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First Visit 1875

Chapter III

Food—Houses—Fish—Animals—Birds—Female bird-catchers—A visit to Boreray.

THE people of St Kilda are warmly clothed (thanks to their own industry), and in general well fed. Their diet consists of mutton, sea-fowl eggs and flesh, potatoes, cheese, oatmeal porridge, oat cakes, and milk. They have a prejudice against fish and use it sparingly, alleging that it causes an eruption on the skin. They care little for tea but are fond of sugar, and the women are crazy for sweets. The men are equally fond of tobacco, although they consume little, probably because it is too costly. Every family is provided with a bottle of whisky, but the cork is seldom or never drawn except in case of sickness. They had never seen fruit until I took three apples to the island.

All the inhabitants are congregated in one village, which is built in the form of a crescent facing the bay at the south-east side of the island. The houses were until lately similar to those in other islands of the Hebrides, and are said to be warm and comfortable. They are at all events picturesque. The walls are built of loose stones, are about five feet in thickness, with turf packed in between. They are thatched with straw, held down by ropes of the same material tied to stones. Some of these old huts remain, and are now used as barns. Two are still occupied ; but fourteen new cottages were erected about fourteen years ago, and have excited the admiration of visitors, although I think there is still great reason for improvement as regards furniture. These cottages are well built, and are roofed with zinc. Each house contains two chairs and no more, which were sent from Edinburgh. Very few of the houses can boast of a table, and each family sits or squats around the pot when at dinner. The people make stools of straw ropes. The minister is the only person on the island who possesses or uses a fork. Almost every house contains a loom, a spinning-wheel or two, and every woman has a chest in which to store her MacGregor shawl (used on great occasions) and other articles of dress. None of the walls have been white-washed since the houses were erected, and they are blackened with peat smoke. Bundles of solan geese stomachs and ropes for the crags hang from the rafters. Every family is well provided with blankets, but they all sleep on loose straw. Some of MacLeod's friends speak in glowing terms of the comfort of these cottages, and quite forget it was owing to the agitation raised by Captain Otter, and to his threatening to start a subscription to provide better dwellings for the St Kildians, that caused the previous proprietor to build the present houses at his own cost. I believe the rent of each cottage and plot of ground is £2 per annum, which, if the trade were free, would be very moderate.

MacCulloch has compared the form of St Kilda to a leg of mutton. It consists of a number of steep hills, arranged something like the figure 4 as it is written, or, if we include the island called the Dun, like the letter H roughly formed. The highest hill is Connagher, which is 1220 feet above the sea. I have said hills, but in reality they are only the halves of hills—hills to the interior, but cliffs to the sea. Connagher, like the others, is one stupendous cliff almost from the summit to the base. All the rocks are igneous. The space below the bar of the H is the bay, and the space above it Glen Mar. In this glen is the most extensive pasture for sheep and cattle, and to this secluded spot a large proportion of the women go every day during summer to milk their ewes and cows and herd their flocks.