The first of these names is taken from one Kilder, who lived here; and from him the large well Toubir-Kilda has also its name. Hirta is taken from the Irish Ier, which in that language signifies west: this isle lies directly opposite to the isles of North Uist, Harris, &c. It is reckoned 18 leagues from the former, and 20 from Harries. This isle is by Peter Goas, in a map he made of it at Rotterdam, called St. Kilder; it is the remotest of all the Scots north-west isles. It is about two miles in length, and one in breadth; it is faced all round with a steep rock, except the bay on the south-east, which is not a harbour fit for any vessel, though in the time of a calm one may land upon the rock, and get up into the island with a little climbing. The land rises pretty high in the middle, and there is one mountain higher than any other part of the island. There are several fountains of good water on each side this isle. The corn produced here is oats and barley, the latter is the largest in the Western Isles.
The horses and cows here are of a lower size than in the adjacent isles, but the sheep differ only in the bigness of their horns, which are very long.
There is an ancient fort on the south end of the bay called Dun-fir-Volg, i.e., the fort of the Volscii. This is the sense put upon the word by the antiquaries of the opposite isles of Uist.
The isle Soa is nearly half a mile distant from the west side of St. Kilda; it is a mile in circumference, very high and steep all round. Borers lies above two leagues north of St. Kilda; it is near a mile in circumference, the most of it surrounded with a high rock. The largest and the two lesser isles are good for pasturage, and abound with a prodigious number of sea-fowl from March till September; the solan geese are very numerous here, insomuch that the inhabitants commonly keep yearly above twenty thousand young and old in their little stone houses, of which there are some hundreds for preserving their fowls, eggs, etc. They use no salt for preserving their fowl; the eggs of the sea wild-fowl are preserved some months in the ashes of peats, and are astringent to such as be not accustomed to eat them.
The solan goose is in size somewhat less than a land goose, and of a white colour, except the tips of the wings which are black, and the top of their head which is yellow; their bill is long, small pointed, and very hard, and pierces an inch deep into wood, in their descent after a fish laid on a board, as some use to catch them. When they sleep they put their head under their wings, but one of them keeps watch, and if that be surprised by the fowler (which often happens) all the rest are then easily caught by the neck, one after another; but if the sentinel gives warning, by crying loud, then all the flock make their escape. When this fowl fishes for herring it flies about sixty yards high, and then descends perpendicularly into the sea, but after all other fish it descends a-squint; the reason for this manner of pursuing the herrings is, because they are in greater shoals than any other fish whatsoever.
There is a barren tribe of solan geese that keep always together, and never mix among the rest that build and hatch. The solan geese come to those islands in March, taking the advantage of a south-west wind; before their coming they send a few of their number as harbingers before them, and when they have made a tour round the isles they return immediately to their company, and in a few days after the whole flock comes together, and stays till September. The natives make a pudding of the fat of this fowl in the stomach of it, and boil it in their water-gruel, which they call brochan; they drink it likewise for removing the cough. It is by daily experience found to be an excellent vulnerary.
The inhabitants eat the solan goose egg raw, and by experience find it to be a good pectoral. The solan geese are daily making up their nests from March till September; they make them in the shelves of high rocks; they fish, hatch, and make their nests by turns, and they amass for this end a great heap of grass, and such other things as they catch floating on the water. The steward of St. Kilda told me that they had found a red coat in a nest, a brass sun-dial, and an arrow, and some molucca beans in another nest. This solan goose is believed to be the sharpest sighted of all sea-fowls; it preserves five or six herrings in its gorget entire, and carries them to the nest, where it spews them out to serve as food to the young ones. They are observed to go a-fishing to several isles that lie about thirty leagues distant, and carry the fish in their gorget all that way; and this is confirmed by the English hooks, which are found sticking to the fish bones in their nests, for the natives have no such hooks among them.
