched of me that a schoolmaster might be sent to them. It is my opinion that they would learn English very soon—the grown-up people as well as the young. They are very sharp and quick at picking up English names and words, though our captain’s name (O’Rorke) proved rather a puzzler to them, and invariably stuck in their throats. Their keen, bright eyes bespeak an intellect easily susceptible of impression. Why should not a representation be made to the Highlands and Islands Committees of the Churches to give their attention to the matter, and get the St Kildans taught, at least, the simplest rudiments ?” Mr Sands heard one man, who is reputed a scholar, mutter in Gaelic “ Units, tens, hundreds, thousands,” before he ventured to decipher 1875. Others asked him the situation of Australia and California ; and not having a map in his possession, he was obliged roughly to indicate the forms and relative position of the two countries by tearing up an old newspaper, and placing the pieces on the ground.

Like the island of Bernera, St Kilda forms part of the parish of Harris. Is no help to be looked for from that quarter?—is there no school board there? In the course of my recent wanderings among the various Western Islands, I encountered more than one “palatial” edifice, in the form of a new schoolhouse, in the midst of a very limited population. Till a proper building is provided, the little church might be temporarily used in that capacity ; and accordingly, all that is wanted, in the first instance, is a suitable pedagogue. It appears that the present minister was for a long time schoolmaster at Garve, in Ross-shire; and, as already mentioned, he acts as registrar of births, deaths, and marriages. Failing a special instructor, he might be induced, by way of experiment, to act in the additional character of teacher,1 with a small supplement to his present moderate allowance of ^80 per annum. Perhaps, however, if he has read the “ Deserted Village,” he may philosophically regard himself as more than “passing rich,” thus obviating the necessity of anything in the shape of an “augmentation!” Mr Macdiarmid specifies a few of the volumes of which his little library is composed,—Smith’s *Moral Sentiments,’ Butler’s ‘Fifteen Sermons,’ Harvey’s ‘Meditations,’ the works of Dr John Owen, Baxter’s ‘Call' the select works of Dr Chalmers, and Sir John Herschel’s ‘Astronomy’—all very solid and unexceptionable productions ; but a sprinkling of lighter literature would probably help to brighten the atmosphere of his secluded study. With access to the priceless treasures of Shakespeare, Milton, and Burns—Bunyan, Cervantes, and Scott, he would have the chance of interspersing the uniform “ corn-fields ” of his mind with a few patches of “ pleasure-ground.” His present intellectual isolation is a somewhat painful thought, and the advent of an English-speaking schoolmaster would prove a perfect godsend.

Even in more important islands than St Kilda, the all but exclusive maintenance of the Gaelic language— Professor Blackie notwithstanding—is much to be regretted. An intelligent and accomplished Lowlander, whose official duties imply a residence in one of the largest of the Western Islands, very recently informed me that, after a good many years’ experience of the locality, he had been forced to the conclusion that the people among whom he lived were afflicted by two “curses”— one of which I forbear to mention in the present connection, the other being the perpetuation of the Gaelic tongue. Probably, however, its knell has been sounded even in St Kilda; but the demise promises to be both slow and “hard.” Apropos to Gaelic, the St Kildans are said to be devoted admirers of the Queen, partly, it is supposed, from the belief which they entertain regarding her Majesty’s liking for a Gaelic-speaking race. During Miss Macleod’s late sojourn in the island, she was minutely interrogated as to the Queen’s personal appearance and other attributes. It is to be hoped that the news of a recent royal row, on a Sunday, upon the waters of Loch Maree, has not reached the distant shores of St Kilda!

In the matter of morals, in the ordinary sense of that term, the people of St Kilda have long cut a most respectable figure. When Macaulay wrote, drunkenness had not been introduced into the island; “but the St Kildans,” he says, “could be reconciled without any difficulty to spirituous liquors!” He then alludes to their “violent passion for tobacco,” already referred to, and specifies the various valuable commodities which they barter for the “bewitching article.” In confirmation of Mr Grigor’s statement, Mr Sands mentions that “ every family keeps a bottle of whisky in the house, but it is never used except as a medicine.” He attributes their abstinence, however, to their thrifty habits and the dearness of the liquor, rather than to any dislike to the latter or dread of its consequences. “Still,” he adds, “ whatever may be the motive, the fact remains; the people are perfectly sober, and one is never disturbed by the drunken brawls which occur in places of greater material civilisation.” The annual bacchanalian indulgences mentioned by the “ High Dean of the Isles,” to which I have already incidentally referred, are now a thing of the past. Neither Father Mathew nor the President of the Good Templars would find a field for their labours on the sea-girt isle.

