‘A Visit to St Kilda’ by M.B.F. (16 September, 1882)

The following is an account of a visit to St Kilda in 1882. The author (who signs off as M.B.F.) provides some fantastic details of early commercial tourism to the island on the the SS Dunara Castle (spelt Dunarra in the article) which only began making trips in 1875. Of particular note is the descriptions of the make up of the passengers, the itinerary of the voyage and the interactions between the native St Kildans with the tourists.

I joined the Dunarra Castle on Saturday morning, 10th June, at 9 A.M., at Dunvegan Pier. The only other passengers from Dunvegan were Mr M’Kenzie, the factor for St Kilda, accompanied by several tradesmen who were to remain on the island for a time to make some repairs about the cottages, &c., and Miss M’Leod of M’Leod, from Dunvegan Castle, who, on seeing the angry-looking whitecrested rollers careering up Dunvegan Loch—it was very rough—I presume, got frightened at the somewhat ominous aspect of the weather, went ashore with all her luggage just as the steamer was about to start. By the way, there was another important personage who joined the steamer at Dunvegan, namely, Colin Campbell, a well-known and famous Skye piper, and an exceptionally good specimen of a genuine old Highlander, with pretty white locks and flowing beard, neatly rigged out in full Highland garb. His chanter was adorned with gaudy tartan and varied coloured ribbons dancing in the whirling breeze.

Our first place of call was Stein, near the head of Loch Bay, where we cast anchor for full an hour, landing about a dozen passengers, big and little, and a considerable amount of general goods, but chiefly oatmeal and flour. I was surprised to see such a large quantity of meal, probably 8 or 10 tons landed. Our next call was at Uig, by far the prettiest spot I had yet seen in Skye. The little village or hamlet, consisting of two churches, with a neat little manse close to each, and a hotel and large schoolhouse and a peculiar looking building in the form of a round tower, which stands prominently on a raised green knoll, and used by the landlord as an office where he collects his rents, &c., and a few white cottages situated round the one-half of the beautiful circular bay of Uig, with its bold headlands on either side of the entrance. The other side of the bay is thickly studded with crofters’ huts and narrow strips of land sloping up from the beach, looking remarkably well and forward. Our next call was at Scalpay, a small fishing village. We arrived at Tarbert about 7.30, where we remained over Sunday. The village stands at the head of a long narrow pointed creek or bay—East Loch Tarbert. I never saw a village with such utterly bleak and barren surroundings. The mountain sides are almost entirely bare rock.

The berths in the steamer being all occupied by passengers who had come all the way, I went to the Tarbert Hotel, a pretty large house, where I unexpectedly got about the biggest, best furnished, and most comfortable bedroom I ever got in any hotel before. Other two gentlemen, who came on board at Uig, took up their quarters in the hotel. One of them was the Lord Provost of the capital of one of the northern counties, and a remarkably big, braw, jovial, jolly, gentlemanly man. All the rest of the passengers, numbering about fifty or so, remained on board the steamer. Sunday turned out a fine, bright, sunny day. There was only one church—a Free— in the place, the parish kirk being close on twenty miles distant, and a number of the Dunarra passengers went to the Free Church, which was pretty well filled. A considerable number came from Scalpay in boats. In the course of the day several yachts steamed into the loch, including the Marquis of Ailsa’s. The Marquis landed, and took up his abode for the day in the hotel. I believe very few knew who he was. Pretty late in the evening Miss M’Leod of M’Leod and a Miss Ashley arrived in a steam yacht, and came on board the Dunarra shortly before 11 o’clock. A few others joined the steamer just before she sailed. A few minutes after 12 o’clock on Sunday night, everything being in good sailing trim, we left Tarbert, and while steaming along the leeside of Harris the sea was comparatively smooth.

The only place we called at after leaving Tarbert was at Obbe, a small place on the north side of Harris Sound, where a few passengers—natives—left us. Shortly after leaving Obbe and fairly clear of the shelter of the Islands of Harris, the steamer’s course was steered direct for St Kilda, sixty odd miles distant. We immediately encountered a regular hurricane such as I had never witnessed before. The Dunarra, her gallant captain, officers, and crew were put on their mettle. I make no pretensions to be a very good judge of either steam or sailing crafts, but I believe the Dunarra is a first-rate sea boat. Indeed I never saw a steamer behave better in a storm. I daresay she would have pitched and rolled less had she had thirty or forty tons more deadweight in her hold. As a proof so far that it was no ordinary storm, I heard a gentleman—a passenger—state that he had crossed the Atlantic several times, but had never witnessed such a wild sea before. Some of the St Kildans told us that, with the exception of one day early in the spring, there had not been such a stormy day experienced round the island this year.

Shortly after seven o’clock we were close on the islands, St Kilda being in the centre of the group, and by far the largest. The first glimpse I got of the nearest island—Brora—reminded me at once of Ailsa Craig, and on getting a nearer view, as if there were a half-dozen Ailsa Craigs standing like huge, grim, hoary sentinels ranged around, and guarding their “bigger brither St Kilda” from the full force of the fierce, gaunt billows of the Atlantic main. On approaching the bay opposite the little township, although the wind was blowing from the most favourable point for landing—north, with a point N.E.—still the bay presented the appearance of a collection of small moving, shifting, surging islands, caused by the tremendous rolling surge. It has been sometimes remarked that the formation of St Kilda—the principle island—somewhat resembles the shape of a leg of mutton with a few slices cut out to form the bay. On the east side the lofty hill of Kneilin rises sheer up to the height of some 1200 feet above sea level. Its sea front is a precipitous, bare, scaured rock. The rounded side next the village, although steep and thickly studded with light greyish stones, is of comparatively east ascent. The shank of the “leg” forms the west side of the bay, stretching away out probably about a mile or more into the sea, and consists of a narrow ridge of bare, jagged rocks, with several big holes or apertures through and through, the waves sweeping and dashing through them with a terrific thundering noise I observed later on that at one spot there is a narrow gate or opening right through, with overhanging cliffs on either side, the gaps being sufficiently wide to admit a small boat to pass through it.

As the steamer steamed slowly past the bay the scene, more especially around the extreme outer point of the narrow lofty ridge of bare rock, was something not easily described, but terribly wild and impressive. Wave after wave dashed with wild fury against the rock, sending their white foamy spray away up to a great height, as if bent on shattering the hoary rock to its very foundation. The captain steered the steamer round the point of the “Shink” and got into the lee side of the island, and steamed slowly about for an hour or two, keeping well out from the rocks. Although comparatively sheltered from the force of the gale, there was such a tremendous jumbling, rolling surge that the steamer tumbled about like a big ark. We were soon surrounded by an immense flock of sea birds of various kinds joining in a wild chorus of shrieks and yells, the peculiar cry of one species resembling “grog, grog, grog,” and another “bit, bit,” or “beer, beer, beer,” &c., &c. While steaming along in the friendly shelter of the island there were some fierce blasts and showers of hard hailstones, which rattled against the steamer like leaden pellets. By and by, to the surprise, I believe, of all on board, a boat was observed coming out of the bay manned by a crew of five men—four oarsmen, and one at the helm. I had often read and heard of the St Kildans being indifferent sailors or boatmen, but I have formed quite a different opinion as to their prowess as boatmen. I never before witnessed a boat handled with such rare pluck and skill; indeed, I never saw a boat venture out in such a sea before. No doubt all for the arrival of the Dunarra—her being the first this season—and would be sure to bring to them many needed necessaries and news from the outside world.

The captain, on seeing the boat with its little flag fluttering in the breeze, ordered the steamer to be steered in the direction of the boat, and, after a good deal of manoeuvring, the boat was got on the lee side of the steamer and a long rope thrown out, which was quickly seized and the end made fast to the nose of the boat by the steersman, who had shifted his position from the stern, none of the rowers moving from their places. The boat rose high upon the curling crest of the first wave, like a little toy, but being suddenly dragged down into the deep trough of the sea it was nearly swamped, and partly filled with water, and very likely the very next wave would have engulfed the boat and all its occupants, but the steersman’s quick eye saw their danger, and in a moment snapped the rope, and quickly scrambled to the helm. The steamer then proceeded cautiously up the bay till within a short distance of the beach, and slipped her anchor in 10 or 12 fathoms of water, and good holding ground at the bottom. Many of the passengers, like myself, looked eagerly for the boat, but for some time could see no trace of it, and I really feared that both it and its gallant crew had gone down amidst the wild jumbling billows around the entrance of the bay. By and by, however, we got a momentary glimpse of it appearing like a dark speck on the crest of a wave, and after a hard struggle lasting over an hour the boat was got alongside in the lee of the steamer and secured by ropes. Then the crew, two or three at a time, all came on board, and got a warm and hearty welcome, besides a considerable number of various assortments of parcels and packages, &c., in the shape of presents from the passengers on board the Dunarra. The crew were all middle-aged men, ranging probably from 25 to 40 years of age, none of them very tall, but stout, study, healthy-looking men, three of them with reddish, sandy hair and beards, the other two dark. They were great talkers, their tongues never stopped while we had them on board. They spoke of course in Gaelic, as none of them can speak a word of English. They speak very good Gaelic; neither of them had boots or shoes on. I believe they had put off their shoes in order to be more nimble and active in handling their boat.

After waiting for an hour or two to see if the gale would calm down a little—but instead of improving it became even worse, the sea outside the bay rolling wildly mountains high—the crew got into their boat—a pretty large sized broad-beamed four-oared boat—and got it so far loaded with sundry boxes, &c., containing groceries, and other odds and ends from the south. Two gentlemen from amongst the passengers—the Marquis of Ailsa and an English clergyman—insisted, against the advice of their friends, on going ashore in the boat. They were well warned that if they landed the chances were that they would require to remain on the island for at least several weeks until the next steamer called. However, they persisted on landing along with the crew, who seemed quite delighted at the prospect of having the two strangers with them, and rowed for the shore, their progress being eagerly watched with keen interest by all on board the steamer, and I daresay with equal interest and anxiety by the inhabitants of the island, who were all, or at anyrate the large majority of them, congregated on a rocky knoll close to the beach, waving their napkins and making other signs of welcome and delight at the wished-for arrival of the Dunarra.

There is no pier or landing-place of any sort whatever on any part of the islands, and the usual mode of landing, even in the most favourable weather, is imply to wait close on the shore and watch for a good big rolling wave to carry boat and all it contains high up on a ledge of the rocky beach, and there to be instantly seized by a crowd of the islanders and carried higher up before the next wave reaches it; and when embarking the same process is reversed. The boat with its seven occupants soon reached within a short distance of the shore, where they meant to hover and watch for a favourable big wave to waft them on to the rocks on shore; but there was little or no prospect of them succeeding, as wave after wave in rapid succession were chasing each other around the whole circle of the bay, sending their white spray and foam a long way up along the beach. After waiting more than an hour for a short lull they were obliged to return to the steamer with the two passengers, who were evidently glad to get on board again. We then bade good-bye to the boat and its hardy and gallant crew, who in all likelihood—unless the storm moderated somewhat—would be compelled to keep in their boat all night, as they could neither land nor on any account attempt to leave the bay, which would be certain destruction. Their great danger would be the wind veering round a few points. While the steamer rode at anchor she swung round and round, sometimes her stem and then her stern to the shore, to within a stone-cast of the beach. The factor (Mr M’Kenzie) had a good many materials, such as wood, slates, wire for fences, &c., on board for the island, and several tradesmen who were to remain in the island to do some repairs on the cottages; but of course neither men nor materials could be landed. Like many of my fellow-passengers, no doubt, I felt much disappointed at not being allowed to land on the Island of St Kilda, as I had for so long looked forward with keen interest to see both it and its inhabitants. I have known several natives of the island who now occupy respectable positions in several parts of Scotland, and besides I was aware that a considerable number of the islanders were namesakes of my own [probably Ferguson]—indeed, either the second or third most numerous name on the island. I was somewhat curious to trace out if any of them were distant kinsmen. However, I carried away with me from the seagirt island a rough sketch of it, which I have hung up and will always retain in a prominent corner of memory’s mysterious storehouse as one of the most striking and impressive pictures my eye ever gazed on.

My preconceived idea of the island was quite upset on seeing it. For one thing, I did not imagine it was so large. St Kilda alone extends to over three miles in length by two broad, and including the other islands the group comprehends from 4000 to 5000 acres, or over six square miles. Two of the islands—Borraro [Boreray] and Soa [Soay]—are about the same size, and each affords excellent grazing for three or four hundred sheep. The other islands are simply huge, bare, barren, fantastically formed rocks, the favourite haunts of all sorts of sea birds. Except at the village bay, St Kilda is surrounded by stupendous perpendicular cliffs rising sheer out of the dark Atlantic. These cliffs are deeply indented by numerous caverns and fissures—presenting a very remarkable and striking aspect. There are four distinct hill-tops the highest—named Conagher—rises up immediately behind the village to the height of some 1500 feet, and from its base to its very summit it is clothed with a beautiful green grassy sward, its finely rounded conical peak standing proud monarch of the surrounding scene. The whole live stock on the island consists of about 1200 sheep and 59 head of cattle. There are no horses of any sort or size [?] on the islands. For several centuries the population has stood about an average of 90 odd souls—110 being the highest, 71 the lowest number ever known. At present the number is 78.

One day in April 1863 the only cargo boat on the island, which cost £60, sailed from the island in a favourable wind for the Long Island (Harris) with several men and one woman. When last seen from the cliffs she was careering on her course, but was never seen or heard of afterwards, which caused great grief and sorrow among the islanders, and made a gap in their number.

While the Dunarra rode at anchor in the bay we had as good a view of the little hamlet as we could desire. It consists of 18 cottages in the form of a crescent. Running parallel with the curve of the bay there are 16 neat, tidy-looking cottages with fine [?] roofs, front doors, with ordinary sized windows on each side, and a chimney on each gable. The other two cottages, which are thatched, are occupied respectively by an old bachelor and an old maid. At the east end of the village there are four white slated houses, the church and the manse, a store, the factor’s house, which is occasionally occupied by Miss M’Leod of M’Leod (sister to the proprietor), who is greatly loved and esteemed by all on the islands. Immediately behind the village, surrounded by a drystone dyke, stands the churchyard, which contains the mouldering remains of many successive generations of the hamlet’s dead.

We left the islands about 3 P.M. Before the steamer left the bay I selected a place on the lee side of one of the funnels, and seized hold of an iron rod and held on there for four or five hours, until we entered the Sound of Harris; and, although I suffered a good deal from sea sickness, I had the satisfaction of having seen the Atlantic in one of her fiercest and wildest moods. We arrived at Dunvegan shortly after ten o’clock, where I landed.

M. B. F.

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