The Truth About St. Kilda: An Islander's Memoir

The Truth About St. Kilda: An Islander's Memoir


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The Truth about St Kildais a unique record of the isolated way of life on St Kilda in the early part of the twentieth century, based on seven handwritten notebooks written by the Rev. Donald Gillies, containing reminiscences of his childhood on the island of Hirta. It provides a first-hand account of the living conditions, social structure and economy of the community in the early 1900s, before the evacuation of the remaining residents in 1930. The memoirs describe in some detail the St Kildans' way of life, including religious life and the islanders' diet.

The puritanical form of religion practised on St Kilda has often been interpreted by outsiders as austere and draconian, but Gillies' account of the islanders' religious practices makes clear the important role that these had in reinforcing the spiritual stamina of the community. This book is a lasting tribute to the adaptability and courage of a small Gaelic-speaking society which endured through two millennia on a remote cluster of islands, until its way of life could no longer be sustained.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780272085
Publisher: Birlinn, Limited
Publication date: 05/20/2014
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

The Rev. Donald John Gillies Was Born On St Kilda In 1901. He Left In 1924 And Subsequently Moved To Nova Scotia. In His Later Years He Travelled Widely And Maintained Close Contacts With The Surviving Inhabitants Of St Kilda. In August 1980 He Returned To St Kilda For The Rededication Of The Recently Restored Church On The 50th Anniversary Of The Evacuation Of The Island And Preached The Sermon In The Service To Celebrate That Occasion. He Died In Vancouver In 1994. John Randall Has Been Chairman Of The Islands Book Trust Since 2002 And Has Edited And Published Many Books On The History Of Scottish Islands, Including St Kilda. He Is Co-Author Of St Kilda - Myth And Reality.

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The Truth about St Kilda

The Early Years of Our Lives

In our early years we are interested chiefly in the things of the present and those with whom we work and play. Ours is a world of fact and realism, where little or no attention is given to the pages of history but as we grow older and the morning of life reaches high noon, the mind begins to dwell more on the past and to contemplate the future. There comes a desire to know something more than the cross-section of life we call 'Today'. We are no longer satisfied to enjoy years of quiet contentment in the shade of the family tree, without acquainting ourselves with its roots and branches. Delving into the past, we find our early indifference has robbed us of much we would like to know. Parents and grandparents are gone, and with them so much of family history that cannot be recalled.

In my early days I can recall religion and the exercise of the sanctuary were not confined to the House of God and to his Holy day. Their religion was for weekdays as well as for the Sabbath in all the homes on the Island. The family altar was early erected. Here, both morning and evening, gathered the household, each taking part in the singing of the psalms and at times in reading of the Scriptures, then kneeling down to Heaven's Eternal King, the father leading the family in prayer. In reference to the history of the St Kilda congregation, the morning and evening service was conducted wholly in the Gaelic language. Should the missionary discover that some were present who could not understand him in Gaelic, he would give a synopsis of the sermon in English. There was no instrumental music, nor were hymns used. Psalms only were sung in all services, with the exception of the Sabbath School.

The St Kildians owe a great gratitude to one outstanding theologian called the Apostle of the North, Rev. Dr John MacDonald, minister of Ferintosh in the Black Island in the early nineteenth century. He was the first missionary that brought the true message of salvation to the Island according to what I heard discussed on many occasions by my father and grandfather Donald Ferguson at our own fireside. Dr MacDonald made four trips to the Island. His first visit he experienced a very rough crossing from the Sound of Harris to St Kilda which is approximately 55 miles from shore to shore. He could not land on Village Bay so he landed on the north side of the Island which is called Glen Bay. Some Islanders met him and welcomed him to the Island. About seventy feet from where he landed there was a spring of water gushing from a rock. He removed his hat and drank out of this well. The Islanders built a cleit over this well and it is still standing and they called the well Eternal, Tobar Na Mauich, around 16th September 1822. This was his first visit to St Kilda. On his arrival MacDonald found neither an organised church nor a strong Calvinist religion. There was no house for a missionary, neither a church or a chapel.

'During my stay in the Island', wrote MacDonald, 'the people gathered in a barn'. He preached eleven times and the people responded to his message. I heard it said on more occasions than once that he was shocked at the state of Christianity on the Island. Swearing and taking the Lord's name in vain seemed to be the way the Islanders expressed themselves. A friend of mine who I'm greatly indebted to sent me a copy of a letter by Dr MacDonald to his brother who was a minister at Helmsdale, Scotland.

The First Examination in St Kilda School

The letter goes on to say on one occasion, while staying on the Island for a period, Dr MacDonald visited the day school to examine the pupils. This examination was in the Gaelic language and he describes his experience as follows: 'After examining the more advanced classes among them on the principles of Christianity and particularly the leading doctrines of the gospel, in all of which they gave me much satisfaction, I confined my examinations to the chapter which they had just read and which happened to be the 7th chapter of Luke. I must say that I was astonished to find how smartly and correctly the greater part of them answered the questions put to them, having had no previous notice of my intentions as to the sort of cross examination and therefore no opportunity afforded them of preparing themselves.

My notes on this subject run thus: 'On what message did John the Baptist send his disciples to Christ?' A boy of about fourteen replies: 'To inquire if he was the person who was to come.' 'What do you mean by the person who was to come?' 'The promised Saviour' says he. 'And what reply did Christ give them?' 'He was working miracles at the time and He bade them go and tell John the things that they had seen.' 'How did the miracles which he wrought prove that this was He who was to come?' 'Because', replies another boy, 'none but God could do these things and none except God was with Him'. 'But did not others work miracles as well as Christ?' 'Yes', replied the first boy, 'but not in their own strength. Christ wrought them by His own power'. 'Who is Christ?' 'The son of God', replies a third boy.

He continued to examine the pupils on the love of Christ. This examination was addressed to the senior boys and girls. Thus ended the exercise, and after delivering a short address to the children and parents, he concluded his visit to the school with prayer. One can imagine the expression of satisfaction on Dr MacDonald's face and also on the faces of those parents who obviously were present when the St Kildian children did so well. So this finished the first school examination that took place on the Island well over a hundred years ago.

A Sketch of my Life from Boyhood Days on St Kilda

I was born on the Island of St Kilda on 29th May 1901 at 3 a.m. in a three room cottage consisting of a kitchen and two bedrooms. In the master bedroom there was a fireplace. On exceptionally cold nights fire was lit, which at least took the chill off the room but in the kitchen the fire never went out summer or winter.

There was a long chain coming down the chimney. There was a special hook used for the kettle, pots with handles and also the girdle. The girdle was used everyday of the week to bake scones, with the exception of Sunday. Saturday double dose was baked.

My first recollection of a missionary was at the age of five. I remember him coming to our home at 15 Main Street St Kilda and giving me a candy. His name was John Fraser and strange as it may appear, I met Mr Fraser here in Vancouver 1947. He told me that he had a very happy ministry in St Kilda for three years. He thought a great deal of the Islanders and he paid a great tribute to my father for his devotion to the cause of Christ on the Island. He had a niece of his from Obbe, Harris who stayed on the Island with them in 1906. This niece married a Peter Ross from Embo, Scotland. Peter was a faithful elder here in the Free Church of Scotland Vancouver. Mrs Ross had a heart of gold and she spoke to me time and time again of the happy year she spent on St Kilda. She maintained that the St Kildians were the most hospitable people in the world. A year ago I officiated at her funeral service. She arrived at the age of 91 years. She was laid to rest in the Burnaby Masonic Cemetery, British Columbia.

I started school in the year 1906. As the church was responsible for the education in the school, the missionary and his wife worked as a team in this direction. So my first team teachers were Mr and Mrs Peter MacLachlan who with his charming wife remained on the Island of St Kilda for three years. Peter MacLachlan was an evangelist whose work was closely connected with that of Moody and Sankey. He was a native of the Isle of Mull. Peter would spend the a.m. teaching period. In the afternoon, two to four, his wife would take over. She was a tall woman, kind hearted and well educated. I believe that she was educated at Lincoln and had spent sometime teaching small children at York before marrying Peter MacLachlan at the age of 25.

In 1906 I remember the first school inspector who came to the Island on the passenger steamer SS Hebrides, one of MacBrayne's boats. Mr Peter MacLachlan summoned the children to school. I still remember the examination questions that were asked: for standard one, a simple addition, a multiplication and reading the alphabet. I was recommended to standard two. The schoolhouse was attached to the church.

The Method of Heating the School

Each pupil took his turn by carrying one peat to school. The arrangement was made this way: standard one class would be responsible to keep the fire going one day a week then next day standard two.

The school would commence in the a.m. with devotions which consisted of a singing of a psalm and repeating the Lords Prayer. The school would be dismissed with singing of a familiar hymn 'Jesus loves me' or 'Yield not to temptation' or 'God be with you until we meet again'. We were allowed one recess in the forenoon. One game we were taught was hide and seek; we loved this game. We also played football. If my memory served me rightly the attendance in 1906 and 1907 stood at twenty-one. During my term at school, from the age 5 to 15, we had three missionaries as teachers, Mr and Mrs Peter Maclachlan and Mr MacArthur, a native of Tiree. He was a bachelor. A sister kept house for him and occasionally she would take an afternoon teaching. Mr and Mrs MacKinnon, he was a Skye man and his wife was a qualified teacher and she took over in the afternoons. She was certainly a capable teacher and a strict disciplinarian. At the age of ten I was able to repeat the shepherds psalm 23 in Gaelic, the Lords Prayer and the Commandments. My Godly parents who took the vow when I was baptised 'to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord', and this they did. It was compulsory in the home to memorise that portion of Scripture.

Life and Custom on the Island of St Kilda

Normally during the summer months the inhabitants used to rise around 7 a.m. for breakfast and morning worship. Every home in the village followed this method. The cutting of the peats was to keep the fire burning in summer and winter; this was a must. This chore would take a week cutting and approximately the same time collecting the peats and placing them in the cleits.

My father's stock consisted of two cows and a couple of calves. The farm did not yield enough crop to feed that amount of cattle during winter months so we had to gather hay from Islands that had no animals on them. This was a very heavy chore.

