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Chapter III

THE MINISTER

Interview with the Rev. Mr. Mackay—“All the doing of the Evil One”—“Ah those infidel newspapers”—Mr. Mackay's views of the genesis, progress, and nature of leading articles—His criticism of Mr. M`Neill's report —In the confessional—“Sir Collins” again—Serious illness of the minister—“He was killed by the news in the paper”— Rough-and-ready doctoring—Mr. Mackay's recovery—Steady, constant work a thing unknown in the island—Mr. Mackay on his defence—A vote of thanks to “Sir Collins”—Praying for the extermination of Mr. Mackay's enemies—How the St. Kildians deal with sleepers in Church—Mr. Mackay the Pope and Prime-Minister of the island—Enervating effect of his pastorship


I CALLED upon the Rev. Mr. Mackay in the course of my first day on the island. Mr. Mackay upholds in this distant part of the kingdom the banner of the Free Church, which has been supreme here since the Disruption. I found the reverend gentleman seated in what appeared to be at once bedroom and study. He was engaged filling a short clay pipe, quite black enough to gratify the taste of a Lanarkshire collier. The minister wore his chimney-pot hat during the interview. I never saw one of a similar pattern before; possibly the style may have been fashionable in our grandfathers' days. I was waved in a kindly but cavalier way to one of the two chairs in the room, the rest of the furniture consisting of a rough, plain table, two coarse chests resembling joiner's tool boxes, a Gaelic Bible, three or four books of theology, including Smith's Moral Sentiments, Harvey's Meditations among the Tombs, and Baxter's Call to the Unconverted, a candlestick, and a penny bottle of Perth ink. A fire of turf was simmering in a small broken grate. The good old man was kind enough to speak about my former visit to the island, and to ask various courteous questions concerning the former and the present voyage. I noticed that he was fidgety and ill at ease. Suddenly he went off in the conversation at a tangent, and without any apparent excuse commenced to denounce what he was pleased to term “the infidel newspapers.” Rising from his low arm-chair and stamping his foot vehemently on the floor he thundered forth a salvo of abuse of what he persisted in calling “the infidel newspapers.” I really did not know what it was all about.

Still the ranting and raging went on, and I felt my courage evaporating like the mists of the humid island. It was not reassuring to observe the stalwart housekeeper flitting in and out of the room in an excited manner, and hissing between her closed teeth what sounded to my Sassenach ear like swearing in Gaelic. “I know it's all the doing of the Evil One,” the old man cried, and he brought his hand down on the table with a thud so terrible, that I think it was meant to remind me that, although seventy, he was still able to strike a good blow. “I tell you,” he continued, “it's the doing of the Father of Lies. Ah, those infidel newspapers, those infidel newspapers.” I felt relieved that the blame was put on broader shoulders than mine, and so taking heart I ventured to tell the Reverend gentleman that I positively did not know what he was alluding to, having no pretension to know even half so much as he himself appeared to do about the doings of the Evil One. “What,” he cried, “you come from Glasgow and do not know what they have been saying about me?” Without waiting a reply he dived headlong into a dark mysterious press in the wall of his room, muttering, as he did so, something very terrible about the Evil One and filthy lucre and the infidel newspapers. There was something so suggestive and yet so mysterious and weird about the whole proceeding, as well as about my surroundings, that I was fully prepared at that moment to see the veritable cloven foot march out of the dim Faust-like chamber. But I was disappointed. The good old man came out with no Prince of Darkness to bear him company. He only held in his hand a copy of an Edinburgh newspaper. Before handing it over to me he was seized with another fit, but it did not frighten me much this time.

It appeared by-and-by that some friend on the mainland had sent Mr. Mackay the newspaper, in which there was a leading article characterising the destitution in St. Kilda the autumn previous as an imposture, and charging the Reverend gentleman with conniving at the fraud. It was this leader, which was carefully marked with red ink, that had raised Mr. Mackay's bile. He was surprised that I had not seen the leader before, being under the impression, as he explained to me, that the same leading articles appeared in all the newspapers in the country. His idea was that they originated in any given city or town, and travelled from place to place like a pedlar till they had discharged their duty. The leader in question, he mildly insinuated, was born in Glasgow, and had only at the date of the latest mail got as far as Edinburgh. He fixed a cunning eye on me as he made the insinuation.