Previous page

Next page

Chapter II


H.M.S. “Jackal” sent by the Government—Mr. Malcolm M‘Neill's report—St. Kilda revisited in company with the Factor in June, 1886—Our reception by the people—”Where is the War raging?”—Interest in the Crofter Question—Hand-shaking customs—Eight months events—The division of the “Hebridean” supplies—A row in the manse kitchen—Breakdown of the apostolic principle—The minister and his housekeeper—Sheep-plucking expedition to Boreray—Duties of a St. Kilda elder

MEANWHILE the Government were not altogether deaf to the appeal of the St. Kildians which had been forwarded through Dr. Rainy. They instructed Mr. Malcolm M'Neill, Inspecting Officer of the Board of Supervision, to proceed at once to the island and report on the condition of the people. H.M.S. “Jackal” was placed at his service, and, with Mr. M'Neill on board, she left her station in Rothesay Bay on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 20, 1885. St. Kilda was reached at half-past eight on the morning of the 22nd. Mr. M'Neill and Commander Osborne of the “Jackal” immediately went ashore and held a prolonged conference in the manse with the minister, the schoolmaster, and the resident ground officer. Mr. M'Neill afterwards conferred with the people themselves, and informed himself on the various points to which his attention had been directed by the Government. The result of his inquiries, although communicated to the Government two days later, was not made public till the month of April following. Briefly put, Mr. M'Neill's report amounted to this, that the inhabitants of the island “were amply, indeed luxuriously, supplied” for the coming winter ; that nothing further was necessary to ensure their comfort during the winter, the seed for next year's crop, which was indeed urgently required, having been supplied by the “Hebridean;” that the people were on the whole well off, there being a large sum of money said to average not less than £20 per family hoarded in the island ; that something might be done to improve the condition of the people by constructing a landing-place; and, further, in view of the anxieties which the isolated position of the islanders must periodically produce, that it ought to be considered whether it might not be wise and in the end economical to assist the people to emigrate, as nearly all of them desired to do.

Mr. M'Neill's report, as I have said, was not made public till the month of April, 1886. In the interval some anxiety was manifested regarding the condition of the islanders by the numerous people interested in their welfare ; and in order to ascertain precisely how matters stood, it was arranged before the appearance of Mr. M'Neill's report that I should again visit St. Kilda on the first opportunity presenting itself. The first opportunity did not occur till June. At that time there had not been a scrap of news for eight months from the unique little colony of our countrymen—not since the hurried visits of the “Hebridean” and the “Jackal” in the October previous. This visit in June which brought the ocean-girt island once more into touch with the rest of the world was made at the instance of the factor, Mr. John T. Mackenzie, Dunvegan, who spends several days on St. Kilda every year to collect rents and transact other business with the people.

Our tiny vessel, the “Robert Hadden,” a smack of 60 tons, carrying the mails and usual supplies for the islanders, was ready for her adventurous trip on Tuesday, the 8th of June. Besides Mr. Mackenzie and his son, the only other passengers were Mr. George Murray, who was going out to be schoolmaster at St. Kilda for a term of twelve months, and the writer.

We had one prayer, and that for fine weather, but it was turned to our confusion, for no sooner were we on board than the elements set themselves against us in a manner quite different from what, and perhaps in a way even more exasperating than, we had calculated upon. We had prayed that there might be no stress of wind, but we were left without any wind at all. For several hours our little smack lay becalmed off Dunvegan Pier. In ordinary circumstances we should have found content in admiring that beautiful panorama of sea and land, of bare rocky headland, soft sylvan slopes, crumbling haunted castle, and bleak towering mountains, which sets out Dunvegan as the brightest jewel of Skye; but our thoughts were over the wild waters of the Minch, and we had no heart for the beautiful, even for one of the loveliest sunsets that ever heightened the effects of this picturesque place.