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Second Visit, 1876-77

Chapter VIII

Plucking grass—Sprain my ankle—Arrival of Austrians—How it strikes a stranger—I make and send off mails—The boat-cold—Unexpected rescue—God bless the Admiralty!

ON the 21st of October, and for many subsequent days, all the inhabitants went down the cliffs to pluck grass for their cattle, which, as the proprietor had failed to send a smack for the young beasts, were about double the number usually requiring to be fed. I saw the women lying on the narrow sloping ledges on the face of the rocks. A slip, or a false step, and they would have fallen into the sea hundreds of feet below, or been dashed to jelly on the projecting crags. I frequently went to the top of the hills, but seldom saw a sail even on the far horizon—never near the island.

On the 7th November a meeting was held in the church to return thanks for the miserable harvest. A Sudden change occurred in the weather ; the sky became charged with thick vapour, and there was a heavy fall of hail, accompanied by thunder and lightning.

On the 8th of December I went to the top of the hills, and notwithstanding my “lenten entertainment,” felt remarkably well; but slipping when about twenty yards from home, I sprained my ankle, and lay for some time in torture. I crawled into the house, and after a time succeeded in cooking my dinner, such as it was. I slept none, and next day my room was filled with sympathising male friends and ministering angels. Some brought me presents of salt mutton, potatoes, turf, and fulmar oil. On the 10th I held a levee, the whole people coming to see me between fore and afternoon services. The men about this time began to weave the thread which the women had spun. Both sexes worked from dawn of day until an hour or two after midnight. Their industry and endurance astonished me. I soon began to limp about ; and when the nights were dark, I got a live peat stuck on the end of a stick to let me see the road home. At this time I made a miniature ship, and put a letter in her hold, in the hope that she might reach some place where there was a post-office, being anxious to let my friends know that I was alive, and also to let the public know that MacLeod had broken his promise to send provisions to the people, and that we were all in want. Shortly afterwards I made a lanthorn out of a piece of copper that had come off a ship's bottom. A large limpet-shell filled with fulmar oil served for a lamp inside.

On the 12th of January, which is New Year's day in St Kilda, the minister, to celebrate the occasion, preached a sermon from that cheerful little book Ecclesiastes.

On the 17th the most remarkable event occurred that had happened in St Kilda for many years. The people had just gone to church, when, happening to look out at my door, I was astonished to see a boat in the bay. Scarcely believing my eye-sight, I ran down to the shore—past the church—and took a closer look. Eight or nine men, all in sou'-westers and oil-skins, sat resting on their oars in a white boat. Robinson Crusoe, when he saw the foot-print on the sand, could scarcely have felt more surprised than I did on beholding this apparition. I bawled as loudly as I could, but my voice was drowned by the roar of the waves. A woman who had followed me gave notice to the congregation, and all came pouring out of the church. The St Kildians ran round the rocks to a spot where there was less surf, and I went with them, and waved on the boat to follow. When we arrived at the place mentioned, the islanders threw ropes from the cliffs to the men in the boat, and I shouted, “Tie the rope around your waist, and the men will pull you up;” when a voice replied, “Oh, tank you! mooch better dere.” It was the captain who spoke, whilst pointing to the flat shore in front of the village and putting the boat about. All ran back, but before we had reached the shore, the strange boat had run through the surf: Instantly on touching the sunken rocks, all the men leapt into the sea and swam to the land, where the St Kildians were ready to grasp them. In a few minutes their boat was knocked to pieces on the rocks, and they were prisoners like myself.

The strangers were invited into the minister's house, and dry clothes given them. When the captain was able to speak, he told us that he had left Glasgow for New York, on board of the Austrian ship Peti Dabrovacki, 880 tons, five days before ; that the ship was in ballast, which had shifted in consequence of the bad weather she had encountered, and she had fallen on her beam ends and become perfectly unmanageable ; that he and eight of the crew had left her, eight miles to the westward, in the boat, and that seven men refused to leave the ship, and would probably perish—as no doubt they did—for the ship was not to be seen next day. When he had answered my interrogations, he put the following questions to me :