Precaution and dexterity, 1832
Roped together in perilous circumstances…
I’ve just finished reading Shadowlands by the British historian Dr Matthew Green – I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the forgotten corners of British history. It tells the story of a variety of ‘lost’ settlements – lost, that is, due to abandonment, eviction or the force of nature. Every one of them is rich with stories, which Green tells beautifully. A famous example is the city of Dunwich on the coast of East Anglia, an impressive medieval settlement that’s now entirely under the sea, with only one ruined monastery and a solitary gravestone on the cliffs hinting at splendours of the past.
Another chapter of the book is about the islands of St Kilda – this is the westernmost part of the UK, a small archipelago about 40 miles out from the main Outer Hebrides, marooned in the unforgiving waters of the Atlantic. Here, for centuries, a small population of incredibly hardy souls eked out a living, with their economy revolving around harvesting fulmars and other seabirds (more on that later). Various travellers have written about St Kilda, sometimes in the vein of anthropology and sometimes as rather patronising tourists, since at least the 17th century, and there are many Victorian travelogues reporting on a visit there with varying degrees of accuracy, as Green explores. After the First World War, the islands’ already dwindling population began to fall yet further, to a point where the community was unsustainable, and the remainder were finally evacuated (mostly by choice) in 1930. Since 1957, St Kilda has been administered by the National Trust for Scotland and it is now a World Heritage Site.
I was particularly intrigued by Matthew Green’s passing reference to the journal of a minister who lived on Hirta (the main island) between 1830 and 1844, and I started digging into his life and writings. I am grateful to Dr Green for helping me track down some of the relevant sources. Before the 1820s, there was no formal church on St Kilda, but that was remedied by the ‘Apostle of the North’, the Rev John Macdonald (he too kept a journal of his various visits), whose church and manse were completed in 1828.
Macdonald’s successor was the Rev Neil MacKenzie (c.1795–1879), who arrived with his family on 3rd July 1830 and became St Kilda’s first resident minister. Apparently his ordination was rushed through so he could take up this post. MacKenzie himself had been born on the Isle of Arran, the son of a devout farmer and Gaelic speaker. Much of what we know of MacKenzie and his time on the island is thanks to his son James Bannatyne MacKenzie (1833–1920), who was born on St Kilda and later became a minister himself (and a keen landscape photographer). In 1911, James privately published his edited collection of his father’s rather scrappy journal and notes as Episode in the Life of the Rev Neil MacKenzie at St Kilda.1
James notes that his father was effectively “a sort of Governor of the island, presiding at their weekly meetings” which planned work and settled disputes, and Neil’s influence was to be considerable: he helped improve local agriculture through better spades and proper drainage, instigated a move of the ‘village street’, and he and his wife introduced daily schooling on Hirta (although this lapsed after they left). The zoologist James Wilson, author of A Voyage Round the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles (1842) met him, describing him as “a person of the better class” among the rough and ready islanders (at this point Wilson recorded the total population as 105) and “a sincere, simple, kind-hearted, pious man”. MacKenzie himself describes how he and his wife sailed to mainland Scotland in 1832 to visit friends, who donated gifts for “advancing the temporal and spiritual happiness of our poor people”, bearing in mind the latter’s reliance on supplies:
…a hand-bell to call the people to worship, medicines, spoons, razors, cotton cloth, ribbons, sheep-shears, thread, needles, caps, and other dresses. These articles were to be distributed by us as we saw fit, for the purpose of exciting a spirit of activity and cleanliness.
That spirit was indeed excited: “one man was really leaping for joy”, MacKenzie notes.
What makes MacKenzie’s journal particularly valuable is his actual residence and long tenure there – other writers were just passing through. Several of them were particularly struck by the islanders’ notable practice of harvesting seabirds and their eggs, which involved dangling precipitously down the highest cliffs in the whole of the British Isles. MacKenzie was able to describe this practice from multiple observations; here, then, is his account of the fulmar harvest (squeamish readers might want to give this a miss).
9th August 1832
The time is now at hand when they commence to kill their young fulmer [sic]. Of that the people are fully aware, and, accordingly, the principal part of their work these two or three days past has been making new ropes of horse hair, repairing old ones, and trying the strength of those which have been sometime used. Every rope must be tried by the whole of the people before they begin to kill any of their young birds. If a rope cannot be broken by two persons pulling on each end of it, it is deemed sufficient for that season, except it happen to be cut by a stone; but if it break it is laid aside, no mending will do. This is a necessary precaution, for some of their ropes, before they began this trial of them, used to break, which caused much loss of life and dreadful bruises. They broke two of their oldest ropes this year, which is considered a great loss to their owners and to the community in general, for they were very long, and made of cow’s hide salted, cut into thongs, and twisted into ropes. These ropes were older than any of their owners…
The people begun this day in earnest killing the young fulmer. May the Lord protect them from the various dangers to which they are exposed in the prosecution of their dangerous work. The fulmer, whose young they commenced to kill, is the largest bird of the petrel kind which visit the British islands… It is said to feed on the blubber of the whale and such fat substances, which is very probable, for there is always a quantity of oil in its stomach. That oil they squirt from their throat with a peculiar noise, with great force and wonderful aim, at the face of an assailant. They lay one white large egg in a little hollow… The people take care to kill as many of them as they can, for they count them a great luxury, though a stranger may not relish them as well, owing to their fatness. The inhabitants salt two or three barrels each family for winter use, and supply themselves with plenty of oil for light… [MacKenzie goes on to detail the other bird life on the island.]
They have now finished the fowling for this season, and a most dangerous work they have had in killing the young fulmer. This will appear if we consider the place where they wrought, and the manner in which they laboured. The rocks where they were at work face the sea, like a tremendous rampart, in many places overhanging the raging billows, rising in some places to the height of fourteen or fifteen hundred feet. The rocks on the south-west, which are not so high as on the north, are of whin [a type of basalt], and where highest, of white granite. Those last mentioned are placed in immense beds, and between each there is a bed of coarse-grained brown sand-stone, which decays by the operation of the weather… The roads, holes, and crevices above the watermark, are the places where the seafowls, in thousands, lay their eggs…
To arrive at these birds, at least at many of them, requires much labour. The fowlers, having provided themselves with ropes and snaring rods, approach them either from the top or from below out of a boat, but more commonly from above. No individual has a sufficiency of rope for this purpose they therefore form themselves into companies of four or five families, and tie their ropes together. In some places, they require almost all the inhabitants to fowl together. Having provided themselves, the fowlers go as far as they can without using their ropes; then one man lets down, by means of the same system of ropes, the whole company to the first resting place in the rock; one remains there, and lets down the rest to a place below him; and so on from place to place, till they get at the birds. It would be in many places impracticable to go such lengths by one rope, for sometimes they must go a long way on the beds which are in the face of the rock, to avoid an overhanging part, before they can descend so low as they wish. Those who are let down go by pairs, with a rope between them tied to each, to the sides of the rocks, through crevices, grassy spots, and holes, with which the rocks abound. They catch the young birds in their nests, kill them, tie them in parcels, taking care, if young fulmers, that their necks be tied, lest they should lose the oil that is in their stomach; but if in search of the old birds, they must go when it is hatching, creeping as near as they can unobserved, and with a long rod like a fishing-rod, with a snare of horse hair fastened to its point, which the fowler, as cautiously as he can, slips round their heads, draws them to him, and then kills them, and ties them in parcels. They sometimes snare great numbers of birds thus, while sitting on the stones. They proceed in this manner till they get a considerable number, and having collected them to one place, they begin to set them up by means of the ropes by which they came down. They tie them to the ropes, and send them up to the man above, and he to the one next to him, and so on to the top of the rock ; they themselves ascend, one by one, as they descended. If they are killing fulmer, either young or old, they take the oil out of them, and send them home with the women, who by this time are assembled at the top of the rock, while themselves proceed to another part of the rock; and thus continue from place to place, till night sends them home to divide the spoil of the day… This year, the most fortunate had for his share of the rock about seven hundred, which, allowing two hundred and forty to the barrel, make three barrels; while the least had about six hundred…
Owing to the projections of the rocks in some places, they cannot come at the birds from the top, they wait therefore for a good day, and bring their boat to the bottom of the rock, and ascend to the birds. There very often their dexterity in climbing is put to the severest test. They ascend with a rope fastened to two of them, the lower holding the rope in his hands, in case the other should slip, that he might break his fall, and to keep the foremost from falling any lower then himself. When the first reaches a place where he gets a good footing, he helps the other up, by means of the rope which he holds in his hands; and as soon as the last person gets up, the foremost sets off for another place, which sometimes is strait up, at other times winding; thus they go from place to place, till they get at the birds. They always leave a rope behind them, by which as many as choose may come up. After killing the birds, they throw them into the sea, taking care that they do not strike the boat: and having thus finished the work they had to do, they descend much in the same manner they went up, except that now and then they leave the double of a rope round the point of a stone when one can be got, to help them down, till they come to the boat.
The danger to which they are exposed, notwithstanding all their precaution and dexterity, is very great. Sometimes loose stones, moved by the feet of the person above them, and by the ropes, expose those below to imminent danger. The sharp edges of the rocks, too, are apt to cut the ropes, or so much weaken them, that they break by the weight of the person who is below. And at other times the one below having reached grassy spots in the rock, and walking on them, takes all the weight off the rope, when of a sudden the tuft gives way from below his feet before he can cry to the one above; he falls, and the one above, not aware of it, the weight of the other’s fall brings him down too, and both tumble over frightful rocks into the rolling billows, to lie together in a watery grave.
[I’ll return to the Rev Neil MacKenzie one more time in two weeks, for a glimpse at the lighter side of life on St Kilda…]
My burrowings in archives have unearthed that in fact a good chunk of Neil MacKenzie’s journal was actually published in 1834 as an appendix to a sermon by the Rev John Paul published by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and further oral accounts from him were included in Lachlan Maclean’s ‘Sketches of the Island of St Kilda’ published in the Calcutta Christian Observer in 1839.