Fas­ci­nat­ing insight into St Kilda

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

JUDG­ING by the me­dia cov­er­age, the re­cent re­dis­cov­ery of a list of in­hab­i­tants of St Kilda in 1764 has cer­tainly caught the pub­lic’s in­ter­est. Un­til late last year, the old­est known record of the pop­u­la­tion dated from 1822. The 18th- cen­tury pri­vate cen­sus, which was dis­cov­ered among the pa­pers of Clan Maclach­lan dur­ing cat­a­logu­ing by the Na­tional Regis­ter of Ar­chives for Scot­land (NRAS), shows there were 90 peo­ple on the main is­land of Hirta in June 1764 con­sist­ing of 38 males and 52 fe­males.

Cen­sus records can make dull read­ing but, un­like the 10-year na­tional ones which don’t pro­vide any great de­tail un­til af­ter 1841, this one is much more in­ter­est­ing be­cause it tells us what the peo­ple lived on. It states that ev­ery in­di­vid­ual ate 36 eggs and 18 birds daily which equates to 3,240 eggs and 1,621 birds be­ing con­sumed on the is­land ev­ery 24 hours. A highly nu­tri­tious diet, no doubt, but a pretty bor­ing one af­ter the third day, to say the least. There are only a few ways to cook an egg or a fowl and with no deep-fry­ers, mi­crowave ovens, ex­otic herbs or co­pi­ous amounts of fine wine, even Michael Roux and the par­tic­i­pants of Mas­ter Chef would be pushed to liven up that menu.

In no way can these fig­ures be ac­cu­rate; they must be ex­ag­ger­ated be­cause, no mat­ter how good the able-bod­ied St Kil­dan men were at scal­ing the cliffs, they would have found it dif­fi­cult to col­lect a mil­lion eggs and half a mil­lion birds in one sea­son.

The sur­names of the in­hab­i­tants in 1764 in­clude: MacQueen, Gil­lies, Mori­son, Mac­Don­ald, Macleod, Mackin­non, MacVicar and MacCrim­mon. They were more than likely the di­rect fore­bears of the fam­i­lies men­tioned in the 1822 cen­sus and of those who came ashore at Locha­line in 1930 when St Kilda was aban­doned.

Of equal, or in­deed more, in­ter­est is who made the cen­sus and how did it end up in the Maclach­lan fam­ily pa­pers? Schol­ars and his­to­ri­ans are now pretty sure that it was com­piled in con­nec­tion with Dr John Walker’s re­port on the He­brides.

In 1764, the SSPCK (the Scot­tish So­ci­ety for Prop­a­gat­ing Chris­tian Knowl­edge), the Gen­eral Assem­bly and the Board of the An­nexed Es­tates, com­mis­sioned the Rev Walker, a pi­o­neer of sci­en­tific botany and ge­ol­ogy and min­is­ter of Mof­fat, to in­ves­ti­gate the state of re­li­gion and ed­u­ca­tion in the He­brides and to give an ac­count of the area’s pop­u­la­tion, nat­u­ral his­tory and the state of man­u­fac­tur­ing, agri­cul­ture and fish­eries.

Dr Walker saw the He­brides just as the ideas of the Im­provers were reach­ing them, and his re­port gives a fi­nal op­por­tu­nity to see the ba­sis of the old is­land econ­omy, and the life and con­di­tions on them. He set off in the sum­mer of 1764 but did not have suf­fi­cient time to visit St Kilda, though the is­land is in­cluded in his re­port. He must have re­ceived his in­for­ma­tion from oth­ers, most likely the min­is­ters of the var­i­ous parishes.

It is in­ter­est­ing that the fig­ure Walker gives for the to­tal St Kilda pop­u­la­tion was 90, a fig­ure which matches the num­ber of in­hab­i­tants in the cen­sus taken on June 15, 1764, ex­actly. Per­haps these de­tails have been pro­vided by Alexan­der MacLeod, for­merly the school­mas­ter at Eynort in the Parish of Bra­cadale, Skye, who was ap­pointed assistant min­is­ter on St Kilda in June 1763.

So how did the cen­sus find its way into the hands of the Ma­clach­lans who hailed from Mid Argyll?

The Ma­clach­lans were a schol­arly clan and lovers of the Gaelic lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture of the High­lands, and were said to be the old­est trace­able fam­ily left in Europe. One of them, John Maclach­lan of Kil­bride, who died in 1803, was a noted col­lec­tor of manuscripts and pa­pers. It just so hap­pened that the wife of the Rev Alexan­der Buchan, St Kilda’s first res­i­dent mis­sion­ary, was a Campbell and re­lated to this dis­tin­guished fam­ily.

It has been sug­gested to me that although Cather­ine Campbell and her hus­band lived on St Kilda some years be­fore the 1764 cen­sus was taken, she main­tained her links with the is­land and Argyll af­ter her hus­band’s death. It is not be­yond the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity that she was given the cen­sus and passed it and other pa­pers to the Ma­clach­lans.

It is in­ter­est­ing to note that a MacCrim­mon, pre­sum­ably hail­ing orig­i­nally from Skye, was enu­mer­ated in the 1764 cen­sus. One won­ders if he was a piper and, if so, did he take his pipes with him. I haven’t come across any ref­er­ences to pipers on the is­land prior to 1930.

The sound of the pipes means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. In 1718, El­iz­a­beth Cameron, widow of Ma­jor Don­ald Cameron, son of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, sub­mit­ted a pe­ti­tion to King Ge­orge I com­plain­ing that as her hus­band, a non-Ja­co­bite, was ly­ing dy­ing in one room, she was in labour in an­other. Not only had they been robbed by his brother and friends but, ‘to com­pleat the scene of cru­elty’, she said, ‘a set of bag­pipes and drums were or­dered to be played upon us day and night for some time’.

Life on St Kilda was harsh, ac­cord­ing to the cen­sus, with a dull, though nu­tri­tious, diet.

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