>Some Account of the People of St. Kilda and of the Birds of the Outer Hebrides


By W. M. E. Milner, Esq. in ‘The Zoologist’, 1848 p2054-57
Note: I have selected those parts that are of most relevance to my interests, but those with an interest in ornithology might enjoy the full text although it is full of accounts of birds being shot and eggs collected to satisfy the hunger for knowledge – rather than the hunger felt by famine. There is also a large section devoted to St Kilda that I shall leave for others with expertise in that isle to explore.
Thus this piece is neither about St Kilda nor Birds, despite its title!
…I brought our account of the birds of Ross-shire as far as the coast of Skye, from which island we took our departure, in Mr. Matheson’s steamer, for Stornaway ; and after a delightful passage of seven hours and a half, cast anchor in the capital of the outer Hebrides, on a charming summer’s morning, the 29th of May. The whole population seemed busily engaged in the herring fishery, and we remained only long enough to be most hospitably received by Mr. Scobie,. Mr. Mattheson’s factor, who facilitated in every possible way our journey to the Harris…

…On the island of Scalpa, at the entrance of Loch Tarbert, we saw a purple sandpiper, on the 31st of May, in full summer plumage. In this locality the oyster-catcher was very abundant, and we met with several pairs of the black guillemot…

…In our sail from Loch Tarbert to Rowdil, on June 1st, we saw several pairs of the bean goose, and procured specimens of the turnstone in full summer plumage, but I do not think they had begun to lay, for they were in flocks of four and five; and near Rowdil, the southern extremity of Harris, we were gratified by finding an eyrie of the peregrine falcon, containing four young birds. The old ones were too cautious to come within reach of the gun, and we left them their progeny in peace…

…The people here seem very contented, though badly off; and I was sorry to hear subsequently that the potatoes, which looked very healthy in June, have turned out very ill.
Lady Dunmore, represented by her excellent factor Captain Macdonald, has been most active in administering to the wants of the people; and by the constant supply of meal brought by the Government steamers to the various depots, not a man in the outer Hebrides has perished from want…

…Finding that little was to be done in ornithology in Harris, we crossed over to North Uist, twelve miles over the Sound of Harris from Rowdil, belonging to Lord Macdonald, a flat island, containing 5000 inhabitants, completely dotted over with small lakes, and the retreat of innumerable water-fowl chiefly in winter.
We are indebted to the Rev. Mr. Mc Rae and Mr. Macdonald of Balronald, by whom we were most hospitably and kindly entertained, for all the success we met with in this island, which of all the outer Hebrides is best worth visiting…

…I cannot close my account of North Uist without expressing my admiration at the exertions of Lord Macdonald, so fully carried out for the benefit of the people by Mr. Macdonald and the Rev. Mr. Mc Rae. I should be sorry to make any comparison with the sister kingdom, but the state of North Uist affords a bright example of how much good may be done, even with small means, by a landlord anxious for the good of his tenantry, when aided by a zealous factor, and an active, kind-hearted clergyman…

…After being most hospitably entertained in North Uist, we returned back to our kind friends at Rowdil, and made preparations for our voyage to St. Kilda, for which we hired a very comfortable little cutter of forty tons, formerly engaged as the mailpacket between Skye and Harris, well manned by an able crew of five men, which in most seasons of the year is necessary, for the navigation is dangerous, from the currents and storms rising up very suddenly.

We were to be taken to St. Kilda, back to Rowdil, thence to Stornaway, and to be landed at Loch Inver, in Sulherlandshire, for £ 17.
Our starting-place was Ob, the south-west point of Harris, where we were detained three days by contrary winds. Our companions were, the Rev. Neil Mackenzie, the former clergyman of St. Kilda, to whose kindness and zeal we were mainly indebted for the great success we met with, and who was anxious for a passage to visit his old flock,—and the Rev. Mr. Macdonald, the clergyman of Harris, in which parish St. Kilda is situated, and whose services as an interpreter we found very useful in an island where not a word but Gaelic is understood…

…The distance from Ob is is about sixty miles, but from Cape Groemenish, on the west coast of North Uist, it is but forty-two; perhaps the most treacherous passage ever made in those seas…

…We weighed anchor on the 12th of June, at six in the morning, with a favourable wind, passed Pabbay, North Uist, and the rocks of Hasker, and till within fifteen miles of St. Kilda seemed likely to make an excellent passage. Borrera, an island five miles north of St. Kilda, rose majestically 1400 feet out of the sea, but a haze prevented our seeing its kindred rock. Shortly after catching sight of Borrera a sudden storm overtook us, and for four hours we were beaten about most helplessly.
Our pilot was out of his reckoning, and when everything was prepared to stand out to sea for the night we unexpectedly swung into the bay of St. Kilda, just visible through the fog, and cast anchor within 200 yards of its rocky iron-bound shore at four in the afternoon…
This account from 1848, in the midst of the potato famines and at a time of revolutions in Europe & beyond, provides a glimpse into the world of the islands but not of the ‘ordinary’ islanders.
We learn that Mr Matheson’s steamer from Skye took seven-and-a-half hours to reach Stornoway where the herring fishing was in full flood. In referring to Lady Dunmore and her ‘excellent factor’ Captain Macdonald we obtain confirmation that John Robertson Macdonald had indeed succeeded to this role and, tantalisingly, this is not the only time that he is referred to as ‘Captain’ but I’ve still not been able to ascertain any aspect of his military past.
Over on North Uist, we meet the ‘Rev Mr Mc Rae’ who was Finlay MacRae whose wife Isabella Mary Macdonald was the ‘excellent factor’ of Harris’s sister.
It is clear that the author was much taken by North Uist (and your present one finds it to be to his liking, too!) but it is a shame that he didn’t explain what the ‘exertions of Lord Macdonald’ were that had rendered the island to appear to be in such a good state?
My favourite section is that were we read of the 40 ton cutter that had been the mailpacket between Harris & Skye and its crew of 5 men necessitated by the nature of the seas in the Sound. Was this boat replaced by a steamer or did the Master of the Harris Mail Boat in 1851 sail just such a vessel too?
Whatever the case, the story of the voyage to St Kilda, complete with a disorientating storm and aboard a ship of a similar size to those my own people sailed in those same seas, seemed like a good place to end…

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