The inhabitants of this isle are originally descended of those of the adjacent isles, Lewis, Harries, South and North Uist, Skiy: both sexes are naturally very grave, of a fair completion; such as are not fair are natives only for an age or two; but their off-spring proves fairer than themselves.
There are several of them would be reckoned among beauties of the first rank, were they upon a level with others in their dress.
Both men and women are well proportioned, nothing differing from those of the isles and continent. The present generation comes short of the last in strength and longevity. They shew’d us huge big stones carried by the fathers of some of the inhabtants now living; any of which is a burthen too heavy for any two of the present inhabitants to raise from the ground; and this change is all within the compass of forty years. But notwithstanding this, any one inhabiting St. Kilda, is always reputed stronger than two of the inhabitants belonging to the Isle of Harries, or the adjacent isles. Those of St. Kilda have generally but very thin beards, and those too do not appear till they arrive at the age of thirty, and in some not till after thirty-five; they have all but a few hairs upon the upper lip, and point of the chin.
Both sexes have a lisp, but more especially the women, neither of the two pronouncing the letters, d, g, or r. I remember a story of a craker that lisped (two years ago), the boys of the place took notice of, and were pleased to hear him, and to ape his cry; one of the steward’s men beholding them, enquired the meaning of their noise, which he told them was ridiculous; they return’d answer, that it was worth his while to behold the sport of a lisping craker, whom they aped; but the man replied, that they played the fool, for the craker diverted himself in lisping after them, and charged them with that imperfection; the boys no sooner heard this, but away they ran, and left the craker to cry and lisp as he pleased.
There are some of both sexes who have a genius for poetry, and are great admirers of musick; the trump or Jewish harp is all the musical instrument they have, which disposes them to dance mightily. Their sight is extraordinary good, and they can discern things at a great distance; they have very good memories, and are resolute in their undertakings, chaste and honest, and the men reputed jealous of their wives. They argue closely, and with less passion than other islanders, or those inhabiting the highlands on the continent.
They are reputed very cunning, and there is scarce any circumventing of them in trafffick and bartering; the voice of one is the voice of all the rest, they being all of a piece, their common interest uniting them firmly together. They marry very young, the women at about thirteen or fourteen years of age; and are nice in examining the degrees of consanguinity before they marry. They give suck to their children for the space of two years. The most ancient person among them at present, is not above eighty years of age.
Providence is very favourable to them in this, that they are not infested with several diseases which are so predominant in the other parts of the world; the distemper that most prevails here, is a spotted fever, and that too confin’d to one tribe, to whom this disease is, as it were, become hereditary; others are liable to fluxes, fevers, stitches, the spleen; for all which they have but very few remedies; to get away their stitches, they commonly lie upon a warm hearth, with the side affected downwards; this they look upon to be almost infallible for dispelling the humor, or wind, that torments them. The smallpox hath not been heard of in this place for several ages, except in one instance, of two of the steward’s retinue, who not having been well recovered of it, upon their arrival here, infected one man only.
The plants produced here, are lapathum vulgare, the common dock, scurvy-grass round, being large as the palm of the hand, mille-foil, bursa pastoris, silver-weed, or argentine, plantine, sage, chicken-weed; sorrel, long, or the common sorrel; all-hail, or siderites, the sea-pinck, tormentil, the scurf upon the stones, which has a drying and healing quality, and is likewise used for dying. The inhabitants are ignorant of the virtues of these herbs; they never had a potion of physick given them in their lives, nor know any thing of phlebotomy; a physician could not expect his bread in this commonwealth.
They have generally good voices, and sound lungs; to this the solan goose egg supp’d raw doth not a little contribute; they are seldom troubled with a cough, except at the steward’s landing; which is no less rare, than firmly believed by the inhabitants of the adjacent isles.