Till very recently, the inhabitants of St Kilda appear to have been altogether free from the other dark stain on the moral escutcheon of Scotland, which a writer on the “ noble science ” may be excused for describing as the “bend-sinister,” and of which we have all, unfortunately, heard so much during recent years. “Impurities fashionable elsewhere,” says Macaulay, “if committed here, are never unattended with infamy. . . . Their morals are, and must be, purer than those of great and opulent societies, however much civilised.” Mr Wilson was informed by the minister (Mr M'Kenzie) that, on the whole, the people were a very moral race, and that many of them were under serious religious impressions. The first illegitimate birth occurs in the register for 1862, and since that date, as already indicated, there have been two other cases, of which one was of an aggravated kind. Without venturing to cast the slightest reflection on the reputation of the women, Captain Thomas considers the morality of the men to be, if possible, even more unimpeachable than that of the softer sex. The vast difference between the eastern and western counties of Scotland in respect to illegitimacy is now universally known. While in more than one of the former the ratio continues almost stationary at about 16 per cent, in some of the latter, it is as low as from 5 to 8 per cent. A satisfactory solution of the striking disparity has still to be found.

Notwithstanding their gradually increasing intercourse with the outside world, the people of St Kilda are still most creditably distinguished by the primitive character of their habits and the contentment of their lives. Martin compares the “ simplicity, purity, mutual love, and cordial friendship” of the inhabitants of St Kilda to the condition of the people in the poet’s “golden age.” Besides declaring them to be free from care and covetousness, envy and dissimulation, ambition and pride, he describes them as “ altogether ignorant of the vices of foreigners, and governed by the dictates of reason and Christianity, as it was first delivered to them by those heroic souls, whose zeal moved them to undergo danger and trouble to plant religion in one of the remotest comers of the world. There is only this wanting to make them the happiest people in the habitable globe — namely, that they themselves do not know how happy they are, and how much they are above the avarice and slavery of the rest of mankind.” He might most appropriately have closed his panegyric with Virgil’s well - known verse :—

“O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona ndrint! ”

Macaulay follows in a somewhat similar strain, and concludes his eulogy by stating that “if all things are fairly weighed in the balance of unprejudiced reason, the St Kildans possess as great a share of true substantial happiness as any equal number of men elsewhere.’

Half a century later, Macculloch paints, if possible, a still brighter picture. “If this island,” he says, “is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, law, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. War may rage all around, provided it be not with America, but the storm reaches it not. Neither ‘ Times’ nor 'Courier’ disturbs its judgments. . . . No tax-gatherer’s bill threatens on a church-door, the game-laws reach not gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe; and acknowledging the dominion of Macleod and King George, is satisfied without inquiring whether George is the First or the Fourth of his name. Well may the pampered native of the happy Hirta refuse to change his situation. His slumbers are late, his labours are light, and his occupation is his amusement, since his sea-fowl constitute at once his food, his luxury, his game, his wealth, and his bed of down.

. . . His state is his city, and his city is his social circle; he has the liberty of his thoughts, his actions, and his kingdom, and all his world are his equals. His climate is mild and his island is green; and, like that of Calypso, the stranger who might corrupt him shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall it be sought?”

The praises of the historians of St Kilda are eloquently re-echoed in Mallet’s poem :—

“Thrice happy land! though freezing on the verge
Of Arctic skies, yet blameless still of arts
That polish to deprave each softer clime,
With simple nature, simple virtue, blessed!
Beyond ambition’s walk, where never war
Upreared his sanguine standard, nor unsheathe
For wealth or power the desolating sword;
Where luxury, soft syren, who around
To thousand nations deals her nectared cup
Of pleasing bane, that soothes at once and kills,
Is yet a name unknown: but calm content,
That lives to reason, ancient faith, that binds
The plain community of guileless hearts
In love and union, innocence of ill
Their guardian genius; these the powers that rule
This little world, to all its sons secure,
Man’s happiest life; the soul serene and sound
From passion’s rage, the body from disease:
Red on each cheek behold the rose of health;
Firm in each sinew vigour’s pliant spring,
By temperance braced to peril and to pain,
Amid the floods they stem, or on the steep
Of upright rocks their straining steps surmount,
For food or pastime : these light up their morn,
And those their eve in slumber sweetly deep,
Beneath the north, within the circling swell
Of ocean’s raging sound: but last and best
What avarice, what ambition, shall not know,
True liberty is theirs, the heaven-sent guest,
Who in the cave, or on the uncultured wild,
With independence dwells and peace of mind,
In youth, in age, their sun that never sets."

