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11 May 2018

The St Kilda Diaries: reflections on St Kilda

Revd MacAlister, R Milne, Alice MacLachlan and Revd MacLachlan
The Revd MacAlister, R Milne, Alice MacLachlan and Revd MacLachlan on St Kilda
​Alice and Peter MacLachlan, and their newborn baby Susan, left St Kilda in May 1909. This is where Alice’s diary entries end.

The three years’ worth of diary entries, covering the time Alice and Peter spent in Garve at the beginning of 1906 and then their 2½ years on St Kilda from August 1906, afford us an invaluable insight into both their own lives and the lives of the people they met.

As with many diaries, most of the entries in Alice’s notebooks recorded everyday activities during the time spent living on Hirta, but they also documented exciting, happy and occasionally tragic events. These first-hand accounts give us a wonderful opportunity to experience to a small degree what life must have been like on St Kilda in the early 20th century.

We’d like to offer our sincere thanks to all who have visited the Trust website and who have followed Alice’s adventures over the past three years. Your support and occasional feedback have been greatly appreciated by those of us who have had the pleasure of presenting these online diaries. 

To finish, we present the transcript of a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda, in which she offers her reflections of the time spent on the islands. 

I hope that the friends & members of the Y.M.C.A. will pardon my use of a paper as I am not accustomed to public speaking.  Time is limited & St. Kilda is a big subject, so I shall not say much about the geographical aspect further than to say that this very interesting & romantic island lies 50 miles west of Harris.  Properly speaking, there is a group of islands:  the principal one being called Hirta, & the others Dùn, Soa & Boreray.  Hirta or St. Kilda, the largest & only inhabited, has been compared to a leg of mutton in shape.  It is about 3 miles long by two broad.  It is faced on the North-East & West by enormous cliffs, which rise like walls out of the deep.  The village itself is built in the shape of a crescent on sloping ground not far from the shore, & is backed by lofty hills.  There are 16 stone cottages - very good houses they are, & compare most favourably with those of Harris, etc.  These consist of two                       A seventeenth house is also occupied, but it is one of the old thatched huts, in which all the people used to live, but which are now used by the others as byres.  The eighteenth house is the Manse.

Village Bay on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907
Village Bay on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907

In the summer of 1906 my husband and I were asked by the Committee of the N.F.Ch. of Scotland to undertake the ch. work in St. K., clerical and scholastic, in the latter of which I was asked to help.  Perhaps you would like to know how our days were spent.  We were far from being lonely as there was always plenty to do & a good Coates library in the Manse.  Beginning with Sabbath there were always two Services at 11 & 6 o’clock.  Sunday School at 4.30 till 5.30.  The morning & evening services were all in Gaelic.  All the time I spent in St. K. (3 yrs)., I only twice heard an English Sermon, & that was                                                     

Before telling you of the rest of the week’s work I may here remark about the St. Kildan’s fondness for church services, from which fact many on the Mainland & other islands might take a copy.  Every one on the island attends - men, women, & children, babies in arms, & if any one absents himself he is called on by the majority of the congregation on the way home from service to know why.  All are most devout and listen attentively, and as a rule the babies behave with decorum.  As they leave the church

Children standing in the main street of the village on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907
The main street of the village on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907

The dress of the people – women at any rate – on Sabbath is most picturesque.  All the women wear either a reddish homespun, or navy blue dresses, made in wrapper style bodice & skirt joined – the skirts are worn very short, to show their white home knitted stockings & smart shoes, the latter they get from Glasgow.  They all wear their hair parted in the centre & smoothly brushed Madonna like behind their ears.  The married women of whatever age wear white frilled muslin caps (this cap or curach is the badge of wifehood as rings are not worn) but at the back of this cap they have gay patterned scarlet edged handkerchiefs or tartan fringed shawls.  The unmarried women of course wear only the gay scarves on their heads.  The dress of the men needs no description, being pretty much the same as in other places only they substitute gay scarves - turkey red for preference - for collars.  The church is a plain building, the vestry is fitted up to serve as a School during the week.  Monday to Friday were pretty much the same.  School bell rang at 10 o’clock, & work went on there with an hour’s break for dinner till four o’clock.  Mr. Mac. usually took the morning’s school & I took afternoon.  They learned the usual subjects & the majority were very smart.  The little ones - my special care - were most interesting and amusing & got on amazingly with their English