Those of St. Kilda, upon the whole, gave me this following account, that they always contract a cough upon the steward’s landing, and it proves a great deal more troublesome to them in the night-time, they then distilling a great deal of flegm; this indisposition; continues for some ten, twelve or fourteen days; the most sovereign remedy against this disease, is their great and beloved catholicon, the giben, i.e., the fat of their fowls, with which they stuff the stomach of the solan goose, in fashion of a pudding; this they put in the infusion of oatmeal, which in their language they call brochan; but it is not so effectual now as at the beginning, because of the frequent use of it. I told them plainly, that I thought all this notion of infection was but a mere fancy, and that, at least, it could not always hold; at which they seemed offended, saying, that never any, before the minister and my self, was heard doubt of the truth of it; which is plainly demonstrated upon the landing of every boat; adding further, that every design was always for some end, but here there was no room for any, where nothing could be proposed; but for confirmation of the whole, they appealed to the case of infants at the breast, who were likewise very subject to this cough, but could not be capable of affecting it, and therefore, in their opinion, they were infected by such as lodged in their houses. There were scarce young or old in the isle whom I did not examine particularly upon this head, and all agreed in the confirmation of it. They add farther, that when any foreign goods are brought thither, then the cough is of longer duration than otherwise. They remark, that if the fever has been among those of the steward’s retinue, though before their arrival there, some of the inhabitants are infected with it. If any of the inhabitants of St. Kilda chance to live, though but a short space, in the isles of Harries, Skey, or any of the adjacent isles, they become meagre, and contract such a cough, that the giben must be had, or else they must return to their native soil. This giben is more sovereign for removing of coughs, being used by any other islanders, than those of St. Kilda, because they love to have it frequently in their meat as well as drink, by which too frequent use of it, it loses its virtue; it was remarkable, that after this infected cough was over, we strangers, and the inhabitants of St. Kilda, making up the number of about two hundred and fifty, though we had frequently assembled upon the occasion of divine service, yet neither young nor old amongst us all did so much as once cough more.
Some thirteen years ago the leprosy broke out among them, and some of their number died by it; there are two families at present labouring under this disease. The symptoms of it are, their feet begin to fail, their appetite declines, their faces become too red, and break out in pimples, they get a hoarseness, and their hair falls off from their heads, the crown of it exculcerates and blisters, and lastly, their beards grow thinner than ordinary.
This disease may in a large measure be ascribed to their gross feeding, and that on those fat fowls, as the fulmar and the solan geese; the latter of which they keep for the space of a whole year, without salt or pepper to preserve them; these they eat roasted or boiled.
One of these lepers, being with me one day at the fulmar-rock, importuned me to give him a remedy for his disease; I began to chide him for his ill diet in feeding so grosly; but finding the poor fellow ready and implicitly disposed to do whatever I should enjoin, I bid him take example from the fulmar, who, they say, feeds sometimes on sorrel; this was a very surprizing advice to him, but when he considered that the fulmar required sorrel to qualify the whale, he was the sooner persuaded that his giben and goose might require the same; I advised him further, to abstain from the giben and fat fowls, which was no small trouble to him, for he loved them exceedingly; I obliged him likewise to mount the hill Conager, a mile in height, once every morning and evening, and he was very careful to comply with those injunctions for the space of three days; in which short time he made some advances towards recovering his almost lost speech and appetite; for his throat was well nigh quite stopp’d up; he continued this practice a week longer, by which means he mended very considerably; and I left him fully resolved to proceed in this practice, until he was perfectly restored to his former state of health. I had the occasion to observe another of these lepers rave for some minutes, and when he was recovered to his right mind, he wrought at his ordinary employment.
The inhabitants are Christians, much of the primitive temper, neither inclined to enthusiasm nor to popery. They swear not the common oaths that prevail in the world; when they refuse or deny to give what is asked of them, they do it with a strong asseveration,which they express emphatically enough in their language to this purpose, You are no more to have it, than that if God had forbid it; and thus they express the highest degree of passion. They do not so much as name the devil once in their lifetimes.
They leave off working after twelve of the clock on Saturday, as being an ancient custom delivered down to them from their ancestors, and go no more to it till Monday morning. They believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost; and a state of future happiness and misery, and that all events, whether good or bad, are determined by God. They use a set form of prayer at the poising of their sails: they lie down, rise, and begin their labours in the name of God. They have a notion, that spirits are embodied; these they fancy to be locally in rocks, hills, and where-ever they list in an instant.
There are three chappels in this isle, each of them with one end towards the east, the other towards the west; the altar always placed at the east end; the first of these is called Christ Chappel, near the village; it is covered and thatched after the same manner with their houses; there is a brazen crucifix lies upon the altar, not exceeding a foot in length, the body is compleatly done, distended, and having a crown on, all in the crucified posture; they have it in great reverence, though they pay no kind of adoration or worship to it, nor do they either handle or see it, except upon the occasions of marriage, and swearing decisive oaths, which puts an end to all strife, and both these ceremonies are publickly performed. The church-yard is about an hundred paces in circumference, and is fenced in with a little stone wall, within which they bury their dead; they take care to keep the church-yard perfectly clean, void of any kind of nastiness, and their cattel have no access to it. The inhabitants, young and old, come to the church-yard every Sunday morning, the Chappel not being capacious enough to receive them; here they devoutly say the Lord’s prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments.
