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First Visit 1875

Chapter II

History of St Kilda—Population—Tetanus infantum—The people, appearance, character, education, religion, customs, dress, etc.

THE history of St Kilda, like our own, is lost in antiquity. It would be interesting to learn what brought the first settlers to this lonely and desert isle, and to ascertain the date of their immigration. Were they castaways ? or were they attracted to these rocks by the multitudes of sea-fowl with which they are frequented, and whose flesh and eggs still form important articles of diet ? Or were they fugitives, driven from their homes by powerful enemies, and glad to fly with their families to this remote island, where they might hope to live in peace, or at least have an opportunity of defending themselves ? for the fort on the Dun testifies that even here they did not expect to live unmolested. The old huts still remaining are primitive enough, but the first dwellings were probably underground. One of these subterranean houses still exists in the village, and there are numerous caves which, no doubt, were used as places of refuge in times of danger.

It would be interesting to know how the first proprietor obtained possession. “It is, I believe,” says Macaulay, “no easy matter to trace out the name, nor of course the history, of Hirta, with any degree of certainty, beyond the fourteenth century.

“In a charter granted within that period by John, Lord of the Isles, to his son Reginald, and confirmed by King Robert the Second, St Kilda, under the name of Hirt, was made over, together with many other places, to the said Reginald. How at the end of two or three generations the property of this isle was transferred from the successors of Reginald, the predecessors of Clan Ronald, to the family of Sleat, now represented by Sir James M'Donald, and how in process of time it fell into the hands of the clan that now possesses it, is a useless inquiry. And were the question of greater importance, so contradictory are the accounts given, and so slender are the historical evidences on every side, that any judicious person will choose to leave that matter undetermined At this time (1759) the proprietor is Norman MacLeod of MacLeod ; and his ancestors have possessed it for at least two hundred years back.”

The St Kildians have a dim tradition that their ancestors came from Uist. They also believe that the island has been depopulated more than once and planted anew. They tell an incredible tale, which, however, they firmly believe in, about two men who, at some remote and indefinite period, decoyed all the rest of the people into the church, and there suffocated them. From the appearance of the people, and from the Norwegian words with which, according to Macaulay, their Gaelic is corrupted, I conjecture the present inhabitants have some Scandinavian blood in their veins. The Norwegians (who possessed all the Hebrides for several centuries) have apparently left their mark on the present inhabitants of St Kilda. “The people of this island,” says Macaulay, “have a tradition that one Macquin, an Irish rover, was the first person who settled himself and a colony of his countrymen in their land.”

The population has much decreased since Martin's visit in 1697, when it numbered about 180. When the Rev. Kenneth Macaulay (although I do not now consider him a reliable authority) was there in 1759, the population had decreased to 88. It was reduced to 72 in 1875, of whom 29 were males and 43 females, but increased to 75 in 1876. Smallpox visited the island about 1730, and made fearful havoc in the little community. The infection was said to have been brought from Harris. Of twenty-one families only four adults remained, and these had the burden of twenty-six orphans to support. “Before the distemper was propagated three men and eight boys were sent into one of the islands with a design of catching solan geese for the benefit of the whole community. An universal confusion and mortality ensuing at home, they continued there from the middle of August till about the middle of May in the following year. The boat in which these men had been wafted over into that island was brought back to Hirta before the distemper became epidemical. Had they been at home with the rest, it is more than probable that their fate had been the same as their friends.”1

Thirty-five persons left for Australia about twenty years ago, most of whom died of ship-fever on the passage. The population was further reduced by the loss of seven men and a woman, who were drowned in attempting to reach Harris in 1864.

1. Macaulay, p. 198.