They have another bird here called fulmar. It is a grey fowl, about the size of a moorhen; it has a strong bill, with wide nostrils; as often as it goes to sea, it is certain a sign of a western wind, for it sits always on the rock when the wind is to blow from any other quarter. This fowl, the natives say, picks its food out of live whales, and that it eats sorrel, for both sorts of food are found in its nest. When any one approaches the fulmar it spouts out at its bill about a quart of pure oil. The natives surprise the fowl, and preserve the oil, and burn it in their lamps. It is good against rheumatic pains and aches in the bones; the inhabitants of the adjacent isles value it as a catholicon for diseases; some take it for a vomit, others for a purge. It has been successfully used against rheumatic pains in Edinburgh and London; in the latter it has been lately used to assuage the swelling of a sprained foot, a cheek swelled with the toothache, and for discussing a hard boil; and proved successful in all the three cases.
There is plenty of cod and ling of a great size round this isle, the improvement of which might be of great advantage.
The inhabitants are about two hundred in number, and are well-proportioned; they speak the Irish language only; their habit is much like that used in the adjacent isles, but coarser. They are not subject to many diseases; they contract a cough as often as any strangers land and stay for any time among them, and it continues for some eight or ten days; they say the very infants on the breast are infected by it. The men are stronger than the inhabitants of the opposite Western Isles; they feed much on fowl, especially the solan geese, puffin, and fulmar, eating no salt with them. This is believed to be the cause of a leprosy that is broken out among them of late. One of them that was become corpulent, and had his throat almost shut up, being advised by me to take salt with his meat, to exercise himself more in the fields than he had done of late, to forbear eating of fat fowl, and the fat pudding called giben, and to eat sorrel, was very much concerned because all this was very disagreeable; and my advising him to eat sorrel was perfectly a surprise to him; but when I bid him consider how the fat fulmar eat this plant he was at last disposed to take my advice; and by this means alone in few days after, his voice was much clearer, his appetite recovered, and he was in a fair way of recovery. Twelve of these lepers died the year after of this distemper, and were in the same condition with this man.
Both sexes have a genius for poesy, and compose entertaining verses and songs in their own language, which is very emphatical. Some years ago about twenty of their number happened to be confined on the rock "Stackarmin" for several days together, without any kind of food. The season then not favouring their endeavours to return home, one of their number plucked all their knives out of the hafts, wrought a hook out of each, and then beat them out to their former length; he had a stone for an anvil, and a dagger for a hammer and file; and with these rude hooks and a few sorry fishing lines they purchased fish for their maintenance during their confinement for several days in the rock. All the men in the isle having gone to the isle Boreray for purchase, the rope that fastened their boat happened to break, and by this unlucky accident the boat was quite lost, and the poor people confined in the isle from the middle of March till the latter end of May, without so much as a crust of bread; but they had sheep, fowl, and fish in abundance. They were at a loss how to acquaint their wives and friends that all of them were alive; but to effect this, they kindled as many fires on the top of an eminence as there were men in number; this was no sooner seen, and the fires counted, than the women understood the signal, and were so overjoyed at this unexpected news that they fell to labour the ground with the foot-spade, a fatigue they had never been accustomed to; and that year's product of corn was the most plentiful that they had for many years before. After the steward's arrival in the isle, about the end of May, he sent his galley to bring home all the men confined in the isle to their so much longed for St. Kilda, where the mutual joy between them and their wives and other relations was extraordinary.
The inhabitants are of the reformed religion; they assemble in the churchyard on the Lord's day, and in the morning they say the Lord's prayer, creed and ten commandments. They work at no employment till Monday, neither will they allow a stranger to work sooner. The officer, or steward's deputy commonly, and sometimes any of their neighbours, baptise their children soon after they are born, and in the following form: ----- A.I. I baptise you to your father and mother, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They marry early and publicly, all the natives of both sexes being present. The officer who performs the marriage tenders a crucifix to the married couple, who lay their right hands on it, and then the marriage is ratified.
They observe the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, and that of All Saints. Upon the latter they bake a large cake, in form of a triangle, furrowed round, and it must be all eaten that night. They are hospitable, and charitable to strangers, as well as the poor belonging to themselves, for whom all the families contribute a proportion monthly, and at every festival each family sends them a piece of mutton or beef.
