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Second Visit, 1876-77

Chapter V

I get a boat and take her out—Stornoway—Loch Erisort—Scalpa Obe—St Kilda revisited — Boreray — Infant prodigy in Edinburgh—Subterranean dwelling—Discovery of stone implements—Antiquities—The stone girl.

ON my return from St Kilda I had no intention of ever going there again, but I remembered the promise I had made to the people to try and get a boat for them. I knew that the handsome craft they had received from Mr. Young was more suitable for the Clyde than for the strong seas between St Kilda and the main, but believed it was possible that a boat might be built that would make a passage in safety. In the olden time the natives thought nothing of rowing to Pabbay for whisky or tobacco. Not having the means myself, I made an appeal to others—wrote a letter to the Scotsman, calling public attention to the isolated condition of St Kilda, and the desire the people had for a boat that would take a crew and cargo to the market. As this had no result, I was tempted to try and raise the wind by subscription. By the kind assistance of my friends, and by the generosity of strangers, I succeeded in getting enough money to purchase a boat, and to defray the expense of getting her taken to St Kilda. Afraid that the builders on the Clyde would follow the Loch Fyne skiff model, and make a boat like Mr. Young's, I employed a man at Ardrisaig who had been at St Kilda, and knew the seas that had to be encountered there. He was strongly recommended to me, and I gave him the order, and received a drawing that seemed satisfactory. The boat was built, and I determined to go out and see her safely delivered. So on the 30th of May 1876 I went to Lochgilphead to take possession of her. I cannot say that I was altogether pleased with her appearance—she was broad enough, but too lean in the quarter ; but others praised her, and I tried to believe she was all right. I employed two men to take her through the Crinan Canal, and on the 1st of June I arrived in Oban. Here the men got drunk and extortionate, and I dismissed them. On the 2nd, my boat was lifted on board of the Clansman steamer, and carried to Stornoway. This was done by the Messrs Hutchinson free of charge. They had also instructed their agents and officers to give me every assistance on the route, for which I felt grateful. Although the steamer was full of ministers returning from the Assemblies, we arrived without any accident at Stornoway on the 3rd. Here I was introduced to Captain M`Donald of the fishery cruiser Vigilant, and was in hopes that he would take my boat and myself to St Kilda ; but although he had no work to do, he was not permitted by the Board to leave his station. I should have liked to have seen Stornoway in a successful season, with all the boats and people in a state of activity ; but there were no herring to be got, and about 400 or 500 large boats lay at anchor in the Loch. The streets were crowded with as many thousand fishermen, some of them listening to roaring preachers, and others walking listlessly with their hands in their pockets. A large number of women were also to be seen sauntering idly, some of them in a state of destitution, in the streets. Fish-curers, who had advanced large sums to the fishermen to retain them on the spot, in the hope that the fishing would improve, looked the picture of despondence. A cloud hung over the place, metaphorically as well as literally. The wind blew from the west with heavy showers, and until it changed it was impossible to proceed to St Kilda. Whilst waiting for a fair wind, let me narrate a mysterious occurrence, bearing on my narrative, that took place some years ago.

In the month of April 1874, a boat left St Kilda for Stornoway with a woman and seven men on board. Every man had a chest and the woman a small box, and they took provisions with them,. and some salt-fish and home-spun cloth to pay expenses. The islanders went up the hill called Oswald or Osimhal, and watched the boat for several hours. All seemed well, but in the afternoon the weather grew stormy. The woman in the boat intended to visit some relations at Loch Inver.

On a Sunday, about a month afterwards, three London smacks entered the bay, and brought the news that the boat was lost near Lewis with all on board. Never doubting the truth of the intelligence, the inhabitants gave vent to their grief without restraint. The three skippers came on shore, and beguiled the time by playing quoits with flat stones, and when they witnessed the grief of the bereaved St Kildians they howled in mockery. I tell the tale as it was told to me ; but I have recently been informed by a lady who was on the island at the time, that the three skippers behaved very decently, but that some of the men may have mocked the people. There was no minister in St Kilda at that time, but a catechist called Kennedy filled the office. Although he understood English as well as Gaelic, he never thought of taking a note of the names of the smacks.