The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
Life on Lone St. Kilda
Life on Lone St. Kilda
The following is reprinted from the Otago Witness, Dunedin, appearing in weekly issues December 23, 1893, to January 25, 1894.
The writer of the following notes never [unclear: yed,], save in imagination, the pleasure of [unclear: ip] to St. Kilda. This fact he hopes nee[unclear: d] debar him from recounting what of in [unclear: st] he knows about the place and its [unclear: ple]. Among all the 6000 islands said t[unclear: o] round the coast of Britain, St. Kilda i[unclear: s] one, being inhabited, of which least is [unclear: rally] known, very many well-informed [unclear: ins], as well as ill-informed ones, being [unclear: te] unaware of the fact of its existence. [unclear: ugh] only distant from Glasgow abou[unclear: t] miles as the crow flies, it is yet, [unclear: practi] a long way further off from the [unclear: main] than is this colony of New Zeala[unclear: nd] this comes to be so, and what the [unclear: diffities] of the islanders in their efforts to [unclear: ke] communication with outsiders [unclear: some] amount to, I will detail later. At the [unclear: sent] time regular means of intercourse [unclear: th] the outer world can hardly be said to [unclear: ist] In early times but few travellers ever [unclear: nd] their way to the out-of-the-world [unclear: le] island. No one ever went there unless [unclear: th] some definite purpose in view; for [unclear: get] to St. Kilda used to be a matter of [unclear: at] difficulty, even danger. Happily, [unclear: ever], several early visitors to, and [unclear: sorners] on, the island, impressed with the [unclear: liar] aspects of life there, took a great [unclear: al] of pains to put on record what they [unclear: ard] and saw. Some of those who long [unclear: ice] enjoyed the hospitality of the [unclear: islanrs] recorded their impressions in [unclear: magtives] and books, and these, when hands ca[unclear: n] laid upon them, form very interesting [unclear: ing] indeed.
Within the last few years St. Kilda has been put within reach of the average tourist [unclear: tseer], who now takes advantage of the [unclear: sional] steamers sailing from Oban and the Clyde to pay it a flying visit. Flying visit it needs must De, tor no shipmaster cares to trust the anchorage at St. Kilda during an hour more than can possibly be helped. Whatever the cause of its visit may be, whether business or pleasure, no vessel, as a rule, remains more than three or four hours at the island. The skipper who has goods to deliver gets them over the ship's side and on shore as rapidly as possible. All unlading has to be done by means of boats, the coast being entirely rocky. Even in what would pass for calm weather it is not unusual for boats to be swamped, and valuable goods thus lost in these treacherous Atlantic waves, which seldom sink to rest about the island. Those who journey thither for pleasure solely must make the best they can of the few available hours. Getting ashore with the first boat, they have scarcely time to strike up even the most rudimentary acquaintanceship with the Gaelic-speaking natives before the anchor is up and the vessel again ready to sail away. Thus the modern voyager, with the advantage of getting easily to the island, loses by having too soon to quit it again; one chief consequence of this being that recent accounts, though interesting, are rather superficial, and apt to consist of repetition. Having for many years taken a lively interest in the island and its folk, I lately bethought me of putting not a few but a great many rough notes in some sort of order, and these notes the editor has requested me to straighten up a bit for publication in the Witness.
I neither offer a connected narrative nor a formal history of St. Kilda; my information has been got irregularly, from many and varied sources—some of it from those who have seen the island and those who dwell upon it; some of it from old newspapers, magazines, and books; and some parts from various recent newspapers, &c. My notes are very likely to be thought somewhat discursive, but I believe, with reason, that my facts will bear investigation. As to my fancies, each reader is free to endorse or to dissent from them as he or she thinks fit.
The best accounts of St. Kilda are naturally those given by travellers who have lived for more or less prolonged periods on the island itself. It will be at once apparent that only from such can we look to receive full and accurate descriptions of the everyday lives, and of the legendary history and traditions of the islanders. Very little of what is best worth knowing about any community is to be learnt in a day or two's time; the seeker after page 2 such knowledge must share the life that he would delineate. The first, and in many respects the most comprehensive, account of St. Kilda ever written was contributed in 1698 to the proceedings of the Royal Society of England by Martin Martin, a native of Skye and a Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Leyden. Martin had made several attempts to visit the island, but was unsuccessful until, as he himself says, "the Laird of MacLeod heartily recommending the care of the inhabitants of St. Kilda to Mr John Campbell, minister of Harries, he went to St. Kilda, and I cheerfully embraced the occasion; and accordingly we embarked at Esay, in Harries, May 29, 1697, the wind at S.E." They set sail with a gentle breeze, but had got only a short distance away when a storm burst upon them and threatened to swamp the cockleshell which held them. They would have returned had that been possible, but it was not, and finally they drifted with wind and tide far to the north of their intended destination. When at last they were able to see about them, one of the boatmen "detected several tribes of the fowls of St. Kilda flying, holding their course southerly of us, which (to some of our men) was a demonstration we had lost our course by the violence of the flood and wind, both concurring to carry us northerly, though we steered by our compass right west." The St. Kildans, it seems, used to trust to the flight of the sea-fowl as to a compass while at sea during thick weather, Martin and his friends found the fowls to be so reliable as pilots that shortly they came in sight of the Isle Boreray, lying about three leagues to the north of St. Kilda. This sight delighted the whole of them, and the boatmen being "refreshed with [unclear: vict] lowering mast and sail, rowed to a [unclear: mind] While they were tugging at the oars [unclear: th] "blackcoats" kept plying them [unclear: with] vitæ to such an extent that [unclear: when] arrived at Boreray scarce one of them able to manage cable or anchor.
After a short rest at Boreray, [unclear: which] inhabited, they pushed on for St. Kilds Martin and his comrades approached coast, the islanders walked and [unclear: ran] the extreme edge of the cliff off whi[unclear: ch] boat was being rowed. They did this kept shouting down to the visito[unclear: rs] while without the least concern; [unclear: b] strangers were fain to turn their eyes [unclear: s] fearing to see someone presently fall [unclear: over] rocks into the sea—a calamity, [unclear: how] which did not come to pass. They [unclear: la] in safety, though to reach the island; voyagers had journeyed during two days nights in an open boat amid wild[unclear: ly] pestuous waves, and they only managed get ashore at the imminent hazard their lives. Martin remained for [unclear: some] with the islanders, noting their ways [unclear: of] their customs, and superstitions. This did, not for the St. Kildans alone, but for Western islanders generally; and if [unclear: he] somewhat over-credulous sometimes, [unclear: ye] is not without good reason that he has [unclear: been] called the Herodotus of these isles.
Coming down to later times, we find [unclear: a] fanciful "History of St. Kilda," [unclear: written] the Rev. Kenneth Macaulay, grand-uncle the great historian. Wilson's "[unclear: Vou] Round Scotland" is said to contain a "[unclear: high] interesting account of St. Kilda." Of [unclear: sec] other books something similar may b[unclear: e] but unfortunately it has also to be [unclear: a] page 3 nowadays very few of these books ar[unclear: e] to be met with. In recent times, so fa[unclear: r] am aware, no description of St. Kilda been published in book form. Among the [unclear: mentary] accounts that have appeared [unclear: ing] the last 20 years, the best is that of a Sands, who twice visited the island and [unclear: red] the life of its inhabitants for many [unclear: ths]. His descriptions were published [unclear: ambers's] Journal, and he was at the time [unclear: led] to do substantial service to his poor worthy hosts, the most noticeable gift he [unclear: ned] for them being a large seaworth[unclear: y] a thing they had for long been wi[unclear: th]-Mr Sands also published, in the [unclear: trated] London News, I think, a set o[unclear: f] interesting sketches of St. Kilda an[unclear: d], of its folk. The literature of this [unclear: y] little islet is by no means either n[unclear: ificant] in bulk or uninteresting in [unclear: kind]; it is to be hoped that some one qualifie[unclear: d] do it will yet write the history of St. [unclear: s] as it ought to be, and deserves to be, [unclear: ten]. In the meantime these rambling [unclear: ters] of mine may be found not [unclear: alto] lacking in interest by those readers of Otago Witness who care to peruse them; as Martin Martin wrote in the preface of book:—"Men are generally fond enough [unclear: velty] not to suffer anything represented [unclear: er] that plausible invitation to [unclear: passoticed]. A description of some remote [unclear: er] in the Indies shall be sure to [unclear: d] us high amusement, while a [unclear: and] things much nearer to us might [unclear: age] our thoughts to better purpose, the knowledge of them serve to promote true interest and the history of nature. [unclear: a] piece of weakness and folly to value [unclear: gs] merely on account of their distan[unclear: ce]: men have travelled far in search of [unclear: ign] plants and animals, and continued [unclear: ngers] to the productions of their own [unclear: ate], The following relation therefore I [unclear: ate] will not prove unprofitable or [unclear: displeas] unless the advantages of truth and [unclear: unted] simplicity should prejudice it in the [unclear: ion] of such as are more trifling and [unclear: ous] than solid and judicious." After [unclear: ch] slightly pedantic reflection it may b[unclear: e] for us to proceed to tell something [unclear: ut] the place the name of which figures in title of this paper.
[unclear: I] have many a time been asked, "Where is island of St. Kilda?" and I am aware [unclear: t] many well-informed folk here and [unclear: else] are ignorant of the fact of there bein[unclear: g] a place on the map of Britain. Fro[unclear: m] maps indeed it is often altogether abse[unclear: nt] same at anyrate is familiar enough to [unclear: dinites] from its namesake on the Fl[unclear: at] place, however, about which I have [unclear: thing] to tell is a lonely little island lying far out in the North Atlantic Ocean—the most westerly of all the Western isles of Scotland. The folk who live on it are of purely Celtic stock and speak Gaelic only, with this exception, that within the last few years the youngsters have been getting lessons in English from the Rev. Mr Fiddes, a minister of the Free Church now resident on the island. The inhabitants number less than 100, and in this age, wherein quantity of population is too often more highly thought of than is quality, I fear that the place and its people are likely to be set down by many as of no consequence one way or another. Yet, though seemingly insignificant, it by no means follows that St. Kilda is without claims on our sympathy and interest.
"Scarce spied amidst the west sea foam," this rocky islet rises out of the waters of the Atlantic about 49 miles from Harris in the outer Hebrides. It is simply a volcanic rock, very precipitous, very sterile, very small; and it lies a very long way remote from what is known as the path of progress. It is about three miles long and two miles broad, and its highest peak towers 1300ft above the sea. It has no semblance of a harbour; the island is somewhat crescent-shaped, and in a deep bay there are two or three places only where in fair weather it is possible to land from boats. The wild, forceful waves of the North Atlantic beat almost ceaselessly against its massy cliffs. Often enough vessels having occasion to call find on approaching that even to land a barrel would be impossible, so they must sheer off and stand out to sea again. Too often also have noble ships whose crews had no wish to make the acquaintance of the St. Kildans been dashed to pieces upon its rocks. But there is sunshine as well as storm at St. Kilda. For weeks at a time the waves may roll gently on the shore, while sky and sea rival each other in the glory of their ever-changing tints. It is easy to forget, then, how from the heavens the lightning is wont to dart, the thunder to roll and roar, and the relentless tempest to dash these waters, now so calm, in murderous fury against the resistant rock.
On the north-east and south-west coasts enormous precipices a thousand feet in height rise sheer from the ocean. These wall-like cliffs are resorted to by myriads of sea-fowl—puffins, cormorants, auks, guillemots, solan-geese, fulmar-petrels, and many other species of birds. These birds are hunted by the St. Kildans for the sake of their oil, feathers, and flesh; the most valuable amongst them being the solan-goose, or gannet, fulmar, and puffin. A few miles to the north-east of St. Kilda is the island already mentioned, called Boreray page 4 upon which solan-geese congregate in vast numbers. Puffins also in incredible numbers visit Boreray to lay their eggs and hatch them out. Boreray is without human denizens except when parties of the islanders go there to capture the birds. In the vicinity there are also many isolated rocks, called "stacks," each covered with fulmars, solan-geese, &c., in their seasons.