They swear decisive oaths by the crucifix, and this puts an end to any controversy; for there is not one instance, or the least suspicion of perjury among them. The crucifix is of brass, and about nine inches in length; it lies upon the altar, but they pay no religious worship to it. One of the inhabitants was so sincere, that (rather than forswear himself on the crucifix) he confessed a capital crime before the minister and myself. They never swear or steal, neither do they take God's name in vain at any time; they are free from whoredom and adultery, and of those other immoralities that abound so much everywhere else.
One of the inhabitants called Roderick, a fellow that could not read, obtruded a false religion upon the credulous people, which he pretended to have received from St. John the Baptist. It is remarkable that in his rhapsodies, which he called prayers, he had the word Eli; and to this purpose, Eli is our Preserver. There is a little hill, upon which he says John the Baptist delivered sermons and prayers him; this is called John's Bush, and made the people believe it was so sacred, that if either cow or sheep did taste of its grass, they were to be killed immediately after, and the owners were to eat them, but never without the company of the impostor. He made them likewise believe that each of them had a tutelar saint in heaven to intercede for them, and the anniversary of every one of those was to be necessarily observed, by having a splendid treat, at which the impostor was always the principal person. He taught the women a devout hymn, which he said he had from the Virgin Mary; he made them believe that it secured any woman from miscarriage that could repeat it by heart, and each of them paid the impostor a sheep for it.
Upon Mr. Campbell's arrival and mine in St. Kilda, Roderick made a public recantation of his imposture; and being then by us brought to the isle of Harris, and afterwards to the isle of Skye, he has made public confession in several churches of his converse with the devil, and not John the Baptist as he pretended, and seems to be very penitent. He is now in Skye isle, from whence he is never to return to his native country. His neighbours are heartily glad to be rid of such a villain, and are now happily delivered from the errors he imposed upon them. The isle is the Laird of MacLeod's property; he is head of one of the most ancient tribes in the isles; he bestows the isle upon a cadet of his name, whose fortune is low, to maintain his family, and he is called steward of it; he visits the isle once every summer, to demand the rents, viz., down, wool, butter, cheese, cows, horses, fowl, oil, and barley. The steward's deputy is one of the natives, and stays always upon the place; he has free lands, and an omer of barley from each family; and has the honour of being the first and last in their boat, as they go and come to the lesser isles or rocks. The ancient measure of omer and cubit continues to be used in this isle. They have neither gold nor silver, but barter among themselves and the steward's men for what they want. Some years ago the steward determined to exact a sheep from every family in the isle, the number amounting to twenty-seven; and for this he put them in mind of a late precedent, of their having given the like number to his predecessor. But they answered that what they gave then was voluntary, and upon an extraordinary occasion of his being wind-bound in the isle, and that this was not to be a custom afterwards. However, the steward sent his brother, and with him a competent number of men, to take the sheep from them by force; but the natives, arming themselves with their daggers and fishing rods, attacked the steward's brother, giving him some blows on the head, and forced him and his party to retire, and told him that they would pay no new taxes; and by this stout resistance they preserved their freedom from such imposition.
The inhabitants live contentedly together in a little village on the east side St. Kilda, which they commonly call the country; and the Isle Borreray, which is little more than two leagues distant from them, they call the northern country. The distance between their houses is by them called the High Street; their houses are low built, of stone, and a cement of dry earth; they have couples and ribs of wood covered with thin earthen turf, thatched over these with straw, and the roof secured on each side with double ropes of straw or heath, poised at the end with many stones. Their beds are commonly made in the wall of their houses, and they lie on straw, but never on feathers or down, though they have them in greater plenty than all the Western Isles besides. The reason for making their bedroom in the walls of their houses is to make room for their cows, which they take in during the winter and spring.
