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First Visit 1875

Chapter IV

The Government—Trade—Departure from the island.

ST Kilda by a legal fiction is in the county of Inverness, but it is virtually ignored by the British Government. The inhabitants, it is true, pay taxes on their tobacco, whisky, etc., and the Receiver of Wrecks at Stornoway claims the half of the flotsam and jetsam. But for this they might doubt if they are subjects of the Queen. They are too poor and too white-skinned to be deemed worthy of attention. The proprietor, MacLeod of MacLeod, who bought the island several years ago, for, I believe, £2000, may say like Louis XIV., “The State—I am the State,” for his power is unlimited. The trade is a monopoly in his hands, and his serfs are obliged to deal with him on his own terms. It is true he has offered to allow them to go and trade where they choose ; but he knows he might as well tell one who has been fettered until his limbs have lost all ability that he is at liberty to run, or bid the ostrich lift its wings and fly. When it was suggested by the Spectator that the inhabitants were entitled to a post, no one but MacLeod objected. At present there is no means of getting a letter sent to the island, except by favour of him or his factor, and pestilence or famine might be there, and the inhabitants have no opportunity of letting their condition be known to their fellow-countrymen. If it is right that any private individual should be allowed to possess and govern a remote island like St Kilda, surely it ought to be one who is thoroughly acquainted with the people, and who feels a deep interest in their welfare. But MacLeod has never had his foot on the island, and all his information is derived from hearsay. Even his agent cannot, except as regards business, have any knowledge of the subject, as he only goes there for three days per annum, and is busy all the time bartering and settling accounts.

Where one man has absolute power, it will be a rare case if he does not abuse it. This is proverbial, and is well exemplified in the dealings of the stewards or factors with the natives of St Kilda. Martin says that when the steward visited the island in his day, he was wont to bring a large body of hungry retainers with him, amounting to fifty or sixty persons, the leanest he could find in the parish, who were fed and fattened for about three months at the charge of the poor St Kildians, who, although fond of strangers, were delighted to see their backs. What they could not eat they carried off with them, leaving the natives nothing to live on but sea-weed and coulternebs. Previous to 1697 the oppression was still more severe. At a much later date the islanders were permitted to keep cows, but the steward claimed all the milk, except at the season when the animals had none, when the poor people were allowed to milk them if they felt inclined. There has been a great reform in this respect. The proprietor receives nothing now-a-days but his rents, and the exorbitant profits on his double-barreled trade monopoly.

Still I cannot help saying, that I should like to see free trade established, and a regular and independent postal communication opened up between St Kilda and other parts of the kingdom. I was more than once requested by all the men in a body to let their position be known, in the hope that some one might be so generous as to present them with a boat large enough to carry a crew and cargo to the Lewis. It has been suggested that the Gordian knot should be cut,—that the whole population should be removed to Canada. But I think it is bad policy to transport well-behaved people. Emigration is a panacea which some prescribe for all evils. They remind one of the novelists who always end with marriage. Neither gives a hint of what happens afterwards. It is a clumsy way of curing corns to cut off the feet. With free trade and a post, the St Kildians might be as happy at home as they would be in a colony. Besides, a large proportion (say twenty-seven) are over forty, and too old to transplant.

From inquiry at every individual (all save one gave me the information willingly) I have ascertained the amount of--

Articles Exported from St Kilda in 1875.

It must be remembered that a large profit is charged by the factor on all imports.