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A Late Voyage to St. Kilda

The following is from A Late Voyage to St. Kilda by Martin Martin:

Chapter I

The Motives for the Voyage: Signs of a Storm: the Changes of the Wind: The Consequence of their Change: The Flight of the Fowls: How serving the Natives as well as a Compass: A Fight betwixt two Solan Geese: The way the Inhabitants walk among the Rocks: The manner of landing: The Number of Eggs consumed in Three Weeks: Various names of the Isle: Latitude, Climate, Seasons, Length and Breadth of it: the Bay: Force of the Sea: Four Arches or Vaults: Chrystal, how it grows: a Female Warrior’s House: Fountains: Marks on the Cattel, &c., Fishes, Baits: Amphibia.

THE various relations concerning St. Kilda, given by those of the Western Isles, and continent, induc’d me to a narrow enquiry about it: for this end I applied myself to the present steward, who by his description, and the products of the island which were brought to me, together with a natural impulse of curiosity, form’d such an idea of it in my mind, that I determin’d to satisfy my self with the first occasion I had of going thither; it being never hitherto describ’d to any purpose, the accounts which are given by Buchanan and Sir Robert Murray, being but relations from second and third hands neither of them ever having the opportunity of being upon the place; which I attempted several times to visit, but in vain; until last summer, the Laird of Mack-Leod heartily recommending the care of the inhabitants of St. Kilda to Mr John Campbel, minister of Harries, who accordingly went to St. Kilda. This occasion I cheerfully embrac’d; and accordingly we embark’d at the Isle Esay in Harries the 29th. of May, at six in the afternoon, 1697, the wind at S.E.

We set sail with a gentle breeze of wind, bearing to the westward, and were not well got out of the harbour, when Mr Campbel observing the whiteness of the waves attended with an extraordinary noise beating upon the rocks, express’d his dislike of it, as in those parts a never-failing prognostick of an ensuing storm; but the same appearing sometimes in summer, before excessive heat, this was slighted by the crew. But as we advanced about two leagues further, upon the coast of the Isle Pabbay, the former signs appearing more conspicuously, we were forc’d unanimously to conclude a storm was approaching, which occasion’d a motion for our return; but the wind and ebb-tide concurring, determin’d us to pursue our voyage, in hopes to arrive at our desired harbour, before the wind or storm should rise, which we judged would not be suddenly; but our fond imagination was not seconded with a good event, as appears by the sequel; for we had scarce sailed a league further, when the wind inclin’d more southerly, and alter’d our measures; we endeavoured by the help of our oars to reach the Hawsker Rocks, some four leagues to the south-coast, which we were not able to effect, tho we consum’d the night in this vain expectation. By this time we are so far advanc’d in the ocean, that after a second motion for our return, it was not found practicable, especially since we could not promise to fetch any point of Scotland; this obliged us to make the best of our way for St. Kilda, though labouring under the disadvantages of wind and tide almost contrary to us. Our crew became extremely fatigu’d and discouraged without sight of land for sixteen hours; at length one of our number discovered several tribes of the fowls of St. Kilda flying, holding their course southerly of us, which (to some of our crew) was a demonstration we had lost our course, by the violence of the flood and wind both concurring to carry us northerly, though we steer’d by our compass right west.