It may be thought that I give too much notice to these birds, but let it be remembered that they are of more relative importance to the St. Kildan than are sheep and cattle to the New Zealander and Australian. In the clear, pure waters of the Atlantic about the island there is abundance of many kinds of fish, some of them still known to the islanders by curious and old-fashioned names. Chief among them are the cod, ling, mackerel, conger, brazier, turbot, graylord, saith, and herring. It might well be that, surrounded thus by an ocean full of fish, the St. Kildans would draw endless food supplies from its depths; but when there is nothing of a harbour for boats, the regular pursuit of fishing is out of the question. When they do fish they use parboiled limpets and fowl flesh as bait The St. Kildan, however, is little of a fisherman, and looks to other sources for his household supplies. He farms a little in a rude way, growing a few bushels of stunted oats and rye annually. He is a bit of a sheepfarmer too, though a modern specialist in mutton and wool would look askance at his goat-like sheep as they scamper wildly amongst the rocks, fending for themselves most of the time. As his main source of food and general supplies, however, he looks to the rocks—that is, to the birds which frequent the rocks To talk of sea-fowl at St. Kilda is to talk "shop."
"Swift," in his "Tale of a Tub," says Dr MacCulloch, "describes a land of feathers, and perhaps be drew the hint from St. Kilda. The air here is full of [unclear: feather] animals, the sea is covered with the[unclear: m], houses are ornamented with the[unclear: m], ground is speckled by them like a [unclear: fr] mead in May. The place is paved with [unclear: fea] the very dunghills are made of feather[unclear: s] ploughed land seems as if it had bee[unclear: n] with feathers, and the inhabitants look [unclear: b] they bad been all tarred and feathere[unclear: d] their hair is full of feathers and their [unclear: cl] are covered with feathers. The wome[unclear: n] like feathered Mercurys, for their shoe[unclear: s] made of a gannet's skin; everythin[unclear: g] of feathers, and the smell pursued us [unclear: ov] the islands, for the captain had a sackful i[unclear: n] cabin." Like other folk, the St. [unclear: Kilda] greatly influenced by their surrounding. Their struggle with circumstances is [unclear: con] and keen and may reasonably be [unclear: except] sharpen their wits, and yet they are [unclear: s] sharp race. Their boundaries are s[unclear: o]—they are so "cribbed, cabined, and confined "—that it is only right first to [unclear: in] what they are likely to be before [unclear: fi] fault with them for being what the[unclear: y] It is true the St. Kildans are a [unclear: riously] unprogressive race—they are a [unclear: rible] long way "behind the times," whic[unclear: h] just one chief reason why I turne[unclear: d] attention to them years ago. Wha[unclear: t] pressed me then was the fact that, [unclear: de] their hard surroundings, they were [unclear: ecid] quite as happy as the average elsewhere. [unclear: E] St. Kilda been a fertile isle instead of a [unclear: ve] hard and barren rock its inhabitants [unclear: would] very likely have been sottish and [unclear: malig] suspicious of strangers, and distrustfu[unclear: l] each other. There would have been [unclear: cla] and masses and a goodly show of the [unclear: mise] incidental to such a state of affairs. A[unclear: s] happens, the St. Kildans are very free from such tendencies. They are [unclear: simple-mind] to a degree, generous with what they have courteous to strangers, and their hospitality is bounded only by the limit of their [unclear: men] Their means consist chiefly of the [unclear: birds] I have named, for Nature supplies the islanders with very little besides the [unclear: wildfoul] which come in such vast flocks to the rocks. To catch these or to steal their eggs is no trifling occupation. To the adult male St. Kildan it means dangling during long days at the end of a rope that may not be over-strong; it means the possibility of his his being smashed to atoms upon the hundreds of feet of jagged rock below, or having his skull cracked by fragments falling from above.
Of any manner of gain, apart from the equal dole, there has never been much to look for on the island. During their whole history communal interests have been sufficient to unite them in all manner of necessary endeavour. Upon the island, as elsewhere the ability to do well what most needs doing is the best attribute of man or woman. The work itself may be mechanical enough—at any rate it is necessary—and necessity at St. Kilda is at least the mother of industry if not of invention.
The present race of St. Kildans are [unclear: descen] from the people of Lewis, Harris, Uis[unclear: t] Skye, but it is not known when thes[unclear: e] migrated to the island. Still, it i[unclear: s] obvious that they are a drifted [unclear: frag] of the Celtic-Irish race which still [unclear: pe] the Western Isles and the Highlands o[unclear: f] the land. Upon the island there are—or [unclear: were] short time since—only six family [unclear: na] these being: Gillies, Fergusson. [unclear: Macdonald] Mackinnon, MacQaeen, and [unclear: MacCrim]. The population fluctuates from a littl[unclear: e] to a little under 80. At the beginnin[unclear: g] this century 120 persons found [unclear: a] upon St. Kilda; earlier still the rude [unclear: o] of the times set the number of [unclear: h] beings down at 200. There used als[unclear: o] ponies and cattle on the island, bu[unclear: t] their only domestic animals havin[unclear: g] value are sheep. These find sufficien[unclear: t] as they roam at large throughout the [unclear: is]. They are not common property, bu[unclear: t] owned by individuals, whose right t[unclear: o] them is adjudged by the agent of Th[unclear: e] leod. A great many of the sheep an[unclear: d] are lost over the cliffs, numbers being [unclear: his] over the precipices during the winter every year.
About a twelvemonth since, the [unclear: minis] of St. Kilda visited Glasgow on a [unclear: miss] behoof of the islanders. Among other [unclear: th] he was very wishful to carry back wit[unclear: h] a supply of wire fencing, one o[unclear: f] numerous products of civilizatio[unclear: n] hitherto seen on St. Kilda, and by [unclear: mea] which he hoped to save many of the [unclear: sheep].
Among other things that be hoped [unclear: ask] take home with him was a small [unclear: por] forge, by the aid of which he wished to [unclear: t] the islanders the art of Tubal Cai[unclear: n] showing vividly the difficulties of lif[unclear: e] the island, it may be mentioned tha[unclear: t] nearest smithy is almost 100 miles [unclear: av]. They have an anvil upon which a pin [unclear: may] drawn out or sharpened; but anything [unclear: be] that—the boring of a hole in an iron [unclear: p] or the making of a bolt with screw an[unclear: d] involves a delay of from nine to twelve month. Another thing that the reverend [unclear: gentleman] hoped to make the St. Kildans happy [unclear: with] was the gift of a wheelbarrow! [unclear: Wh] barrows are almost prehistoric in the island; in fact, there never was but [unclear: c] the place, and it went to pieces more than years ago. Mr Fiddes also hoped to b[unclear: e] to take with him to the island a light [unclear: cart] a couple of horses, a plough, harrows, &[unclear: c] means of which he hoped to facilitate [unclear: a] cultural operations, a branch of [unclear: indust] hitherto carried on upon very primitiv[unclear: e] in St. Kilda. Up to the present all the fetching and carrying has been done b[unclear: y] of bags and "creels" and "shanks' [unclear: mare] page 7 Upon the subject of their agriculture I [unclear: all] touch later on. I should like before [unclear: ing] farther to give some notion of the physical and mental characteristics of the [unclear: ple] of St. Kilda. I give warning that I [unclear: ve] no terrible or naughty things to tell [unclear: out] them. They never made a lite busines[unclear: s] murder and pillage as did some section[unclear: s] long past days of the Western Islanders. They have always been noted as a well-[unclear: haved] race. Their piety, sobriety, [unclear: indus] politeness, and hospitality are beyond [unclear: roach]. It is quite true that they use a [unclear: tle] whisky upon certain festive [unclear: occations]; but, of course, that finds its wa[unclear: y] nature to the head of the Celt. It is [unclear: te] true, also, that their piety runs [unclear: some-hat] to fanaticism, but this is by no means [unclear: sual] with those whose lives are spent in [unclear: iation]. As an instance of fanaticism, I [unclear: my] describe an incident that occurred about [unclear: ght] or nine years ago, at a time when there was a dearth of the necessaries of life on the [unclear: nd]. This particular incident well [unclear: strates] their unswerving notions of [unclear: bbath] observance even in cases where [unclear: their] strict views might very likely cause [unclear: rious] material loss to the entire [unclear: community].
A steamer, sent with a liberal supply of [unclear: od], seed-corn, and so on, chanced to arrive the bay on a Sunday afternoon. The [unclear: chorage] at St. Kilda being so bad the [unclear: captain], knowing that a storm might sprin[unclear: g] at any moment, made haste to get the [unclear: ings] ashore, but the St. Kildans wouldn't have that. They needed the supplies sore[unclear: ly]; rather than outrage their Sabbatarian prejudices, they'd risk losing the stores. A message was sent aboard that the unloading must not commence till 12 o'clock had [unclear: zuck]. In vain the captain remonstrated, [unclear: claring] that if a gale came on he [unclear: might] not be able to land the goods for [unclear: weeks]-not, indeed, at all, for there was no allowance for delay in delivery, and the [unclear: vessel] would have to return to the Clyde if the weather grew stormy. The islanders [unclear: were] inexorable—they would take the risk [unclear: given] though they were starving. Luckily the weather kept fine, and the things were ultimately got ashore without mishap. Another episode occurred in connection with a pinnace in which a shipwrecked [unclear: crew] had reached St. Kilda. The boat was [unclear: o] low in the sides that the sailors set about putting a foot depth of canvas round [unclear: it] to keep out the water. With indifferent judgment, they began their task upon a Sunday, a thing which both astonished and displeased the islanders, who snatched the [unclear: tools] away from their guests and did not [unclear: return] them until the Monday morning.
Physically, the St. Kildans are a handsome and muscular race. In early times popular rumour credited them with double the strength of ordinary men. They themselves have traditions of extraordinarily strong ancestors, and they point out various huge boulders which they say were carried to the spots they now occupy by their champions of the early days. Shakespeare says "Home-keeping youths have ever homely wits," and this, spoken of the St. Kildans, is as true as anything could be. They are a thoroughly stay-at-home and unsophisticated race, with hearts as kind as simple and with such an abundance of human sympathy about them as proves that no one need tramp the world in search of goodness. Those of the islanders who have been at Harris, Lewis, or Uist regale the stay-at-homes with tales of the wonders seen in those places. Many of them have never been farther away than Boreray. In many remote parts of the Western Isles extremely crude notions of geography still prevail. In Skye, not so very long ago, when the natives travelled they thought of only two points of the compass—one pointing to Glasgow, which was synonymous with south, the other to Inverness, denoting north. A Skyeman proceeding on a journey met an acquaintance on the pier of embarkation, who accosted him with the query, "You'll be for south to-day, Tonald MacTonald?" "No, Ronald MacTonald, I'm going further than south—I'm going to Perth to-day." Hazy ideas of locality such as the above story exemplify are still the rule at St. Kilda. Until lately they had for long no boat in which it would have been safe to venture away from the coast. Then they were bound, formerly by custom and latterly by a written agreement, to barter their produce with the proprietor of the island, and thus, as they had nothing to sell, they had the less inducement to go roving. They cannot, unless they take to the sea, travel far from their own doors; and as to live tolerably they must plod industriously, they have little time for tripping. Upon special occasions they make voyages to the large islands before named, but of what lies beyond them they have no real conception. As in many inland parts of Great Britain there are still to be found individuals who have never seen the sea, so amongst the St. Kildans are to be found those who have never seen the mainland. It is plain therefore that many things common enough elsewhere would appear to them to be great marvels. One of them having made what he thought a prodigious journey into the south part of the isle of Skye, and seeing across a narrow sea the coast of Inverness-shire, page 8 inquired if that was the border of England! On another occasion a St. Kildan landing on the isle of Harris asked who was the proprietor of those lands? He was told that The MacLeod owned those lands—a fact which raised the laird in his esteem greatly. A short time afterwards this same man, standing upon a hill in the isle of Skye, in which he had travelled a few miles, fancied he saw before him a great part of the world. When told that MacLeod owned those lands also, he lifted up his eyes and hands towards heaven, and cried out, "Oh, Mighty Prince! who art master of such vast territory," with such droll emphasis that the saying, in its original Gaelic, was long repeated in the neighbourhood in derision of anyone expressing such inflated notions.
