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Second Visit, 1876-77

Chapter IX

My mission—The extraordinary way in which Providence has assisted me thus far, which inspires me with hope for the future—A nine days' visit from Fame—The Kelso Fund—The Treasurer hangs fire, but goes off with a double charge at the end of two months—Unsuccessful attempt to fly a kite—What should be done with the rump of the Kelso Fund.

TO break open the door of MacLeod's prison was the object of my second visit to St Kilda. To liberate the poor serfs who had been so long incarcerated and cruelly used, and to bring them into communication with the rest of the world, was my mission, and often, when rambling amongst the stern rocks on the tops of the mountains, or sitting listening to the solemn sound of the waves upon the lonely shore, I felt as if I had had a Divine call to perform the work, and must proceed at any cost, and despite of any opposition. Providence often selects strange instruments with which to execute His purposes,—instruments that would seem altogether unsuitable to Doctors Begg and M‘Lauchlan.

I found that the boat I had taken out would not accomplish the end I had in view, and I became convinced that no private boat would answer. I saw that the men of St Kilda, however much they might grumble and pant for freedom, had become, from their life-long imprisonment, like children in the dark, and were frightened at shadows, and that the minister (whose prayer was, “Give us peace in our time, O Lord !” ) used his influence to paralyse what little enterprise the people possessed. I felt convinced, moreover, that even if the islanders had the resolution to go to Harris for purposes of commerce, the proprietor would not allow them ; that he was determined to retain his monopoly and to resist all reform. In a threatening letter he had written to his poor tenants in October 1875, he tells them he is opposed to all change, and if they continue to grumble, he will let the island to one man—a middleman—the St Kildians having had bitter experience of the tender mercies of that class. In a letter written subsequently, but delivered at the same time, and after I had exposed the condition of the island in the first edition of this book and in the newspapers, MacLeod seemed to come down a peg, and agreed to let the people go to Harris and conduct their own business ; but it was evident from the tenor that he meant

“To keep the word of promise to the ear,
And break it to the hope.”

I accordingly came to the conclusion that nothing but a steamer would answer the purpose I had in view, and I thought that the St Kildians, being British subjects and paying taxes, had surely a right to some little postal communication—say even twice a year. They all agreed that this would be an inexpressible boon, and begged me to try and get a steamer sent to the island in Spring and Autumn, and gave me an ughdarus, or mandate, to act as their fear-ionad, or representative.

There is a Providence in the fall of a sparrow, and every event that occurred in St Kilda during my sojourn of eight months, although it appeared like a disaster at the time, seemed in the end as if it had been specially appointed to further the cause I had undertaken to advocate. Such a concurrence of remarkable events had never before happened in the island, and it seemed as if I had been predestined to be detained to witness and publish them. Firstly, Donald MacKinnon, who was supposed to have been drowned thirteen years before, arose again, as it were, from the dead, and hopes were excited that others of the lost crew might have been preserved also. I was there to see the mental agony, the suspense, the alternate hopes and fears, which the people had to endure for eight weary months, and to realise to the full what an atrocious neglect the Government was guilty of in leaving these seventy-five poor British subjects upon that rock without a mail. One poor old fellow would grasp my arm, and entreat me, whilst the tears stood in his eyes, to send him news when I got to Harris about his lost son. His voice, tremulous with emotion, still sounds in my ear, “Mo h-aon mhac ! mo h-aon mhac ! My only son ! my only son !” and my heart boils with pity for these poor people, and with unutterable hatred for the cold-hearted wretches who try to keep them thus in darkness and in prison. Secondly, I seem to have been detained on the island to witness the breach of contract of which MacLeod was guilty—to hear the factor promise to send oatmeal in Autumn, and to see the sufferings the people endured by his failure to do so.