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Chapter XIV


What is to be done with the St. Kildians?—The problem pressing for solution—Mr. M'Neill's recommendation to the Government—Former views of the minister and people on wholesale emigration—Correspondence with the island—The subject of emigration revived—Application made to the Agent of the Victorian Government—Opinion in favour of emigration practically unanimous—An alternative scheme to improve the condition of the islanders—Construction of a landing-place for boats—The island as a fishing station—Emigration the true solution of the problem—Affectionate parting with the islanders—Return to Dunvegan in a “red storm"

THE problem of what is to be done with the St. Kildians is one that now exercises every thoughtful person who feels any interest in the island. It is only within a comparatively recent period that the problem has pressed itself for solution on the public mind. Writers like Martin and Macaulay saw only the most delightful romance in this simple primitive people leading a life of all but complete isolation on their lonely rock ; their very countrymen, yet farther removed from them in sympathy and all the concerns of daily life, themselves much less familiar than the natives of England and Scotland, who then were seeking new homes under strange skies thousands of miles away. The romance is gone; it could not by any possibility survive the stern fact of repeated periods of destitution imperilling the very existence of the community. It is these recurring seasons of scarcity that have forced the problem of the future of St. Kilda upon the attention of the public, and have led many sensible people to think that the only way of solving it satisfactorily is to abandon the island. That is the recommendation of Mr. Malcolm M‘Neill, inspecting officer of the Board of Supervision, who as already stated was sent to the island in October, 1885, to report upon the condition of the people. In his official report, made public in April, 1886, Mr. M‘Neill says—“During the year 1884 a former emigrant from St. Kilda to Australia returned, and resided for some months on the island; this person seems to have occupied himself in spreading discontent among the people, and in striving to place them in antagonism with their indulgent landlord. But his teaching has produced an effect which probably he did not anticipate, for within the past eighteen months a strong desire to emigrate has sprung up, and, with the exception of one or two old men, I found none who were not anxious to be transferred either to the mainland or to Australia: It may well be worth consideration by her Majesty's Government whether, in view of this disposition of the people, it may not be wise, and, in the end, economical, to assist them in attaining their object, and thus to avoid a recurrence of the anxieties which their isolated position must periodically produce.”

On the occasion of my first visit, four days before that of Mr. M‘Neill, I sounded the minister of the island on the subject of emigration. As stated in a previous chapter the Rev. gentleman, speaking for himself and the people, indicated much sympathy with what I told him had been proposed—namely, that the St. Kildians should be transplanted in a body to some other part of the empire—but the day being Sunday, he forbade any conference with the people on the subject. When I revisited the island in June, 1886, I was able to learn with much fullness the views of the great bulk of the community on the question. The first day of my sojourn on the island the minister informed me that the subject of emigration had been much discussed immediately after my first visit, but that it was now forgotten, and was never even referred to by man, woman, or child. This is characteristic of the St. Kildians. They are an excitable, impulsive people, like Celts in general, whether at home or abroad, but they seem utterly incapable of any sustained mental interest. Emigration, like many other subjects, took hold of their imaginations for a day. So long as the fit lasted it engrossed their minds, to the exclusion of everything else. The amount of zeal they showed was extraordinary, and could most easily be explained by supposing that the simple idea of wholesale emigration had never before occurred to their childlike minds as a practical suggestion. But it was dead now, the minister said. It was fated, however, to a very speedy resurrection.