They observe the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Good-Friday, St. Columba’s Day, and that of All Saints; upon this they have an anniversary cavalcade, the number of their horses not exceeding eighteen; these they mount by turns, having neither saddle nor bridle of any kind, except a rope, which manages the horse only on one side; they ride from the shoar to the house, and then after each man has performed his tour, the show is at an end. They are very charitable to their poor, of whom there are not at present above three, and these carefully provided for, by this little commonwealth, each particular family contributing according to their ability for their necessities; their condition is enquired into weekly, or monthly, as their occasions serve; but more especially at the time of their festivals, they slay some sheep on purpose to be distributed among the poor, with bread proportionable; they are charitable to strangers in distress, this they had opportunity to express to a company of French and Spaniards who lost their ship at Rokol in the year 1686, and came in, in a pinnace to St. Kilda, where they were plentifully supplied with barly-bread, butter, cheese, solan geese, eggs, etc. Both seamen and inhabitants were barbarians one to another, the inhabitants speaking only the Irish tongue, to which the French and the Spaniards were altogether strangers; upon their landing they pointed to the west, naming Rokol to the inhabitants, and after that, they pointed downward with their finger, signifying the sinking and perishing of their vessel; they skewed them Rokol in the sea map, far west off St. Kilda. This, and much more, the masters of these ships told to a priest in the next island who understood French. The inhabitants acquainted me that the pinnace which carried the seamen from Rokol was so very low, that the crew added a foot height of canvas round it all, and began to work at it upon Sunday, at which the inhabitants were astonished, and being highly dissatisfied, plucked the hatchets and other instruments out of their hands, and did not restore them till Monday morning.
The inhabitants had occasion to skew great kindness to a boat’s crew that was driven from the opposite isle South Uist, whither they themselves were driven afterwards, and where they were treated with no less civility and kindness than the above-mentioned had been by them: so that it may be said of them with great justice, that their charity is as extensive as the occasions of it.
The second of these chappels bears the name of St. Columba, the third of St. Brianan; both built after the manner of Christ’s Chappel; having churchyards belonging to them, and they are a quarter of a mile distance betwixt each chappel.
They told me of a ship that dropp’d anchor in the mouth of the bay the preceeding year, and that the Lowlanders aboard her were not Christians; I enquired if their interpreter, who they said spoke bad Irish, had owned this to be a truth, they answered, not; but that they knew this by their practices, and that in these three particulars; the first was the working upon Sunday, carrying several boats full of stones aboard for ballast; the second was the taking away some of their cows without any return for them, except a few Irish copper pieces; and the third was, the attempt made by them to ravish their women, a practice altogether unknown in St. Kilda, where there has not been one instance of fornication or adultery for many ages before this time; I remember they told me, that the bribe offered for debauching the poor women, was a piece of broad money, than which there could be nothing less charming in a place where inhabitants cannot distinguish a guinea from a sixpence.
Their marriages are celebrated after the following manner; when any two of them have agreed to take one another for man and wife, the officer who presides over them, summons all the inhabitants of both sexes to Christ’s Chappel, where being assembled, he enquires publickly if there be any lawful impediment why these parties should not be joined in the bond of matrimony? And if there be no objection to the contrary, he then enquires of the parties if they are resolved to live together in weal and woe, etc. After their assent, he declares them married persons, and then desires them to ratify this their solemn promise in the presence of God and the people, in order to which the crucifix is tender’d to them, and both put their right hands upon it, as the ceremony by which they swear fidelity one to another during their lifetime.
Mr. Campbel, the minister, married in this manner fifteen pair of the inhabitants on the seventeenth of June, who immediately after marriage, join’d in a country dance, having only a bagpipe for their musics, which pleased them exceedingly.
They baptize in the following manner; the parent calls in the officer, or any of his neighbours to baptize his child, and another to be sponsor; he that performs the minister’s part being told what the child’s name is to be, says, A .B. I baptize thee to your father and your mother, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; then the sponsor takes the child in his arms, as both his wife as godmother, and ever after this there is a friendship between the parent and the sponsor, which is esteemed so sacred and inviolable, that no accident, how cross so-ever, is able to set them at variance; and it reconciles such as have been at enmity formerly.
This isle belongs in property to the Laird of Mack-Leod, head of one of the ancientest families of Scotland; it is never farmed, but mostly commonly bestowed upon some favourite, one of his friends or followers, who is called steward of the isle. The present steward’s name is Alexander Mack-Leod, who pays yearly to his master an acknowledgment of the various products of this isle. This steward visits St. Kilda every summer, and upon his arrival he and his retinue have all the milk in the isle bestowed on them in a treat; there is another bestowed on them upon St. Columba’s Day, the fifteenth of June; we had a share of this second treat. The steward’s retinue consist of forty, fifty, or sixty persons, and among them, perhaps the most meagre in the parish are carried thither to be recruited with good chear; but this retinue is now retrenched, as also some of their ancient and unreasonable exactions.