The inhabitants of St. Kilda take their measures from the flight of those fowls, when the Heavens are not clear, as from a sure compass, experience shewing that every tribe of fowls bends their course to their respective quarters, though out of sight of the Isle; this appeared clearly in our gradual advances, and their motion being compar’d, did exactly quadrate with our compass. The inhabitants rely so much upon this observation, that they prefer it to the surest compass; but we begg’d their pardon to differ from them, though at the same time we could not deny but their rule was as certain as our compass. While we were in this state, one of our number espi’d the Isle Borera, near three leagues north of St. Kilda, which was then about four leagues to the south of us; this was a joyful sight, and begot new vigor in our men, who being refresh’d with victuals, low’ring mast and sail, rowed to a miracle: while they were tugging at the oars, we plied them with plenty of aqua vitæ to support them, whose borrow’d spirits did so far waste their own, that upon our arrival at Borera, there was scarce one of our crew able to manage cable or anchor: we arriv’d there, and put in under the hollow of an extraordinary high rock, to the north of this isle, which was all covered with a prodigious number of solan geese hatching in their nests; the Heavens were darkened by those flying above our heads; their excrements were in such quantity, that they gave a tincture to the sea, and at the same time sullied our boat and cloaths: two of them confirmed the truth of what has been frequently reported of their stealing from one another grass wherewith to make their nests, by affording us the following and very agreeable diversion, and ‘twas thus; one of them finding his neighbour’s nest without the fowl, lays hold upon the opportunity, and steals of it as much grass as he could conveniently carry, taking his flight towards the ocean; from thence he returns after a short turn, as if he had made a foreign purchase, but it does not pass for such, as Fate would have it; for the owner discovered the fact, before this thief got out of sight, and being too nimble for his cunning, waits his return, all arm’d with fury, engages him desperately; this bloody battel was fought above our heads, and proved fatal to the thief, who fell dead so near our boat, that our men took him up, and presently dress’d and eat him; which they reckoned as an omen and prognostick of good success in this voyage.

We proposed to be at St. Kilda next day, but our expectation was frustrated by a violent storm, which did almost drive us to the ocean; where we had incurred no small risque, being no ways fitted for it; our men laid aside all hopes of life, being possessed with the belief that all this misfortune proceeded from the impostor (of whom hereafter) who they believed had employed the devil to raise this extraordinary storm against Mr. Campbel, minister, who was to counteract him. All our arguments, whether from natural reason, or the providence of God, were not of force enough to persuade them to the contrary, until it pleased God to command a calm the day following, which was the first of June, and then we rowed to St. Kilda; as we came close upon the rocks, some of the inhabitants, who were then employed in setting their gins, welcomed us with a God save you, their usual salutation, admiring to see us get thither contrary to wind and tide; they were walking unconcernedly on the side of this prodigious high rock, at the same time keeping pace with our boat, to my great admiration, insomuch that I was quickly obliged to turn away mine eyes, lest I should have the unpleasant spectacle of some of them tumbling down into the sea; but they themselves had no such fears, for they outrun our boat to the town, from thence they brought the steward and all the inhabitants of both sexes to receive us; we approached the outmost part of the low rock, called the Saddle; a parcel of the inhabitants were mounted upon it, having on their feet the usual dress on such occasions, i.e., socks of old rags sowed with feathers instead of thread; our boat being come pretty near, it was kept off this rock with long poles, some of their number coming by pairs into the sea received Mr. Campbel and me upon their shoulders and carried us to land, where we were received with all the demonstrations of joy and kindness they were able to express; the impostor endeavoring to outdo his neighbours, and placing himself always in front of our attendants, discovered his hypocrisy, of which an account shall be given in the conclusion. All of us walking together to the little village where there was a lodging prepared for us, furnished with beds of straw, and according to the ancient custom of the place, the officer, who presides over them (in the steward’s absence) summoned the inhabitants, who by concert agreed upon a daily maintenance for us, as bread, butter, cheese, mutton, fowls, eggs, also fire, &c. all which was to be given in at our lodging twice every day; this was done in the most regular manner, each family by turns paying their quota proportionally to their lands. I remember the allowance for each man per diem, beside a barley cake, was eighteen of the eggs laid by the fowl called by them lavy, and a greater number of the lesser eggs, as they differed in proportion; the largest of these eggs is near in bigness to that of a goose, the rest of the eggs gradually of a lesser size.

We had the curiosity after three weeks residence, to make a calcule of the number of eggs bestowed upon those of our boat, and the Stewart’s birlin, or galley, the whole amounted to sixteen thousand eggs; and without all doubt the inhabitants, who were treble our number, consumed many more eggs and fowls than we could. From this it is easy to imagine, that a vast number of fowls must resort here all summer, which is yet the more probable if it be considered; that every fowl lays but one egg at a time, if allowed to hatch.