At the age of twelve in the year 1913, I can recall an epidemic of flu struck the inhabitants of the Island. In addition to this, the food was practically all gone and I remember our family had to use the potatoes we had set aside for seed. So all the families on the Island experienced this predicament. By a sheer coincidence, who happened to sail into Village Bay but an Aberdeen fishing trawler skippered by a great friend of the Islanders, namely Donald Craig. He immediately sent a distress call to the British Government stating the need of medical aid, and also food supplies. This distress call brought immediate help. The British cruiser HMS Active was dispatched with doctors and nurses, and food supplies. The church was turned into a hospital, and the school room was used as a supply room. Food was supplied to all the families on the Island.

Following the HMS Active, which arrived around 11th May 1913, on 20th May 1913 the tug Victor anchored in the Village Bay unexpectedly with more provision, which was greatly needed, and thankfully received by the natives. Responsible for this was a well known and respected business man by the name of Thomas Lipton, and another great man by the name Sir Joseph Lyons. Lipton is on the lips of all tea drinkers. Lipton's product cannot be matched by any other company that produces tea. From that day on, large quantities of Lipton's tea was consumed on the Island of St Kilda. I remember being present with my uncle Neil Ferguson, William MacDonald, Finlay MacQueen and my father as they approached the missionary in the garden of the manse, Mr MacArthur, to arrange a letter of thanks to be sent to those who arranged for the flour, potatoes, meat, sugar and tea, and many other useful groceries. So a letter of appreciation was dispatched.

That particular winter was a very severe one with snow gales and I'm of the impression the severity of the winter prevented the trawlers from Fleetwood and Aberdeen from visiting us as they used to in the past year. One winter day that year I counted twenty ships of all sizes sheltering in Village Bay; practically all of them were from countries such as Norway, Sweden and France.

[Birds Found on St Kilda]

At the beginning of April the first bird to arrive at the Island was the shearwater. During the day on the west side of the Island, on the sea opposite the Carn Mhòr, for a couple of miles the sea would be covered with them.

As a young lad of fifteen years I used to leave home with a couple of the neighbours an hour before dark, arriving at Carn Mhòr as the stars used to appear in the sky. Here we would wait patiently all night. The shearwater would fly ashore approximately an hour before dawn. We had with us a trained dog. These birds used to land with a thump. The dog immediately jumped and was always successful and would come to you with the bird in his mouth. If we caught a half dozen or more we consider it a very successful night, and believe me tasting a fresh bird after feeding on salt mutton, salt fish and salt fulmar, the shearwater tasted delicious.

The next bird to arrive around 1st May was the puffin. If it was a mild April, one could see the sea opposite Soay, Boreray, Glen Bay and Carn Mhòr for miles covered with puffins, millions of them around these places I have mentioned. Studying the habits and shape of this bird as follows: This bird is found in great many places: Bristol Channel on the west coast of England. In 1927, fishing off Bird Island, here I came upon thousands of puffins. Bird Island is 10 miles from Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In 1975 I conducted a tour from Toronto through Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton. I came upon a colony of puffins on Bonaventure Island, Quebec.

A. V. C. Wynne Edwards wrote this about the puffin:

Alone among the auk family, puffins stand up on their legs. It does not occur to most people that the visible joint of a bird's leg bends backwards and is actually the heel, normally raised high off the ground; the real knee is hidden within the contour of the body. The so called leg is thus actually formed from the elongated instep region of the foot, and the foot is nothing but toes; all other auks stand and usually shuffle about, with the heel flat on the ground.

I know for a fact that they are expert divers eating small fish, and by some uncanny faculty they can hold their first fish crosswise in the beak while they catch a second and a third accommodating each one in the same way, until the bill will hold no more when they fly home to feed the youngster. I watched this performance on Boreray and Carn Mhòr and I often wondered how could they manage to hold such a load in their beak. According to the information I gathered they live at sea all winter.

As an Islander, we often discussed this topic as to where the puffin winter. The St Kildians including myself thought that they emigrated to warmer climates and found homes for them similar to the ones they left behind in St Kilda but I discovered a few years ago that those impressions were entirely wrong. They live at sea, often among the ice in the winter. It is interesting to know that after breeding is over, the gaudy sheath of the bill is shed and until it grows again the following spring, the puffin's beak is reduced to no more than half its summer size. Those discarded beaks were prized by the Indians for making necklaces.

In passing I read recently a writer who wrote many articles on the Island quoting the Island women were responsible to go and gather the puffins. During my generation it was entirely the responsibility of the male. At times a man and wife would be together with their dog and the dog would locate the hole where the puffin had his nest. So between the two of them they would kill about 150. Then that 150 would be shared amongst other Islanders that were unable to gather for themselves. The feathers were used for pillows and the surplus was sold to pay part of the year's taxes. However, the puffin barbecued was delicious. As a matter of fact this bird was a very valuable bird as far as the Islanders were concerned; this bird was needed for their survival.


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Copyright © 2010 The Estate of the Rev. Donald John Gillies.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Harry McGrath,
Editor's Introduction,
Brief Chronology for Rev. Donald John Gillies,
Select Bibliography,

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