A later and more illustrious poet, in his well-known “Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands,” gives a shorter and still more beautiful description of the remote islanders :—

“But, oh, o’er all, forget not Kilda’s race,
On whose bleak rocks, which brave the wasting tides,
Fair nature's daughter, virtue, yet abides.
Go, just as they, their blameless manners trace!
Then to my ear transmit some gentle song—
Of those whose lives kre yet sincere and plain,
Their bounded walks the rugged cliffs along,
And all their prospect but the wintry main.
With sparing temperance at the needful time
They drain the scented spring; or, hunger-prest,
Along the Atlantic rock undreading climb,
And of its eggs despoil the solan’s nest.
Thus blest in primal innocence they live,
Sufficed and happy with that frugal fare,
Which tasteful toil and hourly danger give.
Hard is their shallow soil, and bleak and bare;
Nor ever vernal bee was heard to murmur there.”

Both Martin and Macaulay descant upon the disregard of money evinced by the St Kildans, who, according to the former, “cannot distinguish a guinea from a sixpence!” “Their riches,” says Macaulay, “consist in their commodities. They have frequently heard of gold, without thirsting for it; they have not touched coin of any kind, I believe, before this age. They are now perhaps possessed of a score of shillings and some brass pence, more than will pay off the debt of their whole state.” Mr Muir, however, failed to discover the extreme simplicity and contempt of silver and gold to which the older authors refer, and goes the length of saying that “in later times, money having become to some extent the medium of traffic, a thirst for it is now as keen in lonely St Kilda as it is in quarters where its acquisition is matter of hourly concern.” He refers, to the bargaining that he had to go through before three or four of the islanders could be prevailed upon to accept a good day’s wages for an hour’s exhibition of their mode of descending the cliffs. “They had once got as many pounds as we were offering shillings for doing the same thing for a Lady Somebody, and what was there to hinder us from giving a like sum?” No doubt exorbitant gratuities on such occasions are very apt to demoralise the persons on whom they are bestowed, and probably, as Mr Muir suggests, the lady in question was “ more wealthy than wise; ” but the thoughtless stranger who opens his purse is not unfrequently more deserving of censure for his inconsiderate conduct than the unsophisticated islander in whose way the temptation is thrown. And, moreover, visitors to the island are still so comparatively few and far between, that one is disposed to hesitate before applying the rigid principles of political economy to the inhabitants of Hirta. When the “Porcupine” touched at St Kilda in i860, several of the islanders went on board to see the wonders of the vessel; and when they appeared somewhat reluctant to go ashore, it turned out, upon inquiry, that they expected to be remunerated for their trouble! Some of them seriously expected that Captain Thomas would pay them for having allowed him to take their photographs. Whether this arose from selfishness or simplicity, may perhaps be somewhat open to question, although probably the Nairn mason employed by Captain Otter to construct a landing-place would have had very little doubt upon the subject—his estimate of the St Kildans being that they were “the most knowingist people he had ever come across!” Even Martin, notwithstanding his very favourable estimate of the islanders, acknowledges that they are reputed to be “very cunning;” and adds, that “there is scarce any circumventing of them in traffic and bartering; the voice of one is the voice of all the rest, they being all of a piece, their common interest uniting them firmly together." A purse of a few pounds was raised by the party in the “ Dunara Castle,” on the occasion of my visit to the island, to compensate the cragsmen who illustrated the dangers of their calling; and at the suggestion of Captain Macdonald, the money was handed to the minister, with the view of his distributing it among them. Several of the visitors were presented with specimens of eggs and sea-birds; and the payments made for stockings, and other small articles knitted by the women, were very slightly in excess of an ordinary hosier’s charge. The Highlanders on the mainland and elsewhere are supposed to have no particular aversion to English gold; and why the poor St Kildans should be expected to remain for ever beyond its influence, I am at a loss to comprehend. It will probably be time enough to preach a sermon against the weakness in question when a bank has been started on the shores of the distant isle.

