Levinis, a rock about fourteen paces high, and thirty in circumference, narrower at the top; it stands about half a league to the south-east bay, and is not covered with any kind of earth or grass; it hath a spring of fresh water issuing out at the side; this rock, by an ancient custom, belongs to the galley’s crew, but the above-mentioned allowance disposes them to undervalue it. Betwixt the west point of St. Kilda, and the Isle Soa, is the famous rock Stack-donn, i.e. as much, in their language, as a mischievous rock, for it hath prov’d so to some of their number, who perished in attempting to climb it; it is much of the form and height of a steeple; there is a very great dexterity, and it is reckoned no small gallantry to climb this rock, especially that part of it called the Thumb, which is so little, that of all the parts of a man’s body, the thumb only can lay hold on it, and that must be only for the space of one minute; during which time his feet have no support, nor any part of his body touch the stone, except the thumb, at which minute he must jump by the help of his thumb, and the agility of his body concurring to raise him higher at the same time, to a sharp point of the rock, which when he has got hold of, puts him above danger, and having a rope about his middle, that he casts down to the boat, by the help of which he carries up as many persons as are designed for fowling at this time; the foreman, or principal climber, has the reward of four fowls bestowed upon him above his proportion; and, perhaps, one might think four thousand too little to compensate so great a danger as this man incurs; he has this advantage by it, that he is recorded among their greatest heroes; as are all the foremen who lead the van in getting up this mischievous rock.
Within pistol-shot from this place is the Isle Soa; a mile and an half in circumference, but contracted narrower toward the top, being a full half mile in difficult ascent all round, most of it bare rock, some parts of it covered with grass, but dangerous to ascend; the landing is also very hazardous, both in regard of the raging sea, and the rock that must be climb’d; yet the inhabitants are accustomed to carry burthens both up it and down, and of this I was once a witness. There is scarce any landing here, except in one place, and that under favour of a west wind and neap-tide; the waves upon the rock discover when it is accessible; if they appear white from St. Kilda, the inhabitants do not so much as offer to launch out their boat, in order to land in Soa, or any other isle or rock, though their lives were at the stake: this little isle is furnished with an excellent spring; the grass, being very sweet, feeds five hundred sheep, each of them having generally two or three lambs at a birth, and every lamb being so fruitful, that it brings forth a lamb before itself is a year old. The same is also observed of lambs in the little isles adjacent to the isles of Harries and North-Uist. The sheep in this isle Soa are never milk’d, which disposes them to be the more prolifick: there are none to catch them but the inhabitants, whom I have seen pursue the sheep nimbly down the steep descent, with as great freedom as if it had been a plain field.
This isle abounds with infinite numbers of fowls, as fulmar, lavy, falk, bowger, &c.
There was a cock-boat some two years ago came from a ship for water, being favoured by a perfect calm; the men discerned an infinite number of eggs upon the rocks, which charm’d them to venture near the place, and at last purchased a competent number of them; so careful was one of the seamen as to put them into his breeches, which he put off on purpose for this use; some of the inhabitants of St. Kilda happened to be in the isle that day; a parcel of them were spectators of this diversion, and were offended at it, being done without their consent, therefore they
devised an expedient, which at once robb’d the sea-men of their eggs and breeches; and ‘twas thus; they found a few loose stones in the superficies of the rock, some of which they let fall down perpendicularly above the seamen, the terror of which obliged them quickly to remove, abandoning both breeches and eggs for their safety; and those tarpawlin breeches were no small ornament there, where all wore girded plaids.
About two leagues and a half to the north of St. Kilda, is the rock Stack-Ly, two hundred paces in circumference, and of a great height, being a perfect triangle turning to a point at the top; it is visible above twenty leagues distant in a fair day, and appears blew; there is no grass nor earth to cover it, and it is perfectly white with solan geese sitting on and about it. One would think it next to impossible to climb this rock, which I express’d, being very close by it; but the inhabitants assured me it was practicable, and to convince me of the truth of it, they bid me look up near the top, where I perceived a stone pyramid-house, which the inhabitants built for lodging themselves in it in August, at which time the season proves inconstant there; this obliges the inhabitants in point of prudence to send a competent number of them to whose share the lots fall; these are to land in this rock some days before the time at which the solan geese use to take wing, and if they neglected th’s piece of foresight, one windy day might disappoint them of five, six, or seven thousand solan geese, this rock affording no less yearly; and they are so very numerous here, that they cannot be divided with respect to their lands, as elsewhere; therefore this is the reason why they send here by lots, and those who are sent act for the publick interest, and when they have knock’d on the head all that may be reached, they then carry them to a sharp point, called the casting-point, from whence they throw them into the sea; (the height being such that they dare not throw them in, but near the boat) until the boatmen cry, enough; lest the sea, which has a strong current there should carry them off, as it does sometimes, if too many are thrown down at once; and so by degrees getting all in, they return home; and after their arrival every man has his share proportionable to his lands, and what remains below the number ten, is due to the officer as a branch of his yearly salary. In this rock the solan geese are allowed to hatch their first eggs, but it is not so in the rocks next to be described; and that for this reason, that if all were allowed to hatch at the same time, the loss of the product in one rock would at the same time prove the loss of all the rest, since all would take wing almost at once.
