An Account of one Roderick, supposed to have had Conversation with a Familiar Spirit, and pretending to be sent by St. John the Baptist with New Revelations and Discoveries.
After our landing, the minister and I (according to our first resolution) examined the inhabitants apart by themselves concerning the new pretended religion delivered to them by their false prophet.
All of them, young as well as old, both men and women, unanimously agreed in this following account; they did heartily congratulate the minister’s arrival, and at the same time declared their abhorrence of the impostor’s delusions, and with repeated instances begg’d for the Lord’s sake that he might be for ever removed out of the isle.
This impostor is a comely-well-proportioned fellow, red-hair’d, and exceeding all the inhabitants of St. Kilda in strength, climbing, &c. He is illiterate, and under the same circumstances with his companions, for he had not so much as the advantage of ever seeing any of the Western Isles; all his converse being only with the steward’s retinue, who were as ignorant of letters as himself.
In the eighteenth year of his age, he took the liberty of going to fish on a Sunday, (a practice altogether unknown in St. Kilda); and he asserts, that in his return homeward, a man in Lowland dress, i.e., a cloak and hat, appeared to him upon the road; at this unexpected meeting, Roderick falls flat on the ground in great disorder; upon which this man desired him not to be surprized at his presence, for he was John the Baptist immediately come from Heaven with good tidings to the inhabitants of that place, who had been for a long time kept in ignorance and error; that he had commission to instruct Roderick in the laws of Heaven for the edification of his neighbours: Roderick answered, that he was no way qualified for so great a charge; the pretended John Baptist desired him to be of good courage, for he would instantly make him capable for his mission, and then delivered to him the following scheme, in which he so mixed the laudable customs of the church with his own diabolical inventions, that it became impossible for so ignorant a people as they, to distinguish the one from the other.
The first and principal command which he imposed upon them, was that of the Friday’s fast, which he enjoined to be observed with such strictness, as not to allow one of them to taste any kind of food before night, no, not so much as a snuff of tobacco, which they love dearly; this bare fast, without any religious exercise attending it, was the first badge and cognizance of his followers. He persuaded the peoples that some of their deceased neighbours were nominated saints in heaven, and advocates for them here who surviv’d; he told, every one had his respective advocate; the anniversary of every saint was to be commemorated by every person under whose tutelage they were reputed to be. And this was observed by treating the neighbours with a liberal entertainment of beef or mutton, fowls, &c., the impostor himself being always the chief guest at the feast; where a share of the entertainment was punctually sent to his wife and children; the number of sheep ordinarily consumed on these occasions, was proportionable to the ability of him that bestowed them.
He imposed likewise several penances which they were obliged to submit to, under the pain of being expelled from the society of his fraternity in worship, which he pretended to be founded upon no less authority than that of St. John the Baptist’s, and threatened to inflict the saddest judgments upon those as should prove refractory, and not obey his injunctions.
The ordinary penances he laid upon them, were to make them stand in cold water (without regard to the season, whether frost or otherwise) during his pleasure; and if there were any more of them upon whom this severity was to be inflicted, they were to pour cold water upon one another’s heads until they had satisfied his tyrannical humour. This diabolical severity was evidence enough, that he was sent by him who is the father of lies, and was a murtherer from the beginning.
He commanded that every family should slay a sheep upon the threshold of their doors, but a knife must not so much as touch it, he would have them only make use of their crooked spades for their instruments to kill them with; for which, if duly considered, there is nothing more improper, the edge with which he commanded the sheep’s neck to be cut being almost half an inch thick. Now this was to be done in the evening, and if either young or old had tasted a bit of the meat of it that night, the equivalent number of sheep were to be slain the following day, after the former manner.
He forbid the use of the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments, and instead of them prescribed diabolical forms of his own. His prayers and rhapsodical forms were often blended with the names of God, our Blessed Saviour; and the Immaculate Virgin; he used the Irish word, phersichin, i.e. verses, which is not known in St. Kilda, nor in the north-west isles, except to such as can read the Irish tongue. But that which seems to bemost surprising in his obscure prayers was his mentioning of ELI, with the character of our preserver. He used several unintelligible words in his prayers, of which he could not tell the meaning himself; saying only, that he had received them implicitly from St. John Baptist and delivered them before his hearers without any explication.
He taught the women a devout hymn, which he called the Virgin Mary’s, as sent from her; this hymn was never delivered in publick, but always in a private house, or some remote place where no eye could see them but that of Heaven; he persuaded the innocent women that it was of such merit and efficacy that any one who was able to repeat it by heart, would not die in child-bearing: and every woman paid a sheep to the impostor for teaching her this hymn.
The place and manner of teaching this hymn afforded him a fair opportunity of debauching the simple women; and this some of their number acknowledged to the minister and me upon examination.
He prescribed to all his auditory, long rhimes, which he called psalms; these he ordinarily sung at his rhapsodical preachments.
He endeavoured to alter the common way of burying, which was by placing the faces of the dead to the east, and would have persuaded them to place them to the south, and that he might prevail the more with them so to do, he placed the bodies of those of his own family who happened to die, facing the south; yet the inhabitants would not follow his example in this, but continued in their former practice.
He persuaded the women, that if in all things they complied with his new revelation, they should be undoubtedly carried to Heaven; and that in their journey thither they were to pass through the firmament riding upon white horses. These and many more ridiculous things he imposed upon the people, of which this is but an abstract.
This unhappy fellow to consecrate his enterprize, pitched upon a little rising spot of ground, which he called John the Baptist’s Bush; upon which he said these oracles were delivered by John Baptist to him. And this bush was from that time forward believed to be holy ground, and must not be any further trod upon by any of their cattel, and if by chance one of them happen to touch it, it must be forthwith slain and eaten by Roderick and the owners; and if any proved refractory, and were resolved to spare their cattel a most dreadful combination was issued out against them, of being thence-forward excluded from any further fellowship with him, until they should acknowledge their faults, and comply with his luxurious desires, which to disobey he made them believe was damnable. It was reckoned meritorious if any body had revealed who had transgressed the orders given by him.
This impostor continued for the space of several years, without controul, to delude these poor innocent well-meaning people, until at last his villainous design upon the women was found out, I mean, that he intended to accomplish under the mask of the devout hymn that he taught them, and was first discovered by the officer’s wife, who by the impostor was first proselyted to his false doctrines, and after that he would have debauched her from her conjugal fidelity. This woman was so heroically virtuous, as to communicate his lewd design to her husband, who ordered the matter so as to be in another room hard by at the same time he supposed Roderick would be coming; there he stays until this letcher began to caress his wife, and then he thought himself obliged seasonably to appear for her rescue, and boldly reproved the impostor for his wicked practices, which were so widely contrary to his profession, and that upon the whole it appeared he had no true mission.
The impostor was very much surprized at this unexpected and fatal disappointment, which put him into an extream disorder, insomuch that he asked the officer’s pardon, acknowledging his crime, and promising never to attempt the like again. The officer continued to upbraid him; telling him to his face, that he was set on by the devil; that innocence and chastity were always the effects of true religion, and that the contrary practices were countenanced by false prophets; and that now they needed no other proof of his being a notorious deceiver: however the impostor being had in great reputation, prevailed with the officer to patch up a friendship with him, who for the continuance of it, condescended to be the impostor’s gossip, i.e., sponsor at the baptism of one of his children; of which ceremony there is an account already given: when there is no opportunity of being sponsor to one another, and it is necessary to enter into bonds of friendship at baptism; the inhabitants of the Western Isles, supplied this ceremony by tasting a drop of each other’s blood.
Notwithstanding this friendship thus patch’d up between these two, the impostor’s miscarriages got air, which administered occasion to the most thinking among them, to doubt very much of his mission; his father, who was reputed a very honest man, told him frequently, that he was a deceiver, and would come to a fatal end. This impostor prophesied that one of the inhabitants (whose name I have forgotten) was to be killed in a battel in the Isle of Harries, within a limited space of time; this poor unthinking man relying so much on one whom he thought an infallible oracle, ventured more desperately on the rock than ever before, fancying he could not fall, but it happened that he tumbled over and was drowned, at which the inhabitants were surprized; however the impostor continued in the exercise of his pretended mission.
One of the inhabitants called Muldonich, alias Lewis, Cousin-German to the impostor, had an ewe which brought forth three lambs at once, they were seen to feed upon the bush pretended to be sacred, but Lewis would not comply with the order for killing the sheep, and had the boldness to aver, that it was an unreasonable piece of worship to destroy so many cattel and deprive the owners of their use, adding withal, that he never heard any such thing practised in any of the Western Isles upon a religious account. The impostor insisted upon the heavenly command, which was to be observed by all his followers, adding the dreadful threatning against such as proved disobedient thereto; but Lewis would by no means be prevailed upon, chusing rather to be excluded from the pretended worship; than to kill his sheep.
The simple people looked for no less than a speedy judgment to befall this recusant, but when nothing ensued upon his disobedience, all of them began to have a less veneration for the impostor than before; nay, some said privately, that they might as well have ventured to run the same risque with Lewis, for the preservation of their cattel.
Notwithstanding all this villainy, the impostor continued to maintain his authority, until one night (for it was always at night that he kept his pretended religious meetings) by a special providence, a boy of the Isle of Harries, called John (who had staid with his father a year in St. Kilda, and was employed in mending of their boat) happened to go into the house where Roderick was preaching after his usual manner; the boy lurked in the dark, and gave his father an account of what he had heard, so far as he could remember; all which the boy’s father communicated to the steward upon his arrival, who being highly concerned at the relation given him, carried Roderick along with him to the Isle of Sky before the late MacLeod,who being informed of this fellow’s impostures, did forbid him from that time forward to preach any more on pain of death.
This was a great mortification, as well as disappointment to the impostor, who was possessed with a fancy, that Mack-Leod would hear him preach, and expected no less than to persuade him to become one of his proselytes, as he has since confessed.
The impostor asserts, that every night after he had assembled the people, he heard a voice without saying, "Come you out"; which when he heard he had no power to stay within; and that after his going forth, John Baptist did meet him, and instructed him what he should say to the people at that particular meeting. He says, that John the Baptist used only to repeat the discourse to him once, of all which the impostor owns he could scarcely remember one sentence, and therefore he enquired of John the Baptist how he should behave himself in this case; and that John the Baptist returned this answer, "Go, you have it," which the impostor believing, was upon his return able to deliver fluently all that he had heard, and would continue (after this his way of preaching) for several hours together, until he had lull’d most of his hearers asleep.
When the above-mentioned earthquake was over, one of the inhabitants enquired of the impostor with admiration, how the rock was made to tremble? He answered, that it was the effect of pleasant musick played by a devout saint in a church under ground; his neighbour owned his love for musick, but heartily wished never to hear any more of this kind, which carried so great terror along with it.
The impostor owned the truth of all this account, first to the minister and me, and then he did the same publickly after divine service, in the presence of all the inhabitants, and such as were come to that place from the Isle of Harries. The minister and congregation jointly prayed for repentance and pardon to this poor wretch, which when ended, we carried him and all the inhabitants to the bush pretended to be sacred; he himself leading the van, was commanded to raze to the ground a part of that wall which he had ordered to be built round the said bush (which otherwise would in a time have proved such a purgatory, as might have robb’d them of all their goods) which he and the inhabitants did in the space of an hour, we made them scatter the stones up and down in the field, lest their posterity might see such a monument of folly and ignorance. We reproved the credulous people for complying implicitly with such follies and delusions as were delivered to them by the impostor; and all of them with one voice answered, that what they did was unaccountable; but seeing one of their own number and stamp in all respects, endued, as they fancied, with a powerful faculty of preaching so fluently and frequently, and pretending to converse with John the Baptist, they were induc’d to believe his mission from heaven, and therefore complied with his commands without dispute, and the rather, because he did not change their laws of neighborhood.
They do now regret their wand’ring, and hope that God may pardon their error, since what they did was with a design (though a mistaken one) to serve Him.
They are now overjoyed to find themselves undeceived, and the light of the Gospel restored to them, as it was at first delivered to their ancestors by the first Christian monks, who had gone thither to instruct them.
This impostor is a poet, and also endued with that rare faculty of enjoying the second sight, which makes it the more probable that he was haunted by a familiar spirit. It hath been observed of him, before his imposture was discovered, that so often as he was employed by the steward to go to, or return from Harries, they were always exposed to the greatest dangers by violent storms, being at one time driven fifty leagues to the north-east, and by special providence were at last cast upon the little Isle Rona, twenty leagues north-east of Lewis; the steward’s wife, and all his crew making their reflections upon these dangers since the discovery of his imposture, could never be prevailed upon to receive him again into their boat. They often entreated Mr. Campbel and me not to admit him into our boat, but we did not yield to these fears, for we received and brought him along with us, and afterwards delivered him to the steward’s servants in the Isle of Pabby in Harries, where he remains still in custody in order to his trial.