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Second Visit, 1876-77

Chapter VII

Fulmar catching—Misery of the people for want of a mail—MacLeod breaks his promise, and leaves the people to starve—Goill air a gleann, false alarm—Spinning and Weaving —Fairy tales—Lady Grange.

ON the 16th of August I ascended the hill called Connagher, where all the men had gone to catch, and the women to carry home, fulmars. The weather was very warm, and although I carried my coat over my arm, I was fain to stop on my way up, and cool myself in the light sea breeze. About half way up I saw my friend Tormad, with his ruddy face and large white beard, seated on the edge of the cliff, with his attention fixed on the rope he held in his hand. “Who's below ?” I asked, as I sat down beside him. “Neil,” he answered. “Is he far down ?” “Far,” he replied. Neil's voice could be heard calling from the abyss, “Cum agad e,” “Leig leis,” “Thoir thugad e,”—“Hold on,” “Let go,” “Pull away.” In a little a crash and a rattle sound from below, and Tormad looks anxious, and with craning head listens intently ; whilst two girls who had joined us step with their bare feet to the very verge of the precipice, and stare below. One of them, who has a light, lithe figure, looks very picturesque, as she stands poised on that awful cliff. She has a Turkey-red handkerchief on her head, and wears a coarse blue gown of a quaint pattern girdled at the waist, and only reaching to her knees. Her limbs are muscular, and browned by the weather. She is engaged to Neil, and naturally feels anxious on his account. A shower of large stones had fallen, any one of which, had it chanced to hit him, would have knocked his brains out ; but fortunately a projecting crag above his head saves him. Tormad shifts his position to where he thinks the rock is less frangible. I leave him, and climb to where the rocks form a lofty head or promontory, which commands a view of the face of Connagher. This hill rises 1220 feet above the sea, and is a precipice almost to the top. The foot had been cleared of fulmars on the previous day by men who had ascended from boats ; now the work had to be done from above.

It is a dreadful trade. A sound like the crack of a musket is occasionally heard, and one sees a huge stone bound and rattle with long leaps into the sea below. Parties of two or three men laden with birds on their shoulders are seen climbing, by steep and perilous paths that would frighten a sleep-walker, to the summit. From the spot where I lay basking in the sun a path leads downwards to a grassy bank that slopes steeply to the edge of a cliff. This is considered a safe road for women, and a number of them go by it to where the men can bring them fulmars. Some of the girls can carry about 200 lbs., and seem proud of their strength ; but as they toil up the dangerous path, I hear them breathing heavily and in apparent distress, but in a few minutes they are all right again.

In the intervals of business a number of them sit around me, and offer me a share of their oatcakes, cheese, and milk. A number of men also come up the path, with coils of ropes and bundles of solan geese stomachs on their backs. They are all barefooted and stripped to their underclothing. A pile of fulmars has been collected beside us, and the men, whilst they rest, economise time by extracting the oil. The receptacle for holding the oil is the stomach of the solan goose, which is held open by one man, while another takes a fulmar, and, squeezing the body, forces the oil in a stream from its gaping bill. When the fulmars and oil are carried home they are divided. The people sit up during the night and pluck the birds. The fulmar seasons lasts between two and three weeks, and all the crags of St Kilda as well as adjacent islands are searched for them. I ought to mention that it is only the young fulmars that are caught at this time. As they are unable to fly, no art is required to catch them. At this dangerous and laborious work a man, with a female assistant or two, will during the season earn £5 sterling at the most. He gets the flesh in addition. But £5 in St Kilda is not equal by any means to the same sum in Glasgow. The upper part of Connagher is broken into vertical ridges and furrows of sublime magnitude. Some of the ribs descend like buttresses to the sea.