Shortly before Martin's visit a boat's crew had voyaged to that part of the mainland opposite Skye. In the course of this journey they saw many things which greatly surprised them. They were amazed when they saw rich hangings covering a thick wall of stone and lime, and condemned it as vain and superfluous. The MacLeod's lady wore what seemed to them so strange a Lowland dress that their vocabulary contained no words by means of which to describe it. A newspaper description of the dresses of a present-day wedding party would be as Greek to them. They admired glass windows hugely, and a looking-glass seemed to them a prodigy. St. Kilda is entirely without trees or shrubs, and one of the party having got into a thicket of scrubby trees, and being impeded by the branches, called out in distress that the "trees were holding him back." At another time a party of the islanders, visiting Skye, were so interested by the sight of a plantation of small trees that they took some of them up by the roots, intending to carry them home—a scheme which had to be abandoned owing to the roughness of the roads and the tenderness of the islanders' feet; for although they are first-rate climbers they are but indifferent walkers. Among other stories, it is recorded of a party of them that, seeing a pony for the first time, they were greatly puzzled to make out what kind of bird it was. On another occasion, in Harris, the vision of a man with a wooden leg caused an astounding sensation!
During Martin's visit he and the minister were constantly attended by a number of the men, who wondered at and admired everything said or done by the pair. Above everything else, at that early day, writing was most wonderful to them; they could not conceive how it was possible for any mortal to express the conceptions of his mind in such black characters upon white [unclear: p] Martin says: "After they had with [unclear: ad-tion] argued upon this subject, I tol[unclear: d] that within the compass of two years o[unclear: r] if they pleased, they might easily be [unclear: ta] to read and write, but they were not o[unclear: f] opinion that either of them could be [unclear: attain] at least by them, in an age."
The key to St. Kildan peculiarity i[unclear: s] extreme isolation of the place and its [unclear: peo]. It is necessary to remember that—to kee[unclear: p] hold of the key, so to speak. The [unclear: acci] of their remoteness renders it certai[unclear: n] they will have many ways of doin[unclear: g] thinking so essentially different fro[unclear: m] own as to make them well worthy o[unclear: f] than passing notice. A score or tw[unclear: o] miles nearer to the mainland and St. [unclear: K] would have long since lost all feature[unclear: s] interest save those still common to [unclear: t] whole of the Western isles. Fo[unclear: r] generations the only link connecting i[unclear: t] the outer world was the yearly and [unclear: s] times half-yearly visit of its owner's [unclear: ste] who came to collect the rent and barter commodities with the islanders. The islan[unclear: d] for hundreds of years been part of th[unclear: e] of the MacLeods of Skye, and all alon[unclear: g] to the present time, the rent has been [unclear: p] in goods, not money; for that is one o[unclear: f] things they have probably been better without. Sometimes, indeed often, no rented [unclear: c] be paid because of there being no [unclear: super] produce on the island with which to pa[unclear: y]. They usually were able, however, t[unclear: o] over to the steward enough to make it [unclear: would] his while to undertake the voyage.
In early times it was usual for [unclear: T] MacLeod to bestow whatever revenue [unclear: c] be got from St. Kilda upon some [unclear: favoured] one of his numerous dependents. [unclear: Th] steward, upon his return from the yearly voyage, paid over to the chief a [unclear: protion] of the goods thus obtained. [unclear: T] steward's voyage was made in summer, [unclear: a] one of the first proceedings of the [unclear: island] was to hand over to him and his [unclear: ret] often consisting of 50 or 60 persons, all the milk on the island. In other ways they were treated right royally, abundance of all the best products being literally [unclear: lavished] upon them. In those days it was quite a customary thing for the steward to [unclear: cary] with him from Skye all the weaklings and invalids from his own district to be [unclear: recru] with the good cheer of St. Kilda. [unclear: Th] practice, as well as some others by means of which the islanders were fleeced in [unclear: by] times, is now discontinued.
The officer, by virtue of his plac[unclear: e] obliged through a point of honour to b[unclear: e] first that lands in the lesser isles an[unclear: d] whence they carry their fowls an[unclear: d] and not without some trouble, too. Thi[unclear: s] of honour exposes him to frequent danger[unclear: s], perhaps it may not be unpleasant to [unclear: descri] as I have seen it practised, and it is [unclear: th]. When they come as near to the rock as they think may consist with the safety of th[unclear: e] which is not a little tossed by the raging o[unclear: f] sea, those whose turn it is are employed [unclear: w] poles to keep off the boat, which is in [unclear: great] danger in regard of the violence of the [unclear: w] beating upon the rock, and they are to [unclear: w] the opportunity of the calmest wave, upon the first appearance of which the officer jumps [unclear: out] upon the rock. If there be any [unclear: appare] danger, he ties a rope about his middle, [unclear: w] one end of it fastened to the boat; if he [unclear: h] landed safe, he then fixes his feet in a [unclear: sec] place and by the assistance of this rope [unclear: drawn] up all the crew to him, except those [unclear: wh] turn it is to look after the boat; but if in jump out he falls into the sea—as his [unclear: misfortunate] is so to do sometimes—he is drawn into the boat again by that part of the rope that i[unclear: s] fastened to it, and then the next whose tur[unclear: n] is must try his luck; the officer after his [unclear: f] being supposed to be sufficiently fatigue[unclear: d] that he is not obliged to venture his [unclear: pers] again to a second hazard upon this [unclear: occasion] page 11 [unclear: cially] as he is exposed to the greatest [unclear: ger] that offers upon their landing whe[unclear: n] return to the isle, where the sea often rages [unclear: e] being obliged then by virtue of his office [unclear: stay] in the boat after the whole crew are [unclear: d], where he must continue employing hi[unclear: s] until the boat be either brought safe to [unclear: d] or split upon the rocks.
Ashore in St. Kilda itself, the duties of the [unclear: officer]," at least during the visit of the [unclear: ward], were of a somewhat trying ki[unclear: nd] chief function was to "resist, on behal[unclear: f] the people, all undue exactions by the [unclear: ward]." "He was obliged to dispute wit[unclear: h] steward for what was due to any of them, if never to give over until he had put the [unclear: ward] in such a passion that he gav[unclear: e] 'officer' at least three blows with his [unclear: gel] over the crown of his head." The [unclear: ging] on of these three blows with the [unclear: tor's] cudgel was the utmost that was [unclear: ex-ted] of the "officer," and it may well be [unclear: ought] that it was enough. In return fo[unclear: r] self-sacrifice the "officer" received [unclear: cer] fixed remuneration. From each famil[unclear: y] received annually an "amir" (Hebrew [unclear: r,] about two pecks) of barley; several [unclear: s] of land were also specially assigned t[unclear: o]. The division of the arable land and number of sheep each family had the [unclear: t] to graze were matters annually define[unclear: d] the steward. It was the custom for the [unclear: officer"] to present to the steward at every [unclear: al] a cake made of barley meal, and thi[unclear: s] had to be of a size sufficient to satisfy [unclear: e] men at a time. By way of [unclear: dis] it was moulded in a triangula[unclear: r] and "furrowed twice round." In [unclear: tion] to this cake the "officer" wa[unclear: s] called upon to furnish the steward with [unclear: tion] or beef to his dinner every Sunday [unclear: ing] his residence on the island. When [unclear: st] to leave the island, the steward gave the "officer" the blue bonnet he had worn [unclear: ing] his stay. The steward's wife usually [unclear: ompanied] her husband, and it was the [unclear: ular] custom for her to give her kertch, or [unclear: address], to the wife of the "officer." An [unclear: ce] of indigo dye was another item that [unclear: t] to the "officer's" wife along with the [unclear: ch]. Martin adds that "notwithstandin[unclear: g] reciprocal acts of kindness, this "officer" [unclear: st] be allowed to go in quality of an [unclear: oy] to MacLeod against the steward upon [unclear: ordinary] occasions, if the common-[unclear: th] have any grievance to redress." I[unclear: t] quite usual also for the islanders to into [unclear: ct] the boat's crew who accompanied the officer," to attend both disputants into the [unclear: ce] of MacLeod to ensure justice bein[unclear: g] Upon such occasions the messengers [unclear: rached] the chief in single file—this, in-[unclear: d] their customary way of walking at all times. It has been claimed that this habit is a result of their manner of getting about the rocks. Climbing among danger-our cliff faces and along rocky ledges they necessarily went singly, and thus the habit acquired in the most thrilling moments of their lives would doubtless tend to become constant. There is, however, another cause—and, I think, a pretty sufficient one—of the St. Kildans walking one after the other. Even up till the present day there never has been a properly made roadway, or even footpath, in St. Kilda. Tracks worn out by the constant passing to and fro of rough-shod feet are all that are to be found there. Perhaps I should make an exception now in favour of the path leading from the village to the place where boats usually land. The rev. gentleman before mentioned while in Glasgow last year informed a representative of the Glasgow Mail that something had been done to "make the roadway passable in fair weather." It seems that until he induced the islanders to fill them up with gravel, &c., it was necessary to jump from boulder to boulder over the large holes in every part of the path. The gravel for this purpose has to be carried in bags and "creels" upon the men's backs from a place a quarter of a mile away from the village. No wonder, then, that wheelbarrows would be reckoned as useful novelties in St. Kilda.
To return for a moment to the steward, or "factor." Matters in connection with the visit of the "smack" and its crew are more commonplace now than formerly, but still page 12 the event is one of the chief episodes of the year. While the "smack" and its crew remain at St. Kilda all ordinary work is at a standstill. Everyone is bent on jollity, and the place wears the aspect of a fair. Everyone is also doing his or her best to make good bargains, which, of course, adds to rather than detracts from the general enjoyment. The homespun cloth, bales and sacks of feathers, corn, &c., make a goodly show, and the samples of mountain dew" brought by the factor are so highly appreciated that they are all liquidated before he leaves the island. The general hilarity is brisk while it lasts; but the departure of the "smack" is the signal which sends everyone back to the routine occupations of daily life.
Sometimes, at the end of a really good year, the St. Kildans export what must be reckoned a large amount of produce. In 1875, for instance, they sent from the island over 900 St. Kilda pints of bird oil. A St. Kilda pint is equal to five English pints, yet they receive only one shilling value for that quantity. So with the feathers, which are of a superior quality; for these the factor gives 6s a St. Kilda stone—24lb. The same rule obtains with the grain, &c.—big measures and small prices.
. . . . A hardy race,
Whose life no cultivated grace,
No elegance, can show.
The St. Kildans are no savages though their isle is a remote one. Nothing, I take it, is commoner than among savage races to find the women doing all the work and the men devoting all their attention to the quarrelling and loafing. In St. Kilda both men and women work industriously, even energetically. It is in the nature of things that the vast majority of workers obtain only a modicum of what they earn, but in this little island whatever its inhabitants earn they own, and this, without their knowing it perhaps, must have a great influence in lightening their toil. For many generations they have carried out, successfully too, it might almost be said, a method of communism not based upon previous scheming. Their outdoor work is almost entirely communal; that done indoor being the concern of the families engaged in it only. Every capable man and woman takes a share in the occupations of the island. In regard to outdoor work, they never do anything without having a talk about it. Even in a wee place like St. Kilda, something of the nature of a public assembly, a sort of board of works, to decide the routine of business is necessary. This parliament of theirs meets daily on working days and every man is a member of it, and occasionally, also, the women put in [unclear: a] or two, though they have not got th[unclear: e] chise there yet. They have no palave[unclear: r] so they meet in the open air in front [unclear: of] one of the cottages. I nee[unclear: d] say there is no Upper House in St. [unclear: k] When they invent one, let us hope the[unclear: y] place it on the top of Connache[unclear: r], above the sea.
The subjects to be discussed are all [unclear: str] practical—whether it is to be boat-[unclear: men] or bird-catching or ling-fishing o[unclear: r] collecting or such like tasks. There [unclear: a] written rules of discussion, and no [unclear: spea] rule members out of order if the [unclear: d] waxes over hot. They all talk loudl[unclear: y], all at once, so you may be sure it i[unclear: s] model parliament. Sometimes they [unclear: end] how-de-do by casting lots. In earlier [unclear: t] they always decided what was to b[unclear: e] and who was to do it by means of th[unclear: e] cess referred to. Nowadays, if ther[unclear: e] any considerable differences of opinio[unclear: n] take a vote, and the decision of the [unclear: may] is accepted cheerfully, and the day'[unclear: s] set about without further delay.
This daily palaver is a valuable [unclear: irrtion] for the St. Kildans. If each [unclear: fr] kept to itself and worked by itself [unclear: th] soon all go melancholy mad. Their [unclear: d] bow-wow cheers them and helps to [unclear: d] away any tendency to brood. The [unclear: island] are much more like the ancient [unclear: herd] and flockowners who were the first [unclear: stod] of the stars than we are who live i[unclear: n] and trust to town clocks and almanac[unclear: s] the time of day and the turn of the [unclear: t]. The St. Kildans can tell the hour[unclear: s] accurately by observing the shadows [unclear: th] by various hills and rocks, as well a[unclear: s] noting the position of the sun itse[unclear: lf] the sun is obscured they measure time b[unclear: y] ebbing and flowing of the sea, thei[unclear: r] [unclear: judgement] of this matter depending upo[unclear: n] accurate knowledge of the changes o[unclear: f] moon, a part of natural science i[unclear: n] they are thoroughly versed. The [unclear: aspect] clouds, the direction of the wind, the [unclear: d] made by the sea as it beats on the [unclear: roc] all such matters are closely [unclear: conned] the islanders, whose lives very often [unclear: de] upon the trustworthiness of such knowledge.
It is a good and wholesome thing fo[unclear: r] St. Kildans that they are not tied [unclear: down] one routine occupation all the year [unclear: ro]. The kinds of labour pursued on the [unclear: i] are greatly varied, and variety, as th[unclear: e] goes, is the spice of life. Life would fearfully monotonous on St. Kilda if th[unclear: e] industry was bird-catching, but as a [unclear: ma] of fact there is plenty of change. A[unclear: t] proper seasons the crops call for attention page 13 [unclear: re]ceive, at least, what the islanders [unclear: k] necessary. In summer the sheep are [unclear: ght], and the wool taken from them by ting—at least that was so a few year[unclear: s] and I have not heard of a pair of she[unclear: ep]-never having been seen on St. Kil[unclear: da] the beginning of winter the women spi[unclear: n] threao, and during the winter the men [unclear: ve] it into cloth. At different seasons [unclear: rrent] birds are on the rocks, and many [unclear: ed] devices are followed to bring about [unclear: ir] capture. There is no lack of variet[unclear: y], no desire to shirk work.
As may be inferred, agriculture in St. [unclear: a] not wrought up to the high level of [unclear: lleoce] on which we find it elsewhe[unclear: re] islanders grow oats, barley, rye, and [unclear: toes], and think to do the best by their [unclear: s;] but they plant everything too thickl[unclear: y], the crops are half-choked before the[unclear: y] half-grown. They used, until quite [unclear: ently], a spade of very primitive form, [unclear: ch] as used to be common throughout the [unclear: hlands] and Hebrides. It had a long [unclear: dle], a strong wooden foot-peg, and the [unclear: de] was very badly shaped, being only [unclear: ble] of tossing sods, not of lifting loose [unclear: th]. The harrows they used were of wood [unclear: th] one row of wooden teeth at the front, [unclear: ber] being too scarce to allow of all the [unclear: h] being made of it. To supply this [unclear: ciency] they used to fasten a lot of tangle [unclear: the] thin end to the underside of the [unclear: ow], and the roots hanging loose behind [unclear: ttered] the clods after a fashion.
As the time draws on for their corn t[unclear: o] there is no keen competition betwee[unclear: n] Buckeye, or the M'Cormick, or indeed of the famous reapers and binders [unclear: ch] elsewhere strive for the farmers' [unclear: ur]. They settle the business of harvest-[unclear: mu]ch more simply in St. Kilda. The[unclear: y] not use sickles even, but just pluck the [unclear: s] and barley up by the roots, and there is [unclear: end] to the trouble. In former times they [unclear: ed] the grain in this way, not because o[unclear: f] lack of suitable cutting tools only, but [unclear: se] it suited them better for roof-[unclear: ching] when thus treated. Some of [unclear: ir] old-fashioned ways of doing things ar[unclear: e] no means lacking in smartness. The[unclear: y] put the grain through the various necessary processes and make it into bread with-an hour from the time when it was [unclear: grow]-in the field. This trick of theirs of [unclear: ing], winnowing, drying, grinding, and [unclear: ing] in an hour's time was once commo[unclear: n] the Highlands and islands. The proces[unclear: s] described in Boswell's "Journal of a Tou[unclear: r] the Hebrides." This part of the work i[unclear: s] by the women. The ears of grain ar[unclear: e] in the left hand, a flame is applied wit[unclear: h] tight, the husks and chaff blaze, and a smart tap with a stick at the proper moment frees the grains. Nowadays the oats are usually threshed with a flail, then scorched in an iron pot, or in a straw basket, containing hot stones, previous to being ground. The grinding is done by the women, who make the mills go at a great speed. These mills, called querns, are of the simple form familiar to everyone—two circular stones, one on the top of the other, with a handle let into the upper one, the same as are still in common use in the East, and, indeed, in modified forms, among all sorts of undeveloped folk in many parts of the world.
The soil of St. Kilda is not of a very high-class quality. The hills are mostly covered with black and brown earth to a depth of from a few inches to 1ft in some places. On the top there is a peat moss yielding plenty of turf, which serves for fuel. The arable land is a sloping tract near the village, and this piece of land is subdivided in ancient village-commune style among the different families. To their primitive agricultural tools allusion has already been made. They enriched the ground with turf ashes, straw, the bones, wings, and entrails of seafowl, large quantities of the carcases of puffins, &c., &c. The defunct puffins are said to make most excellent manure, and the things grow very well despite various drawbacks, but the odour to noses not accustomed to it is shocking.
According to Martin there used to be 2000 sheep on St. Kilda, with goat-like horns and "speckled" wool. Probably his estimate included all those owned by the islanders. Many of the sheep were and are still grazed upon the great rocks lying near St. Kilda. The isles Soa and Boreray are both grazing grounds, as well as many of the lesser islets. page 14 Of horses, they had early in the century about 20, but years ago the oldest inhabitant could only just remember seeing the last surviving pony upon the island.
The St. Kildans now live in ordinary stone-built cottages roofed with iron. These houses were built about 30 years since, but previous to that time the people lived in great huts of the same pattern as used to be common to all the Western Isles. These old houses were very substantial, though no lime was used in building them. They had double walls of stone with turf packed in between. The floors were sunk beneath the surface of the ground a little way. These huts were thatched with straw, had only apologies for doors, no windows to speak of, and the chimney did double duty by letting the smoke out and the light in. If it rained or hailed or snowed a due proportion found its way into the interior, and helped, doubtless, to increase the enjoyment of those sitting on the rude stools about the earthen hearth. The way in which the roofing was fixed can hardly be described as brilliantly clever. The thatch was held down by ropes of straw or twisted heather, to the ends of which, beneath the eaves, large stones were attached. Boswell, when he saw houses of this sort in Skye, thought that when the wind rose the stones were likely to come down and knock someone on the head.
Some of these huts had beds in the wall, access to which was got by way of an aperture like the mouth of a baker's oven. Cosy nests, no doubt, but not to be commended from a hygienic standpoint. Although strangers found these houses to be intolerably smoky and close, with "ancient and fishlike smells" everywhere, the islanders thought them very comfortable, being habituated to their peculiarities. The heavy thatch kept out the winter cold, and it was easy, with turf and rotten driftwood, to keep a good fire roaring on the hearth when it was needed. To shelter them from the tempestuous south-west winds all these houses had their doors opening at the northeast side.
A still more primitive type of house used to obtain in St. Kilda. This was of the beehive pattern, and was literally the same, allowing for the difference of materials, as is still used by various native African tribes. The architecture of such a house is extremely simple: first a circular pit was dug, around the mouth of this, upon the surface of the earth, a low wall of stones and turf was reared; upon this were laid the rafters or sloping supports for the thatch, which might be straw, heather, or gorse. At the peak of the roof the rafters were tied round a piece of hollow tree trunk, forming a chimney and air hole. The fire was in the middle o[unclear: f] earthen floor, in a depression usually, the sleepers lay around it in a radiu[unclear: s] their feet pointing inward. The door i[unclear: n] bee-skep houses was a mere hole big [unclear: eo] for a grown man to crawl in at. It i[unclear: s] since the last one of this class o[unclear: f] disappeared from St. Kilda, but on [unclear: Bo] a fine specimen existed till about 50 rears ago. The idea of digging a hole to save the trouble of building a wall is simple and [unclear: genious,] and seems to be very widely different. Such houses would probably be coole[unclear: r] summer and warmer in winter, and at [unclear: all] times would present less surface to the [unclear: w] than buildings placed upon the surface of the ground.
I have mentioned the seafowl as an item of the first importance in St. [unclear: Kil] economics. It is quite likely that had then been no seafowl there would likewise have been no St. Kildans. The people are there mainly because the birds are there; the other sources of supply—the few acres of corn and the fish they take occasionally—could not for long keep even the smallest population in life. A few weeks of stor[unclear: m] a bad harvest would suffice to cause serious famine in the island. "The humble blessings of bread and wildfowl, of peaceful cottages and little flocks, of angling rods [unclear: and] hunting ropes" may be all "the [unclear: richet,] honours, and profits they aspire after"; unhappily they don't always secure even the[unclear: m] for in St. Kilda, as elsewhere, dearth and famine sometimes prevail. Like much greater and more skilful farmers they have a bad year occasionally. On the principle, I suppose, that misfortunes never come singly, it now and then happens that both birds and crops fail at the same time, and there has been famine in real earnest on the [unclear: w] island.page 15 page 16
When famine threatens great lands all the world soon hears of it, and something at least is done to lessen the evil. But alas for the poor St. Kildan. His ocean-bound home is not joined by submarine cable to the great land of which it forms the most remote untended fragment. When famine stalks abroad in St. Kilda the folk must suffer and wait. The same storm that destroys their crops and drives their sheep in scores over the cliffs, if long continued, effectually cuts them off from means of communication with the mainland. Even the few passing ships are useless to them at such times, for all sailors know and dread the vicinity during bad weather. During such stormy spells even the "factor's smack" remains securely in harbour, and the islanders must struggle on as well as may be. The grain and potatoes laid away for seed will be eaten; if it be summer the green crops will be plucked up and eaten also. Mr Sands was on the island once during such a dearth when everyone was on short rations, and he was able to send for and bring assistance in such a novel manner as the St. Kildan had never dreamt of before. His first experiment consisted in carving a small canoe, into the hold of which he put two bottles containing letters. The natives, with extreme incredulity as to the results, saw this little ark launched, during a favourable wind, upon February 5, 1877. On January 28 such a storm blew over St. Kilda as had never been experienced by Mr Sands before that time. The wind blew with extreme fury from the north-west, bringing with it heavy showers of sleet. The waves, as they came rolling into the bay huge and threatening, had their heads blown off and scattered as spindrift by the wind, yet Mr Sands says upon this day many of the women went to church barefooted.
Mr Sands hoped the canoe would be driven by wind and tide to Uist, and, despite the predictions of the islanders that it would be heard of no more, it was found stranded on a sandbank at Poolewe, in Rosshire, by a gentleman, who posted the letters. Five days before launching the canoe, Mr Sands had despatched a life buoy rigged with a mast and sail, and having a bottle containing a letter lashed to it This circular ship made a remarkable voyage, being found at Birsay, in Orkney, nine days later. The missive it carried brought about a prompt visit from the Government vessel Jackal with a supply of oatmeal and biscuits to keep the folk going in life. It need hardly be added that the St. Kildans were quite taken aback upon finding that these queer floating messengers so quickly brought them efficient aid.
Usually there is plenty to eat on the island. The quality of the viands may not be excessively fine, yet, with strong [unclear: hurge] for a sauce, even roasted solan-goos[unclear: e] puffin may become at least eatable. [unclear: Ro] puffin is said to taste like kippered [unclear: hering] with a flavour of dogfish. The St. [unclear: Kild] eat them at any rate, and I daresay other people would do so also if they had to. The island cookery is ultra plain, but apart from that I fear it would take a very great [unclear: cont] to turn a solan-goose into a dainty.
One great good thing which I doub[unclear: t] has a powerful effect on their appetites is that they go direct to Nature to supply their needs. The birds they pursue are not to be got without hardihood and daring. Pickled puffin or solan-goose may not be superlative delicacies in themselves, but we may be sure that they are vastly more palatable to the man who risked his lift to get them than to the same man bad he bought them over a counter.
Upon St. Kilda there is to this day a cad conspicuous lack of household furniture. Many of the articles reckoned to be indispensable in even the humblest homes elsewhere are to the islanders unknown. The reason for this state of things is given in the [unclear: provert:] "What the eye does not see, the heart does not desire." The islanders have had very few opportunities of seeing or using house-hold furniture, or of having it brought to them even had they wished for it. No factor ever attempted to supply external wants and necessities as are embodied in the forms of house furniture generally. The floors, with the exception of a few recently made of wood, are all composed of beaten earth only, and there are no sanitary arrangements worth mentioning. Now that steam communication more frequent than it used to be, the want of furniture shows a tendency to be supplied. Thanks to the efforts of the present clergyman the houses are being put in better condition; he has caused them to be white washed upon the outside, and the wood-lining of the floors, and other improvements in his work. This gentleman seems determined to improve the social state of the St. Kildans in those regards in which it most needs improving; he has already effected [unclear: ac] much that he may be safely credited with the will and ability to accomplish a great deal more. Whether the islanders will be much benefited by being brought into closer contact with the outer world is, of course, a matter which time alone can decide. That they have been bettered by the care and energy expended upon them by their present pastor is beyond dispute. Still, it is not a trifling matter to dissipate unenlightened, happy, and ignorant contentment. By working for the community first and for themselves in a page 17 secondary degree the islanders have done very well in the past; whether, by striking just each for himself, they will do much better in the future is a point open to very grave doubt. For progress, as we understand it, competition may be absolutely and [unclear: sentially] necessary; but the dregs of our progress are a vast mass of hopeless, helpless misery, and as the islanders, or a few of [unclear: em], seem desirous of imitating ordinary industrial methods it is reasonable to expect that from such methods similar results will follow in St. Kilda as elsewhere.
Upon such a barren little rock as St. Kilda there is no room for a serious contest for the possession of the loaves and fishes; and, without going any farther into the matter, the opinion may be ventured that the loss of the island to its present inhabitants would be the most likely result of such a contest.
The free, natural communism which has for so long regulated their social existence does not prevent the St. Kildans from doing a little trading of an independent sort when they have the chance Now that steamers more frequently visit them they see a good deal more of Sassenach folk and Sassenach gold (perhaps silver would be a more correct word) than they used to. When such a vessel puts into the bay, and the all-devouring British tourist steps ashore, he is met with a kindly enough welcome from the natives, who always turn out for this purpose. He is also met by most of the married women, who bring with them selections of goods in the shape of stockings, dried puffins, eggs, &c., for disposal. If the tourist is a sensible being gifted with a little tact he has a pleasant hour or two with his out-of-the-way hosts; if instead of being sensible the tourist is stupid and tactless, he may spend a very unpleasant hour on St. Kilda indeed. An experience of this kind is what came to a shipload of excursionists who went to the island expecting to carry on some very high jinks with the islanders. The affair took place a few years since, and the root of the trouble was a misunderstanding about a marriage.
It seems that a handsome young woman, known as the Queen of St. Kilda, had promised her hand in marriage to a probably deserving but entirely commonplace islander, a widower, and the wedding might have gone off all right if the persons concerned had been left to themselves. With a strange mixture of perverted generosity and vulgar stupidity, a large number of people put their heads together and, for a time at least, spoilt this matrimonial intention. They meant well, it is true, yet their interference was of such a glaringly ill-advised kind that it is no wonder their scheme went to smash. It seems that the young lady's father was against the match; some would have it because she was of too much value at his own fireside to be parted with. As the father was ruling elder of St. Kilda and page 18 a man of strong character as well, the young couple were content to wait for his assent to their union. On the mainland, however, some of those who took an interest in the islanders, having heard of the difficulty, concluded to go to the rescue. Under the directions of a too-enterprising excursion agent, an expedition on a large scale was organised to swoop down upon the lone island. It is no more than charitable to believe that the whole thing was done in haste. Those who did go were not more foolish than many who remained at home, judging by the "gifts" sent in, designed by their senders for the Queen of St. Kilda and her proposed consort. When the steamer Clydesdale left the Clyde she had on board a clergyman, a lot of wedding rings, a number of amateur photographers, a crowd of misguided people, and about 7cwt of wedding presents. Good taste and judgment were represented by the presence of such articles as an American organ, a silver teapot, and a magnificent bridescake for the queen. For the lady also a bridal dress and veil were sent, and with them a wedding suit for her intended consort. All things reckoned necessary for a wedding feast on a great scale were there, and the fact that everything had to be carried away again, even to the huge pork pie, is very creditable to the islanders. The boxes were never opened, else the St. Kildans would have gazed upon many things upon which their eyes had never before rested. What may be designated the mercenary part of the intended gifts included such articles as boxes of pills, corn cures, hair restorers, cough syrups, ointments, magic cleansers, &c. For general distribution there were a couple of dozen microscopes, three dozen pairs of spectacles, feeding bottles, paint boxes, balls, and many other things of an equally ill-advised sort.
When the visitors were finally convinced that their mission was a failure, they retired somewhat sulkily, taking with the bridal finery the American organ, the pork pie, and the patent medicines. They did not want a Sassenach minister to come and marry them, one of the islanders said, and they had an equal objection to make sport for the Philistines in any form. The furniture, a quantity of which was included among the wedding gifts, was re-embarked with all the other things. No one uttered or seemed to feel a regret to see them go, except an islander named Macdonald, who expressed a covetous regret that "on account of so many fine presents it was a pity the wedding did not come off." I am ashamed of that Macdonald, and thankful that the excursionists were from over the Border. The party was organised in Sunderland.
In addition to being a valuable [unclear: grazing] place for their sheep, the St. Kildan[unclear: s] [unclear: ture] upon Boreray an enormous number of puffins. Every year a party of young [unclear: w] are landed there and left for about [unclear: three] weeks, during which time they do nothing but slay puffins and pluck the feathers from their bodies. The puffins are not by any means easily caught; they nest in holes borrowed in the turf, and when disturbed i[unclear: n] severe bites. Half-wild dogs are employed to drive them from the holes, most of the birds being caught in snares made o[unclear: f] hair carefully set for the purpose they remain on Boreray the girls live in [unclear: rule] stone houses of peculiar build. One of [unclear: th] (the others vary only in size, not form) is about 14ft long and 6ft wide inside; the doorway is 2½ft high, and those entering must do so on hands and knees. The hearth, is just inside the door, and above it the [unclear: roof] is about 6½ft high. The house is entirely composed of slabs and blocks of stone; round the hearth is a stone seat, and the [unclear: rst] of the floor is raised a foot higher, and is used as a bed. Here, with entire absence of comfort, the girls work hard as long as there are any puffins to catch. Towards the end of their term the girls' fingers become so sore from much plucking that they have to use their teeth with which to draw the pinion and tail feathers. Some of the cleverest girls will catch 500 or 600 puffins in a long day—a good record, surely. What I spare waking time they have they spend in reading their Gaelic Bibles—they know no English; but it is not to be wondered at that they often fall asleep at their work from sheer exhaustion.
The puffin is a fierce little bird in self-defence or in defence of its eggs or young. It has a deadly and cunning foe in the raven, which constantly invades its nesting place and devours both eggs and young birds. When the parent puffin arrives in time it once pounces furiously upon the raven. If the latter allows the strong-beaked puffin to fasten on its neck its doom is sealed—the puffin drops with its enemy right down into the sea, and holds it beneath the surface till it is drowned. Often enough it is the other way about, and the raven comes off the victor.
At Boreray, when the birds are there in greatest numbers, some curious sights are to be seen. The air is darkened by the myriads of seafowl, and the crews of boats approaching the island cannot escape having their clothes bespattered liberally with the excrement of the birds. The gannets, which nest there in great numbers, are much given to thieving, their methods of stealing reminding one very forcibly of the cunning displayed page 19 by rooks when similarly employed. When a [unclear: gannet] steals a quantity of grass from its neighbour's nest, it scuttles off with it in a direction away from its own nest, then, returning, tries to thus deceive its fellows into the belief that it got the stuff honestly. The birds are merciless to such delinquents when detected, and the offending gannet is [unclear: con] dropped lifeless into the sea. The banders on approaching any of the rocks [unclear: sed] to reckon it an omen of good luck for themselves when they were able to pick up a gannet which had lost its life in this way.
In regard to some of the birds the St. Kildans had to use much judgment in choosing the right moment to visit the various rocks, for if they delayed a day too long the young birds had taken wing and were beyond reach for the time. I can scarcely give space for extended reference to the various birds but some description of the chief of them all in importance—the gannet, or solan-goose—may not prove amiss. Martin describes it as equalling in size a common goose, but much larger of wing; extended, he says, the wings measured from tip to tip 72in; from the tip of the bill to the extremity of the foot 34in long; and to the end of the tail, 39in. Its bill is long, straight, of a dark colour, and a little crooked at the point; behind the eyes the skin of the side of the head is bare of feathers. The eyes are hazel-coloured. It has four toes, and the feet and legs are black as far as they are bare. The plumage is like that of the common goose; the old ones are white all over except the extreme tips of the wings, which are black, and the top of the bead, which is yellow—as some think, from the effects of age. The young birds are of a brown colour, turning white after they are a year old. The egg is somewhat smaller than a land goose, pointed at each end, and has a thick shell and a small yolk.
The islanders were, and still are, fond of drinking the contents of the eggs raw, having from experience, as Martin very pedantically puts it, "found it very pectorial and cephalic." The male and female birds take regular turns at hatching. When one returns from fishing, it carries five or six herrings in its gorget, all entire and undigested. Upon its arrival at the nest the hatching fowl puts its beak in the fisher's mouth and pulls out the fish as with a pincers, accompanying the process with a good deal of noise.
Previous to the arrival of the main army of solan geese the islanders declare that they send spies, who go touring about the island until they are satisfied that all is well, when they fly off, and in a few days the whole tribe is seen coming. They make an open nest with grass, and keep adding to it till the young fowl is ready to fly. They are said never to pluck grass except upon windy days, the reason possibly being that the surface of the sea is disturbed, thus preventing the birds from clearly perceiving their prey. Often, exhausted by the unusual labour of grass-pulling, they fall asleep, and are easily knocked on the head by the islanders.
The gannet feeds chiefly on herring and mackerel, diving from a great height perpendicularly on its prey. English fish-hooks used often to be found in the stomachs of both young and old solan-geese at a time when such hooks were not used within 20 leagues of St. Kilda. Either the fish broke page 20 away with the hooks and swam to St. Kilda, or the birds captured them, hooks and all, and carried them thither.
Of all the wild fowl of St. Kilda, the most remarkable was the great auk. It became extinct upwards of 70 years ago, the last one seen alive having been taken in the sea at St. Kilda in 1821. It used to be a common bird, but being entirely unable to fly, it fell an easy prey to man's cupidity and love of destruction. Its wings, though finely formed, were only 6in long, while the bird itself was about a yard in length. Its means of "scuttling" being so small, it is no wonder the bird is now numbered with the things that were. Its eggs are great rarities, highly prized by collectors. Sixty-one eggs are known to exist in collections. In 1888 an egg of the great auk was sold at auction in London for the sum of 160gs. The eggs of almost the whole of the species of seafowl are spotted or mottled; if white or of pure colour they would be conspicuous, and thus be easily seen by predatory birds and eaten. A visit to the local natural history museum will serve to show that this is so. The egg here roughly figured is that of the guillemot.
When, a number of years since, an act creating a close season for seafowl was passed in the British Parliament, St. Kilda had to be excepted from its operation. It is somewhat of a satire upon ourselves, with all our cumbrous precautions towards the preservation of law and order, that in 8t. Kilda there is neither policeman nor magistrate, yet there we have as law-abiding and orderly a set of folk as one will find anywhere in the British Empire. When such a thing is necessary to be done the islanders play the role of policemen themselves. Martin relates how "there was a cock-boat some years ago came from a ship for water, being favoured by a perfect calm. This was at the isle Soa. The men discovered a prodigious number of eggs upon the rocks, which tempted them to venture near the place, and very soon they had secured a great quantity; one of the seamen was industrious enough to put them into his breeches, which he took off for that purpose. Some of the St. Kildans, who happened to be in the isle that day, were spectators of the diversion, and were offended at it being done without their consent; they at once devised an expedient which at once robbed the seamen of their eggs and the breeches." The expedient consisted in dropping small boulders from above in class proximity to the heads of the marauders, who were so terrified that they quickly made off, leaving both breeches and eggs. The tarpaulin breeches were treasured as great curiosities, for at that time the islanders, still wore the belted plaid.
At the present time the St. Kildans wear clothes made from their own blue and grey, homespun cloth. In general appearance they closely resemble the fisher folk of the mainland coasts. When the art of weaving first became known to them I cannot tell; indeed, it is probably one of those matters impossible now to determine. From a sidelight thrown upon it by Martin, however, it is reasonable to infer that woven cloth began to be worn as clothing by the islanders less than 200 years ago. Martin states that sheepskins had been generally worn shortly before his visit, and that he saw several inhabitants who bad formerly used them. The belted plaid costume, which succeeded the sheepskins, was made up of a short doublet reaching to the waist; about that a double plait of plaid, both ends being joined together with the leg bone of a fulmar. This plaid reached to the knee only, and above the waist it was girt with a leather belt. I suppose the Highland dress of our time is a development of this old barbarous costume.
Until quite recently, a few of the islanders used woolly sheepskin caps, rudiments of their discarded sheepskin clothing. While engaged bird catching—and, indeed, at the most of times—the islanders prefer to go barefooted. They wear common heavy booti now, but up to quite recently they wore Highland brogans of curious and primitive make. The leather was made from the hides of the ponies they used to have on the island. To tan the skins they used bark from tree trunks found under the turf. There is not the vestige of a live tree or shrub on St. Kilda. The brogans were made inside out and turned afterwards; they were sewn with thongs of sheepskin and were straight, fitting either foot. Jackets are rarely worn by the men and boys of St. Kilda except on Sundays; but they greatly affect the comfortable garment described by its name, the sleeved waistcoat; very commonly, too, they go bareheaded as well as barefooted.
The wives and daughters of St. Kilda dress in gowns made of the same heavy, blue stuff that clothes their husbands and fathers. About their waists on high days they tie coloured sashes, and for head covering turkey-red handkerchiefs are in great demand, and are far more highly page 21 [unclear: ought] of than would be the latest Parisian [unclear: nnet]. Their heavy tweed dresses and plaids could hardly be other than somewhat [unclear: couth], and so those who have seen them describe them as appearing; but this by no [unclear: means] applies to the wearers themselves, who always have been noted for the vigorous [unclear: health] they possess, and also for their liberal [unclear: hare] of physical beauty, which is as noticeable now as it was when Martin favourably compared them with the great ladies of his own time. One of the most unlikely things in the way of a shoe used to be common on St. Kilda. It consisted of the head and neck of a solan-goose, which was cut so that the crown of the head did duty as a heel, while the skin of the neck was drawn tightly over the foot. This must have been a droll substitute for a shoe, and yet it is not long since this curious foot-gear ceased to be worn. The women alone used such shoes. A pair of such shoes would do duty for three or four days only. Long since, the islanders sewed with strips of feather instead of thread. Both men and women formerly used certain small bones of the fulmar petrel with which to fasten their clothes. Some of the women still use pins made from large fishhooks with which to fasten their gowns at the neck; to fasten their plaids some of them use brooches made from those old copper pennies which may still occasionally be met with. Upon their heads the elder women wear snowy-white caps, and about their necks kerchiefs to match. Minor articles of clothing—such as stockings—they make entirely from the wool of their own sheep. They card, spin, and knit more of such things than they need, so that when strangers visit them they have surplus stock to sell. The islanders' environment is still somewhat primitive, but, in some degree at least, civilisation has come to them lately in the form of pins, needles, thread, and buttons.
The thread for their cloth, &c., is all spun by the women, and the cloth is woven by the men, who work early and late during the winter at the primitive looms. It is a strange circumstance that the reeds of their looms are made from sub-tropical or tropical canes which drift from America to St. Kilda with the Gulf Stream. Some of the canes are large. Mr Sands saw several taken from the sea, one being several inches in diameter.
Until quite recently such boats as the St. Kildans owned could hardly be described as seaworthy. They were used for visiting Boreray and the lesser rocks during the bird- page 22 catching seasons; but for a 50-mile voyage, say to Harris or Uist, they were quite unfit. As there are no harbours at any of their rocky hunting grounds, there is great danger in approaching them; but to this I have already alluded. It is usually necessary to jump into the sea at some favourable spot and scramble ashore anyhow. Two men are left in the boat to see to its safety. The lower parts of the cliffs are searched from below, the men climbing far up among the jagged projections, and returning laden with slaughtered geese or fulmars, whichever is being pursued. The old fulmar petrels are caught in summer as they sit upon their eggs, a noose attached to the end of a rod being slipped over their heads. In August the young fulmars are easily caught, being still unable to fly. They do not like to be caught, however, and resist by spitting their evil-smelling oil in the men's faces.
Getting at the fulmars from above is really a terrible occupation. The men work in pairs. One with a rope fastened about his body slips over the edge of the precipice, and, clinging with hands and (shoeless) feet, works his way down, down, till he is lost to sight, busy all the while collecting his unwilling victims. The other man remains above attending to the rope, and ready to haul up if called upon. They use good hempen ropes now, but a few years since they were still using their old ropes, some of hemp, but others of horsehair, and still others of straw. In use the rope is often attached to a strong iron peg driven into the brow of the cliff, but this is not always the case. Sometimes it is merely held by one or more of the islanders on the brink, who shift their position according to the directions shouted up from below. Even though the cliffs be slippery and wet, the islanders move about upon the extreme edge with the most amazing unconcern. Without a thought of any danger they advance to the utmost verge of their enormous precipices and hold lively converse with those of their number who are busy below. The danger of their trade is very apparent to strangers looking on, but they themselves are oblivious to them.
As they work, now and then large stones become loosened and bound with terrific violence from rock to rock till they reach the sea. As before-mentioned, resultant bumps are numerous, yet serious casualties are few. Their skulls, I daresay, get accustomed to that sort of thing.
After working along the face of the cliffs for a sufficient time, the men often free themselves from their ropes and climb by steep and perilous paths to the summit. At certain spots among the cliffs there are grassy slopes, to the bottoms of which the men bring the birds. From thence the young women carry them to the top. Some of the girls carry 200lb weight up these almost perpendicular paths. They bring cheese and oaten cakes to eat, and in little tubs with bottoms of raw sheepskin they carry ewe milk to drink. Upon this humble fare they subsist while performing such tasks as would quickly prostrate almost any ordinary man. So healthy and physically well developed are they that they consider such burdens to be nothing out of the common. After bringing such a load they merely pause for a few minutes to recover their page 23 [unclear: reathing]; then start off again with as [unclear: little] concern as though their message was [unclear: ut] to fetch a loaf of bread.
The islanders are as slow to adopt new [unclear: eases] as to adopt new ideas. Their mode of living entails plenty of hard exercise, but leaves very little time or inclination for [unclear: ssipation], even of the mildest kind. It may well be thought that rough, coarse food, [unclear: mosure] to cold and wet, and the insanitary houses in which they till recently lived, would all tend to foster disease. Yet, [unclear: pite] these and various other possible [unclear: causes], the adult population of St. Kilda is [unclear: gularly] free from congenital or other [unclear: disesses]. They have some queer remedies of their own—home-made ones, so to speak, perhaps their freedom from disease results in great degree from the terribly drastic [unclear: eeding]-out process which exterminates so [unclear: many] of the infants soon after birth. Very [unclear: law] of the children born on the island [unclear: survive] more than a few days. In great cities it is common, as we know, for two children [unclear: ut] of every three to die before reaching the [unclear: age] of five years. It is sad to think that of those who so early die the greater number have only lived a few years of misery. In [unclear: it] Kilda, if statistics of infant [unclear: morality] were collected, a much higher death [unclear: rate] than that of any large city would be [unclear: fund] to prevail.
The disease that carries off the St. Kildan [unclear: bies] is called "nine-day fits," and doctors [unclear: differ] greatly as to the cause of it. Some [unclear: y] that it arises from the mothers living on seafowl; others that it is due to weakening of the blood from long-continued [unclear: intermar-age]; others that the infants are smothered with peat smoke; while some aver that improper feeding is the true cause. Whatever the cause of it, the fact remains that only a few of the children grow up to be men and women. Soon after birth they are seized with convulsions and lockjaw, and death quickly follows. It must be a sad thing for the mothers of St. Kilda to know that their children have many more chances to die than to live. The mother's heart is the same everywhere, and the terrible pathos of the struggle of life against death is not less at St. Kilda than elsewhere. Earnest [unclear: endeavours] to a vert the fate that ever threatens native-born children are not wanting. It is [unclear: not] unusual for married women to make [unclear: eg] and perilous voyages, mostly in open [unclear: oats], to Uist or Harris, so that their children may be born away from St. Kilda. The [unclear: actual] distance may not be very great—50 or 60 miles perhaps—but the difficulties are [unclear: immense], and the dangers very real and great. The voyager may have to remain away for 10 or 12 months without receiving or being able to send either message or letter during the whole time. The chance of a passage back must be patiently awaited, and while the St. Kildan is waiting for the opportunity to return to her home—50 miles away—another traveller may leave London, reach Australia or New Zealand, spend a few months there, and, returning at leisure, find the poor St. Kildan still waiting. There is surely something of the truly heroic in the maternal devotion of the island mother.
Those who survive childhood enjoy a wonderful immunity from sickness, and, apart from accidents, usually live to old age. Both sexes look strong and healthy, have bright eyes, teeth like new ivory, are tough and hardy, capable of long-continued exertion, and among them, while weather-beaten faces are common, care-worn faces are few. Considering their general freedom from disease, it is singular that an epidemic all their own has periodically raged in St. Kilda during hundreds of years. This "trouble," as the islanders call it, takes the form of a very severe cold, affecting the head and throat chiefly—it being, in fact, influenza of an aggravated type. It attacks young and old alike—from the nurseling in the cradle to the patriarch in the ingle. Martin, who visited St. Kilda at the end of the seventeenth century, described how "they contract a cough as often as any strangers land and stay for any time among them, and it continues for eight or ten days." Since Martin's time many visitors have made mention of the "stranger's cold," as it has come to be called. In 1860 a Government vessel, the Porcupine, called at St. Kilda, with the usual curious result that a few days afterwards the entire population, young and old, were prostrated by a severe attack of "the trouble." In 1877 an Austrian ship was cast away near St. Kilda, and the captain and crew for some time shared the hospitality of the islanders. No one had been ill on the island page 24 for six months before this event, yet in a few days they were all down with the "stranger's cold." No matter where the vessel comes from—the Clyde, London, the Orkneys, Skye—the "stranger's cold" invariably results. The St. Kildans themselves say that if the vessel is from Harris or Uist, the attack is more severe than if caused by a ship from distant parts. This, however, may be an exaggeration, as the St. Kildans greatly affect to look down upon the folk from the big islands. Harris they usually describe as being a poor place—dirty, shabby, and the people greedy, and so on. Mothers in Harris threaten to send their children, when naughty, to St. Kilda. The Harris folk call the St. Kildans "gougan"—a Gaelic name for young solan-geese.
Dr Samuel Johnson, when he and Bos well voyaged among the Hebrides, attempted to thrown ridicule upon the "stranger's cold" as being a mere imaginary figment. Many explanations have been offered, but few of them are of any value, and some are quite foolish. Some think that the wind which blows the vessel also blows the disease to the island; but the mischief is as great from a steamboat as from a sailing vessel. Others find a sufficient reason in the exposure to which the inlanders subject themselves when they ran into the water to greet new arrivals and help them ashore. If the St. Kildans were mashers of the knob-sucking type this might do; but it is sadly foolish when said of those whose lives are a series of exposures to all sorts of weather. Long since, when chance visitors were very rare, and the "factor's smack" was the only vessel calling frequently at St. Kilda, when the "factor" brought them their usual supplies he invariably brought the influenza with the other things.
A medical man, Dr Parsons, who lately took up the subject, maintains that the strangers bring the trouble with them in the shape of disease germs to which they themselves are inured, but which are new to the dwellers in out-of-the-way islands. This view I am inclined to adopt myself. I think we are at any rate justified in believing that disease germs do pass hither and thither, and that fatal epidemics often are caused by their growth and development. Whatever the cause of it, the "stranger's cold" at St. Kilda, though milder, is quite as tangible and real as the recent scourge of influenza from which the whole world suffered so terribly.
Until recently the St. Kildans used no salt either in the cooking or preservation of their provisions. All over the island are little stone houses called claets, pyramidal in form, and built entirely of slabs of stone. In these the provisions are stored for winter use. The island is dotted all over with these odd buildings. They are used for the safe keeping of hay as well as of food. They [unclear: salt] large numbers of seafowl nowadays, as well as some mutton; formerly they merely [unclear: slit] the birds down the back, cleaned them, and dried them in the sun previous to sowing them away. Martin describes how they preserved the eggs in claets by scattering the burnt ashes of turf under and about them, this simple process, so long as moisture was kept away, being sufficient to keep them fresh for seven or eight months.
One of the strangest articles of food ever evolved on St. Kilda has been known for centuries as "giben." Giben was a pudding like mass of fowl fat stuffed into the stomach of the solan-goose, sometimes having added to it other substances, sometimes not. It was eaten primarily as a relish, or much as we eat butter, but its virtues did not end at that. It was accounted a sovereign remedy for many ailments—a sort of cure all to be always kept at hand. Cases of cancer, fistula, green wounds, &c., according to the islanders, were formerly cured by the use of giben. To sick and weakly persons the giben was given in "brochan," a variety of thick oatmeal gruel. It was also reckoned to be the best remedy for the "Stranger's cold." The St. Kildans have less faith in this greasy nostrum now, and since salt has become a regular article of use, diseases such as scurvy, due to its absence, have long ceased to be known on the island.
There are a few herbs, some of them of a useful kind for curative purposes, that have long been known on St. Kilda. The common dock, millefoil, scurvy-grass, silver-weed, plaintain, sage, sorrel, chickweed, all-hall, sea-pink, and tormentil are about all. The lichen growing on the rocks was credited with a "drying and healing" property, and the roots of tormentil were used for tanning leather. They used to make a kind of ale from nettle roots, the juice of which they "put in a dish with a little barley-meal dough; these sowens—i.e., flummery—being blended together produce yeast, which puts their wort into a ferment and makes good ale, which, when drunk plentifully of, generally disposes them to dance merrily." Of several of the herbs mentioned above the St. Kildans had no knowledge of the medical value supposed to belong to them. Among the Hebrideans generally, however, these herbs were held in great repute for the cure of various diseases. There were no doctors, which, according to Lord Molesworth, was "the very reason why they enjoy such good health." When any page 25 [unclear: e] was ill among them some one or another of a very singular and primitive set of remedies was resorted to to effect a cure. To cure pleurisy, for instance, they laid the patient on a warm hearth, with the affected [unclear: de] downwards, and they thought this an [unclear: fallible] method of getting rid of the [unclear: sease]. Of course the hearth was warm, the fires being, in every instance, made on the ground; there were no ranges, grates, or [unclear: stoves] on the islands. To cure jaundice, the patient, with his back uncovered, was made a lie face downward on the ground; then, when he least expected anything of the sort, [unclear: a] pail of cold water was thrown on his [unclear: ack], the shock thus given driving the diseases away. A variation upon the above consisted in "suddenly touching the [unclear: eventh] vertebra of the patient with a [unclear: red-] iron, which makes him furiously run out of doors, still supposing the hot iron is on his [unclear: ack], till the pain be abated, which happens [unclear: very] speedily, and the patient recovers soon after," Certain stones, the touch of which was supposed to remove diseases, were also [unclear: in] general use; fanning the face of the [unclear: valid] with the leaves of a Bible was another [unclear: are] applicable, I dare say, to any kind of [unclear: ness]. In the one case the evil of the disease passed from the sufferer to the stone; [unclear: in] the other the virtue of the sacred writing passed out of the book into the invalid. In [unclear: xth] these cases there may be recognised ideas which re-occur in many widely-[unclear: parated] parts of the world.
If, as has lately been suggested, St. Kilda should be bought and turned into a [unclear: sani-ium] or convalescent retreat, cures of a different and better sort will be seen upon it. For such a purpose the island could [unclear: arcely] be excelled by any available spot within sufficiently easy reach of the [unclear: main-nd]. With almost 50 miles of ocean between it and the coasts of the outer Hebrides, the natural of St. Kilda could hardly be other than pure. Upon the island, too, there are many springs of pure water; some of these [unclear: ue] from the rocks, some from the peat [unclear: ss] at the top of the island. Of one of the [unclear: tter] it is said that its waters wash clothes as well without soap as other water does with it. The springs used for drinking from are said to yield water unrivalled for quality any where in the Hebrides.
Even on remote St. Kilda strange old [unclear: customs] have slowly given way to modern common place ones. The present minister of the island has done a good deal to [unclear: liven] the year's routine by the inauguration of such little episodes as soirees, lectures, and so on. At the New Year season [unclear: he] treats the whole population, young and [unclear: aid,] in relays, to seasonable entertainments in the manse. There are Christmas trees, with toys for every one of the youngsters, and a magic lantern by means of which all are amused and instructed. The chief social episode of the year follows upon the successful getting in of the harvest. Then each family has its love feast, shared in by all the nearest of kin. The tables are covered with the best of everything produced on the island. While the good things are being disposed of the elders of the party recite legends of the past, and tell of the great deeds of bravery and skill done by their ancestors in bygone times. Thus the unwritten traditional history of the island is handed down from sire to son, slightly blended, no doubt, with additions emanating from the inventive Celtic brains of each generation of islanders.
From among the many strange secular customs now or lately followed by the islanders it is here only possible to pick a few. One of the most curious customs formerly in vogue at St. Kilda was imposed upon every bachelor who aspired to become a Benedict. Somewhat south from the village, in the face of the cliffs, is a remarkable rock known as the "Mistress Stone." It is a perpendicular rock about 140ft high, and so smooth in appearance from the sea that it has been likened to a door. Upon the lintel of this door every bachelor wooer was, by ancient usage, obliged in honour to give a specimen of his prowess, and so prove himself worthy of the love of his mistress; and this is how he did it.
He had to stand on his left foot, having the one half of his sole over the rock, and then to draw the right foot further out to the left, and in this posture, bowing, he put both his fists further out to the right foot. If he didn't succeed in doing this strange feat he was very likely to fall down and break his neck. If he did succeed he had acquired a reputation of the most desirable kind and was ever after accounted worthy of the best wife in the world.
This may seem a rash, useless, and absurd custom, but a moment's reflection will suffice to show that it was not altogether so. A man by performing this dangerous gymnastic feat proved himself capable of skilful rock-climbing. As he could, therefore, be sure of obtaining enough birds for the support of a household, he might be allowed to marry and become the father of a family. Besides, I believe it is the case that a rope was attached to the waist of the aspirant, so that he could only appear foolish if he failed.
Throughout the Western Isles and the Highlands the laird used to have a pretty busy finger in the social pie. But in St. page 26 Kilda the laird was very rarely seen, and many generations of the islanders have lived and passed away without ever having set eyes upon "The MacLeod."
At the present time the chief occupies merely the position of a landlord; formerly it was quite different, and the chief was less lord of the soil than head and lawgiver of the great, many-branched family that found a living on it. He had certain rights over the soil, it is true, for he claimed a portion of the produce, but in many of the smaller islands this claim was never strictly enforced. "The bond which united him to his people rested mainly on a kindly interchange of many good offices. This was regulated by customs, all of which recognised the difficulty of life in those places, and the fact that in times of special need existence could only be preserved in the islands by the help of the chief. If, for instance, a plague killed off the cattle, then the chief re-stocked the island. If old age or infirmity rendered any of the islanders incapable of self-support, the chief was bound to receive these into his family. But if the chief himself became too poor to live in fitting style, his needs were relieved by the islanders, who, as a matter of course, subscribed for this purpose, each according to his means."
If twins were born to any of the islanders, one was always taken into the household of the chief. The rearing of two children at one time would have been too great a strain on the resources of a Hebridean household. An instance is mentioned in a chronicle of the sixteenth century of a chief who had, at one time, 16 such retainers. So far the customary disposal of twins benefited the tenant; but, on the other band, if two lambs or two calves were born at a birth, one was strictly the property of the chief.
There are many other things that I have omitted all notice of, having found it quite impossible to give a full account of the customs of the place in such a paper as this. Formerly, on some of the smaller populated islands, they used to have a visit from a tailor once a year, and perhaps from a blacksmith two or three times. But St. Kilda lay too remote for such visits, and never enjoyed the benefit of any such.
Even among those who have lived there there is no agreement come to regarding the significance of customs which were until recently commonly observed in the Hebrid Isles. There can, however, be very little doubt that the ancient religion of all these islands really was a phase of Druidism. It has been contended, not without reason, that the Druids found in these remote islands and in the north of Ireland their last stronghold. It is undeniable that in the folklore of these islands we find such a mass of [unclear: heathen] customs, all so evidently belonging to each other, that we are impelled to the belief of their being the wreckage, so to speak, of a faith declined and dead ages since. [unclear: Off-course], we know in a way the story o[unclear: f] Catholic Christianity was introduced to the Western Isles, but the extreme remoteness of St. Kilda accounts for the fact that priests from Iona took a long time to reach it. When they did reach it, their influenced slightly leavened the primitive heathenism of the people. In St. Kilda and some of the other isles Druidism held its place into the eighteenth century. The last priest of [unclear: Baa] was dead and gone long before then, but the strange and superstitions customs [unclear: traceable] to heathen teaching and authority still remained. To this day the empty [unclear: mimicry] of certain of these customs attests how deeply rooted they had become. On Mid summer Day it was, and probably still is, the custom for boys, especially in the far north of Scotland, to raise bonfires and make [unclear: p-tence] of passing through the fire to Moloch. I have helped to make such fires myself, and jumped over them, too, little dreaming of the time when the victims were forced into the fire and consumed in its flames. Where is the land that has not known sun-worship! Where the land that does not show traces, greater or less, of its rites? Thousands of years ago in Eastern lands men worshipped the great luminary of day. In the East many do so still. The earlier races who occupied our own British isles were undoubtedl[unclear: y] and fire worshippers, whose ritual included the sacrifice by burning of victims both bestial and human. Call them Druids, or what you will, the chief thing about them [unclear: in] what they taught, what they did, and it is evident from what is known that for ages their hold on the people was complete and unshaken. They cunningly contrived to make it impossible for anyone to be independent of them. Fire, the marvellous and indispensable servant of man, was the exclusive monopoly of the priesthood. No one save the priest durst give—no one durst take from any but the priest—a burning brand to kindle the domestic fire, or indeed for any per. pose. Without the sanction of the priest pots could not boil, nor birds be roasted. It was taught also that fire lost its sacredness after a time, and needed to be renewed. Throughout the north of Ireland, the Highlands of Scotland, and the Hebrides, every fire, for whatever purpose used, was extinguished on a certain day annually, after the harvest had been got in. Then a strange ceremony was gone through. Few things, I believe, are easier done than producing fire page 27 [unclear: y] robbing two sticks together. But easy [unclear: ways] become common, and common thing[unclear: s] to be despised. So to prevent that [unclear: liarity] which the proverb says begets [unclear: tempt], these heathen priests devised an [unclear: inous] and difficult method of producing [unclear: cred] flame. When every fire had been [unclear: tinguished], 81 married men were selecte[unclear: d] aid in making what was known as "force[unclear: d]" Two great planks were used, and nine [unclear: n] at a time vigorously rubbed one plank [unclear: on] the other until fire was produced. The [unclear: w] fire was looked upon as most sacred, and [unclear: accounted] of the greatest virtue in curing [unclear: ague] in man or murrain in cattle.
If the priest had received all his dues, [unclear: on] each family was supplied with a burning [unclear: and], and soon all the fires would blaze [unclear: again], not to be allowed to die out till next "forced fire" day. That was the method common to the Western Isles. It could not have been carried out to the letter in St. Kilda, for there never was such a number of [unclear: rried] men in it at any time. But the [unclear: general] procedure was probably the same. If plague or murrain were about, pots of [unclear: water] were first put upon the new fires and their contents sprinkled upon the human beings or beasts affected. Let us hope they did not make it boiling hot. In Hanover [unclear: aring] the present century this superstition has been resuscitated as an alleged remedy for plague.
The annually produced "forced fire" was [unclear: ust] used for sacrificial purposes. The fires of [unclear: sacrifice] were kindled by the priests themselves, and by a different procedure to that which I have just described. These [unclear: sacrificial] fires blazed on various holy days [unclear: throughout] the year. The 1st of May, when the corn and other crops were beginning to grow; Mid summer Day, when the crops were [unclear: ripening;] and the 1st of November—Feast of the Moon—by which time the harvest had been gathered in, probably marked the three great seasons of the Druid year.
On May Day, still called by the heathen [unclear: same] Beltam, meaning the "Fire or Feast of Bel," great twin fires were kindled, and victims meant for sacrifice later were made [unclear: o] pass between these fires. These preliminary toastings were meant, I believe, for purification—to render the victim fit for killing on the altar. When we speak of a [unclear: man] being "between two fires," we utter a saying born of this terrible old custom.
On Midsummer Day the islanders, holding faming brands in their right hands, marched in procession three times round their crops, their cattle, and their homes. This triple [unclear: tour], with or without fire, was used in connection with almost every act of their daily [unclear: life]. "In the early ages the Druid priests might often be seen heading a long procession of worshippers winding three times round the altar, the direction being always from east to west, following the sun's course." Many centuries later, when a boat put to sea it began its voyage by making these three turns; if a welcome stranger visited one of the islands the inhabitants passed three times round their guest, saluting and blessing him as they went; a flaming brand was carried three times round a woman after child-bearing; three times round the child daily until it was christened, and on many other occasions besides. This superstition is by no means extinct—if I mistake not it even lives, in changed form, to-day in Dunedin.
There were other superstitions in plenty, some of them probably of Scandinavian origin. The gathering of kelp used to be a common industry in the Western Isles. The sea-ware thrown up by the winter storms was dragged ashore, dried, and burnt, the resultant ash, containing soda, being used as a fertiliser for the cultivated land. At the beginning of winter the islanders went in a body to the seashore and performed certain rites with the intention of securing a good [unclear: kolp] harvest. "One of their number waded into the sea holding aloft a cup of ale, and calling 'Shony, Shony, I give you this cup of ale hoping you will be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware.'" After this he poured the ale into the sea and returned to land. Then all went to the church (they had adopted the semblance of Romanism at least), where there was a candle burning on the altar. All stood silent for a while, until at a given signal the candle was extinguished. This done, the people moved back into the open air, where they spent the rest of the night drinking their ale and making merry.
It is doubtful whether this sea deity, called Shony, was a belonging of Norse or Irish paganism. The islanders themselves didn't know, and neither do I. They believed in magical stones, magical plants, magical processes; in the evil eye, in second sight, in fairies, taiscks, and brownies, and whole hosts of wonders that are only empty words to us.
Martin mentions that during his visit he observed traces of a confused, indefinite belief in a sort of spiritualism or Nature worship. Some of the islanders were of the opinion that spirits became embodied, and took up their quarters in rocks, hills, or wherever else they listed. At that time they placed the faces of their dead towards the east when they buried them, and bewailed their relations excessively. Upon these occasions they made doleful songs, page 28 which they called laments. Last century, upon hearing of the death of MacLeod, they abandoned their houses and mourned during two days in the open air. Previous to an interment they used to kill a cow or a sheep, unless it was in the spring, when the ceremony was, on account of the cattle being poor and lean, deferred till they became fat.
They seem to have been when Martin visited them in a state of transition from Roman Catholicism to Presbyterianism. There were three chapels on the island, all oriented, and one of them—which, by the way, was thatched—contained an altar and brazen crucifix, and the latter, Martin says, they held in great reverence. It was only used upon great occasions, such as marriages, the swearing of decisions and oaths, and other public ceremonies. Those entering the bonds of matrimony placed each a hand upon the crucifix while they made their vows, and this ceremonial was reckoned very binding. It may, however, be said that among such an earnest, sincere, and simple-minded people promises deliberately made would be faithfully carried out without the aid of such adventitious accessories. It may be noted in passing that St. Kildan marriage rings used to be made of worsted. For a long time back the islanders have professed Presbyterianism, and are ultra-orthodox and extreme in their views, and this to an extent which may be described as more characteristic of the earlier rather than the later years of the present century.
I have told about some of the things that St. Kilda has, and need hardly allude to the many things that are unknown there. St. Kilda has no harbours, railways, submarine cables, electric telegraphs, or postal services; letters may, and often do, take months to reach it. I know of one instance in which a letter took 10 months to reach St. Kilda from Harris, 50 miles away, and this instance is by no means a solitary one. Let those who growl at the New Zealand mail services think of that. The St. Kildans have no shops in which to buy things they mainly don't want and are much better without. Until quite lately coined money was unknown as a representative of wealth on the island. A few coins might have been found in their possession, but they were valued as curiosities only. There are neither pawnbrokers nor publicans, nor city councillors nor mayors in St. Kilda. They have no newspapers, no police force, no police courts with unending lists of hopeless drunks or other varieties of persistent evildoers; there are no streets, and outside the houses they have no lamps or lanterns. If a stranger visits them and has occasion to pass from one house to another on a dark night they give him a burning peat stuck on the end of a stick to light him on his way.
Without further cataloguing, I ma[unclear: y] that the island has very few—beyon[unclear: d] church and a school—of the great [unclear: public] privileges or services usually thought o[unclear: f] inseparable from civilisation. But if [unclear: t] St. Kildans are worse off than their neighbours, I have not been able to make it ou[unclear: t] being due to the absence of these [unclear: great] public privileges. They are poor, it is true, and the nature of their surroundings [unclear: makes] it unlikely that they can ever become [unclear: rick]. Yet, isolated and cramped as they are, they are not so poor as thousands of the workers in the great hives of industry. [unclear: Famine] may, and does occasionally, threaten then, but does not stalk forever in this lone [unclear: little] isle as it does in our great, busy Manchester and Glasgows and Londons. Misfortune may overtake them, but not more likely they than others. They may be robbed as others may be, but are not fleeced of the products of their industry in the systematic way approved in our industrial communities Yet life is essentially hard in St. Kilda. There are no soft-lived sinners on it. [unclear: Tell] must be unremitting to ward off want Circumstanced as they are, it is wonderful that they so well manage to keep body and soul together. They can hardly be looked to to produce any Burnses, or Byrons, or Scotts; the racial energies of the little group are too directly bent on getting both ends to meet to bother about the problems which harass the outer world.
It is hardly necessary to draw attention further to the disabilities of the St. Kildans. That their surroundings are hard and unsympathetic can scarcely be reckoned an evil in itself. We do not usually find progressive peoples inhabiting favoured climes, nor does true progress spring from easy conditions of life. That is a fruit of the bard struggle with Nature when Nature wears an endless frown on her face. Life in St. Kilda has always been such a struggle, and as an outcome of it we may well look for some show of progress—some advance made and secured. Yet those who know the St. Kildans may easily assert of them that they are not a progressive community; that in many ways their lives are barbarous and rude; that they are most conservative of many things which need radical alteration; that they too often shut their eyes and put their fingers in their ears; and so on for a few pages if might be. The St. Kildan—if he had read Thoreau—would very likely retort that he "stepped to the music which he heard," and refuse to have any discussion on the subject. He would still go on page 29 [unclear: king] the wool from his sheep Instead of [unclear: ppig] it, and doing a lot of other things [unclear: if] a most reprehensible kind. He loves t[unclear: o] as his fathers did not because he reasons [unclear: at] his ancestors did well, but simply [unclear: be-se] he does not reason at all. It is quite [unclear: inly] true that these poor islanders are as each under the influence of their environment as is any race anywhere. Their live[unclear: s] moulded and coloured by their surroundings just as are the lives of their fellow [unclear: eatures] in every part of the world. The St. Kildans for hundreds of years have been [unclear: ling], from the cradle to the grave, in a [unclear: ttle] eddy far out of the main current of the [unclear: stream] of life, which has rushed on almost [unclear: t] of their hearing, and quite out of their [unclear: ight], To be so shut out from a share in the general life of the world is to be deprived of the kind of friction that makes intelligence and keeps it bright.
To me the St. Kildans seem to be the [unclear: em-diment] of a contradiction. They enjoy [unclear: s] which, for material well-being, will [unclear: compare] with the general run anywhere. S[unclear: o] that is well for the islanders, but man cannot live by bread alone. The possibility of intelligent growth being wanting, what [unclear: e] there is matters nothing. Now I greatly [unclear: ar] that the St. Kildans, though they are [unclear: od] and well-behaved folk, are really [unclear: becoming] less intelligent as time rolls by. It is not a question of merely getting an existence. Viewed only from an economical [unclear: andpoint], it is easy to believe that the [unclear: island] may long continue to support a fair population. The birds will still congregate there when every islander now alive is dead [unclear: and] gone. But there is another important [unclear: factor] in the arrested development of St. Kilda that must not be overlooked. This is [unclear: the] constant occurrence of intermarriage. I have mentioned that there are only six or pen family names in the island. In [unclear: vary-ng] degree all are inter-related, and isolated as they are, intermarriage is inevitable. Though [unclear: e] white teeth, bright eyes, and sturdy, alert [unclear: becomes] of the islanders form proof positive that they are not without some share of [unclear: Nature's] favour, yet we must take note [unclear: that] the population is actually dwindling. It is now about 130 years since the fits which [unclear: carry] off the babies became noticeable. The [unclear: il] has greatly increased since then. [unclear: By-nd] bye the surviving fragment of population say become too small to make life a success [unclear: on] the island. Successful economics are [unclear: ly] possible to an increasing population. [unclear: The] more folk the more use they are, or [unclear: ght] to be, to each other. The whole [unclear: subject] of intermarriage and its results is, however, a matter for specialists to decide upon. I certainly think we may set it down as being a bar to intelligent progress. Indeed, if we were to trace the history of the St. Kildans we would probably find that they have lost racial energy rather than increased it. Centuries back the island contained 200 inhabitants, now only about 80 find a living upon it. In these early days they had three ropes only, and one boat. They settled by lot who would go and use them, but the birds caught were divided equally among all. At present they have better boats and ropes, and many advantages that their forefathers never knew. Yet the island does not now support one-half as many as it formerly did.
Viewed thus, from a biological standpoint, we may safely prophesy that before long St. Kilda will be once again an uninhabited rock. Mother Nature, who knows all things, both good and evil, has decreed that the race whose borders are too well kept must die. She will not tolerate these close alliances. She favours those races which go forth boldly and freely to compete and intermingle with their world neighbours, and who at home make the industrious, learned, and intelligent equally welcome wherever they come from. The poor St. Kildans are hospitable and kindly, but their little isle offers no inducement to immigrants. Those who go go for curiosity's sake only. The likelihood is that at no distant date the population will have so decreased that the survivors will of necessity have to emigrate. It has, indeed, already been suggested that they should do so. A few short years and the native-born St. Kildan may be as extinct as the dodo, and the island itself given over entirely to puffins, cormorants, and solan-geese. The fulmar will, mayhap, yet lay its eggs on the hearthstones of those who now live by its slaughter. The few ruined cottages and the curious claetan—these and scattered patches of degenerate cereals mixed with weeds will mark for long the village site of St. Kilda. The antiquary of the future will sometimes venture to cross the sea, and dig and poke about the spot which served many generations of St. Kildans for a home. There he will unearth curious-shaped, rusty bits of iron, half or wholly rotten fragments of rope, bits of primitive looms, broken pots of iron and clay, and fragments of basket work; and upon these treasures he will deliver learned discourse anent the strange and barbarous ways of life of the one-time inhabitants of St. Kilda.
Printed at the Otago Daily Times Office, High Street, Dunedin.