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Chapter XIII


Search for poetical remains—The love of the islanders for poetry and music probably exaggerated—Dr. Macculloch's evidence—Psalm tunes sung in the time of “The Apostle of the North”—Utter lack of musical knowledge nowadays—Poetry more cultivated than music—New version of an old song—“The Widow's Lament”—Mr. Seton's version—“The well of virtues”—Verses composed several generations ago—Another “Lament”

DURING my stay in St. Kilda I made every effort to collect and commit to writing any poetical remains in circulation orally among the people, and in this work I was indebted to the assistance of the late schoolmaster. It is more than probable that the reputation of the islanders for their love of both poetry and music in former times has been greatly exaggerated. Martin writes of “some of both sexes who have a genius for poetry, and are great admirers of music,” while Macaulay in even stronger terms, declares the islanders to be enthusiastically fond of music, whether vocal or instrumental. It is strange, if this be literally true, to find Dr. Macculloch, little more than fifty years after Macaulay, stating that there was no musical instrument in the island, and that nobody remembered when there had been one. St. Kilda, Dr. Macculloch says, had been celebrated for its music, but that reputation, if it ever was well-founded, existed no longer. Poetry, he adds, had followed music. Nine years later the “Apostle of the North” on the occasion of his second visit to the island remarked the “musical turn” of the people, who sang such tunes as Coleshill, Bangor, Scarborough, and St. George's in his hearing with great animation, and “in a manner which did credit to teacher and pupils.” The last observation is important. It seems to indicate that the people had been taught to sing the psalm tunes named by someone then or recently on the island, presumably a catechist or schoolmaster. If even an acquaintance with Bangor or Coleshill marks a higher grade of musical culture than that recorded by Dr. Macculloch in 1815, it equally surpasses the state of matters to-day. In another chapter I have made reference to the islanders' utter lack of musical knowledge, as exemplified in the singing in church. Of course it is only sacred music, such as it is, that is tolerated in the island by the present minister.

Whether the poetical genius of the islanders was ever strongly or generally developed—and it would have been strange rather than otherwise had the St. Kildians under such conditions of life not been. endowed with a bent for poetry—there is more evidence to-day of its former vitality than there is of the existence at any time of the “musica1 turn” of the people. One or two of the oldest persons in the island have preserved in their tenacious memories some poetical fragments, which have been handed down orally from past times. These fragments I was enabled to commit to writing in the native Gaelic, and they are now published in some cases for the first time.

One of the oldest persons in the island, the widow of a noted fowler in his day, Donald McQuien, better known as Domhnuil Og, repeated the following lines from memory. They are somewhat different from a version which Mr. Maclean heard sung on the island in 1838, and which Mr. Seton has reproduced in his book on St. Kilda. “The Widow's Lament,” as my informant called the song, is supposed to be very old. It expresses the feelings of a widowed mother at the loss of a favourite son on the cliffs of Soa. In Mr. Maclean's version there are but three stanzas, while in the following there are four, and the Gaelic of the latter is, I am told, much more like that spoken by the St. Kildians.


Gur ann thall ann an Soa
Dh fhag mi 'n t-og nach robh leumrach
Fear nach fhalbhadh le m'fhacal
'S nach innseadh dhachaidh na breugan.

Bethedh mo chuid de na h-eunlaithibh
'S an iarmailt ag ėigheach
Bithidh mo chuid de na h-uidhean
Aig a bhuidhiann as treuna.

'Sa aheachd beannachd aig do mhàthair
Ga d' chumail sàmhach ri chèile
Thu bhith muigh fo na stuaidhibh
Agus a mhuir go, d' fhuasgladh ochèile.

Cha tig thu gu d' mhàthair
Gu càradh do léine
Thu bhith muigh 's a Gheo-chumhainn
Gur cianail dubhach na d' dhéigh mi.