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Chapter VI

HOW THE "SAWBATH" IS KEPT

Drawing water on Sunday forbidden—Effect of this restriction— “Whiles we draw a wee drap on the sly”—Sale of milk also forbidden—A resurrected Forbes Mackenzie—Difficulties of Church-going—Vagaries of the minister's watch—A singular Church-bell—The Church—How the men and women dress for Church—The preacher and the service— Church-going extraordinary—A tax upon bachelors—Elder Ferguson in the pulpit—Wakening a sleeper in Church—How the “Sawbath” must be observed—Urgent need of the Church building being improved—A “Godless” stove not admissible


IF you are thoughtless enough or wicked enough to forget that it is Sunday when you open your eyes in St. Kilda on the first day of the week you are speedily reminded of the fact. And in a very forcible way too. The Pope of the island is lord and master within your bedroom as well as without, and he it is who comes to tell you that the day is the Lord's. But how does he do it? You are a Sassenach, and therefore like your morning ablutions. Mr. Mackay comes and says that this being Sunday you must not dare even to wash your hands. That is what it really amounts to. In his wisdom the Rev. gentleman has laid it down that it is sinful to draw water on the Lord's Day. Poor people do not usually have the resources of an army in the field compressed inside a room and kitchen. They do not, as a rule, possess tanks and cisterns and such like. Hence when Mr. Mackay lays down the hard and fast rule that the Sunday water must be put into bond, so to speak, on the Saturday night, he assuredly puts a severe embargo upon the quantity and upon the uses to which it is to be put.

If any man thinks differently let him spend a Sunday on the island. The first Sunday of my visit I was offered for the purposes of my toilet a little water in the bottom of a basin which, on the most liberal calculation, certainly did not exceed one of Mr. Bass's pints. “It's the Sawbath,” was the laconic explanation of my old landlady, who was not a native of the island, and loved neither the islanders nor their ways. Then, with a profane leer, she told me of the minister's prohibition. At that moment I did not feel disposed to invoke blessings on Mr. Mackay's head; what I did do was to propose for once to become a Sabbath-breaker. But there was no need, for the good old soul, with a comic look in her face, pointed to a pitcher of water just drawn from the well. “It's no alloo't,” she said, “but whiles we draw a wee drap on the sly,” I was thankful that one person at least had the courage to disobey the minister's ridiculous Sabbatarianism. Not one of the natives would dare do so, and the result is to be seen in the number of unwashed faces on the Lord's Day.

When you sit down to breakfast ten to one there is no milk or cream on the table. That was my experience. I had made a bargain the day of my arrival with one of the damsels of the place to supply me with milk during my stay at so much per week, but I was now informed that in St. Kilda the week only means six days—that the Sunday is carefully excluded from all such carnal contracts. Further, I was told that milk was not to be bought that day at any price. Here was Mr. Mackay again, a kind of resurrected Forbes Mackenzie, shutting up the drinking wells and milk shops. There is a saying to the effect that a wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse. Your St.Kildian has the advantage of the horse, inasmuch as he or she—especially the latter—can interpret the hidden meanings of both. Thus it was, that although I could not speak a word of Gaelic, I had no difficulty in circumventing Mr. Mackay's Sunday Closing Act. The good fairy—if such you can call a woman with ankles and feet like a rhinoceros, and who walked like that interesting but inelegant animal—the good fairy brought the milk, which, however, she was careful to explain was a “present for the Sassenach;” but when the settling-day came her Sabbatarianism did not preclude her from expecting a present in return. Even the penal clauses of Mr. Mackay's Act did not deter the poor woman from being a party to an agreement of this kind, and possibly every other person on the island could have been “got at” in the same way. So much for the success of Mr. Mackay's Sabbatarian restrictions, and for the honesty with which they are observed.

After breakfast comes church. But the peculiar thing about church and church-going in St. Kilda is that nobody can tell you when the service begins. If, therefore, you are really anxious to wait upon Mr. Mackay's ministrations take a lesson from the parable of the wise virgins, and be up betimes. That is the only safe course.