The isle Borera lies near half a league from Stack-Ly, to the north-east of it, being in circumference one mile and an half; it feeds about four hundred sheep per annum, and would feed more, did not the solan geese pluck a large share of the grass for their nests.
This isle is very high and all rock, being inaccessible except in a calm, and there is only one place for landing, looking to the south: in the west end of this isle is Stallir-House, which is much larger than that of the female warrior in St. Kilda, but of the same model in all respects; it is all green without like a little hill; the inhabitants there have a tradition that it was built by one Stallir, who was a devout hermit of St. Kilda; and had he travelled the universe he could scarcely have found a more solitary place for a monastick life.
There are about forty stone pyramids in this isle, for drying and preserving their fowls, &c. These little houses are all of loose stones, and seen at some distance; there is also here a very surprizing number of fowls, the grass as well as the rocks filled with them. The solan geese possess it for the most part; they are always masters where-ever they come, and have already banished several species of fowls from this isle.
There was an earthquake here in the year 1686, which lasted but a few minutes; it was very amazing to the poor people, who never felt any such commotion before, or since.
To the west of Borera lies the rock Stack-Narmin, within pistol-shot; this rock is half a mile in circumference, and is as inaccessible as any the above-mentioned; there is a possibility of landing only in two places, and that but in a perfect calm neither, and after landing the danger in climbing it is very great. The rock has not any earth or grass to cover it, and hath a fountain of good water issuing out above the middle of it, which runneth easterly: this rock abounds with solan geese and other fowls; here are several stone pyramids, as well for lodging the inhabitants that attend the seasons of the solan geese, as for those that preserve and dry them and other fowls, &c. The sea rises and rages extraordinarily upon this rock: we had the curiosity, being invited by a fair day, to visit it for pleasure, but it was very hazardous to us; the waves from under our boat rebounding from off the rock, and mounting over our heads wet us all, so that we durst not venture to land, though men with ropes were sent before us; and we thought it hazard great enough to be near this rock; the wind blew fresh, so that we had much difficulty to fetch St. Kilda again; I remember they brought 800 of the preceding year’s solan geese dried in their pyramids; after our landing, the geese being cast together in one heap upon the ground, the owners fell to share out each man his own, at which I was a little surprised, they being all of a tribe; but having found upon enquiry that every goose carried a distinguishing mark on the foot, peculiar to the owner, I was then satisfied in this piece of singularity.
There is a violent current, whether ebb or flood, upon all the coasts of St. Kilda, lesser isles and rocks. It is observed to be more impetuous with spring than neap-tides; there are eddies on all the coasts, except at a sharp point where the tides keep their due course; the ebb southerly, and flood northerly.
A s.e. moon causeth high tide; the spring-tides are always at the full and new moon, the two days following they are higher, and from that time decrease until the increase of the moon again, with which it rises gradually till the second after the full moon. This observation the seamen find to hold true betwixt the Mule of Kantyre, and the Farrow Head in Strathnaver.
The land-fowls produced here are hawks extraordinary good, eagles, plovers, crows, wrens, stonechaker, craker, cuckoo; this last being very rarely seen here, and that upon extraordinary occasions, such as the death, of the proprietor Mack-Leod, the steward’s death, or the arrival of some notable stranger. I was not able to forbear laughing at this relation, as founded upon no reason but fancy; which I no sooner express’d, than the inhabitants wondred at my incredulity, saying, that all their ancestors for a series of several ages had remarked this observation to prove true, and for a further confirmation, appealed to the present steward,whether he had not known this observation to have been true, both in his own and his father’s time, who was also steward before him; and after a particular enquiry upon the whole, he told me, that both in his own and father’s life-time the truth of this observation has been constantly believed, and that several of the inhabitants now living have observed the cuckoo to have appeared after the death of the two last proprietors, and the two last stewards, and also before the arrival of strangers several times; it was taken notice of this year before our arrival, which they ascribe to my coming here, as the only stranger; the minister having been there before.
