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Chapter VII


A warning against sneezing in public—Difficulty of treating the "boat-cold" seriously—Evidence of Mr. Sands—None of the people attacked during our visit—Three deaths said to have occurred from the "boat-cold"—Dr. Johnson's joke about it—Speculations as to the cause of the "boat-cold"—Not due to the east wind—Mr. John E. Morgan's theory—A parallel case in the island of Tristan da Cunha—Mr. Seton's views—Opinion of Dr. Macdonald, Beith—Another parallel case

YOU are not long on St. Kilda before you hear of the cnatan na gall. This is variously interpreted as the strangers' cough, the strangers' cold, the boat-cold, or the Harris cold. The very day our party arrived on the island one of the natives insinuated that we would no doubt have brought, among other good things, a dose of the cnatan na gall. This was said as a “feeler,” and the immediate excuse for its being said was that one of our number had been observed to sneeze. Happily the culprit understood thoroughly the idiosyncrasies of the islanders, and he was able to meet them on their own ground. He convinced them that if he really was suffering from the cnatan na gall he must have caught it since setting foot on the island that very morning. The incident was not lost upon us. We were all careful afterwards never to sneeze in public.

Only a medical man should write about this cnatan na gall. It is barely possible for any one else to do so without treating the thing as a joke. The firm belief of the people is that whenever a vessel visits the island they are sure to be affected with this strange distemper—hence the name, strangers' cough, or boat-cold. There are degrees of severity of the trouble. For instance, the islanders told me that if the infection was brought by a vessel from Glasgow or Liverpool the “cold” was not so severe as if it came from Harris, which has the reputation of sending the worst type. Mr. Sands, in his book on St. Kilda, says he has joined in the laugh against the islanders for their belief in this strange trouble; but yet, he adds, “after all, there may be some truth in it;” and he solemnly records the fact that on the arrival of the factor's smack in 1876 every one of the natives caught this peculiar cold, as they did again at the beginning of the following year, when a shipwrecked Austrian crew landed on the island.

In the absence of a doctor I should have looked in ordinary circumstances to the clergyman for some little assistance in trying to solve this mysterious malady ; but Mr. Mackay is not the sort of man to rise above the prejudices and superstitions of the people. Moreover, I had no opportunity of studying the cnatan na gall for myself during my stay on the island, as nobody was seized with it. Six days after our arrival I asked the most intelligent man, and the man who had taken Mr. Mackay's place in the pulpit on the first Sunday after the Rev. gentleman's illness, whether any of the people had taken the cnatan na gall. “Not as yet,” was the cautious reply. I ventured to express my belief that they would be all safe, now that our party had been so many days on the island. He thought so too, but, he added, cautious as ever, “when our men come home from Boreray they may take it.” It was impossible not to laugh at the superstitious dread of the man who had lectured the islanders on the Sunday previous to the tune of half an hour on the 10th chapter of Romans. He joined good naturedly in the laugh at his own expense, saying, however, as he did so, “Justify yourself that you did not bring the cold.”

But, really, it would seem that there is something in this cnatan na gall. If we are to believe the register kept by the Rev. Neil M'Kenzie, three of the sixty-eight deaths which took place on the island between July 18, 1830, and October 31, 1846, were actually from this cause. And it is no new thing, for Martin, who visited St. Kilda in the summer of 1697, and was the first to write of the island from personal experience, is careful to refer to it. It still existed in the time of Dr. Johnson, who had his joke about it when he visited the Hebrides. On its being suggested to him that the epidemic might be accounted for on physical principles—viz., from the effect of effluvia from human bodies, the great moralist asked—“How can there be a physical effect without a physical cause?” And he went on in a playful mood to say that “the arrival of a shipful of strangers would kill them (the St. Kildians); for if one stranger gives them one cold, two strangers must give them two colds, and so in proportion.”