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Chapter XII


Child-life in St. Kilda full of the deepest pathos—Unnatural relations between parent and child—Mr. Mackay as teacher and preacher—A regular school established in 1884—A drawback—How the choice of a schoolmaster is made—A heroic deed for the church—Progress of the children attending school—The school-bell

“WHERE do you think these nice children live?” is the question following a group of fine sonsy-looking boys and girls at the top of a “missionary leaflet.” Literature of this stamp naturally suggests little pagans or infidels. But no; the children are not pagans, despite the suspicious ring of the question and the auspices under which the little folks make their bow to the public. They are subjects of Queen Victoria, and their home is in Scotland, but, adds the leaflet, they are nearly as much cut off from us as if they lived in Japan.

Child-life in this sequestered and unkindly rock is a subject full of the deepest pathos. It is not merely because one-half of the poor little bodies open their eyes to the glad light of this world, only to close them for ever in the long sleep of death ; for the hard fate which meets them at the portals of life pursues them like an avenging spirit all through the period of child-hood. Mr. Sands has remarked upon the fondness which the islanders have for their young. For infants it must be admitted they do manifest a deep love, and the reason is not far to seek, but once the helpless little creatures pass into the age of self-conscious childhood a melancholy change takes place, and one which becomes intensified with the years. Of genuine love between a child, say of school age, and its parents there is none; there are none even of the soft and kindly and confiding relations always associated with the period of childhood, and which one would surely expect to see blossoming in a community so much devoted to pure religion. No such thing. What one finds is an increasing callousness and disrespect in the relations between parent and child. There would almost seem to be something approaching an instinct to cut the little brats adrift so soon as they can shift for themselves. In this we must recognise one of the numerous proofs of the state of semi-savagery from which the St. Kildians have yet to be reclaimed. During my short stay on the island I was more than once horrified with the revolting scenes which took place in different families, and I learned from reliable authorities that such scenes are of daily occurrence, and prove the sad want of affection which the St. Kildian parent has for his or her child, and the child for the parent.

Something has been done to ameliorate the harsh environment of the children. They are now brought under better and more civilising influences. To teach them the English language is of itself a great step forward; but the establishment of a good school, with a competent master, is sure to be attended with other benefits than those of a strictly educational character. The fathers and mothers of the children of today were taught to read their Gaelic Bible; that was the Alpha and Omega of education for them. Later on Mr. Mackay held the tawse on week days besides raising aloft the “hangman's whip” on Sundays, and it may be that he elevated the standard a little. Only quite recently, however—since the spring of 1884—has there been a thorough-going school with a good and competent schoolmaster. To the Ladies' Association of the Free Church is due the credit of starting and carrying on this school. Such a thing as a rate or a tax being unknown in St. Kilda, one would hardly expect to find a Board school on the island, but indeed the school now in existence is so admirably conducted that no public school in the circumstances could well do any better.

The one drawback lies in this, that the master is changed every year. A single twelvemonth's banishment is possibly considered the limit of a desirable man's endurance, and no doubt it would be worse than folly to sacrifice any promising young man's life by locking him up as schoolmaster in St. Kilda for an indefinite time. The masters of this and similar schools are usually divinity students, who let their regular studies stand over for a year. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the student who allows himself to be sent to train the young St. Kilda idea, even if only for a twelvemonth, does a heroic thing, and is quite as entitled to the gratitude of his church as the missionary who goes to Old Calabar or the Cannibal Islands. Nobody knows how the selection is made, but the sentence of banishment for a year to St. Kilda is announced by the esteemed lady whose name is so honourably identified with the association. Of course the man who is selected has always the option of declining, and this is sometimes done. Mr. George Murray, the present master, is the third on the island.