They are very exact in their properties, and divide both the fishing, as well as fowling rocks with as great niceness as they do their corn and grass. One will not allow his neighbour to sit and fish on his seat, for this being a part of his possession, he will take care that no encroachment be made upon the least part of it; and this with a particular regard to their successors, that they may lose no privilege depending upon any parcel of their farm. They have but one boat in the isle, and every man hath a share in it, proportionally to the acres of ground for which they pay rent. They are stout rowers, and will tug at the oar for a long time without any intermission. When they fail they use no compass, but take their measures from the sun, moon, or stars; and they rely much on the course of the various flocks of sea fowl; and this last is their surest directory. When they go to the lesser isles and rocks to bring home sheep, or any other purchase, they carry an iron pot with them, and each family furnishes one by turns; and the owner on such occasions has a small tax paid him by all the families in the isle, which is by them called the pot-penny.
There was another tax paid by each family to one of the natives, as often as they kindled a fire in any of the lesser isles or rocks, and that for the use of his steel and flint; this was by them called the fire-penny.
This tax was very advantageous to the proprietor, but very uneasy to the commonwealth, who could not be furnished with fire on these occasions any other way. But I told them that the crystal growing in the rock on the shore would yield fire if struck with the back of a knife, and of this I showed them an experiment; which, when they saw, was a very surprising, and to them a very profitable discovery in their esteem, being such as could be had by every man in the isle; and at the same time delivered them from an endless charge; but it was very disobliging to the poor man who lost his tax by it.
The inhabitants of St. Kilda excel all those I ever saw in climbing rocks; they told me that some years ago their boat was split to pieces upon the west side of Borera Isle, and they were forced to lay hold on a bare rock, which was steep, and above twenty fathoms high. Notwithstanding this difficulty, some of them climbed up to the top, and from thence let down a rope and plaids, and so drew up all the boat's crew, though the climbing this rock would seem impossible to any other except themselves.
This little commonwealth hath two ropes of about twenty-four fathoms length each, for climbing the rocks, which they do by turns; the ropes are secured all round with cows' hides, salted for the use, and which preserves them from being cut by the edge of the rocks. By the assistance of these ropes they purchase a great number of eggs and fowl. I have seen them bring home in a morning twenty-nine large baskets all full of eggs. The least of the baskets contained four hundred big eggs, and the rest eight hundred and above of lesser eggs. They had with them at the same time about two thousand sea fowl, and some fish, together with some limpets, called patella, the biggest I ever saw. They catch many fowls likewise, by laying their gins, which are made of horse hair, having a noose at the distance of two feet each; the ends of the rope at which the noose hangs are secured by stone.
The natives gave me an account of a very extraordinary risk which one of them ran as laying his gins, which was thus: - As he was walking barefoot along the rock where he had fixed his gin, he happened to put his toe in a noose, and immediately fell down the rock, but hung by the toe, the gin being strong enough to hold him, and the stones that secured it on each end being heavy. The poor man continued hanging thus for the space of a night, on a rock twenty fathoms height above the sea, until one of his neighbours, hearing him cry, came to his rescue, drew him up by the feet, and so saved him.
These poor people do sometimes fall down as they climb the rocks, and perish. Their wives on such occasions make doleful songs, which they call lamentations. The chief topics are their courage, their dexterity in climbing, and their great affection which they showed to their wives and children.
It is ordinary with a fowler, after he has got his purchase of fowls, to pluck the fattest, and carry it home to his wife as a mark of his affection; and this is called the rock-fowl.
The bachelors do in like manner carry this rock fowl to their sweethearts, and it is the greatest present they can make, considering the danger they run in acquiring it.
The richest man in the isle has not above eight cows, eighty sheep, and two or three horses. If a native here have but a few cattle he will marry a woman, though she have no other portion from her friends but a pound of horse hair to make a gin to catch fowls.
The horses here are very low of stature, and employed only to carry home their peats and turf, which is their fuel. The inhabitants ride their horses (which were but eighteen in all) at the anniversary cavalcade of All-Saints; this they never fail to observe. They begin at the shore, and ride as far as the houses; they use no saddles of any kind, nor bridle, except a rope of straw which manages the horse's head; and when they have all taken the horses by turns, the show is over for that time.
