West Highland Museum Trust logo

Blog

ST KILDA, THE PEOPLE

st-kildans.jpg

Encouraged by an upturn in public interest in St Kilda, in the middle of the 19th century, and having just returned from delivering a public lecture on the islands, George Seton gathered together and published a comprehensive collection of writings and articles on the subject, written by a number of authors, entitled St Kilda, Past And Present (1878).

The publication features a compendium of writings and articles written in the 1700s and into the Victorian period. Rather than presenting a modern reflection on St Kilda, and its people, these period pieces give us a valuable insight into the way Victorians viewed the island and its inhabitants.

Regarding the colonization of St Kilda, views seem to be contradictory. Martin Martin, writing in 1697, stated that ‘the inhabitants of this isle are originally descended of those of the adjacent isles, Lewis, Harris, South and North Uist, and Skye.’ Macaulay, on the other hand, thinks it probable that ‘Hirta was at first peopled by pyrates, exiles, or malefactors who fled from justice.’ He also refers to the supposed Irish origin of the inhabitants, according to which theory, ‘a Hibernian rover, named Macquin, was the first settler in St Kilda, along with a small colony of his countrymen. The prevailing belief, however, appears to be that the first inhabitants of St Kilda—like the Outer Hebrideans generally—were a compound of Celt and Norseman; and this view is assuredly confirmed by the physical aspect of the present inhabitants, as well as by many of the names of places, etc., in the island.’

It seems that most of the contributors in St Kilda, Past And Present gave a favourable account of the inhabitants’ physical characteristics. ‘Both sexes are naturally very grave, and of a fair complexion; there are several of them would be reckoned among beauties of the first rank, were they upon a level with others in their dress.’ The minister of Ardnamurchan (Macaulay) expressed a similar opinion in even stronger terms. ‘The women are most handsome; their complexions fresh and lively, as their features are regular and fine; some of them, if properly dressed and genteelly educated, would be reckoned extraordinary beauties in the gay world.’ According to Rev. John Lane Buchanan, the author of Travels in the Western Hebrides, ‘the women are more handsome, as well as modest, than those of Harris: they marry young, and address strangers with profound respect. However, owing to the oily nature of their sea-fowl food the St Kildans emit a disagreeable odour.’ George Setonclaimed that he was not aware that this unpleasant characteristic, during his visit to Hirta, but did declare the women to be ‘stout and squat; and although many of them have a blond complexion, I consider them to be generally characterised by an uncouth comeliness, which is not very taking.’

While Dr Macculloch acknowledges the good physique of the males, his estimate of the women is not so favourable. ‘The men were well-looking, and appeared, as they indeed are, well fed; exceeding in this, as in their dress, their neighbours of the Long Island (the OuterHebrides), and bearing the marks of easy circumstances, or rather of wealth. But the women, like the generality of that little-favoured sex in this country, appeared harsh in feature, and were evidently impressed, even in early life, by those marks so dreaded by Queen Elizabeth (smallpox or chickenpox scars), and recorded in the well-known epigram of Plato. This must be the consequence of exposure to the weather; as there is no want of food here as a cause, and as the children of both sexes might even be considered handsome.’ The youthful Henry Brougham (writing in 1799)  does not seem to have been favourably impressed by the appearance of the islanders either, ‘A total want of curiosity, a stupid gaze of wonder, an excessive eagerness for spirits and tobacco, a laziness only to be conquered by the hope of the above-mentioned cordials, and a beastly degree of filth—the natural consequence of this —render the St Kildan character truly savage!’

John Macdiarmid, (in St Kilda And Its Inhabitants 1877) appears to have been struck by the fresh-looking, rosy complexions of the population generally. The women, however, appearing to him, ‘more than ordinarily stout. In the case of both sexes I observed a good many examples of something more than plumpness; and I am very much inclined to agree with Captain Thomas in his opinion that among both men and women there is more than the average amount of good looks. Traces of a Scandinavian origin seemed to me as apparent among the natives of St Kilda as in many other parts of the Western Isles. I believe I came in contact with every inhabitant of the island; and although I did not make an actual reckoning, I feel satisfied that a majority exhibit the fair, or Scandinavian, aspect; while the rest are characterised by the olive complexion, accompanied by dark hair and eyes, which usually indicates the Celtic type of countenance. The remarkably healthy look of the children in arms was the subject of universal comment.                                                                                               In general appearance, the natives of St Kilda bear a strong resemblance to the inhabitants of the Long Island —the men being somewhat less in height, but decidedly fatter. In respect to weight, they are probably above the national average, and they are said to lose flesh when placed upon the comparatively low diet of the inhabitants of the Long Island. Any one inhabiting St Kilda is always reputed stronger than two of the inhabitants belonging to Harris 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. Their sight is extraordinarily good and they can discern objects at a great distance. Although most of the men were what we would call undersized, many of them were stout and active, and several of them handsome-featured, with bright eyes, and an expression of great intelligence.

I make special mention of the brightness of their eyes and the whiteness of their teeth. The average height of twenty-one male adults whom I measured was about five feet six inches—the tallest being five feet nine inches, and the shortest four feet ten and a half inches. In addition to a woman who is subject to fits, and an aged male of weak intellect, there is an elderly man who lost his sight about six years ago. The poor imbecile contrives to cultivate a small patch of ground, and to accompany his neighbours to the fishing; while his blind brother-islesman sits cheerfully at his cottage door, and is still able to sew and make gins. With these three exceptions, all the other members of the little community are at present sound in both body and mind.’