The steward lives upon the charge of the inhabitants until the time that the solan geese are ready to fly, which the inhabitants think long enough; the daily allowance paid by them is very regularly exacted, with regard to their respective proportions of lands and rocks; there is not a parcel of men in the world more scrupulously nice and punctilious in maintaining their liberties and properties than these are, being most religiously fond of their ancient laws and statutes; nor will they by any means consent to alter their first (though unreasonable) constitutions; and we had a pregnant instance of this their genius for preserving their ancient customs; they have unchangeably continued their first and ancient measures, as the maile, amir, and cubit; this maile contains ten pecks; the amir which they at present make use of, is probably the Hebrew omer, which contains near two pecks; the cubit, or in their language, lave keile, i.e., an hand of wood, is the distance from the elbow to the finger’s ends; this they only use in measuring their boats: the amir, or rather half-amir as they call it, is composed of thin boards, and as they confess has been used these four-score years; in which tract of time it is considerably fallen short of the measure of which it was at first, which they themselves do not altogether deny; the steward to compensate this loss, pretends to a received custom of adding the hand of him that measures the corn to the amir side, holding some of the burly above the due measure, which the inhabitants complain of as unreasonable; the steward to satisfy them, offered to refer the debate to Mr. Campbel’s decision and mine, they themselves being to propose their objections, and two of his retinue, who were well seen in the customs of this place, in time of some of the former stewards, being appointed to answer them, and he promised that he would acquiesce in the decision, though it should prove to his prejudice; but they would not alter that measure if Mac-Leod did not expressly command the same to be done, being persuaded that he would not in the least alter that measure which his and their ancestors had had in such esteem for so many ages. So great was their concern for this amir, that they unanimously determined to send the officer as envoy (according to the ancient custom) to represent their case to Mack-Leod; this was the result of a general council, in which the master of every family has a vote, since every family pays this officer an amir of barly per annum, to maintain his character.
This officer as such, is obliged to adjust the repective proportions of lands, grass, and rocks, and what else could be claimed by virtue of the last tack, or lease, which is never longer than for three years, condescended to by the steward; nay, he is obliged always to dispute with the steward for what is due to any of them, and never to give over until he has obtained his demand, or put the steward into such a passion, that he gives the officer at least three strokes with his cudgel over the crown of his head; after these three strokes he has done the utmost that is required of him by their ancient customs. I enquired of the officer (who told me this passage) what if the steward give him but one blow over the crown, he answered, that the inhabitants would not be satisfied if he did not so far plead as to irritate the steward to give both a second and a third blow; I had the farther curiosity to enquire of the steward himself if he was wont to treat the officer in this manner; who answered, that it was an ancient custom, which in his short time he had not had occasion to practice, but if he should, he would not confine himself to the number of three blows, if the officer should prove indiscreet.
The steward bestows some acres of land upon the officer for serving him and the inhabitants; he gives him likewise the bonnet worn by himself upon his going out of the island; the steward’s wife leaves with the officer’s wife the kerch, or head-dress worn by herself, and she bestows likewise upon her an ounce of indigo. The steward has a large cake of barly presented to him by an officer at every meal, and it must be made so large as shall be sufficient to satisfy three men at a time, and by way of eminence it is baked in the form of a triangle, and furrowed twice round; the officer is likewise obliged to furnish the steward with mutton, or beef, to his dinner every Sunday during his residence in the island.
Notwithstanding these reciprocal acts of kindness, this officer must be allowed to go in quality of an envoy to Mack-Leod against the steward, upon extraordinary occasions, if the commonwealth have any grievances to redress, as that of the amir now depending; but the commission given him is limited, the whole boat’s crew being joined in commission with him, and are a check upon him, lest his dependance upon the steward might be apt to bias him; he makes his entry very submissively, taking off his bonnet at a great distance when he appears in Mack-Leod’s presence, bowing his head and hand low near to the ground, his retinue doing the like behind him one after another, making, as it were, a chain; this being their manner of walking both at home and abroad, for they walk not a-breast as others do; and in making their purchase among the rocks, one leads the van, and the rest follow.
The number of people inhabiting this isle at present, is about one hundred and eighty, who in the steward’s absence are governed by one Donald Mack-Gill-Colm, as their Meijre, which imports an officer; this officer was anciently chosen, or at least approved of by the people, before the steward settled him in his office, but now the stewards have the nomination of him absolutely; he is president over them in all their debates, takes care that the lots be managed impartially, that none to whose share they fall may have cause to repine, whether it be for the steward’s service, or that of the commonwealths; the use of the lots, together with the crucifix, do mightily contribute to their peace and quiet, keeping every one within his proper bounds. It must needs be a very odd case indeed that falls not within the compass of either of these two to determine; when any case happens which does not fall under the decision of lots, and it is capable of being decided only by the oath of the parties, then the crucifix must determine the matter; and if it should prove to be a case of the highest importance, any of them is at liberty to refer it to his neighbour’s oath, without any suspicion of perjury, provided the ceremony of touching the crucifix with their right hand be observed; and this is always publickly performed.
