Discover more from Histories
Amazing credulity, 1832
Could the islanders of St Kilda always be taken at face value?
Last time in Histories we visited the most remote of the British Isles, St Kilda, a tiny archipelago where people had eked out a tough life for centuries; through the eyes of the Rev Neil MacKenzie, who was minister there from 1830 until 1844, we saw the local people undertake their death-defying practice of catching seabirds on the perilous cliffs. I also promised a return visit to see the lighter side of the island.
MacKenzie provides one of the best observers of island life at St Kilda because he was properly immersed in it (and, as we saw, initiated numerous improvements), rather than just passing through.
MacKenzie’s journalprovides lots of details, for example about their housing:
The houses here are constructed of rough stones built without any art or mortar, except a little earth. The walls are from five to eight feet thick, about five feet high on the outside, and much higher when empty in the inside, having no windows in the walls, nor any door but one towards the north-east, the quarter least exposed to the wind. Internally they are divided into two apartments by a partition of loose stones, which are placed there, and removed as occasion requires…
And he describes a wedding on the island, too:
Having got all things in readiness, in the afternoon the young people, accompanied by a few of their near relatives, and particularly each of them attended by a young man and woman, dressed in their best clothes or rather the best clothes the village could furnish, for they borrow on such occasions from one another, came to our house to be married… As soon as they were married, they went home; and we saw no more of them till after tea, when the governor of the feast, the bride’s brother, came, dressed in the uniform, (which is a rag of white cotton cloth sewed to each shoulder, and the front of his bonnet,) to invite us to the marriage feast… When we went we found every man in the village seated in the house of the bride’s father, with a table of planks before them; the ground served them for seats. One end of the board was raised much higher; this was intended for us, with a chest for a seat, and opposite to us were the bride and bridegroom and their friends. On the board before us were placed three plates, (a very unusual thing in St Kilda,) one filled with mutton, one filled with barley bannocks, and the third filled with cheese…
On another occasion, MacKenzie describes hearing various eerie tales from the islanders:
This day I went to the village. The people, that is, the men, were, according to a bad custom they have, which consumes much precious time, leaning against the walls of their houses in an open place near the centre of the village. According to another custom, they all shook hands with me, and, after inquiring for their health, I entered into conversation with them.
One of them, among other things, said that one of his neighbours, naming the man, saw a vision, or had an instance of what is called the second sight. The man who ought to have seen that sight, being questioned, affirmed, that coming out of his own house one evening, he saw a great number of men seemingly carrying a corpse wrapped in funeral clothes; and some days after that, a woman, who was confined by a nervous disorder, died, and was carried out the way he saw the vision moving. Wishing to know their opinion, I said nothing, but seemed surprised. This encouraged them to proceed with their imaginary stories…
Another man then said, that two men, whom he named, long ago were going to the hill to catch sheep, when they heard a noise like a woman churning in the side of a hillock. One of them exclaimed, “Woman, give me a drink;” and to his great surprise a woman came out, carrying in her hand a dish of milk, which the one who asked it refused, but the other took it. She said to the one who refused her milk, that he would not long survive for thus mocking her; and accordingly he died in his own house that night. These, and many other stories equally ridiculous and fanciful, were related, and many seemed to believe them; and all wished to hear my thoughts on the subject. I took occasion thence to enlarge on the folly and absurdity of believing such reveries… I told them in the simplest manner what is a spirit, and what is not; that there are three spiritual existences, namely, the Supreme Spirit God, angels, and the souls of men; that the Supreme Being differed from all other spirits, in being infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in all his attributes; whereas angels and souls of men are but limited, changeable, and created beings… Having premised these things, I showed them the folly and sinfulness of believing in and fearing apparitions, because that evil spirits could not render themselves visible, nor do either good or hurt farther than they were permitted by God… I hope, from the new light in which these things were placed to them, that they will not be so credulous in future.
But were they that credulous? Perhaps they believed these tales sincerely – certainly such superstitions have been common enough in all societies. But MacKenzie’s own, pious account of the Christian ‘party line’ hardly sounds much less ‘fanciful’ the way he puts it. Were the St Kildans actually playing with him a little?
Another episode recounted in his journal suggests this is perfectly possible. First, let’s set the scene, though, as it refers to tourists on the island. We know that tourism had begun at least in the 18th century – and even before that, travellers made what Matthew Green (I mentioned his chapter about St Kilda in his book on lost communities, Shadowlands, last time) calls “philosophical voyages” – a form of anthropology in a quest to observe ‘noble savages’ in their native habitat. The Rev Kenneth Macauley landed in 1759 as a missionary to the island, and was given a demonstration of the fulmar–catching; in later decades, visitors eagerly collected attractive birds’ eggs as souvenirs (unfortunately the tourists also brought diseases with them, particularly the tetanus which killed many island babies in the 19th century). Green describes tours by steamer ship from the 1830s onwards: “From these cruisers spilt up to forty excitable lawyers, clerks, secretaries, teachers, writers, shopkeepers, sociologists and doctors, armed with notebooks and cameras, hungry for spectacle and souvenir.”
As a final word, then, here’s Neil MacKenzie’s amusing account of how the islanders responded to these eager visitors, showing a great deal of canniness – they clearly should not have been underestimated.
Encouraged by the amazing credulity of the ordinary tourist, the natives have got to be very successful in imposing upon them. The tourist comes with a certain idea in his mind as to what the native is like, and would be disappointed if they did not find him like that; this the natives have been shrewd enough to discover and turn to their own profit. For example, when they went on board a yacht they would pretend that they thought all the polished brass was gold, and that the owner must be enormously wealthy. Yet, when in a few minutes after they might be offered the choice of several coins, selecting not the gold but the largest as if they had no idea of the relative value of the different metals. At the very same time some of them would be below with the steward showing the keenest knowledge of the value of the supplies which they were trying to sell and of the value of every several coin. Again, they would pick up pieces of coal and affect surprise at not being able to eat them; and when they would come in front of a looking-glass they would start back and express great surprise at not being able to find the person who appeared to be behind it; and yet a moment’s observation would have shown anyone that they had that very morning shaved before a looking-glass… all the time they would be saying to themselves in Gaelic… “if we seem to be paying great attention and make them believe that we are simple, they will be sure before they go away to give us something much better”.
In 1843, the Church of Scotland split in what’s known as the Great Disruption, which took place after a couple of years of powerful religious revival across the country, even extending to St Kilda; the Calvinist Free Church of Scotland was formed, and in due course the St Kildans adopted it. Neil MacKenzie was pleased to see the seeds of faith he had planted growing, but remained with the Church of Scotland. In 1844 he finally left the island, writing shortly beforehand, “It appears to me my work here is now finished, and that I would be more useful somewhere else.” He briefly took up a post at Duror in the western mainland of Scotland, then moved to Kilchrenan, Argyllshire, where he is buried, although he retired to Glasgow. He died in 1879. The hole he left on St Kilda took a long time to fill – there was no new incumbent until 1856.
I have brought together various passages quoted in other books and from the 1834 publication by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, The Miraculous Propagation of the Gospel. The fullest version of his journal is in the 1911 volume compiled by MacKenzie’s son, Episode in the Life of the Rev Neil MacKenzie at St Kilda, a very rare book (one copy is for sale online for around £500 and alas I can’t stretch to that!). Some details of MacKenzie’s life came from Andrew Michael Jones’s 2014 thesis ‘“Either of Time of Grace”: Transformation and revival on St Kilda, 1822–1844’. Thanks again to Dr Matthew Green for drawing my attention to MacKenzie in the first place. The passage at the end of this article is quoted from Andrew Fleming’s St Kilda and the Wider World (2005). For more on St Kildan life I’d recommend Mary Harman’s fact-packed 1997 book, An Isle Called Hirte.