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