Annie Gillies knitting; photographed by R Milne in 1907
Annie Gillies knitting; photographed by R Milne in 1907

Our evenings were always full up, what with visiting the people at their homes & receiving visits from them.  They looked to us for help in sickness.  The Medicine Chest given & kept up by our Church was in my care.  There was a great deal of bandaging to be done.  The men got terribly cut limbs on the steep rocky hillsides while chasing down the sheep, a system of catching the sheep which is very bad both for man & sheep.  The poor people did not understand the need for keeping wounds clean and consequently suffered much more than they might otherwise have done.  

A St Kilda woman carrying a sack over her shoulder; photographed by R Milne in 1907
A St Kilda woman at work; photographed by R Milne in 1907

As time goes on I must get on to tell you a little of how the people themselves spend their time.  The population just now is 76 all told.  We lost the two heads of families & a son later.  They are very industrious, at least the women are, the men I always thought might have done more work, altho’ when once properly started they worked well.  I used to find fault with them for allowing the women to do work they themselves ought to have done.  It was no uncommon thing to see the young man helping to rope the bags of meal & flour which had come by steamer on to the women’s backs.  Sheep, coal or any burden were carried from the pier by the women as a rule - very occasionally the men.  I though it very very funny on one of my visits to the village to see the wife digging the ground, preparatory to planting the potatoes, but the good man of the house was seated at the door sewing a Sunday gown for his wife.  All the household, & the girls or women were only able to knit stockings, socks & gloves, which latter they sold to the tourists who visit the island.  While I was there I am glad to say the girls & young women took great pleasure in sewing classes which I had the three years I was there.  The young women were taught to make underclothing for them & blouses for themselves & came to the Manse every week, & the school-girls of course had their usual lesson three times weekly.  I hear the women are still doing the sewing but the men cut out all the garments!

The arable land is altogether about 22 acres & is enclosed by a rough wall of their own building, & these acres are divided into plots on which they grow barley, cats, potatoes.  Of domestic animals they have only cattle, sheep, dogs & cats, no horses.  Their sheep they do not shear, shears being unknown, but they are “plucked”.  We were invited over to the other side of the island once to see the sheep shearing but it was rather a shock to see it was plucking.  The wool is spun by the women & girls into a coarse grey cloth & woven by the men, every house having its loom.  I have a pattern of the cloth to show those who have never seen it.  As they only work at the spinning & weaving a few months & agriculture takes up very little of their time, the principal occupation of the men is catching the sea birds, for the sake of the feathers & oil, these being bartered with the factor for the proprietor of the island, McLeod of McLeod, in payment of their rent.  In him I may here say they have a most generous landlord & a very kind factor who takes a kindly interest in everyone. 

Two St Kilda children carrying buckets; photographed by R Milne in 1907
Children carrying buckets on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907

The different birds you see there are solan geese, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, shearwaters, etc.  Of course the people eat the flesh of all these birds.  The principal & most useful bird however is the fulmar.  Without it one wd. almost think they could not exist, & I shall tell you why.  These birds are caught in August, in fact the fulmar hunt commences on the 12th also.  The men go off in bands to go down the cliffs to catch the young fulmars before they leave the nests, just before they take wing.  The reason for this is that the young birds at this stage are most useful.  They have a stock of oil in their stomachs & which if great care is not exercised in catching, they will eject out of their nostrils at the hunter.  The necks of the birds are twisted very quickly & the birds fastened into the belt the man wears & when he has killed as many as he can carry, he gives the signal & he is drawn up to the top of the cliff by those who are of his party.  Perhaps five or six parties go to different parts of the island & all put the day’s catch into a heap & this is divided into shares for every house, the widows being remembered also & those who have none to work for them.  I ought to have mentioned before that this oil which is in the fulmar is taken from them as soon as the man is drawn to the top of the rocks, and the oil is emptied into cans.  This also is divided at night & is which is burned in their cruisies in the kitchens in the long winter nights.  The people are then very busy plucking all these birds.  Sometimes each share will come to close on 100, usually from 50 to 100.  They go out on these expeditions for 8 or 10 days weather permitting.  So it means a great deal of work before all are plucked & the bird cleaned & salted in barrels, for you must understand this is part of their winter’s food, & they are very fond of it.  When these birds are cooked a great quantity of oil comes out as the young birds are nearly all fat, this is skimmed & is what they put on the wool to grease it for spinning.  So you see how useful the fulmar is.  St. K. is the only part of Gt. Britain where the fulmar breeds altho’ it is sometimes seen in Shetland & the N. of Lewis.  The St. K.’s live principally on mutton, sea-fowl, fish, & in the season the eggs of the sea-fowl (principally guillemots - they are fondest of their eggs & I have brought a sample of them tonight to show you how pretty they are).  They are not very fond of fish, but they like ling & large cods.  Halibut and turbot they think nothing of, occasionally they wd. catch these on their lines & wd. use them for baiting their lines.  