If any man is guilty of beating his neighbour, he is liable to a fine not exceeding the value of two shillings sterling; if any has beat his neighbour so as to draw blood from him; he is liable to a fine, but it must not exceed four shillings and sixpence; these crimes are complained of by the officer to the steward upon his arrival, who either exacts the whole, or dispences with the fines, as he judges convenient for their future quiet and peace.
They have only one common kiln, which serves them all by turns, as the lots fall to their share; he whose lot happens to be last does not resent it at all.
The officer by virtue of his place, is obliged through a point of honour to be the first that lands in the lesser isles and rocks, from whence they carry their fowls and eggs, and not within some trouble too. This notion of honour exposes him to frequent dangers; and, perhaps, it may not be unpleasant to describe it as I have seen it practised; and ‘tis thus; when they have come as near to the rock as they think may consist with the safety of the boat, which is not a little tossed by the raging of the sea, those whose turn then it is, are employed with poles to keep off the boat, that is in great danger, in regard of the violence of the waves beating upon the rock, and they are to watch the opportunity of the calmest wave; upon the first appearance of which, the officer jumps out upon the rock; if there be any apparent danger, he ties a rope about his middle, with one end of it fastened to the boat; if he has landed safe, he then fixes his feet in a secure place, and by the assistance of this rope draws up all the crew to him, except those whose turn it is to look after the boat; but if in jumping out he falls into the sea, (as his fortune is so to do sometimes) then he is drawn into the boat again by that part of the rope that is so fastened to it, and the next then whose turn it is must try his fortune, the officer after his fall being supposed to be sufficiently fatigu’d, so that he is not obliged to adventure his person again to a second hazard upon this occasion, especially he being exposed to the greatest danger that offers upon their landing when they return back again to the isle, where the sea often rages, he being obliged then by virtue of his office to stay in the boat, after the whole crew are landed, where he must continue employing his pole, until the boat be either brought safe to land, or else split upon the rocks.
They furnish themselves with ropes to carry them through the more inaccessible rocks; of these ropes there are only three in the whole island, each of them twenty-four fathoms in length; and they are either knit together and lengthned by tying the one to the other, or used separately as occasion requires; the chief thing upon which the strength of these ropes depends, is cows hides salted,and cut out in one long piece, this they twist round the ordinary rope of hemp, which secures it from being cut by the rocks; they join sometimes at the lower end two ropes, one of which they tie about the middle of one climber, and another about the middle of another, that these may assist one another in case of a fall; but the misfortune is, that sometimes the one happens to pull down the other, and so both fall into the sea; but if they escape (as they do commonly of late) they get an incredible number of eggs and fowls.
The ropes belong to the commonwealth, and are not to be used without the general consent of all; the lots determine the time, place, and persons for using them, they get together in three days a much greater number of fowls and eggs than their boat is able to carry away, and therefore what is over and above they leave behind in their stone-pyramids: they catch their fowls with gins made of horse-hair, these are tied to the end of their fishing-rods, with which the fowlers creep through the rocks indiscernably, putting the noose over their heads about their necks, and so draw them instantly; they use likewise hair gins which they set upon plain rocks, both the ends fastened by a stone, and so catch forty or fifty a day with them.
The inhabitants, I must tell you, run no small danger in the quest of the fowls and eggs, insomuch that I fear it would be thought an hyperbole to relate the inaccessibleness, steepness, and height, of those formidable rocks which they venture to climb. I my self have seen some of them climb up the corner of a rock with their backs to it, making use only of their heels and elbows, without any other assistance; and they have this way acquired a dexterity in climbing beyond any I ever yet saw; necessity has made them apply themselves to this, and custom has perfected them in it; so that it is become familiar to them almost from their cradles, the young boys of three years old being to climb the walls of their houses: their frequent discourses of climbing, together with the fatal end of several in the exercise of it, is the same to them, as that of fighting and killing is with soldiers, and so is become as familiar and less formidable to them, than otherwise certainly it would be. I saw two young men, to whose share the lots fell in June last, for taking the nest of a hawk (which was in a high rock above the sea) bringing home the hawks in a few minutes, without any assistance at all.
Their dogs are likewise very dexterous in climbing and bringing out from their holes those fowls which build their nests far under-ground, such as the scraber, puffinet, &c., which they carry in their teeth to their masters, leting them fall upon the ground before them, though asleep.
The inhabitants speak the Irish tongue only; they express themselves slowly but pertinently; and have the same language with those of Harries and other isles, who retain the Irish in its purity.
