Home

Previous page

Next page

Chapter I

THE RELIEF EXPEDITION OF 1885

St. Kilda a cause of frequent anxiety—A “Message from the Sea”—The St. Kildians implore help—Despatch of the “Hebridean” with supplies—Arrival at St. Kilda—We are mistaken for persecuting Sassenachs—Interview with the Minister—“Not to-day”—How the crops were destroyed—The Minister on Cholera, “Crofters' Candidates,” and general current events—His views about Emigration—What the housekeeper thought of it—“Sir Collins”—A pious fraud—The Expedition a complete success


THE island of St. Kilda, rising like a lone sentinel out of the white breakers of the North Atlantic, was the object of much solicitude throughout the United Kingdom in the month of October, 1885. As is generally known the little peak-shaped island, which is open to navigation for only a few months each year, has not unfrequently been the cause of public anxiety. In the year mentioned St. Kilda, or Hirta as the islanders themselves call it, was consigned to its annual hibernation at the end of August, when it was briefly visited about the same time by the factor's smack, carrying the mails, and by Mr. Cartwright's yacht the “Firefly.” In ordinary circumstances nothing more would have been heard of the island till probably the month of June following. Events arose, however, which brought St. Kilda before the world much sooner. On the last Thursday of September a “message from the sea” was washed ashore near Gallen Point, in the Uig district of Lewis. It had been despatched from St. Kilda, where, according to the contents, there, had been one of the periodical storms to which the island is subject, and great damage done to the crops. One or two other “messages” to the same effect were found at different places on the west coast of the Hebrides.

As it afterwards turned out one of the messages was written by a schoolboy in St. Kilda, and it unquestionably exaggerated the situation on the island. It was the first to be made public, and as it represented the islanders to be actually starving, there was naturally much anxiety all over the country for their welfare. A letter from the minister of the island to the Rev. Dr. Rainy reached the mainland shortly after and somewhat reassured the public mind, as it made it clear that what had mainly been destroyed by the storm was the seed for next year's crop, and that it was this which was wanted rather than immediate food.

Writing to Dr. Rainy of the Free Church on the 16th September, Mr. Mackay said:—“Rev. and Dear Sir—I beg leave to intimate to you that I am directed by the people under my charge on this island to tell you that their corn, barley, and potatoes are destroyed by a great storm which passed over this island on Saturday and Sabbath last. You will be kind enough to apply to Government in order to send us a supply of corn seed, barley, and potatoes. This year's crop is quite useless. They never before saw such a storm at this time of the year. They have lost one of their boats ; but happily there was, no loss of life.”

Dr. Rainy communicated the substance of the letter to the Government, who were primarily called upon to act, but, pending a reply, he and Sir William Collins, of Glasgow, decided to send aid at once and on their own responsibility to the islanders, and appeal to the charitable public to defray the cost. The season being so far advanced it was advisable to use all diligence, as the weather must soon break up. Accordingly a Glasgow steamer, the “Hebridean,” was chartered to make a special trip to the island, and a sufficient quantity of seed corn, barley, meal, potatoes, &c., to the value of £110, including freight, was shipped. The vessel left Glasgow on the afternoon of Thursday, October 15, the writer being the only passenger on board. At Oban and the other places on the west coast where the “Hebridean” called, the news of our mission had preceded us, and, naturally enough, the relief ship was the object of much interest. It had been carefully stipulated by the owners that the “Hebridean” should only attempt to make St. Kilda in the event of the weather being entirely favourable, and thus it came about that even on the' Saturday night, when we lay off Lochboisdale, the master of the vessel was still undecided whether or not to steer for our destination on the morrow. Everything depended on the weather, which happily had so far been mild and agreeable.