A man climbing over rocks at St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907
A fulmar hunt in progress; photographed by R Milne in 1907

You may perhaps wonder how we managed to do with the food.  It was rather a puzzle to me before I went to know how the larder was to be filled, but once there, it was wonderful how day by day, with ease, dinner was provided.  There were lots of sheep, which we bought for 12- each, fine black faced sheep.  We could get these from Sept. to New Year.  We used as much as we could fresh & salted the rest for a stand-by.  We also got sheep etc.  Then we had lots of ducks & hens which came in nicely & any amount of fish - the pick of the sea, halibut, turbot, soles, all sorts sen6t in by the trawlers & deep sea liners, which were very often in the bay.  These men were very kind in giving the islanders coals, and other things, while a basket of choice fish was always sent in for the Minster’s use.  Sometimes we too were able to help these poor men who perhaps had had bad fishings & had been unable through stress of weather to get home.  They wd. come ashore & would have to get necessary meal, sugar, salt, mutton, etc., & which they would bring back to us on their return.  Our groceries etc. we had of course to take with us, we had a year’s supply each summer as we went.  Captains of vessels were often very thoughtful & would send me ashore a supply of beef, fresh fruit or other dainties which one would not think much of on the mainland but which in St. K. were luxuries indeed.

One of the most peculiar things about the St. Kildans is that they nearly always catch cold when strangers visit the island.  It is a kind of Influenza & they always seem to have it after the visit of a steamer or yacht.  It does not only attack one or two but goes from end to end of the village.  Mr. McL., strange to say, never took it, while the girl in the kitchen wd. at once take it.  We never could account for this sickness.  We have been told there is another solitary island in the South Atlantic Ocean, called Tristan-da-Cunha, where the same thing happens.

R Milne rock climbing on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907
R Milne rock climbing on Hirta, St Kilda; photographed by R Milne in 1907

I must not take up much more of your time but I shall say in closing how kind we found all the people.  Of course it is like other places, there are those who are not so nice, but without exception we may say we found the people kindness itself.  This we proved for ourselves when we were in sickness or trouble.  All would come down and ask most sympathetically after mails.  We would be besieged with callers to ask for our parents, brothers, sisters’ welfare, & were much interested.  Some might think to hear their questions they were too much interested, but when one knew them & understood them & the narrow world which they lived in, one learned to make allowances & to know how to deal with all sorts of questions.

 I may tell you we sampled all the sea birds to be able to say we had tried them.  The fulmars were not at all nice, oily & sickening; the solan goose tasted coarse & fishy; but the puffins & guillemots we could just manage, but we much preferred on the days that we were dependant on the birds, to take one of our own domestic fowls.

 I might tell you so much did time permit of the popular customs at burials - how the whole population attends the funerals, & how the people wail in the churchyard at the graves of their relatives - in the manner of the Jews.  Much might also be told of the customs prevailing at weddings, but it wd. take me too long.  Of the climbs to the lofty hills & the views & sunsets.  Of the lofty stacks or rocks rising out of the ocean, like Ailsa Craig or the Bass Rock, but rising to needle points on which gannets breed.  Of our picnics to the Tobar-nam-buadh in the summer time.

I conclude but not before saying that I shall always have a very warm place in my heart for the St. Kildans & for the island where God sent me such a great gift in the April of the year we left.