Their habit anciently was of sheepskins, which has been wore by several of the inhabitants now living; the men at this day wear a short doublet reaching to their waste, about that a double plait of plad, both ends join’d together with the bone of a fulmar; this plad reaches no further than their knees, and is above the haunches girt about with a belt of leather; they wear short caps of the same colour and shape with the capuchins, but shorter; and on Sundays they wear bonnets; some of late have got breeches, and they are wide and open at the knees; they wear cloth stocking and go without shoes in the summer-time; their leather is dress’d with the roots of tormentil.
The women wear upon their heads a linnen dress, strait before, and drawing to a small point behind below the shoulders, a foot and an half in length, and a lock of about sixty hairs hanging down each cheek, reaching to their breasts, the lower end tied with a knot; their plad, which is the upper garment, is fastened upon their breasts with a large round buckle of brass in form of a circle; the buckle anciently worn by the steward’s wives were of silver, but the present steward’s wife makes no use of either this dress or buckle. The women inhabiting this isle wear no shoes nor stocking in the summer-time; the only and ordinary shoes they wear, are made of the necks of solan geese, which they cut above the eyes, the crown of the head serves for the heel, the whole skin being cut close at the breast, which end being sowed, the foot enter into it, as into a piece of narrow stockin this shoe doth not wear above five days, and if the down side be next the ground, then not above three or four days; but, however, there is plenty of them; some thousands being catch’d, or, as they term it, stolen every March.
Both sexes wear course flannel shirts, which they put off when they go to bed; they thicken their cloaths upon flakes, or mats of hay twisted and woven together in small ropes; they work hard at this employment, first making use of their hands, and at last of their feet; and when they are at this work, they commonly sing all the time, one of their number acting the part of a prime chantress, whom all the rest follow and obey.
They put the faces of their dead towards the east when they bury them, and bewail the death of their relations excessively, and upon those occasions make doleful songs, which they call laments. Upon the news of the late Mack-Leod’s death, they abandoned their houses, mourning two days in the field; they kill a cow, or sheep, before the interment, but if it be in the spring, this ceremony then is delayed, because the cattel are at that time poor and lean, but, however, they are to be kill’d as soon as ever they become fat.
Their ordinary food is barly and some oat-bread baked with water; they eat all the fowls, already described, being dried in their stone-houses, without any salt or spice to preserve them; and all their beef and mutton is eaten fresh, after the same manner they use the giben, or fat of their fowls; this giben is by daily experience found to be a sovereign remedy for the healing of green wounds; it cured a cancer in an inhabitant of the isle of Lewis, and a fistula in one Nicholson of Sky, in St. Maries Parish; this was performed by John Mack-Lean, chirurgeon there: they boil the sea-plants, dulse, and slake, melting the giben upon them instead of butter, and upon the roots of silver-weed and dock boiled, and also with their scurvy-grass stoved, which is very purgative, and here it is of an extraordinary breadth. They use this giben with their fish, and it is become the common vehicle that conveys all their food down their throats. They are undone for want of salt, of which as yet they are but little sensible; they use no set times for their meals, but are determined purely by their appetites.
They use only the ashes of sea-ware for salting their cheese, and the shortest (which grows in the rocks) is only used by them, that being reckoned the mildest.
Their drink is water, or whey, commonly: they brew ale but rarely, using the juice of nettle-roots, which they put in a dish with a little barley-meal dough; these sowens (i.e., flummery) being blended together, produce good yest, which puts their wort into a ferment, and makes good ale, so that when they drink plentifully of it, it disposes them to dance merrily.
They preserve the solan geese in their pyramids for the space of a year, flitting them in the back, for they have no salt to keep them with. They have built above five hundred stone pyramids for their fowls, eggs, &c.
We made particular enquiry after the number of solon geese consumed by each family the year before we came here, and it amounted to twenty-two thousand six hundred in the whole island, which they said was less than they ordinarily did, a great many being lost by the badness of the season, and the great current into which they must be thrown when they take them, the rock being of such an extraordinary height that they cannot reach the boat.
There is one boat sixteen cubits long, which serves the whole commonwealth; it is very curiously divided into apartments proportionable to their lands and rocks; every individual has his space distinguished to an hair’s breadth, which his neighbour cannot encroach so much as to lay an egg upon it.
Every partner in summer provides a large turf to cover his space of the boat, thereby defending it from the violence of the sun, which (in its meridian height) reflects most vehemently from the sea, and rock, upon which the boat lies; at the drawing of it up, both sexes are employed pulling a long rope at the fore-end; they are determined in uniting their strength, by the cryer, who is therefore excepted from being obliged to draw the boat.