The contributors to St Kilda, Past And Present describe the dress of the male population of St Kilda as very similar to that of the fishermen of the Long Island—‘small flat blue bonnets, coarse yellowish-white woollen jerkins, and trousers, also of coarse woollen stuff, of a mixed colour, similar to that of heather stalks. The dress of the females has some peculiarities, the which it would be difficult for any but a man-milliner, or one of their own sex, to describe. A suit, consisting of a round coat, waistcoat, and trousers, made of the coarse kelt (wool) manufactured from the short wiry wool of their native sheep, and fashioned very much as such things are in the Lowlands, is the dress universally worn by the men. The wool is pulled from the sheep and not sheared. Even among the children we did not see a single kilt.’

After dealing with a description of the mens’ attire, the women were subjected to the curious glances of the visiting scribes, ‘The women wear upon their heads a linen dress, straight before, and drawing to a small point behind, below the shoulders, a foot and a 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.  They wear no shoes or stockings in summer; the only 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 sewed, the foot enters into it, as into a piece of narrow stocking. This shoe doth not wear above five days, and, if the down-side be next to the ground, then not above three or four days. Both sexes wear coarse flannel shirts, which they put off when they go to bed.’

It appears that fashion reached St Kilda too, much to the amusement of the visiting writers. John Lane Buchanan, writing in the 1790s, spoke of the rapidity with which fashion travels,  ‘a peculiar kind of shoe-string, which had been invented in London during spring, had reached the distant shores of St Kilda by the following summer. Bonnets have for some time been considered essential for full dress by the female islanders; and the graceful handkerchief fastened under the chin is said to be looked upon as vulgar!’

When the Rev. Neil Mackenzie went to the island in 1830, his servant-maid asked permission to take the hearth rug to church, to use as a shawl. ‘Regarding her proposal as a joke, he innocently agreed; and to his infinite astonishment he beheld the girl in his own pew, enveloped in the many-coloured carpet, the envied of an admiring congregation! All the women in the island were eager candidates for the “shawl” on the following morning, some of them offering to give “ten sea-birds” for its use!’

Martin Martin, writing in 1697, described the diet of the inhabitants, which ‘appears to have been barley and oat-bread baked with water, fresh beef and mutton, and the various kinds of sea-fowl, which were merely dried in the small stone houses or “pyramids” erected for the purpose, without any salt or spice to preserve them. With their fish and other food, they still use an oleaginous accompaniment prepared from the fat of their fowls, termed “giben,” also in a fresh state. It is melted down and stored in the stomachs of the old gannets, like hog’s-lard in bladders. They use no set times for their meals, but are determined purely by their appetites.’

The guillemot supplies the wants of the St Kildans when their fresh mutton is exhausted. Then the solan goose is in season; after that the puffins, with a variety of eggs; and when their appetites are cloyed with this food, the salubrious fulmar, with their favourite young solan goose (called goug), crowns their humble tables, and holds out all the autumn. In winter they have a greater stock of bread, mutton, potatoes, and salad, or reisted [salted] fowls, than they can consume. While the sea-birds are eaten in a fresh state during summer, they are salted for consumption in winter. I have somewhere seen the number so salted stated at 12,000, which is equal to about 150 birds for every man, woman, and child. Mrs McVean mentions that every family has about three or four barrels of fulmars salted for winter use, the flavour of which she considers similar to that of salted pork. Their principal food in summer is roasted puffin. For breakfast, they have some thin porridge or gruel, with a puffin boiled in it to give it a flavour. Dinner consists of puffin again, this time roasted, with a large quantity of hard-boiled eggs, which they eat just as the peasantry eat potatoes; They use no vegetables, except a few soft potatoes, not unlike yams. They consume very little meal, as their crops are not good, and are liable to being swept off by the fierce equinoctial gales. Bread is considered a great luxury, and is only used at christenings, weddings, and the New Year. The latter is quite a time of feasting, as each family kills a sheep, and bakes oatmeal cakes. The principal drink is whey. No vegetables can be raised owing to the showers of spray that dash over the island. Even kail plants are with difficulty reared.

The following is the ordinary diet of a St Kildan :—

Breakfast.—Porridge and milk.

Dinner.—Potatoes, and the flesh of the fulmar, or mutton, and occasionally fish.

Supper.—Porridge, when they have plenty of meal.’

It appears that visitors (who were usually fairly wealthy) were often shocked by conditions in which St Kildans lived. It appears they did not have a much higher opinion of the Minister and his accommodation!

‘On looking into the Manse I was struck by the unfurnished and comfortless aspect— the absence of a servant being painfully apparent. The apartment in which I was received by the minister was a neat enough room, carpeted, and with chairs and tables, but with some appearance of damp upon the walls, which, on tapping with our knuckles, we found had not been lathed.’

In 1878 George Seton finished his anthology with a plea to the authorities to help make life more bearable for the St Kildans. He proposed a regular mail steamer to call at the island, more assistance from the landowner, a pier, and routine supply boats. Parts of his appeal would come to pass, but ultimately other factors would have an even greater impact on life for the residents of St Kilda. The final blog in the series will reveal the events that led to the lifechanging decision made by the islanders in 1930. A decision from which there would be no turning back.

Mark Bridgeman

Mark Bridgeman is an author. His latest book “Blood Beneath Ben Nevis” is available at the Highland Book Shop (Fort William), Waterstones, WHSmiths, & Amazon. It will be available in the Museum shop from 1 September 2020.

Mark Bridgeman’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=mark%20bridgeman%20author&epa=SEARCH_BOX