If the inhabitants of Hirta are not altogether unacquainted with “the root of all evil," the unanimous testimony that has been borne to their hospitality to strangers constitutes a very creditable feature in their character. I have already referred to the kindly treatment which Martin’s party received from the islanders. In alluding to the virtue in question, Macaulay says that they are “ unfashionable enough to possess the virtue of hospitality in an eminent degree. In such remote places, the wise lessons of a parsimonious exactness have not hitherto been taught with any great success. To oblige the wealthy, to relieve the poor, to entertain the stranger and weary traveller—nay, to leave their doors open to every one, were heretofore the reigning maxims there. The St Kildans retain much of this primitive spirit; they are remarkably generous and open-hearted.” During recent years, the hospitality of the natives of Hirta has been repeatedly exemplified. To say nothing of their invariable courtesy and kindness to casual visitors, we have seen that in more than one instance of enforced residence from shipwreck or other cause, the warmhearted islanders have, for weeks and even months, shared their scarcity as well as their abundance with both foreigner and friend. Macculloch refers to the blissful ignorance of the islanders respecting the doings of the outside world at the time of his visit to St Kilda, in the memorable summer of 1815. “They had imagined themselves at peace with Napoleon, and at peace they were. But while, good easy people, they dreamed in full security, Elba had appeared and vanished in the political lantern, the drama of the hundred days had been performed, and the curtain had descended at Waterloo over the fears and anxieties of all Europe; of all the world except St Kilda. But this news excited little emotion: it had no influence on the price of tobacco. The rebellion of former days had been a subject of far different interest to their ancestors ; since of the only two powers they then knew in the world, their chief, Macleod, had declared war against King George.”

The effects of their isolation have sometimes been amusingly illustrated on those rare occasions when they have ventured to cross the sea. Martin mentions the astonishment evinced by the local officer and others of the islanders, during a visit to Skye, on their witnessing the “pomp and circumstance” of Macleod’s family, which they regarded as “equivalent to that of an imperial court.” They were also lost in admiration of his lady’s elaborate costume, his riding-horses, glass windows, and mirrors; and condemned, as “vain and superfluous,” the tapestry which covered the walls of his castle. The vast possessions of Macleod in Skye and elsewhere were a source of wonder to another islander on the occasion of a visit to Harris, while the altitude of the trees and the luxuriance of their foliage were quite beyond conception. On another occasion, a St Kilda man, after being fairly overcome by a pretty large dose of aqua vita, was falling into a profound slumber which he imagined to be his last, expressed to his companions “the great satisfaction he had in meeting with such an easy passage out of the world!” The same author describes the visit of a St Kildan to Glasgow, where he gazed with wonder at the lofty houses, stone pavements, and horse-drawn coaches — the mechanism and revolution of the wheels causing the most unbounded astonishment. But the venerable cathedral of St Mungo, as already incidentally mentioned, was the cause of his greatest surprise. He imagined that the pillars and arches were carved out of a huge rock, constituting the best “caves” that he had ever seen! The patches of the ladies and the periwigs of the men appeared to his simple mind utterly ridiculous; while the vast number of the inhabitants, and the possibility of providing “bread and ale” for such a multitude, filled him with amazement. “He longed to see his native country again, and passionately wished it were blessed with ale, brandy, tobacco, and iron, as Glasgow was!”

A good story is told of a St Kildan once landing during the night in the island of Scalpa, near the entrance to East Loch Tarbert. He wandered towards the lighthouse, and finding the door open, slowly ascended the long spiral staircase, which is supposed to have suggested the idea of Jacob’s ladder, as he had never seen a stair before. On reaching the summit he opened the door of the light-room, and suddenly exchanged the outer darkness for the dazzling brilliancy of the inner chamber, where sat a venerable figure, with spectacles on nose, absorbed in the perusal of a newspaper. The astonishment was mutual; and after a brief pause, the unlooked-for visitor thus addressed the light-keeper, who appeared to him to be seated in awful majesty: “Are you God Almighty?” The immediate answer of the disturbed official was, “Yes! and who the devil are you?”