There is but one steel and tinder-box in all this commonwealth; the owner whereof fails not upon every occasion of striking fire in the lesser isles, to go thither, and exact three eggs, or one of the lesser fowls from each man as a reward for his service; this by them is called the fire-penny, and this capitation is very uneasy to them; I bid them try their chrystal with their knives, which when they saw it did strike fire, they were not a little astonished, admiring at the strangeness of the thing, and at the same time accusing their own ignorance, considering the quantity of chrystal growing under the rock of their coast. This discovery has delivered them from the fire-penny tax, and so they are no longer liable to it.
They have likewise a pot-penny tax, which is exacted in the same manner as the fire-penny was, but is much more reasonable; for the pot is carried to the inferior isles for the publick use; and is in hazard of being broken; so that the owners may justly exact upon this score, since any may venture his pot when he pleases. When they have bestowed some hours in fowling about the rocks, and caught a competent number, they sit down near the face of it to refresh themselves, and in the mean time, they single out the fattest of their fowls, plucking them bare, which they carry home to their wives, or mistresses, as a great present, and it is always accepted very kindly from them, and could not otherwise be, without great ingratitude, seeing these men ordinarily expose themselves to very great danger, if not hazard their lives, to procure those presents for them.
In the face of the rock, south from the town, is the famous stone, known by the name of the mistress-stone; it resembles a door exactly; and is in the very front of this rock, which is twenty or thirty fathom perpendicular in height, the figure of it being discernable about the distance of a mile; upon the lintel of this door, every bachelor-wooer is by an ancient custom obliged in honour to give a specimen of his affection for the love of his mistress, and it is thus; he is to stand on his left foot, having the one half of of his sole over the rock, and then he draws the right foot further out to the left, and in this posture bowing, he puts both his fists further out to the right foot; and then after he has performed this, he has acquired no small reputation, being always after it accounted worthy of the finest mistress in the world: they firmly believe that this achievement is always attended with the desired success.
This being the custom of the place, one of the inhabitants very gravely desired me to let him know the time limited by me for trying of this piece of gallantry before I design’d to leave the place, that he might attend me; I told him this performance would have a quite contrary effect upon me, by robbing me both of my life and mistress at the same moment; but he was of a contrary opinion, and insisted on the good fortune attending it; but I must confess all his arguments were too weak to make me attempt the experiment.
They take their measures in going to the lesser islands from the appearance of the Heavens; for when it is clear or cloudy in such a quarter, it is a prognostick of wind or fair weather; and when the waves are high on the east point of the bay, it is an infallible sign of a storm, especially if they appear very white, even though the weather be at that time calm.
If the waves in the bay make a noise as they break before they beat upon the shoar,it is also an infallible forerunner of a west wind; if a black cloud appears above the south side of the bay, a south wind follows some hours afterwards. It is observed of the sea betwixt St. Kilda and the isles Lewis, Harries, &c., that it rages more with a north wind, than when it blows from any other quarter. And it is likewise observed to be less raging with the south wind than any other.
They know the time of the day by the motion of the sun from one hill or rock to another; upon either of these the sun is observed to appear at different times; and when the sun doth not appear, they measure the day by the ebbing and flowing of the sea, which they can tell exactly, though they should not see the shoar for some days together; their knowledge of the tides depends upon the changes of the moon, which they likewise observe, and are very nice in it.
They use for their diversion short clubs and balls of wood; the sand is a fair field for this sport and exercise, in which they take great pleasure and are very nimble at it; they play for some eggs, fowls, hooks, or tobacco; and so eager are they for victory, that they strip themselves to their shirts to obtain it; they use swimming and diving, and are very expert in both.
The women have their assemblies in the middle of the village, where they discourse of their affairs, but in the mean time employing their distaff, and spinning in order to make their blankets; they sing and jest for diversion, and in their way, understand poetry, and makes rhimes in their language. Both men and women are very courteous; as often as they passed by us every day, they saluted us with their ordinary compliment of " God save you "; each of them making their respective courtesies.
Both sexes have a great inclination to novelty; and, perhaps, anything may be thought new with them that is but different from their way of managing land, cattel, fowls, etc. A parcel of them were always attending the minister and me, admiring our habit, behaviour; and, in a word, all that we did or said was wonderful in their esteem; but above all, writing was the most astonishing to them; they cannot conceive how it is possible for any mortal to express the conceptions of his mind in such black characters upon white paper. After they had with admiration argued upon this subject, I told them, that within the compass of two years or less, if they pleased, they might easily be taught to read and write, but they were not of the opinion that either of them could be obtained, at least by them, in an age.
The officer in his embassy in July last, travelled so far as to land on the continent next to Sky, and it was a long journey for a native of St. Kilda so to do, for scarce any of the inhabitants ever had the opportunity of travelling so great a way into the world.
