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Chapter IX

AGRICULTURE AND CLIMATE

The St. Kildian primarily a crofter—His views of “the factor”—Size of the crofts—Description of the houses—Rent of each croft and common pasture—Expenses of factorship very heavy—The people in arrears—How the rent of the common pasture is fixed—Total numbers of cattle and sheep—Many of the sheep of a peculiar breed—Their great fecundity—The wool very valuable—No horses on the island—A singular reason assigned for their banishment—Dogs and their various uses—Soil and pasture—The agricultural implements in use—Destruction of the turf for fuel—What this will lead to—A curious feature—“Cleitan” and their uses—Climate generally mild—Great storms frequently occur—Memorable storms


THOUGH his scanty wealth exists for most part in the birds of the air, the St. Kildian is primarily a crofter. He has his few acres of worn-out and badly tilled land, his small but greatly-prized stock of sickly-looking cattle and sheep, and he receives the annual visit of a gentleman who comes “to plunder, under the name of Macleod's factor.” There never was a crofter who did not associate his lot with such a visitor. Whatever truth there may have been in the allegation against the factor of St. Kilda at the time when Lord Brougham turned his neat period, there is no foundation for it now. All the same, the St. Kildians of to-day do not hail their factor as an angel of light ; if one could only get at their inmost thoughts it would possibly appear that they regard themselves as the most oppressed among crofters. To set this matter right we have but to look at the rents the people pay. Into the factor's trading transactions with the people I do not now enter, because this is a matter entirely in the people's own hands. They are now at liberty to buy from and sell to whom they like. What, then, are the rents the people pay? As I explained in a previous chapter, the arable land is divided into sixteen crofts each having a house attached. The total area of arable land has been estimated at 40 acres, which would give an average of 2 1/2 acres per croft. As regards the houses, they are neat and comfortable. They were built by the late proprietor in 1861-62 and are certainly a long way in advance of the average crofter's house in the West Highlands. The walls are of stone, seven or eight feet high, and the roofs are covered with zinc. Each house stands apart from the others, and in every instance the interior is divided into two apartments by a wooden partition.

For house and croft the rent is £2 per annum. Even if you take the croft alone, as some would do who appear to think that the houses are the inalienable property of the islanders, the rent is not excessive. Why the house should not be included is a thing no one save a crofter can pretend to understand. Over and above this £2, the people pay rent for the common pasture of the island. For the grazing of each cow the charge made by the proprietor is 7s. per annum. For sheep the charge is 9d. a head on St. Kilda and 6d. a head on the adjacent islands. By no manner of means can it be held that these rates are excessive. The total rental of the island in 1885-6 was about £60, but before any reader fetches his slate to find out what rate of interest this represents on a capital sum of £3,000—the price paid by the present proprietor for the island in 1871—let me hasten to explain that not a penny of it went into the pocket of Macleod. The expenses of factorship, which are necessarily heavy, including, as they do, two trips to the island every year in a smack specially chartered for the purpose, would appear to have eaten up all that the crofters saw their way to pay. Of course the people could hardly be crofters if they were not in arrears to the landlord.

Formerly the islanders paid each year on a fixed number of sheep and cattle. Some were possibly paying too much and others too little. The people regarded this method of fixing the rents as a grievance, and at their request the proprietor lately agreed to regulate the rent each year by the actual number of cattle and sheep in the possession of the islanders. A letter from Macleod intimating this was read to the people during my stay on the island, and gave much satisfaction. The number of cattle on the island was ascertained to be about 40, and of sheep the total number on St. Kilda and adjacent islands was dose upon 1,000. Parenthetically I may explain that the island is 3 1/4 miles long by 1 1/4 broad, but it only affords grazing on a small extent of its surface. The cattle are of the West Highland breed, mostly black, or red and black, in colour. A considerable proportion of the sheep are of the old St. Kilda breed; the others are a cross between that and the blackfaced variety. Writing in 1819, Dr. Macculloch described the St. Kilda breed of sheep as Norwegian. Mr. James Wilson (a brother of “Christopher North”) visited the island in 1841, and pronounced the sheep to be Danish. Two centuries ago old Martin wrote cautiously about them that “generally they are speckled, some white, some philamort(?), and of an ordinary size. They do not resemble goats in anything, as Buchanan was informed, except in their horns, which are extraordinarily large, particularly in the lesser isles.”