When Martin wrote, it would appear that, in common with the other Highlanders and Islanders of Scotland, at least some of the St Kildans professed to possess the gift of taish or second-sight.1 Macculloch states that on the occasion of his visit in 1815, “no inhabitant of St Kilda pretended to have been forewarned of our arrival. In fact,” he adds, “it has undergone the fate of witchcraft; ceasing to be believed, it has ceased to exist. . . . When witches were no longer burnt, witchcraft disappeared: since the second-sight has been limited to a doting old woman or a hypochondriacal tailor, it has become a subject for ridicule; and in matters of this nature, ridicule is death.” Mr M'Kenzie, however, mentions several recent instances of second-sight in an extract from his journal quoted by the author of ‘Sketches of St Kilda;’ and his daughter, Mrs M'Vean, informs me that, in her infancy, the natives believed in the faculty, and used to say that they always knew when strangers were coming to the island, by “hearing their footsteps shortly before they appeared." At the same period, an old man professed to have seen “most wonderful visions.”

The religious and ecclesiastical experiences of the St Kildans appear to have been of a somewhat checkered kind. In the early period of its history, the religion of the island has been described as “a mixture of Druidism and Popery,” and Macaulay conjectures that Christianity must have been introduced into the island by the Culdees, animated by the double motive of conversion and a passion for a solitary life. For at least some time prior to the date at which the Reformation reached the Western Isles, no resident priest of the Roman Catholic faith seems to have been attached to the island. “The inhabitants of Hirta,” says Buchanan, “are totally unacquainted with all arts, and more especially with religion. The proprietor of the island, after the summer solstice, sends thither his procurator, and in his company a priest, who is to baptize the children born during the preceding year. But, in the absence of a priest on that occasion, every one baptizes his own children.” I have already referred to the doings of Coll Ketoch in St Kilda, in the year 1641, when he employed himself in giving the natives instruction in the Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue, and the Creed; and also to the extraordinary proceedings of Roderick the Impostor, towards the end of the seventeenth century. Martin’s party, as we have seen, was accompanied by a clergyman, in the person of the Rev. John Campbell, minister of Harris, and one of the writers on St Kilda compares our author to “another Knox,” in consequence of his throwing down their altars and scourging their will-worship.”  Martin describes the St Kildans as “ Christians, much of the primitive temper, neither inclined to enthusiasm nor to Popery. They swear not the common oaths that prevail in the world; when they refuse to give what is asked of them, they do it with a strong asseveration, which they express emphatically enough in their language to this purpose, ‘ You are no more to have it than if God had forbid it; ’ and thus they express the highest degree of passion. They do not so much as name the devil once in their lifetimes.” In accordance with ancient custom, they leave off working from Saturday at noon till Monday morning. They believe in the Trinity, in a future state of happiness and misery, in predestination, and in the embodiment of spirits: they use a set form of prayer in hoisting their sails, and begin all their labours with the name of God. In Martin’s time, there were no fewer than three chapels on the island, called respectively Christ Church, St Columba’s, and St Brianan’s (or Brendan’s), each with a churchyard attached, and about a quarter of a mile distant from each other. Not a vestige of these temples remains, but their position is indicated in Martin’s map. According to Macaulay, the largest of these was Christ Church, which was built of stone, without any cement—its length being twenty-four, and its breadth fourteen feet The temple of St Brendan was situated about a mile to the south-west of the village. It had “an altar within and some monkish cells without it; ”and as these were almost entire in 1758, our author concludes that the edifice must have been of later date than either Christ Church or St Columba’s chapel, of which last he gives no details. In addition to the altar in St Brendan’s temple, there appear to have been no fewer than four others in different parts of the island, one of which, situated “ on the top of a hill to the south-west,” was dedicated to the god of the seasons. On this altar the ancient St Kildans were in the habit of offering propitiatory sacrifices, after the manner of the pagans referred to by the Mantuan bard. Martin states that both the old and the young islanders used to find their way to the churchyard, every Sunday morning, to say the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments, “ the chapel not being capacious enough to receive them.” In acknowledging Martin's attempted reformation, Buchan asserts, from personal experience, that although the material monuments of idolatry had been thrown down, “ yet the spiritual ones which were erected in the hearts of the islanders were not touched.” He then describes the circumstances under which he was sent to St Kilda, as catechist, in 1705, by the Commission of the General Assembly; the progress of his missionary efforts; and his return to Edinburgh, after four years’ residence in the island, accompanied by two native boys, “ whom he had taught reading and the principles of religion.” In the spring of the following year (1710) he was ordained in the cathedral church of St Giles, and shortly afterwards went to St Kilda to take the spiritual oversight of the inhabitants, and to endeavour “ to root out the pagan and_ Popish superstitious customs, so much yet in use among that people.” From various “ charitable Christians,” he received money to assist in the erection of a manse, besides books and other useful gifts. In 1711, the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge provided Mr Buchan with a salary of 300 merks (£16, 13s. 4d.), to which a small addition was afterwards made. He leads us to understand that the islanders so thoroughly appreciated his ministrations that they would not allow him to go to Edinburgh “ anent his children,” lest he should not return to St Kilda. After alluding to the kirk-session which he succeeded in constituting with a view to the exercise of discipline and the suppression of immorality, he expresses great anxiety relative to the future spiritual welfare of the island, and states that in order to meet the emergency, he “ is breeding his two sons at schools in Edinburgh, that if they ever be in a capacity, and do incline to the ministry, one of them may be employed in St Kilda; which is his sincere wish.” The worthy minister, after twenty-four years' residence in the lonely island, was cut off by fever in 1730, and the fate of his surviving family is referred to in a previous chapter.

