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Chapter IV


The St. Kildians a “peculiar people”—Their avarice and ingratitude—How they have been corrupted—Martin's opinion of them in 1697—Socialism in existence among the islanders—How the birds are divided—Effect of socialism upon the fishing industry—A prayer meeting, and what it leads to—All about the population of the island—Numerical relation of the sexes—Cases of longevity rare

THANKS, mainly, to the paternal rule of the Rev. John Mackay, the St. Kildians of to-day, after a good many years regular intercourse with the world, are still in many ways a “peculiar people.” When five-and-twenty years ago, one of Her Majesty's gun-boats anchored off the island, it was accounted a curious fact, illustrating a singular phase of human nature, that the St. Kildians expected to be paid for their trouble in accepting the captain's kind invitation to go on board and look at the vessel's machinery and armaments. It is said they actually refused to leave the vessel unless they got payment. Today, Mr. Mackay's lengthened ministrations notwithstanding, the people have notions about the laws of wages and property quite as crude, if sometimes a little more cunningly disclosed. Only last summer some of the people declined to sit to a photographer without being first paid for their services.

Their notions on this subject often take an aggressive form. Every strange vessel that enters the Bay of St. Kilda is expected to pay toll to the islanders, and a hamper for the minister is never reckoned out of place. If you are ignorant of the custom, or do not feel disposed to comply with it, you are speedily besieged with beggars who remind you of it, and have no compunction in proposing to relieve you of everything you are simple-minded enough to part with, from a smoke of tobacco or a lead pencil to a hamper of wines. When you go ashore the begging nuisance becomes intensified, and no matter how generous you are you need not expect much gratitude. Give a man a sovereign for an hour's work in scaling the rocks, and he will tell you that he once got five for a similar performance. A few years ago a certain noble Duke visited the island on his way to Iceland, and made the islanders a handsome present of provisions. No sooner was the nobleman's yacht out of the bay than the islanders began to talk contemptuously of the gift, which, they remarked, was altogether disproportionate to “such a big man and such a big ship.” Within the past few months a really fine present of surgical appliances has been thrown aside in the same derisive fashion. A few years back this singular people chopped one of their boats into firewood. The boat was a gift from people in the South, and on the islanders being remonstrated with on the enormity of their conduct they coolly replied that the boat did not quite suit their purpose, and they had made up their mind to burn it, so that their kind friends in the South might have a chance of giving them a better one.

During my stay on the island there was much commotion over the visit of the yacht of Mr. Evans, who had on previous occasions been lavish in his benefactions. A present of herring nets at least was expected, for so much had been promised. The herring nets were forthcoming, and so was the customary hamper for the minister, who, poor man, stood sorely in need of a few delicacies, but beyond these there was nothing save a severe reproof to the islanders for the begging ways into which they have fallen. The islanders did not conceal their chagrin, for they had been counting upon something more pleasing to the palate than herring nets. All this betrays the unfortunate lack of independence and self-respect which has come to be identified with the nature of these poor islanders, and many more facts could be adduced in the same direction. Yachtsmen and tourists by the Glasgow steamers have contributed to the result, but the man mainly responsible is the head of the community, who appears to discourage the unfortunate proclivities of the people by neither precept nor example.

Martin, who sang the virtues of the St. Kildians as he found them in 1697, lays stress upon the absence of avarice in the character of the people. This was considered worth alluding to in the tremendously long title of his book—I quote from the edition of 1753—“A voyage to St. Kilda, the remotest of all the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland ; giving an account of the very remarkable inhabitants of that place, their beauty and singular chastity; . . . their extensive charity; their contempt of gold and silver as below the dignity of human nature,” &c.