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Second Visit, 1876-77

Chapter VI

Coulternebs—Lockjaw—The Dun, antiquities—Catching fulmars—Soa, antiquities.

IN the 19th of July two boats took twelve unmarried women to Boreray, to be left there to “make feathers,” for three weeks. The blind man went in one of the boats to assist in keeping her off the rocks whilst the crew went on shore to catch birds. One of the boats returned in the evening of the 20th with a large cargo of puffins, which, contrary to expectation, were abundant in Boreray last year. The blind man had sat for thirty hours in the boat—a dismal time, but he seemed quite cheerful. This might serve as a lesson to many who grumble at trifles. “Take physic pomp.” On the 22nd all the people were busy plucking birds, and the smell of roasted puffins—“a very ancient and fish-like smell,” came from every door. Some of the men had caught five hundred and twenty birds each.

On the 30th a fine infant died of lockjaw. The diet of the mother had been chiefly oatmeal. She had not tasted sea-fowl for some time. The infant, she confessed, had been fed with milk, water, and sugar, which seems to me unnatural nourishment and the probable cause of death. Whilst I sat with the poor convulsed child on my knee, and a crowd of women were squatting on the floor awaiting its death, the minister stepped into the room and said, “There is no hope for this infant—let us baptise it,” and I shuddered to think what had become of the thousands of poor children who had died before a minister lived on the island.

I happened to see another infant that seemed to have the premonitory symptoms of tetanus. The relations were alarmed, but this did not deter them from trying to give the little sufferer another large draught of sugar, water, and milk. I persuaded the woman who had the mixture ready in a castor oil bottle without the neck, and was about to pour it down the infant's throat, to throw it out, and to give the child no more of it. The infant recovered, and is past the critical period. Something equally unnatural and deleterious may have been given before sugar was introduced, although the disease seems to be more virulent than it was. I mention this for the consideration of medical men who have manifested a laudable interest in this important subject. The population numbers seventy-five (1876).

On the 31st I went to the island called the Dun, which is only separated from St Kilda by a narrow channel, in a boat, with a crew of three men and three boys, who, for want of better work, tried to catch puffins. These, although the sea was dotted with thousands, were uncommonly shy and difficult to catch. Only about forty-five a piece were bagged. A pagan altar formerly stood on this island, but it has been demolished, and little but the site is visible.

At the southern extremity of the island is a mount, on which great blocks of stone have been piled up in wild disorder by the hand of Nature. Near to this, and the road is rough, is a small cave which the people call a Sean Taigh, or old house. The roof is so low that one cannot stand upright in it, but a doorway has been built at the entrance. This house, not made with hands, was probably used as a hiding place. It is still occupied by the people who visit the Dun to pluck sheep or catch birds. A steep crag arises at this spot and forms an impassible barrier to the extremity of the island, except to a St Kildian, whom no crag could stop. But this crag does not go quite across the isthmus, and a wall had been built to obstruct the passage. The masonry is of the coarsest kind, and the stones have been obtained on the spot. No mortar has been used. Some old men say they remember when there were loopholes for arrows in the top. The walls being thicker at the base leave platforms on which the defenders could have stood. A small cave, open at both ends, passes underneath the wall, and lean men might have been able to crawl through it. I examined this rude fortification with much interest, as it is the only existing building erected for purposes of war in St Kilda.