Mr Buchan’s successor was the Rev. Roderick M'Len-nan, a graduate ot Aberdeen, from whom, as well as from his wife, poor Lady Grange experienced very great kindness, which “ helped to preserve her life and make it comfortable.” She pronounced Mr M'Lennan to be “ a serious and devout man, and very painfull in the discharge of his duties.” In 1743, he was appointed missionary in the Presbytery of Tongue; and since his time, none of his successors appear to have had a seat in the courts of the Church. In 1733, Mr Alexander Macleod, advocate, lodged in the hands of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge the sum of ^333, 6s. 8d., the interest of which was to be employed in support of the minister, catechist, or missionary of St Kilda. Six years later, the directors increased the yearly payment to ^25, and made arrangements for the patronage of the living being vested in the laird of Harris and his heirs male.

When Macaulay visited St Kilda in 1758, he found the islanders very “devout ” in respect to their regular attendance at divine worship and their strict observance of the Lord’s Day. “Some of them, however,” he adds, “are rather free of vices than possessed of virtues; dissimulation, or a low sort of cunning, and a trick of lying, are their predominant faults.” He also describes their apprehension of the Divine nature and perfections, as “in some instances gross enough, though infinitely less so than those of many ancient and perhaps modern philosophers.” He refers to a belief in destiny, or an unavoidable resistless fate, as one of the strongest articles of their creed—fate and Providence at St Kilda being regarded as much the same thing; and then speculates on the “metaphysical question” respecting the reconciliation of free will and predestination ! He speaks of Buchan having displayed a much greater amount of zeal than his two immediate successors, and describes the “ fourth Protestant minister of St Kilda ” (Donald M'Leod), who held the cure at the time of his visit in 1758, as “a man of sense, virtue, and piety,” but otherwise unfitted for the position on account of the precarious state of his health.

After M'Lennan’s departure the succession of ministers was as follows :—

1744 Alexander M‘Leod.
1755. Donald M'Leod.
1774. Angus M'Leod.
1788. Lachlan M'Leod.
1830. Neil M‘Kenzie.

Lane Buchanan refers to the incumbent at the time of his visit (either Angus or Lachlan M'Leod) as being “illiterate,” but discharging his duty to the best of his knowledge. He states that “he studied his divinity from his father, who was a poor man that failed in his circumstances, being a farmer and mechanic in Uist, before he was clothed with the character of a minister and sent to officiate among those people, in which capacity he continued till his death opened the vacancy for his son, who was judged qualified to explain the English Bible into Gaelic.”