They observed many wonderful things in the course of their travels; but they have a notion that MackLeod’s family is equivalent to that of an Imperial Court, and believe the king to be only superior to him: they say his lady wore such a strange Lowland dress, that it was impossible for them to describe it; they admired glass windows hugely, and a looking-glass to them was a prodigy; they were amazed when they saw cloth hangings upon a thick wall of stone and lime, and condemn’d it as a thing very vain and superfluous.
They reckon the year, quarter, and month, as generally is done all Britain over. They compute the several periods of time by the lives of the proprietors and stewards, of whose greatest actions they have a tradition, of which they discourse with as great satisfaction, as any historian reflecting on the Cæsars, or greatest generals in the world.
They account riding one of the greatest pieces of grandeur here upon earth, and told me with a strange admiration, that Mack-Leod did not travel on foot, as they supposed all other men did, and that they had seen several horses kept on purpose by him for riding.
One of their number landing in the isle of Harries, enquired who was the proprietor of those lands? They told him, that it was Mack-Leod, which did not a little raise his opinion of him; this man afterwards, when he was in the isle of Sky, and had travelled some miles there, one day standing upon an eminence, and looking round about him, he fancied he saw a great part of the world, and then enquired to whom those lands did belong, and when one of the company had acquainted him, that Mack-Leod was master of those lands also, the St. Kilda man lifting up his eyes and hands to Heaven, cried out with admiration, "O Mighty Prince, who art Master of such vast territories!" This he express’d so emphatically in the Irish language, that the saying from that time became a proverb whenever any body would express a greatness and plenitude of power.
One of the things they wondered most at, was the growth of trees; they thought the beauty of the leaves and branches admirable, and how they grew to such a height above plants, was far above their conception: one of them marvelling at it, told me, that the trees pulled him back as he travelled through the woods: they resolved once to carry some few of them on their backs to their boats, and so to take them to St. Kilda, but upon second thoughts, the length of the journey, being through the greatest part of the isle of Sky, deterr’d them from this undertaking, for though they excell others in strength, yet they are very bad travellers on foot, they being but little used to it.
One of their number having travelled in the Isle of Sky, to the south part of it, thought this a prodigious journey; and seeing in the opposite continent the shire of Inverness, divided from Sky only by a narrow sea, enquired of the company, if that was the border of England.
One of the St. Kilda men, after he had taken a pretty large dose of aqua-vitæ, and was become very heavy with it, as he was falling into a sleep, and fancying it was to have been his last, express’d to his companions the great satisfaction he had in meeting with such an easy passage out of this world; "for," said he, "it is attended with no kind of pain." In short, their opinion of foreign objects is as remote from the ordinary sentiments of other mankind, as they are themselves from all foreign converse.
I must not omit acquainting the reader, that the account given of the seamens rudeness to the inhabitants, has created great prejudices in them against seamen in general; and though I endeavoured to bring them into some good opinion of them, it will not be, I hope, improper here to deliver the terms upon which the inhabitants are resolved to receive strangers, and no otherwise; they will not admit of any number exceeding ten, and those too must be unarmed, for else the inhabitants will oppose them with all their might; but if any number of them, not exceeding that abovesaid, come peaceably, and with good designs, they may expect water and fire gratis, and what else the place affords, at the easiest rates in the world.
"The inhabitants of St. Kilda, are much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty: what the condition of the people in the Golden Age is feign’d by the poets to be, that theirs really is, I mean, in innocency and simplicity, purity, mutual love and cordial friendship, free from solicitous cares, and anxious covetousness; from envy, deceit, and dissimulation; from ambition and pride, and the consequences that attend them. They are altogether ignorant of the vices of foreigners, and governed by the dictates of reason and Christianity, as it was first delivered to them by those heroick souls whose zeal moved them to undergo danger and trouble to plant religion here in one of the remotest corners of the world.
There is this only wanting to make them the happiest people in this habitable globe, viz., that they themselves do not know how happy they are, and how much they are above the avarice and slavery of the rest of mankind. Their way of living makes them condemn gold and silver, as below the dignity of human nature; they live by the munificence of Heaven; and have no designs upon one another, but such as are purely suggested by justice and benevolence."
There being about thirty of the inhabitants one day together in the Isle Soa, they espied a man with a grey coat and plad, in a shirt, floating on the sea upon his belly, and saw likewise a mall pecking at his neck; this vision continued above a quarter of an hour, and then disappeared; but shortly after, one of the spectators chanc’d to fall into the sea, and being drowned, resembled the forewarning vision in all things, and the mall was also seen upon his neck; this was told me by the steward some years before, and afterwards was confirmed to me by such as were themselves eyewitnesses of it.
None of the inhabitants pretended to the second sight, except Roderick the Impostor, and one woman, and she told her neighbours that she saw, some weeks before our coming, a boat (different from that of the steward) with some strangers in it, drawing near to their isle.
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