The inhabitants live together in a little village, which carries all the signs of an extream poverty; the houses are of a low form, having all the doors to the north-east, both on purpose to secure them from the shocks of the tempest of the south-west winds. The walls of their houses are rudely built of stone, the short couples joining at the ends of the roof, upon whose sides small ribs of wood are laid, these being covered with straw; the whole secured by ropes made of twisted heath, the extremity of which on each side is poised with stone to preserve the thatch from being blown away by the winds. This little village is seated in a valley surrounded with four mountains, which serve as so many ramparts of defence, and are amphitheatres, from whence a fair prospect of the ocean and isles is to be seen in a fair day.

This isle is by the inhabitants called Hirt, and likewise by all the Western Islanders; Buchanan calls it Hirta; Sir John Narbrough, and all seamen call it St. Kilda; and in sea maps St. Kilder, particularly in a Dutch sea map from Ireland to Zeland, published at Amsterdam by Peter Goas in the year, 1663, wherein the isle of St. Kilda is placed due west betwixt fifty and sixty miles from the middle of the Lewis, and the isle answers directly to the fifty-eighth degree of northern latitude, as marked upon the ends of the map, and from it lies Rokol, a small rock sixty leagues to the westward of St. Kilda; the inhabitants of this place call it Rokabarra; this map contains the soundings of some places near St. Kilda; these not exceeding twenty or thirty fathom, it contains only the larger isle and a part of the lesser isles; this island is also called St. Kilda, by a company of French and Spaniards, who lost their ship at Rokol in the year 1686, which they nam’d to the inhabitants of St. Kilda, whose latitude is fifty-seven degrees and three minutes.

The air here is sharp and wholesome; the hills are often covered with ambient white mists, which in winter are forerunners of snow, if they continue on the tops of the hills; and in summer, if only on the tops of the hills, they prognosticate rain; and when they descend to the valleys it is a prognostick of excessive heat. The night here about the time of the summer solstice exceeds not an hour in length, especially if the season is fair, then the sun disappears but for a short space, the reflex from the sea being all the time visible; the harvest and winter are liable to great winds and rain, the south-west wind annoying them more than any other; it is commonly observed to blow from the west for the most part of, if not all July.

St. Kilda is two miles long from east to west ; from south to north one mile in breadth; five miles in circumference, and is naturally fenc’d with one continued face of a rock of great height, except a part of the bay, which lies to the south-east, and is generally well fenced with a raging sea. This bay is one half mile in length, and another in breadth; it is not ordinary for any vessels to anchor within this bay, in case of a storm, for this might endanger them, therefore they drop anchor without at the entry, judging it the securest place: the only place for landing here, is on the north side of this bay, upon a rock with a little declination, which is slippery, being cloathed with several sorts of sea-weeds; these, together with a raging sea, render the place more inaccessible, it being seldom without a raging sea, except under favour of a neap-tide, a north-east or west wind, or with a perfect calm; when these circumstances concur, the birlin or boat is brougt to the side of the rock, upon which all the inhabitants of both sexes are ready to join their united force to hale her through this rock, having for this end a rope assent to the fore-part; a competent number of them are also employed on each side; both these are determined by a cryer, who is employed on purpose to warn them all at the same minute, and he ceases when he finds it convenient to give them a breathing.

At the head of the bay there’s a plain sand, which is only to be seen in summer, the winter-sea washing it off the stones; there is no landing upon this place with safety, which the steward has learn’d to his cost. There is a little bay on the west side of this isle, all fac’d with an iron-colour’d rock; some vessels take shelter here, when the wind is at south or north-east; there is a place of the rock here on the south-side the rivulet, where you may land, if a neap-tide or calm offer. The sea is very impetuous everywhere about this isle; they shewed me big stones which were lately removed out of their place and cast into the Gallies Dock; I measured some of them which were in length seven, others eight foot and three or four broad.