In the year 1821, in consideration of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge having agreed to double the yearly payment of £25, John Alexander Norman Macleod transferred his right of patronage to the Society, “ a special regard being still had to persons of the name of Macleod, in terms of the original mortification.'’1 Since that date, however, in the case of the only appointment that has been made, it will be observed that the bearer of another surname was selected. As already mentioned, St Kilda was four times visited by the Rev. Dr Macdonald of Urquhart—“the apostle of the north”—between the years 1822 and 1830. On each of these occasions he remained for about a fortnight on the island. “It grieves me to say,” he writes—“and I took pains to ascertain the truth—that among the whole body I did not find a single individual who could be truly called a decidedly religious person.” He found, however, upon inquiry, that a few years before his first visit to the island, there was a young man of singular piety, who scarcely did anything else than read his Bible and pray, and who died at the early age of nineteen or twenty. The Doctor told the islanders that, during his stay among them, he intended to preach every day, besides catechising and performing such other duties as might be necessary ; and he appears to have been much pleased with the earnestness and docility which most of them displayed. Their gratitude to the worthy evangelist was evinced by various acts of kindness, including the presentation of a “ good fat wedder ” at the conclusion of his second visit. In alluding to one of his discourses relative to the connection between faith and practice, Dr Macdonald says that, “ from the high ground he had occupied, he was afraid the people might veer towards Antinomian-ism (an extreme as dangerous if not more so than Arminianism); for he found that they could be led into any system, such was the confidence they put in their spiritual instructor.”

On the occasion of Mr Wilson’s visit to St Kilda, the spiritual oversight of the islanders was in the hands of Mr M'Kenzie, respecting whom he thus writes: “The good minister is teacher and writing-master (literally prime minister) as well as priest, and seems to leave nothing untried to ameliorate the condition of his flock, whether by enlightening their spiritual darkness, improving their worldly fortunes, or, as Dr Johnson would have said, raising them in the scale of thinking beings.” The same favourable testimony is borne by the author of ' Sketches of St Kilda/ who, in alluding to Mr M'Kenzie’s self-denial and other good deeds, says: “He is at this moment in Glasgow on an errand of mercy. It is well known the people never had a bed other than the earthen floor, or, what was little better, a cave in the earthen wall! never had a mill but the bra, or hand-mill, never had a stool or chair. Mr M'Kenzie induced them to erect better houses, came to Glasgow to plead for them, and, by the assistance of Dr Macleod of St Columba and other patriotic gentlemen, has the prospect of returning in a few days with beds, chairs, stools, mills, nay, even glass windows! ” The same writer refers to the devotional character of the islanders, and, on the authority of Dr Macleod, mentions an instance of a St Kildan, on the occasion of a visit to the mainland, warmly asserting his constant trust in the Almighty. “ Elevated on his rock, suspended over a precipice, tossed on the wild ocean, a St Kilda man,” he said, “can never forget his God—he hangs continually on His arm.” He also gives some interesting particulars regarding the religious services conducted at St Kilda by Drs Macleod and Dickson, when he visited the island in 1838.

The desirability of having the remote island erected into a parish has long been urged; but since the year after the Disruption the supervision of the spiritual wants of the St Kildans has been exercised by the Free Church —or, as Mr Sands expresses it, “the swallows have allowed their nests to be taken from them by the sparrows!” As already stated, Mr Duncan Kennedy was appointed catechist in 1853; and on leaving the island towards the end of 1863, he was succeeded by the Rev. A. Cameron, who took his departure after a sojourn of about two years. Since October 1865, the Rev. John M‘Kay, now about sixty years of age, has been the faithful bishop of St Kilda.

