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Chapter XI

RELIGION AND MORALS OF THE PEOPLE

Religion all but constantly at a low ebb—The moral tone of the people over-rated—Negative character of the people's moral nature—The people very cunning—Unerring logic of the Registrar-General's returns— Christianity possibly introduced by the Culdees—Religious history of the island—Visits of “The Apostle of the North”—His efforts to promote religion and suppress Sabbath desecration—He succeeds in raising funds for a new church—Rev. Neil Mackenzie ordained in 1830—Mr. Mackenzie's connection with Glasgow and his efforts to obtain help for the islanders— Mr. Mackenzie translated to Duror—The people won over to the Free Church—Mr. Mackay not well adapted for his charge—The sort of minister wanted—Belief in “second sight” and other forms of superstition


IT is a singular circumstance that, while for two or three centuries at least, religion has all but constantly been at a low ebb in St. Kilda, the purity and high moral tone of the peoples lives have been extolled by nearly every visitor who has committed his experiences of the island to writing. There can be no doubt the picture has been overdone. One does not see much of the inner life of a people in a hurried visit of a few hours or days, which is all that most of the writers could boast of, and, moreover, there is a glamour about a primitive, patriarchal existence, such as the St. Kildians lead, blinding the eye of the observer to the more subtle vices, which are only less clamant here than in more “advanced” communities.

Perhaps, on the whole, the moral side of the average St. Kildian would be most fairly described as a negation. He has few vices, because the incentives to vice do not exist or exist only in a limited degree; but, on the other hand, neither has he any strongly marked virtues. One previous writer at least, Macaulay, has remarked the negative character of the islanders' moral nature. “Some of them,” he writes, “are rather free of vices than possessed of virtues,” and he adds “dissimulation, or a low sort of cunning, and a trick of lying, are their predominant faults.” Martin took notice of this latter characteristic, which it must be said is still one of the strongest traits of the people. “They are very cunning,” he observes, in his quaint way, “and there is scarce any circumventing of them in traffic and bartering ; the voice of one is the voice of all, being all of a piece, one common interest uniting them firmly together.” This is hardly consistent with the high-strung eulogy which the same writer pronounces upon the people' in another part of his book—“What the condition of the people in the golden age is feigned by the poets to be, that theirs really is ; I mean, in innocency and simplicity, purity, mutual love, and cordial friendship ; free from solicitous cares, and anxious covetousness; from envy, deceit, and dis-simulation ; from ambition and pride and the con-sequences that attend them.”

It is always important to remember that when Martin wrote there was no Registrar-General to keep us right on one point at least with the unerring logic of facts. Martin and the subsequent writers who followed in the same vein, may be right or they may be wrong, but it is worth while pointing out that their estimate of the islanders is not borne out in recent times by the statistics of this useful public official. During the thirty and a-half years, ended June last, in which an official register has been kept on the island, there have been five cases of illegitimacy, giving a percentage of 6.25 on the total number of births. This rate is not abnormally high, but it is sufficient to disprove many of the platitudes about the St. Kildians which find their way into print, and which are simply travellers' tales. The five illegitimate births occurred in the years 1862, 1864, 1876, 1880, and 1884. One of them, that of 1876, was an adulterous case.

It has been suggested that Christianity may have been introduced into St. Kilda by the Culdees, but of this we know nothing. In early times the Druidical customs of the people appear to have become blended with Roman Catholicism, but they have long since disappeared. Immediately prior to the Reformation, the religious oversight of the island would seem to have been sadly neglected. There was no resident priest, but one accompanied the factor or “procurator” on his annual visit, in order to baptise the children born during the year preceding. In the absence of a priest on that occasion, every one, it is stated, baptised his own children. Matters were not mended much for a time after the Reformation, and Martin's account of the doings of the impostor Roderick is a severe commentary upon his own flattering eulogy of the moral and religious condition of the people.