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Preface

FAR amid the melancholy main, forty-nine miles west from Obe, in the Sound of Harris, and forty-three from Shillay, in the Outer Hebrides, there is a group of rocky islands, evidently of volcanic origin, the largest of which, called Hirta by the natives and St Kilda by strangers, is inhabited by a small community, who have all Highland names, and speak Gaelic only. This island, which is about three miles long by.two broad, is faced on the north east and south-west by enormous precipices, which rise like walls out of deep water. There is no regular communication between St Kilda and any other part of the world, except by a smack sent by the pro prietor twice a year—namely in Summer and Autumn—to collect the rents, furnish supplies, and carry away the produce. Some bold yachtsman generally pays the island a hurried visit about the end of Summer, but as the anchorage is dangerous, he sel-dom or never remains for more than an hour or two. Few of the inhabitants have been farther than three miles from home; yet although they lead such secluded lives, they are by no means savages. They can all read the Gaelic Testament—they are sober, industrious, decent, and courteous. Although the bravest of the brave when engaged in their dreadful trade of fowling, they are peaceable amongst each other, and never fight. Crime is unknown.

It will be admitted that one may travel far and see nothing more worthy of observation than this little island and its primitive community. In this belief I paid a visit to St Kilda in the Summer of 1875, and remained for seven weeks there. I visited it again, for a purpose to be afterwards explained, in 1876, and resided for eight months. I shall now attempt to describe what I saw, in the hope that it may interest those who have no leisure, inclination, or opportunity for seeing the place for themselves.

Although St Kilda is a small field, yet to give a complete account of it would demand a variety of faculties and acquirements which are seldom or never to be found in one individual. A knowledge of geology, archaeology, ornithology, ichthyology, and botany would be requisite. A thorough knowledge of Gaelic, as well as of the Norse tongues, with all the changes they have undergone, would be essential, so that the writer might be qualified to draw philological inferences as to the history of the people. An intimate acquaintance with the popular tales of all nations would also be of great service. The author would, moreover, require to be a good draughtsman; and last, not least, be capable of expressing himself in correct and attractive English. In short, more than the accomplishments which were considered requisite for the poet in Rasselas would find scope in describing the little island of St Kilda. To the possession of these, or of any one of them, I make no pretensions. My sole excuse for presuming to describe the island is based on my having resided on it for a much longer period than any stranger has done for generations, with the exception of the minister, and perhaps some of the former factors. None of those who have written articles on St Kilda have been there for more than a few hours, and have consequently had no opportunity, however gifted, of observing and understanding the inhabitants or their sequestered abode. What information these authors are able to supply must of necessity be borrowed.

To give a picture, drawn from the life, of the little community so peculiarly situated, is my principal aim, and the rest of my experience is only sketched in as a background. Human nature, with all its failings, is more interesting in my eyes than Nature. Man is the statue, and everything else but the pedestal.