The stipend of the present minister is about £&o, and it has been stated that the islanders annually contribute the sum of £10 to the “Sustentation Fund” of the Free Church. In 1874, the contribution is said to have amounted to .£20, which Mr Sands considers must have cost the islanders an enormous effort “Coupled with the unprofitable way in which their trade is conducted,” he says that it reminds him of the well-known passage in Joel—“That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten.” The same writer speaks of the minister as “ not only an earnest and honest man, but a kind-hearted one withal, whom those of any or of no persuasion would respect There, posted like a sentinel on a rocky bank close to the sea, his whole aim is to keep the devil out of the island. Absorbed in this duty, he forgets the loneliness of his situation, and is deaf to the roaring of the waves that rage before his sentry-box during the long winter, and blind to the desolate aspect of the hills that tower steeply around, their lofty tops enveloped in drifting fogs. He is contented with plain fare and drinks none, is attentive to the infirm, and shares, in a stealthy way, what luxuries he has with them. Although an educated man, he has no books (?) and no newspapers to enliven his solitude. Who so anxious as he when the boats happened to be caught in a storm? Methinks I see him now, wandering restlessly on the shore, watching the waves outside the bay lashed into foam by the strong north wind, until the boats came round the rocky point . . . Although a bachelor, he is seldom to be seen without a rosy-cheeked urchin—a lamb of his flock— hanging on to his breeches-pocket and following him like a dog. Personally I am indebted to him for numberless acts of friendship,—kindness continued from first to last He pressed me to live in his house, and when, preferring freedom and the bagpipes, I declined his invitation, he did his utmost to render me comfortable in my own quarters. Take him for all in all, the Free Kirk has few soldiers she has more reason to feel proud of.”4 He elsewhere informs us that the islanders attend public worship three times every Sunday, and hold a prayer-meeting, which is conducted by the elders, every Wednesday night. They have also a thanksgiving service on the first Tuesday of every month for the preservation of the “ Porcupine,” which was very nearly lost on the island in October 1860. “The Sunday,” says Mr Sands, “is indeed a day of intolerable gloom. At the sound of the bell, the whole flock hurry to church in single file, with dejected looks and eyes bent on the ground. They seem like a troop of the damned, whom Satan is driving to the bottomless pit. With no floor but mother earth, and with damp sticking to the walls like hoar-frost or feathers, the women sit in church for about six and a half hours every Sunday, with bare feet and legs, even in winter. . . . All the men remain seated until the women have made their exeunt. ... No one visits another, or speaks above a whisper, on the Sabbath-day. I felt myself like an owl in the desert, and was fain to steal out in the dark to stretch my limbs with three steps and a turn before my domicile; for a long walk, or rather a climb, was evidently regarded as the height of iniquity. There is family worship in every house every evening and morning, and every meal is preceded by a grace, nor will they take a drink of milk or water without uncovermg the head.” A striking illustration of the extreme Sabbatarian views of the St Kildans was exhibited on the occasion of the gunboat “Flirt” carrying supplies to the island in the beginning of May 1877. The vessel reached St Kilda about half-past nine on a Saturday night, and the weather being fine and anchorage unsafe, efforts were at once made to land the provisions. The natives, however, headed by the minister, firmly refused to render the slightest assistance, on the ground that in doing so they would encroach on “the Sabbath;” and all argument failed to overcome their religious scruples. They would rather trust to the weather continuing favourable till Monday morning. The captain endeavoured to land a few bags with the boats of the vessel, but was completely baffled by the violence of the surf. Accordingly, the only alternative was to wait patiently and “wish” for Monday’s dawn. Happily Providence was kind, and the supplies were duly conveyed to the shore in the course of Monday morning.

Considering the opinions that prevail in many of the larger islands, as well as in certain parts of the mainland, on the subject of Sabbath observance, it is hardly to be wondered at that the lonely inhabitants of St Kilda should still display the results of those unhappy influences which have unfortunately prevailed on the north side of the Tweed. It is pleasant, however, to find that sounder views are steadily extending over the length and breadth of Scotland; and if we only had a few more Norman Macleods, the spirit of our blessed religion would ultimately take the place which has so long been usurped by the letter. Of course, I am quite aware of the arguments founded upon “Continental Sundays” and the “thin end of the wedge;” but I am also aware of the extraordinary estimate which is still formed, in certain quarters, of the comparative heinousness of grossly immoral offences on the one hand, and of a so-called “desecration of the Sawbbath” on the other. A good many years ago, Dr S-, a well-known and highly-esteemed clergyman of the Church of Scotland, had occasion to pay a visit of inspection to a northern parish, under the direction of the General Assembly. Immediately after his arrival, he was accosted by a member of the congregation, who informed him, in an excited tone, that he had a serious charge to make against the minister; and on being asked the nature of the accusation, the complainer said: “Would you believe it, sir—he takes a waalk in his gairden on the Sawbbath?” Knowing something of the antecedents of the Highland Pharisee, the Doctor quietly inquired whether or not it was the case that he had been cited before the kirk-session for “discipline,” on two different occasions. “’Deed ay, sir,” replied the consistent individual; “but ye must remember that we are a’ frail craturs!” “Those who live in glass houses, . . the reader knows the rest."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus