< Previous
The Victorium Omnium-Gatherum
Next >

LIFE IN ST KILDA.

FIRST PAPER.

For the following interesting account of the island of St Kilda, we are indebted to Mr J. Sands, a gentleman who has more than once visited the rock, and who upon one occasion was detained there for several months by stress of weather. As will be seen by his narrative first portion of which we now offer to our readers—he utilised his opportunities for observing not only the manners and customs of the natives, but many curious facts connected with the natural history and even the archaeology of the islet. With these few words of preface, we leave Mr Sands to tell his story.

Far out in the Atlantic—forty-nine miles west from Obe in the Sound of Harris, and forty-three from Shillay in the Outer Hebrides—there is a group of islands, evidently of volcanic origin, the largest of which, called Hirta by the inhabitants, and St Kilda by strangers, contains a small community who speak Gaelic only, and have all Highland names. This island, which is about three miles long by two broad, is bounded on the north-east and south-west by enormous precipices that rise like walls out of the sea. These cliffs are frequented by vast numbers of sea-fowl; by puffins, cormorants, guillemots, auks, and other birds. A species of gull called the fulmar also abounds, and is of great value to the inhabitants, who salt the flesh for food in winter and sell the oil and feathers. St Kilda is the only island in Great Britain where that bird breeds. About three miles to the northeast of St Kilda is an island called Boreray, which is the great resort of solan-geese, which also frequent the stacks or isolated rocks adjacent.

The population of St Kilda numbers at present seventy-five souls. It was considerably larger some two centuries ago. Where the community originally came from no one knows. Their early history is lost in darkness; but it can be traced back to the fourteenth century. In 1697 Martin visited the island, and wrote a quaint but faithful account of it. At present there is no regular communication between St Kilda and any other place except by a boat called 'the smack,' which is sent out by the proprietor (MacLeod of MacLeod) twice a year—namely in summer and autumn, to collect the rents, to carry away the produce, and to furnish supplies. Some bold yachtsman generally pays the island a hurried visit about the end of summer; but as the anchorage is dangerous, he seldom or never remains more than two or three hours. Some of the natives have been as far as Lewis, Harris, and Uist, and surprise the others with tales of the wonders they have seen in those distant places; a man with a wooden leg having apparently created the greatest interest. But the majority have never been farther than Boreray. No people can be more isolated or less indebted to their neighbours for example or instruction in the ways of civilised life. Notwithstanding this, it will be difficult to find a better-behaved community—one more pious, sober, industrious, polite, and hospitable.

I had always a great desire to see this Ultima Thule, and in 1875 the proprietor's factor agreed to give me a passage in his smack to the island. On the 3rd of June I landed, and at my own desire was left behind when the smack sailed from the bay on the 6th. I remained on St Kilda about seven weeks, and passed the time in rambling about the island, trying to learn Gaelic; making excursions to the other islands in the boats along with the natives, and in visiting them in their homes. I lived in a house by myself and cooked my own food. I had a set of bagpipes with me and a flute, and when threatened with melancholy cheered myself with a tune on these instruments. I bought some biscuits, oatmeal, &c., and a sheep or two, and the women kept me supplied gratis with turf for my fire. At the end of seven weeks the yacht Crusader came into the bay, the owner of which kindly gave me a passage to Greenock. Before I left St Kilda I had an opportunity of seeing how the trade was conducted—the low prices which the poor people received for their produce, and the high prices they were obliged to pay for their supplies, and I felt no little sympathy for them. Animated with a desire to better their condition and assimilate themselves with their more fortunate brethren of the mainland, they requested me several times to try to get them a boat large enough to carry a crew and cargo to Harris, where they might carry on their trade on more profitable terms than with the proprietor. On my return home I got a boat built for them, and started a subscription to pay for her. I further resolved to go out in her myself, so as to see her safely delivered to the people, and to give them a little enlightenment as to the prices of commodities in the outer world.

On the 30th May 1876 I arrived at Lochgilphead to get possession of the boat, which seemed suitable for the purpose; and by the kind assistance of Messrs Hutcheson, the well-known ship-owners, I reached Stornoway, en route for St Kilda, in safety.

I remained in Stornoway weather-bound until the 12th June, and whilst waiting for a fair wind to continue our voyage westward, let me narrate a mysterious occurrence, bearing on my narrative, that took place some years ago.

In the month of April 1864 a boat left St Kilda for Stornoway with a woman and seven men on board. Every man had a chest, and the woman a small box; and they took provisions with them, and some salt-fish and home-spun clods; to pay expenses. The islanders went up the hill called Oswald or Osimhal and watched the boat for several hours. All seemed well. The woman in the boat intended to visit some relations at Loch Inver.

On a Sunday about a month afterwards, three London smacks entered the bay and brought the news that the boat was lost near Lewis with all on board. Never doubting the truth of the intelligence, the inhabitants gave vent to their grief without restraint. The three skippers came on shore and beguiled the time by playing quoits with flat stones, and when they witnessed the agitation of the bereaved St Kildans, they jeered in mockery. There was no minister on the island at the time, but a probationer called Kennedy filled the office. Although he understood English as well as Gaelic, he never thought of taking a note of the names of the smacks. The St Kildans say the crews belonged to London, but that one man could speak Gaelic. Some time afterwards some of the clothes of the missing men, torn as if in a scuffle, were brought to St Kilda by the then factor, and were said to have been found in a cave at Lewis. The people got gradually resigned to their fate, although I heard them on my first visit declare that they believed the lost crew had been murdered. But I thought at the time that this was a preposterous suspicion, which could only be entertained by people living in solitude and ignorant of the world outside. But strange to relate I was told by Mr Maclver, banker in Stornoway, that a letter had been received from a firm in the Transvaal Republic, by the minister of Harris, stating that Donald MacKinnon, one of the lost crew, had just died at Pilgrim's Rest, Lydenburg Gold-fields, of a fever, and had left property to the amount of thirty-seven pounds. On my expressing a suspicion that the strange story might be untrue, Mr Maclver informed me that the money had actually been lodged with him.

