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Chapter V

MORE ABOUT THE PEOPLE

The St. Kildians probably descended from Scandinavians and Celts—Physical, characteristics of the people—Their dress now and in former times—Diet—“The best-fed people in creation”—Occupations of the people—Weaving—Are the islanders industrious?—No sports or amusements now tolerated--The “Mad” or local Parliament of the St. Kildians—Marriage customs—The lover's or mistress' stone


THE greater portion of the St. Kildians are of a fair complexion, and this is taken to indicate an admixture of Scandinavian blood with the Celtic, which is also represented. When or how the island was first peopled is not known, but the islanders themselves have a tradition that their ancestors came from Uist, and they also believe that the island has been more than once depopulated. Both Scandinavian and Celt, it may be taken for granted, are present in the race of today, and in this respect they are in no wise different from the inhabitants of many of the Western Islands. Writers from the days of Martin downwards are nearly at one in extolling the beauty of the women, the strength and healthiness of both sexes, the brightness of their eyes, and the whiteness and soundness of their teeth. Owing, however, to the nature of their food there is a tendency among the people to stoutness, and in the case of the women this somewhat detracts from the pleasing effect of fresh-looking, rosy complexions. The average height of twenty-one male adults measured by Mr. Sands was about 5 feet 6 inches—the tallest being 5 feet 9 inches and the shortest 4 feet 10 1/2 inches. As regards weight the islanders are certainly over the national average.

The dress of the St. Kildians differs little nowadays from that of similar communities in other parts of the West Highlands. In Martin's time (1697) the breacon an fheili or belted plaid, then common in the Highlands, was worn, but there were people still living who had worn a habit of sheepskin, the ancient dress of the islanders. The men of today wear jackets, vests, and trousers of their own making, mostly of a coarse, bluish cloth, which they weave in the winter months. The glengarry bonnet is generally worn. The women's dresses are also mostly home-made, dyed a kind of blue and brown mixture, and are not unlike common wincey. On Sundays most of the women wear a Rob Roy tartan plaid usually fastened by an ancient-looking brooch. The head dress of the women on week-days is a turkey-red cotton napkin, which gives the wearer a picturesque appearance. On Sundays the older females generally -wear the common white muslin cap or mutch. The wearing of stockings and boots is becoming more fashionable, though the women still all go barefoot on week-days in summer. The women's dresses are made by the men.

In the previous chapter I mentioned boiled fulmar as an article of diet with the St. Kildians. Besides the flesh of the fulmar, they eat puffins, solan geese, and other seabirds, a little mutton, potatoes, and oatmeal. The following list of the ordinary diet of the people was supplied to me by one of the men:—
Breakfast.—Porridge and milk, with the flesh of the fulmar afterwards occasionally, the bird being boiled in the porridge.
Dinner.—Mutton, or the flesh of the fulmar or solan goose, with potatoes when there are any.
Tea.—Tea and bread and cheese, the flesh of the fulmar occasionally, and sometimes porridge.

The islanders take breakfast between nine and ten; dinner generally not till about four, and sometimes an hour or two later, on their return from the rocks or the fields ; and tea about nine in summer, and as late as eleven in winter, when they sit up at their looms till about two in the morning. There is a complete absence of variety in their food. This, along with the lack of fresh vegetables and the indigestible nature of the flesh of the birds which they eat, is a frequent cause of dyspepsia, from which many of the islanders suffer. Milk and sea-birds' eggs are consumed in considerable quantities during the summer; tea, sugar, and flour are now used in nearly every house; potatoes are the only vegetables procurable—the quantity grown on the island is small and the quality bad, and the supply is only available usually for six months. It therefore follows that the dietary of the people is practically devoid of vegetables for the half of each year. Such condiments as vinegar, pepper, mustard, and pickles are not used. Whisky is relished very much, and every man keeps his bottle, but nobody drinks to excess. On the whole, the people live well; all that is wanted is a greater variety and more vegetable food. A Skyeman, who had been often on the island for various lengths of time, gave me his opinion in these terms—“They are the best fed people in creation. I speak the truth, master.”