There is a little old ruinous fort on the south part of the south-east bay, called the Down. It is evident from what hath been already said, that this place may be reckoned among the strongest forts (whether natural or artificial) in the world; Nature has provided the place with store of ammunition for acting on the defensive; that is, a heap of loose stones in the top of the hill Oterveaul, directly above the landing-place; it is very easy to discharge vollies of this ammunition directly upon the place of landing, and that from a great height almost perpendicular; this I myself had occasion to demonstrate, having for my diversion put it in practice, to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants, to whom this defence never occurred hitherto. They are resolved to make use of this for the future, to keep off the Lowlanders, against whom of late they have conceived prejudices. A few hands may be capable of resisting some hundreds, if the above-mentioned weapons be but made use of. Those four mountains are fac’d on that side which regards the sea, with rocks of extraordinary height; the hill Conager on the north side, is about two hundred fathom height, perpendicularly above the sea.

There are round this isle four arches or vaults, through which the sea passes, as doth the day-light from either side, which is visible to any, though at a good distance; some of them representing a large gate: two of these look to the south, and two north-west; that on the point of the west bay is six fathom high above water, four in breadth, fifty paces in length, the top two fathom thick, and very strong, the cattle feeding upon it.

There are several veins of different stone to be seen in the rocks of the south-east bay; upon the north side of this rock is one as it were cut out by Nature, resembling a tarras-walk. The chrystal grows under the rock at the landing-place; this rock must be pierc’d a foot or two deep, before the chrystal can be had from the bed of sand where it lies; the water at the bottom is of a black colour; the largest piece is not above four inches long, and about two in diameter, each piece sexangular.

Upon the west side of this isle there is a valley with a declination towards the sea, having a rivulet running through the middle of it, on each side of which is an ascent of half a mile; all which piece of ground is call’d by the inhabitants, The Female Warrior’s Glen: This Amazon is famous in their traditions: her house or dairy of stone is yet extant; some of the inhabitants dwell in it all summer, though it be some hundred years old; the whole is built of stone, without any wood, lime, earth, or mortar to cement it, and is built in form of a circle pyramid-wise towards the top, having a vent in it, the fire being always in the centre of the floor; the stones are long and thin, which supplies the defect of wood; the body of this house contains not above nine persons sitting; there are three beds or low vaults that go off the side of the wall, a pillar betwixt each bed, which contains five men apiece; at the entry to one of these low vaults is a stone standing upon one end fix’d; upon this they say she ordinarily laid her helmet; there are two stones on the other side, upon which she is reported to have laid her sword: she is said to have been much addicted to hunting, and that in her time all the space betwixt this isle and that of Harries, was one continued tract of dry land. There was some years ago a pair of large deers-horns found in the top of Oterveaul Hill, almost a foot under ground; and there was likewise a wooden dish full of deer’s grease found in the same hill under ground. ‘Tis also said of this warrior, that she let loose her greyhounds after the deer in St. Kilda, making their course towards the opposite isles. There are several traditions of this famous Amazon, with which I will not further trouble the reader.

In this isle there are plenty of excellent fountains or springs; that near the female warrior’s house is reputed to be the best, the name of it, Toubir-nim-buey, importing no less than the well of qualities or virtues; it runneth from east to west, being sixty paces ascent above the sea: I drank of it twice, an English quart at each time; it is very clear, exceeding cold, light, and diuretick; I was not able to hold my hands in it above a few minutes, in regard of its coldness; the inhabitants of Harries find it effectual against windy-chollicks, gravel, head-aches; this well hath a cover of stone.

There is a large well near the town, called St. Kilder’s Well; from which the island is suppos’d to derive its name; this water is not inferior to that above-mentioned; it runneth to the south-east from the north-west.

There is another well within half a mile of this, nam’d after one Conirdan, an hundred paces above the sea, and runneth from north-west towards the southeast, having a stone cover.

Within twelve paces of this is a little and excellent fountain, which those of Harries and St. Kilda, will needs call by the Author’s name, and were then resolved to give it a cover of stone, such as is above describ’d.

There is a celebrated well issuing out of the face of a rock on the north-side of the east bay, called by the inhabitants and others, The Well of Youth, but is only accessible by the inhabitants, no stranger daring to climb the steep rock; the water of it is received, as it falls, into the sea; it runs towards the south-east. The taste of the water of those wells was so pleasant, that for several weeks after, the best fountains in the adjacent isles did not relish with me. There is a rivulet runneth close by the town, and another larger beyond Kilder’s Well; this last serves for washing linnen, which it doth as well without soap, as other water does with it; of this we had experience, which was a confirmation of what had been reported to us concerning this water: we searched if in the brinks we could discover any fuller’s-earth, but found none; we discovered some pieces of iron-ore in several places of it; this rivulet drops from the mossy ground in the top of the hills.

The whole island is one hard rock, form’d into four high mountains, three of which are in the middle; all thinly covered with black or brown earth, not above a foot, some places half a foot deep, except the top of the hills, where it is above three foot deep, and affords them good turf; the grass is very short but kindly, producing plenty of milk; the number of sheep commonly maintained in St. Kilda, and the two adjacent isles, does not exceed two thousand and generally they are speckled, some white, some philamort, and are of an ordinary size; they do not resemble goats in anything, as Buchanan was informed, except in their horns, which are extraordinary large, particularly those in the lesser isles.

The number of horses exceeds not eighteen, all of a red colour, very low, and smooth skinn’d, being only employ’d in carrying their turf and corn, and at the anniversary cavalcade, of which hereafter. The cows that are about ninety head, small and great, all of them having their foreheads white and black, which is discernible at a great distance, are of a low stature, but fat and sweet beef; the dogs, cats, and all the sea-fowls of this isle are speckled.

The soil is very grateful to the labourer, producing ordinarily sixteen, eighteen, or twenty fold sometimes; their grain is only bear, and some oats; the barley is the largest produced in all the Western Isles; they use no plough but a kind of crooked spade; their harrows are of wood, as are the teeth in the front also, and all the rest supplied only with long tangles of seaware tied to the harrow by the small ends; the roots hanging loose behind, scatter the clods broken by the wooden teeth; this they are forced to use for want of wood. Their arable land is very nicely parted into ten divisions, and these into subdivisions, each division distinguished by the name of some deceased man or woman, who were natives of the place; there is one spot called multa terra, another multus agris. The chief ingredient in their composts is ashes of turf mixed with straw; with these they mix their urine, which by experience they find to have much of the vegetable nitre; they do not preserve it in quantities as elsewhere, but convey it immediately from the fountain to the ashes, which by daily practice they find most advantageous; they join also the bones, wings, and entrails of their sea-fowls to their straw; they sow very thick, and have a proportionable growth; they pluck all their bear by the roots in handfuls, both for the sake of their houses, which they thatch with it, and their cows which they take in during the winter; the corn produced by this compost is perfectly free of any kind of weeds; it produces much sorrel where the compost reaches.

The coast of St. Kilda, and the lesser isles, are plentifully furnished with variety of fishes, as cod, ling, mackarell, congars, braziers, turbat, graylords, sythes; these last two are the same kind, only differing in bigness, some call them black mouths; they are large as any salmon, and somewhat longer; there are also laiths, podloes, herring, and many more; most of these are fished by the inhabitants upon the rock, for they have neither nets nor long lines. Their common bait is the limpets or patellæ, being parboil’d; they use likewise the fowl called by them bowger, its flesh raw, which the fish near the lesser isles catch greedily; sometimes they use the bowger’s flesh, and the limpets patellæ at the same time upon one hook, and this proves successful also. In the month of July a considerable quantity of mackarell run themselves ashore, but always with a spring-tide. The amphibia seen here, are the otters and seals; this latter the inhabitants reckon very good meat; there is no sort of trees, no, not the least shrub grows here, nor ever a bee seen at any time.

Chapter II


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