Why Donald MacKinnon had never written to St Kilda to inform his father and other relatives of his fate, is a mystery that none can fathom. But if he was preserved, it is possible that some others of the missing crew may have been saved too. I may mention that Sir John MacLeod, then proprietor of St Kilda, caused an inquiry to be made at Lewis at the time the boat was lost; but without eliciting any information.

At Stornoway, I was introduced to Captain Macdonald of the fishery cruiser Vigilant, and hospitably entertained in that smart vessel. He seemed desirous to give me a convoy to St Kilda; but the Board, to whom I applied, declined to allow him to leave his station. On the 12th June, however, he took me on board and my boat in tow, and conveyed us to the island of Scalpa, where I abode for several days in the house of Mr Campbell, the chief man of the island, who treated me with true Highland hospitality. Mr Campbell's house stands on the site of one recently demolished, in which Prince Charlie found shelter when hiding from his enemies. A stone above the door bearing an inscription in Gaelic, records the fact. In one of the cottages in Scalpa I saw about a dozen girls thickening blankets; this they did by tossing them about upon a broad board. One of the girls sung a Gaelic song, whilst the others joined in the chorus. On my entering the room the songstress cleverly composed a verse about me. I was much interested with this ancient Highland custom.

The land in Scalpa is poor and boggy; but some of the people are fine specimens of humanity—good-looking and polite. Some of them expressed an opinion that the island was over-populated, which I am afraid is the case, although I should be sorry to see such men leave the country. On the 17th, the Vigilant, which had returned to Stornoway, again called at Scalpa, and took me and my boat on to Obe in the Sound of Harris. The navigation of these straits is considered very difficult; but Captain Macdonald, as if to display his seamanship, ran down the Sound and then tacked up again without fear, and in a manner that excited my admiration. I had never seen a smarter vessel or seaman.

At Obe I found the factor's smack lying weather-bound. Here also I saw two St Kildan women who had come to Harris nine months previously, and were yearning to be home again, never having heard from their husbands since they left. On the 18th the Vigilant returned to Stornoway.

At Obe I engaged two men to work the boat to St Kilda, agreeing to pay them eight pounds for the trip, but stipulating that when the boat reached the bay they were to have no further claim upon me. This seems a large sum; but for all I knew they might have had to live for weeks in the island without a chance of returning. However, they arranged with the smack's skipper (an old friend) for a return passage; and on the 21st, at seven in the morning, we set sail—two men and myself in the new boat, a rope connecting us with the smack. When about half-way St Kilda was descried on the western horizon—' suspected more than seen,' for though the day was bright and sunny a thick haze obscured the distance. We reached the island about five in the evening, and separating from the smack, cast our anchor near the shore. Soon a crowd began to gather on the rocks, but they did not seem in a hurry to launch their boat. I observed one of the women who had come with the smack standing on deck and holding up her infant (born during her absence from St Kilda) in a triumphant manner, although she was too distant to be seen from the shore. At length a boat is pushed off and pulls towards us; the crew stare doubtfully at me, and then, as they come alongside, repeat my name and grasp my hand. I and the two men who had come with me jump into the shore-boat, and are landed on the rocky bank amidst a crowd of men and women. But whilst I am busy shaking hands with this old friend and that, one of the Harris men suddenly discloses the story about the lost boat and Donald MacKinnon, and in a moment all is confusion, grief, and amazement. Women squat upon the ground and chant their lamentations; and men stand with open mouths and eyes and mutter observations in Gaelic on the wonderful news.

The boat goes off to the smack and brings the two women on shore, where they are received with conjugal kisses. Ten months had elapsed from the receipt in Harris of the letter from Africa until its arrival in St Kilda—although the one place is visible from the other in a clear day.

I must now try to describe the village. It is built on a comparatively level piece of ground about twenty feet above the sea, at the foot of steep hills, has a southerly exposure, and consists of nineteen cottages, arranged like a crescent. They are plainly built and roofed with zinc. They were erected about fourteen years ago. But the old huts in which the people formerly dwelt still stand, and are picturesque structures. The walls of these are double, with turf packed in between. They are built without lime, and are thatched with straw, held down by ropes of the same material attached to stones. They are said to have been very warm and comfortable. In some of them are beds in the wall, accessible by a hole like the mouth of a baker's oven. These huts are now used as cow-houses, barns, and cellars, and are similar to the houses in Lewis, Harris, and other islands of the Hebrides. I include the manse or parsonage in the above number, although it is rather better built. At the back of it stands the church, a modern and ugly building. The plan of the village was until lately like the framework of a boy's kite; but the staff is now gone, and the bow alone remains. In front of the village and between it and the sea, is a patch of arable ground of about fifteen or twenty acres in extent, divided into lots. There are also patches of arable ground behind the village. The whole is inclosed by a massive dry stone wall, to keep off cattle. But what chiefly excites the attention and wonder of the stranger is the immense number of small houses everywhere to be seen around the village and clustered all over the island, up even to the summit of the hills. These are called claetan, and are used as storehouses for turf and grass. They are called pyramids by Martin. In general they are built so narrow that single stones can be laid from one wall to the other to form the roof. Some of these primitive structures are said to be ancient; but I have seen others erected on exactly the same system, for architecture has not changed in St Kilda, as in other places. Behind the village the steep hills rise to a considerable height, Connagher being one thousand three hundred feet above the sea. The bay or loch is open on the south-east. It is sheltered on the south-west by a long craggy island called the Dun.

On the 24th, the factor's smack left for Dunvegan. Before going on board he presented a document to the men, who were all assembled on the shore, and requested them to sign it. He made no objection to their trying to go to Harris in the new boat; but he wanted to know if they wished the proprietor to send supplies as usual. The men seemed resolved to make use of the new boat; but were persuaded by the minister to sign the paper. I was not pleased at this transaction, for although the boat was found very useful in making trips to the other islands for birds, she was procured for the express purpose of enabling the people to trade with Harris. When they had signed the paper, which bound them still to continue their transactions with the factor, my object was in a measure frustrated, and the islanders had no alternative but that of still relying upon the smack for their autumn supply of oatmeal and other articles from the mainland.

For a few days I took lodgings in one of the cottages; but afterwards I got a house to myself, and cooked my own food.

On the 29th of June I went with a party of eighteen men and boys in the new boat to the island of Boreray. All the men but two, who were left to take charge of the boat, ascended the cliff, and I was tempted to go along with them.

With the end of a rope round my waist, held by a man who preceded me, I clambered up such paths as one may see in a nightmare. I thought it best not to look too far ahead, but to keep my attention fixed on the ground at my feet. Some-times I was indebted to my guide for a pull up some difficult bit; and I succeeded in reaching the top. The height was probably eight hundred feet —the highest rocks on this island being over a thousand. Some of the cliffs were white with solan-geese. All the men dispersed and descended the cliffs to catch fulmars, and I was left in charge of a youth called Callum Beag, or Little Malcolm, who will retain the same name although he grows to six feet.

It is the custom of the St Kildans to send a party of young women to this island every year to catch puffins for the sake of the feathers. During my first visit I had gone with such a party to Boreray, and saw them at work. Rearing their young in holes in the turf, these curious birds (called Tammie Nories in some places) require dodging to get at, and great care in handling, as their bite is very severe. Being acquainted with their habits, the women take dogs with them, which are taught to alarm the puffins and to catch them as they flutter out of their holes. The girls also place hair-ropes on the ground, held down at the ends by stones. Nooses of horse-hair are affixed to the rope, into which the birds (which frequent this island in incredible numbers) push their feet. In this way some of the girls catch as many as four or five hundred puffins in a day. The young women remain about three weeks on the island, all alone by themselves. They work until they drop asleep. Every one takes her Gaelic Bible with her, for all can read with ease. They sleep in the clothes they wear during the day. On my second visit to this island, I took a glance at the houses in which these bird-catchers reside. They are three in number, and are covered outside with earth and turf, and look like grassy hillocks. One of them is fifteen feet long by six feet wide. It is six and a half feet high at the hearth, which is close to the door. A semicircular stone seat runs round the hearth. The rest of the floor is raised a foot higher, and is used as a bed. The door is about two and a half feet high, and has to be entered on hands and knees. These houses are built on the same plan as the claetan, but are covered outside with earth and turf for the sake of warmth.

A house of the bee-hive type, described by Martin and Macaulay, formerly stood on this island; but to my great regret it has been demolished within the memory of man. It was inhabited by a hermit called Stallir. The people have several traditionary tales about this house. When I had seen all that was to be seen, I grew tired sitting on the top of the cliff, and ventured to descend without assistance. Callum Beag tried to remonstrate, but I persisted, and fortunately succeeded in reaching the boat below. I had begun to be familiar with great heights, for it is all a matter of custom. In a short time all the men were seen descending the cliffs laden with fulmars; and hoisting our lug sail and jib we returned to St Kilda.

One day shortly after my arrival an old man happening to be up the hill at the back of the village descried what he imagined to be two marks cut on the turf on the top of Boreray. A party of men, it is necessary to explain, had gone to that island about a fortnight before to pluck the sheep which are kept there, for shears are as yet unknown in St Kilda. He came down in great distress, and communicated the intelligence to the rest of the people, who, to my surprise, were thrown into a state of consternation. The women seated themselves on the ground and chanted lamentations. On inquiring the reason, I was informed that a system of telegraphy had been long established in St Kilda, and that two marks cut in the turf in Boreray signified that one or more of the party were sick or dead, and that a boat was wanted immediately. I went up the hill, and with a glass discovered that one of the marks was a number of men building a claet. I explained this to some of the people who had followed me, but failed to convince them for a time. In the evening, however, when the boat returned from Boreray with the plucking-party all well, the sceptics acknowledged with joyful smiles that my glass was better than their eyes.


LIFE IN ST KILDA.

SECOND PAPER.

The men of St Kilda are in the habit of congregating in front of one of the houses almost every morning for the discussion of business. I called this assembly the Parliament, and, with a laugh, they adopted the name. When the subject is exciting, the members talk with loud voices and all at one time; but when the question is once settled, they work together in perfect harmony. Shall we go to catch solan-geese, or ling, or mend the boat to-day? are examples of the subjects that occupy the House. Sometimes disputes are settled by drawing lots. A system of mutual insurance has existed from time immemorial. A large number of sheep are annually lost by falling over the cliffs, and the owners are indemnified by the other members of the community, whose contributions are in proportion to the number of sheep they possess, and the consequent risk. As the calculations are all performed mentally, I think this shews no small arithmetical power. Parliament, besides being necessary to the conduct of business, has, I think, a salutary effect on the minds of the people, and helps to keep them cheerful in spite of their isolated position and excessive religious exercises. Man is a gregarious animal, and there are no people more so than the St Kildans. In work every one follows his neighbour. If one puts a new thatch on his barn, a man is to be seen on the top of every barn in the village. If the voice of praise is heard at the door of one house, all, you may be sure, are engaged in worship; and so on.

The St Kildans are remarkable for their piety. They are all members of the Free Church, and contribute somewhere about ten pounds annually to the Sustentation Fund of that body. They go three times to church on Sunday, and hold a prayer-meeting every Wednesday. They have also service on the first Tuesday of every month to return thanks for the preservation of Captain Otter and his crew, whose ship was nearly lost on the island about thirteen years ago. This was instituted at the request of the (now deceased) captain, who brought them supplies in a season of dearth, and attempted some improvements; which have all proved abortive. The minister is one who commands attention—every eye fastened on him throughout the discourse; and if any one happens to drop asleep, he or she is immediately aroused by a stinging remonstrance from the pulpit! Such, for instance, as saying in Gaelic: 'Arouse your wife, Lachlin—she won't sleep much in Tophet, I think, eh?' which causes Lachlin to poke his elbow in his wife's side immediately. The church is a miserable place, with no floor but mother earth, and with damp sticking to the walls like hoar-frost or feathers. The seats are rude benches, many of them bored and grooved by the ship-worm. Here all the women sit for about six and a half hours every Sunday with bare feet and legs, even in winter. Family worship is held in every house morning and evening; and when parties of men or women reside in the other islands they ‘make their worship,' as they phrase it, just as they do at home. Every meal is preceded by a grace, nor will they take a drink of milk or water without uncovering the head.

The St Kildans are quite as industrious as they are pious. Every family has a croft of ground, which they carefully cultivate, although their method of husbandry admits of improvement. They grow oats, barley, and potatoes, all of which are planted too thickly. The ground is manured with the carcases of puffins. But there is a great waste of this valuable manure, many thousands of these birds being left after the plucking season, to rot in the island of Boreray every year! The grain is ground into meal by handmills. In the beginning of summer the rocks are scaled, and the neighbouring islets visited, for old solan-geese and eggs. They fish for ling in summer and pluck instead of clipping their sheep. The wool is spun by the women, and woven by the men into cloth and blanket, which, after providing clothes for themselves, are sold to the factor. In August they catch the young fulmars, and in September the young solan-geese. In winter the spinning wheels and looms are busy from the dawn of day until two or three next morning. Their diligence and endurance are astonishing.

The belted plaid (the original kilt) was the dress worn by the St Kildans when Martin visited the island in 1697. Previous to that they wore sheep-skins. But leg garments wide and open at the knees were beginning to be introduced. Now the men wear trousers and vests of coarse blue cloth with blanket shirts. On Sundays they wear jackets in addition. The brog tiondadh or turned shoe, so called because it is sewed on the wrong side and then turned inside out, was in vogue until quite recently, and specimens are still to be seen. It is made to fit either foot, and is sewed with thongs of sheep-skin. They buy the leather from the factor. The sheep-skins are still tanned by themselves with, according to my informants, a kind of bark found under the turf.

The dress of the women consists of a cotton handkerchief on the head—Turkey-red being preferred—which is tied under the chin, and a gown (made by the men) of strong blue cloth, or blue with a thin purple stripe, fastened at the breast with a large pin made from a fish-hook. The skirt is girdled below the waist with a sash of divers colours, and is worn very short, their muscular limbs being visible to near the knee. They wear neither shoes nor stockings in summer, and very seldom in winter. They go barefoot even to church, and on that occasion don a dark plaid, which is fastened with a copper brooch made from an old penny. Formerly the heads and necks of solan-geese were used by the fair sex as shoes; but these have gone out of fashion. The men too are generally to be seen without shoes. Sheep-skin caps were once common, and are yet worn by a few.

Both sexes look strong and healthy, have bright eyes, teeth like new ivory, and are capable of long-continued exertion. There are only six surnames on the island—namely Gillies, Ferguson, Macdonald, MacKinnon, MacQueen, and MacCrimmen. The average height of the men is about five feet six inches. The tallest man is five feet nine inches, the shortest four feet ten and a half. I measured twenty-one male adults. They are tough and hardy, and know nothing of the diseases which are common in other places. There is one old man of weak intellect, who is quiet and peaceable when not contradicted. He lives in a smoky thatched old hovel by himself. He has a sister afflicted with epilepsy. Another old man is blind from cataract.

The most extraordinary complaint that visits St Kilda is called the Stranger's Cold. The natives firmly believe that the arrival of a boat communicates this disease. They say that the illness is more severe when the ship or boat comes from Harris, and that they suffer less when the vessel comes from Glasgow or London. It is curious that every one caught this distemper immediately after the arrival of the smack and boat in 1876, and again on the landing of the Austrians this year. Not one St Kildan escaped. No one was ill during the intervening six or seven months. The symptoms are a severe headache, and pain and stiffness in the muscles of the jaw, a deep rough cough, discharge from the nose, and rapid pulse. But the great scourge of St Kilda is a distemper to which the infants are subject. This keeps down the population, and has prevailed for at least one hundred and twenty years. Medical men call it Tetanus and the Irish 'Nine-day fits.' Doctors differ as to the cause: some say that it arises from the mothers living on sea-fowl; others to weakening of the blood from long continued intermarriage; some that an operation necessary at birth is not properly performed; others that the infant is smothered with peat-smoke; whilst some aver that the child is killed by improper feeding; and I am now inclined to believe that the last is the true reason. Comparatively few of the children born on the rock survive for more than a few days; they are seized with convulsions and lockjaw, and soon become exhausted. Those who escape grow up into fine men and women—sound as a general rule in mind and body; but it is a significant fact that intending mothers often go to Harris if they can, to be confined, that they may escape the curse that seems to hang over the child that is born in St Kilda.

The people of St Kilda and Harris have no great esteem for each other. Mothers in Harris threaten to send their children when naughty to St Kilda; Harris men call the St Kildans gougan (young solan-geese). The St Kildans again never mention Harris but in terms of contempt: A poor place—dirty, shabby, greedy, &c.

The St Kildans talk Gaelic, and nothing but Gaelic. The minister and a woman who is a relation of his know English as well; but both are from the mainland. All are very polite in their own way. When they meet one of a morning they lift their bonnets with the left hand, and hold out the right, and never fail to ask for one's health and how one has slept.

When I had acquired some little knowledge of the language, I made inquiries about Lady Grange, who had been forcibly sent to St Kilda in 1734, and kept there for seven years. Her name was familiar to all the old people and to some of the young. Tradition says that she slept during the day and got up at night. She never learned Gaelic. The house in which she lived was demolished a few years ago. It belonged to the steward, and was exactly like the old houses still standing, but a little larger. A dearth happened to prevail during the whole time she remained on the island; but she got an ample share of what little food there was. The best turf was provided for her fire, and the spot where it was got is still called the Lady's Pool. She was much beloved; and the people presented her with a straw-chair, as a token of respect, when she was carried off to Harris. I heard nothing of her violent temper. Perhaps she had some reason to be violent when at home!

The churchyard, small and elliptical in form, is at the back of the village. The door is kept carefully shut. None of the tombstones bears an inscription, except one erected by a minister. I brought two sculptor's chisels with me, intending to carve a stone as a pattern, but could not find one soft enough to cut. Some of the men seemed eager to erect monuments to their friends, and brought me slabs; but none was found suitable. The ruins of an ancient chapel stood in the middle of the churchyard. The walls, I was informed, were about sixteen feet high; but this ruin was removed a few years ago, the stones being adapted for building. One is to be seen built into the wall of a cottage, and has a cross incised upon it. It must have been a good bit of steel that cut it, as the stone is like granite.

Close to the churchyard is a stone called the Stone of Knowledge, which is said to have possessed magical properties. He who stood upon it on the first day of the quarter became gifted with the second-sight, and was able to foresee all the events that were to occur during that quarter. I tried it on the first day (old style) of the present spring, but saw nothing except three or four women laden with peats, and smiling at my affected credulity. It does not seem to be much venerated in these sceptical times.

At the back of the village is an old cellar, said to have been erected by one man in a single day. It is built of huge stones, some of them too ponderous to be lifted by any two men of these degenerate times. The people refer to this cellar as a proof of the superior strength of their ancestors. The builder had very nearly stumbled on the principle of the arch, which is as yet unknown in St Kilda. I shewed the men (who are all experienced masons in their own way) the photograph of an old bridge, and they looked at it with much interest and thorough understanding.

There were formerly three chapels on St Kilda, dedicated respectively to Christ, Columba, and Brendon. They still existed in 1759, but not a vestige of them now remains.

But the most extraordinary relic of antiquity in the village is a subterranean house. I had heard of it on my first visit; and on the 13th July 1876 determined to have it opened and examined. A crop of potatoes grew on the top, and the owner at first refused to allow this to be disturbed. But by dint of raillery, persuasion, and a promise to pay the damage, he at length acceded to my request. This underground dwelling was discovered about thirty-two years ago by a man who was digging the ground above it, and was generally called the House of the Fairies. The aperture on the top was filled up again, and it had never been opened since. But after a little search the hole was found and an entrance made. Two or three men volunteered to clear out the stones and soil that had accumulated on the floor to a depth of several feet, and worked with a will. The house was found to be twenty-five feet long by three feet eight inches wide, and about four feet in height. The walls consisted of three or four ranges of stones, a roof of slabs resting on the sides. This house runs due north and south, and curiously enough there is a drain under the floor. Amongst the debris on the floor I found numerous stone axes, knives, and fragments of a lamp, as well as pieces of rude pottery. As there was no tradition concerning this house, and as it is assigned to the fairies, it may be very old; but I am inclined to think that the stone period extended to a very recent date in St Kilda. I have some satisfaction in believing that I am the discoverer of stone implements in St Kilda, and that my claim has been recognised by the Society of Scottish Antiquaries.

One day I went to the islet called The Dun, which stands opposite the village, and forms the south or south-west side of the bay. It is separated from St Kilda by a narrow channel. I went along with three men and three boys, who for want of better work tried to catch puffins. This business being easy, is generally left to the women. Although the sea was covered with these birds, they were uncommonly shy on shore and difficult to catch; about forty-five was the average bag. The Dun, although the crags are comparatively low, affords some grand bits of rock-scenery. The site of an ancient altar is still to be seen. The stones which formed it have, however, been removed. At the southern extremity of the island is a mount on which great blocks of stone are piled up in wild disorder. These blocks have been spoken of as being the relics of a fort; but this is open to doubt. The St Kildans probably trusted to hiding themselves in times of danger. There is not a single weapon of war in the island; but bows and arrows are mentioned in the traditions. The Dun, comparatively tame on the side next the bay, is wild and picturesque where it faces the ocean. Some of the crags are crowned by pinnacles and fantastic protuberances, and the base is perforated with caves, into which the foaming billows rush and rage for ever.

On my return from The Dun I found a boat at the shore laden with puffins. She had come from Boreray, and had brought a cargo of birds to be plucked at home, so as to assist the young women, who were suffering from the 'Stranger's Cold,' combined with swollen throats—and no wonder! for the weather had been bad, and these unprotected females had never changed their clothes, but slept in the garments that they wore during the day; and although accustomed to severe exercise in the open air, had sat exposed to the cold, plucking feathers from morning till night. They suffered great hardships, and only get the pittance of six shillings a St Kilda stone (twenty-four pounds) for the feathers, which are of excellent quality. At that time the few people left in the village were also busy plucking feathers; and the smell of roasted puffins—'a very ancient and fish-like smell'—came from every door. These birds also furnish a feast for all the dogs and hooded crows that haunt the village. I ate a puffin by way of experiment, and found it tasted like a kippered herring, with a flavour of the dog-fish. Custom would no doubt make it more palatable. On the 3rd of August a boat went to Boreray and brought back a cargo of puffins and gougan or young solan-geese. On the 6th two boats went again to that island, and brought back the twelve young women who had been catching puffins, together with the feathers. Some of the women caught as many as six hundred puffins a day. I calculate that eighty-nine thousand six hundred puffins must have been killed by both sexes. The fingers of the girls had become so sore from plucking the feathers that they were obliged to use their teeth in drawing the tail and pinions!

There was a debate whether it would be advisable to begin to catch the young fulmars, or to delay for a day or two, in the hope that the weather would improve. It was decided to delay, but meanwhile to bring out and test the ropes used for going down the cliffs. Some of the ropes were made from hair cut from St Kilda horses, and were forty years old. One of them gave way. Old men remember when there were ponies on the island; but many under forty have never seen a horse except in pictures. Ropes of manilla hemp are now used, and fewer accidents occur than in the olden time, when ropes of hair and even straw were employed. Some of the men made me feel the bumps and scars upon their scalps caused by the falling of stones from the cliffs above, whilst they were dangling below.

At length fulmar-catching began in earnest. I went in the morning with a party of men in a small boat to the islet of Soa, which is close to St Kilda. It is exceedingly difficult to land on that small island in any weather, from the swell of the sea and the steepness of the shore; but I determined to go to the top. We lauded on the south side. With the end of a rope around my waist, the other end being held by a man on shore, I leaped on the rocks and climbed up the cliffs at the base, assisted by a pull when needful from a man, who now preceded me. At a short distance up, the rocks became less regular. Great masses of stone spring tower-like out of the ground, and blocks of all sizes are crowded together on the steep acclivity. An old man called MacRuaridh or the Son of Rory acts as my guide; and although he totters on level ground, he goes up the hill without any difficulty. About half way up, amongst masses of huge blocks of stone, he shews me an old house which tradition says was made by one Duncan in ancient times. Close to this antique bothy are three houses equally primitive, in which the women pluck and store the feathers. Farther up, the steep ground is covered with a rich crop of grass, which affords sustenance to a flock of sheep of a peculiar breed. They are of a fawn colour, and are very wild. They run like deer; and are only caught to be plucked. They belong to the proprietor of the island. By means of a gentle ascent, I reached the highest part of the island, which terminates abruptly in a cliff one thousand and thirty-one feet in height. Far down I could just distinguish two of our crew, who were busy catching fulmars on the rocks, and the boat floating like a tiny mussel-shell at the base. These afforded a kind of standard by which to estimate the height of this stupendous crag. MacRuaridh and I sat and rested for a little on the verge of the cliff; but he soon grew tired of doing nothing, and began to peer over the edge in search of young fulmars, some of which he saw on a cliff adjacent, and caught.

Having caught as many fulmars as he could carry, we descended to the rocks where we had landed. The sea had risen considerably since that time. After waiting for about two hours, the boat came round the island heavily laden with fulmars. Some of the crew (there were twelve in all) had got into her on the other side. But four or five came down the rocks to where I was, and cast anxious looks at the boat and at the waves, that carne sweeping along from the west at a right angle with the shore. Two young men sat on the top of the cliff, each holding a rope, by the help of which the others slid into the boat. Then came my turn. A line was fastened around my waist, and a hair-rope put into my hand. I was peremptorily requested to take off my shoes; and as I descended, I pushed my toes into any crevice or cranny that offered, until the rock became so smooth that I could find no hold for my feet. Then I was obliged to be passive, and allowed myself to be lowered like a sack until I reached a small limpet-covered shelf on which the waves rose about knee-deep. 'Jump! Jump!' shout the crew; and when the boat mounts on the wave, I leap, and fall in a heap amongst the fulmars—all right. The air was quite calm, but the sea continued to rise, and the boat was in imminent danger of being dashed to pieces against the wall. At one time she became altogether unmanageable, and was forced by the sea into a place where the rocks were under her bottom, and caused several hard bumps. The water too began to pour over the gunnel, and I thought that every wave would send us to the bottom. It being impossible to get the two men on board at that spot, the boat was rowed along to a cliff farther south. The waves were quite as wild there; but a double line having been passed around a projecting stone, and the ends held firmly in the boat, the two men slid down and pulled the rope alter them. A few strokes of the oars carried us out of danger. In the excursion I experienced no little exhaustion. A morsel of cheese and a bit of oat-cake was all I had tasted during the day, as I had hurried off without breakfast. It was dark when we reached the village.


LIFE IN ST KILDA.

CONCLUDING PAPER.

On the 16th August I ascended the hill called Connaghar, where all the men had gone to catch and the women to carry home fulmars, leaving the village deserted. The weather was very warm, and although I carried my coat over my arm, I was fain to stop on my way up and cool myself in the light sea-breeze. About half-way up I saw my old friend Tormad, with his ruddy face and large white beard, seated on the edge of the cliff, with his attention fixed on the rope he held in his hands. 'Who is below?' I asked as I sat down beside him. 'Neil,' he answered. 'Is he far down?' 'Far—far,' he replied. Neil's voice could be heard calling from the abyss. In a little a crash sounds from below. Tormad looks anxious, and with craning head listens with deep attention; whilst two girls who had joined us, step with their bare feet to the very verge of the precipice and peer below. One of them, who has a light graceful figure, looks very picturesque as she stands poised on that stupendous cliff. She has a Turkey-red handkerchief on her head, and wears a coarse blue gown of a quaint shape, girdled at the waist, and only reaching to her knees. Her limbs are muscular and browned with the sun. She is engaged to Neil, and naturally feels anxious on his account. A shower of large stones had fallen, any one of which would have knocked his brains out had it chanced to hit but fortunately a projecting crag above his head saves him. Tormad shifts his position to where he thinks the rock is less frangible. I leave him and climb to where the cliffs form a lofty head or promontory which commands a view of the face of Connaghar. This hill rises one thousand two hundred and twenty feet above the sea, and is a precipice almost to the summit. The bottom of the tremendous cliff had been cleared of fulmars the previous day by men who had ascended from boats. Now the work had to be done from above.

It is a dreadful trade. A sound like the crack of a musket is occasionally heard, and one sees a huge stone bound and rattle with great leaps into the sea below. Parties of two or three men, laden with birds on their shoulders are seen climbing by steep and perilous paths to the summit. From the spot where I lie basking in the sun, a path leads downwards to a steep grassy brae bounded by a cliff. This is considered a safe road for women, and a number of them go by it to where the men can bring them fulmars. Some of the girls can carry about two hundred pounds' weight, and seem rather proud of their strength; but as they toil up the dangerous path to where I recline, I hear them breathing heavily and in apparent distress; but in a few minutes they are all right again.

In the intervals of work a number of them sit around me and offer me a share of their oatcakes and cheese, and hand me the little tub covered with raw sheepskin in which they carry milk: 'Drink, drink! you have taken none!' A number of the men also come up the path with coils of ropes and bundles of inflated gannets' craws on their backs. They are all barefooted and stripped to their underclothing. A pile of fulmars has been collected beside us, and the men whilst they rest economise time by extracting the oil. The receptacle for holding the oil is the stomach of a solan-goose, which is held open by one man, while another takes a fulmar, and squeezing the body, forces the oil in a stream from its gaping bill. When the fulmars and oil are carried home they are equally divided. The birds are plucked, and the feathers are sold to the factor for six shillings a St Kilda stone of twenty-four pounds. The flesh is pickled and used as food in winter and spring. The oil is sold to the factor for one shilling a St Kilda pint, which is equal to about five English pints. Over nine hundred St Kilda pints were exported in 1875. I ought to mention that it is the young fulmars that are caught in autumn. No art is required to capture them, as they are unable to fly; but they offer all the resistance in their power by spitting their oil in the faces of the men. The oil has a disagreeable odour. The old fulmars are caught in summer when hatching; a noose tied to the end of a rod being slipped over their heads. About the end of August all the fulmars leave St Kilda and take the young to sea for their education. They are absent for about two months and a half, and return lean and worthless.

On the 1st of September I began to be slightly alarmed that I might be detained on the island until the succeeding summer. No vessel had called since my arrival on the 21st of June. My stock of provisions had become exhausted, and I had to give up tea and coffee, and subsequently bread. The people began to pluck up their little crops, neither sickle nor scythe being used. The oatmeal supplied by the factor being done, the islanders had to depend on the grain grown on the island. The oats are thrashed with a flail; are scorched in a pot or in a straw basket containing hot stones, previous to being ground. The grain is then ground with hand-mills by the women, who work like furies.

On the 7th the new boat went to Stack Lee for gougan or young solan-geese, and returned in the evening with a few—about forty to each man. As at the Bass and other fowling stations, so also here are the gougan killed by blows on the head with a stick. The flesh of the gougan is wild and fishy in flavour; but when baked is an article of food. Every morning when I went up the village the usual salutation included expressions of fear that no ship would arrive. But my anxiety about the arrival of a ship was naturally less than theirs, for they were burning to receive further intelligence about the boat that was supposed to have been lost fourteen years ago. 'Is my poor wife alive? Is my mother, my brother, my son, my father, living or dead? Was my husband saved in some mysterious way, like Donald MacKinnon? Is he married again? Are all the women black in Africa?' Such were the agitating questions that passed through the minds of the people, and often found expression. Every time I went up the hill with my glass I would be questioned by some one on my return whether any vessel was visible, and my answer that there was not, was shouted from one end of the village to the other. The poor people were straitened for oatmeal, which was anxiously expected from the factor.

On the 5th of October in the evening, whilst I was sitting alone in a cloud of peat-smoke, gazing at nothing by the dull light of an iron lamp, my door was suddenly thrown open, and a woman in a state of alarm bawled out that there were strangers in the glen. I suggested that they were probably shipwrecked sailors, whom it would not be right to leave in the glen all night, cold, hungry, and without shelter. This seemed to move the women; and it was arranged that five men armed with staves should go to the top of the hill that separates the village from the glen and shout. In an hour or two the five men returned wet to the skin, and reported that, although they had whistled and shouted loudly, they had got no reply, and that they were sure there must be a mistake. But the woman still insisted that there were strangers in the glen. Next day a steamer was seen bearing away from the island, and it was no doubt her fob whistle which had created the alarm.

In October, when the nights were getting long, spinning-wheels began to be busy in every house, making the thread which the men afterwards wove into cloth; and I spent the evening in one or other of the cottages, chatting with the people, and endeavouring to improve my Gaelic, and penetrate into their unsophisticated minds. I tried to tell them stories—such as Blue Beard—in which they seemed to feel a deep interest; the women sometimes improving my grammar, and helping me out of any difficulty. They would also tell me sgeulachdan or tales.

On the 21st October and for many days afterwards all the inhabitants went down the cliffs to pluck grass for their cattle. I saw the women lying on the narrow sloping ledges on the face of the rocks. A false step, and they would have fallen into the sea, hundreds of feet below, or been mangled on the projecting crags. About this time I gave up all hope of getting off the island until the following summer. My oatmeal was done, and after that I was obliged to depend on the people for a share of theirs. But I never wanted, although I put myself on short allowance.

On the 7th November a meeting was held in the church to return thanks for the harvest. A sudden change occurred in the weather: the sky became charged with thick vapour, and there was a heavy fall of hail accompanied by thunder and lightning. On the 8th December I went to the top of the hills, and notwithstanding my light diet, felt remarkably well; but slipping when twenty yards from home, I sprained my ankle, and lay for some time in torture. I crawled into the house, and after a time succeeded in cooking my dinner. I slept none; and next day my room was filled with sympathising male friends and ministering angels. Some brought me presents of potatoes and salt mutton, turf and fulmar-oil. On the 10th I held a levee, the whole people coming to see me between fore and afternoon services. The men about this time began to weave the thread which the women had spun. Both sexes worked from dawn of day until an hour or two after midnight. Their industry astonished me. I soon began to limp about in the evening; and when the nights were dark I got a live peat stuck on the end of a stick, to let me see the road home. At this time I made a miniature ship and put a letter in the hold, in the hope that she might reach the mainland. I was anxious that my friends should know that I was alive. Shortly afterwards I made a lantern out of a piece of copper that had come off a ship's bottom. A large limpet-shell filled with fulmar-oil served for a lamp inside. This lantern, a clumsy affair, was more admired than my sketches. On the 12th of January, which is New-year's-day in St Kilda, service was held in the church; and to celebrate the occasion, the minister preached a sermon.

On the 17th the most remarkable event occurred that had happened in St Kilda for many years. The people had just gone to church when, happening to look out at my door, I was startled to observe a boat in the bay. I had been nearly seven months on the island, and had never seen any ship or strange boat near it all that time. Robinson Crusoe scarcely felt more surprised when he saw the foot-print on the sand, than I did on beholding this apparition. I ran to the shore, where there was a heavy sea rolling, and shouted to the people in the boat; but my voice was drowned by the roar of the waves. A woman who had followed me gave notice to the congregation, and all poured out of the church. The St Kildans ran round the rocks to a spot where there seemed to be less surf, and waved on the boat to follow. I went with the others. When we arrived at the place indicated, the islanders threw ropes from the low cliffs to the men in the boat; but the latter declined to be drawn up, the captain bawling 'Mooch better dere,' pointing to the shore before the village, and putting about the boat. All ran back; but before we got to the shore the strange boat had run through the surf. Instantly all the men in her leaped into the sea and swam to the land, where they were grasped by the St Kildans. In a few minutes their boat was knocked to pieces on the rocks.

The strangers were invited into the minister's house and dry clothes given them. They proved to be the captain and eight of the crew of the Austrian ship Peti Dabrovacki, eight hundred and eighty tons, which had left Glasgow for New York five days before. The vessel had encountered bad weather; her ballast had shifted, and she lay on her beam-ends about eight miles west of St Kilda. Seven men had remained in her, and no doubt perished. The ship was not to be seen next day. When the survivors had got their clothes shifted, they were distributed amongst the sixteen families that compose the community, the minister keeping the captain, and every two families taking charge of one man, and providing him with a bed and board and clean clothes. I myself saw one man (Tormad Gillies) take a new jacket out of the box in which it had been carefully packed, and give it to the mate to wear during his stay, the young man having no coat but an oilskin. The oatmeal being done, the islanders took the grain they had kept for seed and ground it to feed the shipwrecked men. The hospitable conduct of the St Kildans was all the more commendable when one considers that their guests were all foreigners. But long before the five weeks had elapsed during which the Austrians lived on the island, they had by their good behaviour removed the prejudice that had prevailed against them at first. They were polite and obliging to the women, and went from house to house to assist in grinding the grain.

On the 28th January 1877 the wind blew violently from the north-west with heavy showers of sleet. It was the worst day I had seen in St Kilda. The huge waves came rolling into the bay against the wind, which caught them as they fell on the shore and carried them off in spin-drift. Yet many of the women went to church barefoot.

On the 29th the captain and sailors called on me and felt interested in seeing a canoe I had hewn out of a log. They helped me to rig her and to put the ballast right; but we had to wait until the wind was favourable. We put two bottles in her hold containing letters, which we hoped would find their way to the mainland and be posted.

This canoe carried a small sail, and was despatched on the 5th of February, the wind being in the north-west, and continuing so for some days. I thought she would reach Uist; but the Gulf Stream was stronger than I calculated on, and she went to Poolewe in Ross-shire, where she was found lying on a sandbank on the 27th by a Mr John Mackenzie, who posted the letters. Five days previous to the date when we launched the canoe, we sent off a life-buoy belonging to the lost ship. I suggested that a bottle containing a letter should be lashed to it and a small sail put up. This was done; but no one had much hope that this circular vessel would be of service. She was sent off on the, 30th January, and strange to relate, drifted to Birsay in Orkney, and was forwarded to Lloyd's agent in Stromness on the 8th February, having performed the passage in nine days. During my residence in St Kilda, several canes that the Gulf Stream had brought from some tropical clime were picked up by the men. One was hollow and several inches in diameter. The St Kildans split these canes and make them into reeds for their looms.

On 17th February the Austrian skipper offered ten pounds for a passage to Harris in the new boat, for himself and men. The St Kildans accepted the offer, and arranged to send seven of their own men to bring her back. They would not allow the Austrians to go alone, being afraid that they (the St Kildans) might be left without a boat, and have no means of getting seed-corn and provisions. They drew lots who were to go, and it was stipulated that I was to be one of them. All was settled except the weather. We were waiting for a promising day, when, on the 22nd, about seven in the morning, as I was lying in bed and thinking of getting up to make my breakfast, I was startled by hearing the sound of a steam-whistle. I lay back again muttering: 'It was the wind;' when hark! the whistle is repeated. I leaped up, ran to the door, and saw, sure enough, a steamer in the bay! Huddling on my clothes, I rushed barefoot up the village, rattling at every door, and shouting 'Steamer—strangers!' In a few minutes all the people were astir and hurrying to the shore. I had just time to throw the articles that lay handy into my trunk and to get on board the steamer's boat, which I saw belonged to Her Majesty. Then I discovered that I had left my purse and other property in the house; but the surf was too great to allow me to land again. I got on board the steamer, which I found to be the Jackal. 'How did you know we were here?' I inquired of one of the officers who stood on the quarter-deck. 'From the letter you wrote and put into the bottle lashed to the life-buoy.' I ran to the side of the ship muttering to myself: 'There is a Providence that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will;' and bawled to the St Kildans in the boat along-side: 'It was the life-buoy brought this steamer here, you incredulous people;' for they had smiled, although good-humouredly, at my efforts to send a letter home. A small supply of biscuits and oat-meal was given to them; and waving an adieu to my good St Kildan friends, we were speedily receding from the island.

I found all the officers extremely friendly and agreeable, and here beg to return my hearty thanks. I was made to feel quite at home. The ship-wrecked captain and I were accommodated in the cabin. The Austrian sailors were well taken care of forward, and seemed particularly delighted at again having as much tobacco as they could use. We had been all smoking dried moss.

The wind had risen and the sea become rough; and if the Jackal had been half an hour later, she would have been obliged to return with her errand unexecuted; for it would have been impossible for a boat to approach the shore. We reached Harris the same evening, and anchored in the Sound all night. But as this part of the journey has appeared in the newspapers, I need not repeat it. Suffice it that I arrived barefoot and penniless, but in good health and spirits, in Greenock on the 26th. Here my narrative ends.


[Many of the facts related in the foregoing narrative were published in various newspapers in the early part of the present year, and led to considerable discussion. Stormy seasons, as we have seen, may set in, and communication with the proprietor or his factor be rendered impossible; the most anxious efforts to transmit provisions may be rendered abortive, and famine, if not actual starvation, be the result. Various hints for the melioration of the poor St Kildans have been thrown out, amongst others that those isolated beings should quit the island for good, and seek a new home in the more civilised Hebrides or else-where. One thing is sufficiently obvious, if the people are to remain on the island, they should be taught to speak and write English. Their adherence to Gaelic condemns them to innumerable privations, above all it excludes them from communication with the outer world, on whose sympathy they are forced to rely. Half a century ago, Dr John Macculloch lamented this exclusive use of Gaelic; and we echo all he said on the subject. We have no objection to Gaelic being made a philological study, but its continuance as a spoken language is in all respects to be regretted.—ED.]


Published in three parts on May 5th, 19th and 26th 1877 in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art.

Back to contents

Further reading...

St Kilda - World Heritage Site