The sea-fowls are, first, Gairfowl, being the stateliest, as well as the largest of all the fowls here, and above the size of a solan goose, of a black colour, red about the eyes, a large white spot under each eye, a long broad bill; stands stately, its whole body erected, its wings short, it flyeth not at all, lays its egg upon the bare rock, which, if taken away, it lays no more for that year; it is palmypes, or whole-footed, and has the hatching spot upon its breast, i.e., a bare spot from which the feathers have fallen off with the heat in hatching; its egg is twice as big as that of a solan goose, and is variously spotted, black, green, and dark; it comes without regard to any wind, appears the first of May, and goes away about the middle of June.
The solan goose, as some imagine from the Irish word sou’l-er, corrupted and adapted to the Scottish language, qui oculis irretortis e longinquo respicit prædam: it equals a tame goose in bigness; it is by measure from the tip of the bill to the extremity of the foot, thirty-four inches long, and to the end of the tail, thirty-nine; the wings extended very long, there being seventy-two inches of distance betwixt the extream tips; its bill is long, strait, of a dark colour, a little crooked at the point; behind the eyes the skin of the side of the head is bare of feathers; the ears of a mean size; the eyes hazel-coloured; it hath four toes; the feet and legs black as far as they are bare; the plumage is like that of a goose. The colour of the old ones is white all over, excepting the extream tips of the wings, which are black, and the top of the head, which is yellow, as some think the effect of age. The young ones are of a dark brown colour, turning white after they are a year old; its egg, somewhat less than that of a land-goose, small at each end, and casts a thick scurf, and has little or no yolk. The inhabitants are accustomed to drink it raw, having from experience found it to be very pectoral, and cephalick. The solan geese hatch by turns; when it returns from its fishing, carries along with it five or six herrings in its gorget, all entire and undigested, upon whose arrival at the nest, the hatching fowl puts its head in the fisher’s throat, and pulls out the fish with its bill as with a pincer, and that with very great noise; which I had occasion frequently to observe. They continue to pluck grass for their nests from their coming in March till the young fowl is ready to fly in August or September, according as the inhabitants take or leave the first or second eggs. It’s remarkable of them, that they never pluck grass but on a windy day; the reason of which I enquired of the inhabitants, who said, that a windy day is the solan goose’s vacation from fishing, and they bestow it upon this employment, which proves fatal to many of them for after their fatigue they often fall asleep, and the inhabitants laying hold on this opportunity, are ready at hand to knock them on the head; their food is herring, mackerels, and syes; English hooks are often found in the stomachs both of young and old solan geese, though there be none of this kind used nearer than the isles twenty leagues distant; the fish pulling away the hooks in those isles go to St. Kilda, or are carried by the old geese thither; whether of the two the reader is at liberty to judge.
The solan geese are always the surest sign of herrings, for where-ever the one is seen, the other is always not far off. There is a tribe of barren solan geese which have no nests, and sit upon the bare rock; these are not the young fowls of an year old, whose dark colour would soon distinguish them, but old ones, in all things like the rest; these have a province, as it were, allotted to them, and are in a separated state from the others, having a rock two hundred paces distant from all other; neither do they meddle with, or approach to those hatching, or any other fowls; they sympathise and fish together; this being told me by the inhabitants, was afterwards confirmed to me several times by my own observation.
The solan geese have always some of their number that keep centinel in the night-time, and if they are surprized, (as it often happens) all that flock are taken one after another; but if the centinel be awake at the approach of the creeping fowlers, and hear a noise, it cries softly, grog, grog, at which the flock move not; but if this centinel see or hear the fowler approaching, it cries quickly, bir, bir, which would seem to import danger, since immediately after, all the tribe take wing, leaving the fowler empty on the rock, to return home re infecta, all its labour for that night being spent in vain. Here is a large field of diversion for Apollonius Tyanæus, who is said to have travelled many kingdoms over, to learn the language of beasts and birds.
Besides this way of stealing upon them in the night-time, they are also catched in common gins of horse-hair, from which they do struggle less to extricate themselves than any other fowl, notwithstanding their bigness and strength; they are also caught in the herring loches with a board set on purpose to float above water, upon it a herring is fixed, which the goose perceiving, flies up to a competent height, until it finds itself making a strait line above the fish, and then bending its course perpendicularly piercing the air, as an arrow from a bow, hits the board, into which it runs its bill with all its force irrecoverably, where it is unfortunately taken. The solan goose comes about the middle of March with a south-west wind, warm snow, or rain, and goes away, according as the inhabitants determined the time, i.e., the taking away, or leaving its egg, whether at the first, second, or third time it lays.
The fulmar, in bigness equals the malls of the second rate; its wings very long, the outside of which are of a greyish white colour, the inside breast all white, a thick bill two inches long, crooked and prominent at the end, with wide nostrils in the middle of the bill, all of a pale colour; the upper mandible, or jaw, hangs over the lower on both sides and point, its feet pale, not very broad, with sharp toes, and a back toe; it picks its food out of the back of live whales, they say it uses sorrel with it, for both are found in its nest; it lays its egg ordinarily the first, second, or third day of May; which is larger than that of a solan goose egg, of a white colour, and very thin, the shell so very tender that it breaks in pieces if the season proves rainy; when its egg is once taken away, it lays no more for that year, as other fowls do, both a second and third time; the young fowl is brought forth in the middle of June, and is ready to take wing before the twentieth of July; it comes in November, the sure messenger of evil-tidings, being always accompanied with boisterous west winds, great snow, rain, or hail, and is the only sea-fowl that stays here all the year round, except the month of September, and part of October. The inhabitants prefer this, whether young or old, to all other; the old is of a delicate taste, being a mixture of fat and lean; the flesh white, no blood is to be found but only in its head and neck; the young is all fat, excepting the bones, having no blood but what is in its head; and when the young fulmar is ready to take wing, it being approached, ejects a quantity of pure oyl out at its bill, and will make sure to hit any that attacks it, in the face, though seven paces distant; this, they say, it uses for its defence; but the inhabitants take care to prevent this, by surprizing the fowl behind, having for this purpose a wooden dish fixed to the end of their rods, which they hold before its bill as it spouts out the oyl; they surprize it also from behind, by taking hold of its bill, which they tie with a thread, and upon their return home they untie it with a dish under to receive the oyl; this oyl is sometimes of a reddish, sometimes of a yellow colour, and the inhabitants and other islanders put a great value upon it, and use it as a catholicon for diseases, especially for any aking in the bones, stitches, etc. Some in the adjacent isles use it as a purge, others as a vomiter; it is hot in quality, and forces its passage through any wooden vessel.
The fulmar is a sure prognosticator of the west wind; if it comes to land, there is no west wind to be expected for some time, but if it keeps at sea, or goes to sea from the land, whether the wind blow from the south, north, or east, or whether it is a perfect calm, its keeping the sea is always a certain presage of an approaching west wind; from this quarter it is observed to return with its prey; its egg is large as that of a solan goose, white in colour, sharp at one end, somewhat blunt at the other.
The scraber, so called in St. Kilda; in the Farn Islands, puffinet; in Holland, the Greenland dove; its bill small, sharp pointed, a little crooked at the end, and prominent; it is as large as a pigeon, its whole body being black, except a white spot on each wing; its egg grey, sharp at one end, blunt at the other.
It comes in the month of March, and in the nighttime, without regard to any winds; it’s always invisible, except in the night, being all day either abroad at fishing, or all the day under ground upon its nest, which it digs very far under ground, from whence it never comes in day-light; it picks its food out of the live whale, with which, they say, it uses sorrel, and both are found in its nest. The young puffin is fat as the young fulmar, and goes away in August if its first egg be spar’d.
The lavy, so called by the inhabitants of St. Kilda; by the Welch, a guillem; it comes near to the bigness of a duck; its head, upper-side of the neck all downwards of a dark brown, and white breast, the bill strait and sharp pointed; the upper chop hangs over the lower; its feet and claws are black
Its egg in bigness is near to that of a goose egg, sharp at one end, and blunt at the other; the colour of it is prettily mix’d with green and black; others of them are of a pale colour, with red and brown streaks; but this last is very rare; this egg for ordinary food is by the inhabitants, and others, preferred above all the eggs had here: This fowl comes with a south-west wind, if fair, the twentieth of February; the time of its going away depends upon the inhabitants taking or leaving its first, second, or third egg: if it stays upon land for the space of three days without intermission, it is a sign of southerly wind and fair weather; but if it goes to sea before the third expire, it is then a sign of a storm.
The bird, by the inhabitants called the falk, the rasor-bill in the West of England, the awk in the North, the murre in Cornwall; alca hoeri. It is a size less than the lavy; its head, neck, back, and tail, are black; the inside to the middle of the throat, white; the throat under the chin of a dusky black; beyond the nostrils in the upper mandible, or jaw there is a furrow deeper than that in the coulter-neb, the upper chop crooked at the end, and hangs over the lower, both having transverse furrows. It lays its egg in May, its young take wing the middle of July, if the inhabitants do not determine its stay longer, by taking the egg; which in bigness is next to the lavy, or guillem egg, and is variously spotted, sharp at one end, and blunt at the other.
The bouger, by those in St. Kilda so called; coulter-neb by those in the Farn Islands; and in Cornwall, pope; it is of the size of a pidgeon, its bill is short, broad, and compressed sidewise, contrary to the bills of ducks, of a triangular figure, and ending in a sharp point, the upper mandible, or jaw, arcuate and crooked at the point; the nostrils are long holes produced by the aperture of the mouth; the bill is of two colours; near the head, of an ash colour, and red towards the point; the feet are yellow, the claws of a dark blue; all the back black, breast and belly white. They breed in holes under ground, and come with a south-west wind about the twenty-second of March, lay their egg the twenty-second of April, and produce the fowl the twenty-second of May, if their first egg be not taken away; it is sharp at one end, and blunt on the other.
The assilag is as large as a lint-white; black bill, wide nostrils at the upper part, crooked at the point like the fulmar’s bill: it comes about the twenty-second of March, without any regard to winds, lays its egg about the twentieth of May, and produces the fowl towards the middle of October, then goes away about the end of November.
There are three sorts of sea-malls here, the first of a grey colour, in proportion near to a goose: the second sort of malls are considerably less, and of a grey colour; and the third sort is a white mall, less than a tame duck; the inhabitants call it reddag; it comes the fifteenth of April with a south-west wind, lays its egg about the middle of May, and goes away in the month of August.
The tirma, or sea-pie, by the inhabitants call’d trilichan, comes in May, goes away in August; if it comes the beginning of May, it is a sign of a good summer; if later, the contrary is observed. This fowl is cloven-footed, and consequently swims not.
It is observed of all the sea-fowls here, that they are fatter in time of hatching than at other times, the solan geese excepted.
Every fowl lays an egg three different times (except the gair-fowl and fulmar, which lay but once); if the first or second egg be taken away, every fowl lays but one other egg that year, except the sea-malls, and they ordinarily lay the third egg, whether the first and second eggs be taken away, or no.
The inhabitants observe, that when the April moon goes far in May, the fowls are ten or twelve days later in laying their eggs, than ordinarily they use to be.
The inhabitants likewise say, that of these fowls, there first come over some spies, or harbingers, especially of the solan geese, tow’ring about the islands where their nests are, and that when they have made a review thereof they fly away, and in two or three days after, the whole tribe are seen coming. Whither the fowls fly, and where they spend their winter, the inhabitants are utterly ignorant of.
The eggs are found to be of an astringent and windy quality to strangers, but, it seems, are not so to the inhabitants, who are used to eat them from the nest. Our men upon their arrival eating greedily of them became costive and feverish, some had the hemorrhoid veins swell’d; Mr Campbel and I were at no small trouble before we could reduce them to their ordinary temper; we ordered a glister for them made of the roots of sedges, fresh butter, and salt, which, being administered, had its wished-for effect; the inhabitants reckoned this an extraordinary performance, being, it seems, the first of this kind they ever had occasion to hear of.
They preserve their eggs commonly in their stone pyramids, scattering the burnt ashes of turf under and about them, to defend them from the air, dryness being their only preservative, and moisture their corruption; they preserve them six, seven, or eight months, as abovesaid; and then they become appetizing and loosening, especially those that begin to turn.
That such a great number of wild fowls are so tame, as to be easily taken by the rods and gins, is not to be much admired by any who will be at the pains to consider the reason, which is the great inclination of propagating their species; so powerful is that _org_ or natural affection for their off-spring, that they chuse rather to die upon the egg, or fowl, than escape with their own lives, (which they could do in a minute) and leave either of these to be destroyed.
It deserves our consideration to reflect seriously upon the natural propensity and sagacity of these animals in their kind; which if compared with many rational creatures, do far outstrip them, and justly obey the prescript of their natures, by living up unto that instinct that Providence has given them.
|To Next Chapter|