This isle produces the finest hawks in the Western Isles, for they go many leagues for their prey, there being no land fowl in St. Kilda proper for them to eat, except pigeons and plovers.
One of the inhabitants of St. Kilda, being some time ago wind-bound in the isle of Harris, was prevailed on by some of them that traded to Glasgow to go thither with them. He was astonished at the length of the voyage, and of the great kingdoms, as he thought them, that is isles, by which they sailed; the largest in his way did not exceed twenty-four miles in length, but he considered how much they exceeded his own little native country.
Upon his arrival at Glasgow, he was like one that had dropped from the clouds into a new world, whose language, habit, &c., were in all respects new to him; he never imagined that such big houses of stone were made with hands; and for the pavements of the streets, he thought it must needs be altogether natural, for he could not believe that men would be at the pains to beat stones into the ground to walk upon. He stood dumb at the door of his lodging with the greatest admiration; and when he saw a coach and two horses, he thought it to be a little house they were drawing at their tail, with men in it; but he condemned the coachman for a fool to sit so uneasy, for he thought it safer to sit on the horse's back. The mechanism of the coach wheel, and its running about, was the greatest of all his wonders.
When he went through the streets, he desired to have one to lead him by the hand. Thomas Ross, a merchant, and others, that took the diversion to carry him through the town, asked his opinion of the High Church? He answered that it was a large rock, yet there were some in St. Kilda much higher, but that these were the best caves he ever saw; for that was the idea which he conceived of the pillars and arches upon which the church stands. When they carried him into the church, he was yet more surprised, and held up his hands with admiration, wondering how it was possible for men to build such a prodigious fabric, which he supposed to be the largest in the universe. He could not imagine what the pews were designed for, and he fancied the people that wore masks (not knowing whether they were men or women) had been guilty of some ill thing, for which they dared not show their faces. He was amazed at women wearing patches, and fancied them to have been blisters. Pendants seemed to him the most ridiculous of all things; he condemned periwigs mightily, and much more the powder used in them; in fine, he condemned all things as superfluous he saw not in his own country. He looked with amazement on every thing that was new to him. When he heard the church bells ring he was under a mighty consternation, as if the fabric of the world had been in great disorder. He did not think there had been so many people in the world as in the city of Glasgow; and it was a great mystery to him to think what they could all design by living so many in one place. He wondered how they could all be furnished with provision; and when he saw big loaves, he could not tell whether they were, bread stone, or wood. He was amazed to think how they could be provided with ale, for he never saw any there that drank water. He wondered how they made them fine clothes, and to see stockings made without being first cut, and afterwards sewn, was no small wonder to him. He thought it foolish in women to wear thin silks, as being a very improper habit for such as pretended to any sort of employment. When he saw the women's feet, he judged them to be of another shape than those of the men, because of the different shape of their shoes. He did not approve of the heels of shoes worn by men or women; and when he observed horses with shoes on their feet, and fastened with iron nails, he could not forbear laughing, and thought it the most ridiculous thing that ever fell under his observation. He longed to see his native country again, and passionately wished it were blessed with ale, brandy, tobacco and iron, as Glasgow was.
There is a couple of large eagles who have their nest on the north end of the isle: the inhabitants told me that they commonly make their purchases in the adjacent isles and continent, and never take so much as a lamb or hen from the place of their abode, where they propagate their kind. I forgot to give an account of a singular providence that happened to a native in the isle of Skye, called Neil, who when an infant was left by his mother in the field, not far from the houses on the north side of Loch Portree, an eagle came in the meantime, and carried him away in its talons as far as the south side of the loch, and there laying him on the ground, some people that were herding sheep there perceived it, and hearing the infant cry, ran immediately to its rescue, and by good providence found him untouched by the eagle, and carried him home to his mother. He is still living in that parish, and by reason of this accident, is distinguished among his neighbours by the surname of Eagle.
|To Next Section|