Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter II - My Parentage and Family History - School Days


About the close of my fifth year my life almost came to an abrupt termination. The sensitive heart of infancy is quick in apprehension when its happiness is threatened, and in many secret misgivings I told myself that life was already finished. But I recovered, and became one of the healthiest of the sons of Adam.

I was the third son of my mother and fifth child of my father. At the time of my earl-'est recollections my father was captain of his own boat, lived in his own house, farmed several acres of good land, had many sheep and cattle, and kept a man-servant and a horse. We children of the house occupied a very happy position in the social scale, a position open to all good influence, high enough to allow us to see about us models of good manners, of self respect, of piety, and simple dignity. Amply furnished with all the necessaries of life, we had no reason for shame, as we had none for p ide. We never knew what chronic underfeeding was, but we were brought up by the wisest of mothers in a Spartan simplicity of diet, wholesome and bracing in its effect, which stood my physical frame in good stead in future years. For us the humble prayer of Agur, “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” was truly realised.

The branch of the great clan of which my father, Malcolm Campbell, came was not a direct offshoot from Argyll, but from Glenorchy, the Marquis of Breadalbane’s district. The family came to Port Ness from Cape Wrath about the year 1G63. They were the descendants of Kenneth Buey Mclver and his brother Farquhar, who left Argyllshire about 1560 with a large number of clansmen, and marched northwards to Caithness, scouring the country as they went. The details of their history are lost in the haze of tradition. The early title of my clan was O’Duine, who lived about 1100.

My worthy sire himself was spare in figure, of active habits, an early riser, and possessed of much natural shrewdness and warm affection, lie was loud-voiced and outspoken, sometimes utterly unreserved. This frankness and his transparent honesty won for him many friends and admirers. Here, it was felt, was a man who had bravely grappled with life’s earliest problems, to whom life was no holiday, but a steady march onward and upward to a goal assured by Christian faith. This brave faith he had no doubt inherited from his mother, Catherine Bain, who lived a noble Christian life. In later years, however, his sense of his own unworthiness became morbid, and his tendency to dwell on the fleetness of life and the approach of death gradually tinged his thoughts with overmuch of the Celtic melancholy. As his life ebbed his religious anxieties caused him much suffering, which saddened his days more or less to the end.

To my mother, nee Jessie Morrison, I owe everything, even my outward appearance, and appropriately my name. Her family gave several ministers to the church at Ness, and after the last of them I am called. She was the daughter of Allan Morrison, whose greatgrandfather, Roderick Morrison, was titulary proprietor of Habost and also of Ness. Thus, from time !mmemorial, her family owned the extreme northern point of the Lewis; and their chief, Morrison of Habost, for many generations held the honourable position of hereditary breithcamh, or judge, over the whole of Lewis down to the year a.d. 1613. The nature of my ancestor’s judgeship is described by Sir R. Gordon in explaining the office of a breive among the islanders:—“The breive is a kind of a judge, who hath an absolute judicatorie, unto whose authoritie and censure they willinglie submit themselves when he determineth any debateable question between partie and partie.” * That learned man of law Sir Alexander Morrison, who is quoted as an authority to the present day, no doubt derived his tastes from his ancestor, the Ness breive. For a badge the Morrisons have a drift log, “ sqoidchladaich,” suggested by the logs which the storms of the Atlantic cast ashore at Ness. No other clan has this badge. Their coat of arms consists of— argent, three Moors’ heads, couped. sable, banded of the first; crest, three Saracens’ heads, conjoined in one neck proper, the faces looking to the chief dexter and sinister sides of the shield motto, “Pretio prudent;a prsEstat” ("Prudence predominates overprice”). The tradition attached to this crest and coat of arms tells how my worthy and rugged ancestor the MacGhillie Mhuire, at the siege of Acre in 1191, was seen to fly before three Saracens, who attacked him together. His flight, however, was but a feint, and when he had drawn them far enough from their supporters, he turned and slew them one by one. The saying went round the Christian army, “ One More from Scotland is more than a match for three pagan Mocks,” and from this the heraldic bearings were devised.

The titular proprietorship of Habost remained in my mother’s family till her great-grandfather’s time on the sublet system, which was abolished as the population increased. The father of this last proprietor deserves a few words to himself. He was the Hercules of the island, a man of immense physical proportions and enormous strength. His voice and manner suggested a constitution of iron and health so impregnable that no insurance office dealing in life annuities would have ventured to look him n the face. He was thought good for nine lives at least; there seemed no possible avenue where death or disease could force a breach. Yet so poor is the anchorage of human hopes that, amid all these anticipations, this Scotch granite ancestor of mine suddenly struck his flag and died at the comparatively earl] age of sixty years. Angus Gunn had promised him two hundred. He seemed built in an antediluvian type and for age-long duration, yet he did not reach even the modest span allotted by the Psalmist.

For the rest the story of my ancestry rests upon Angus Gunn’s somewhat hazy version, and I do not propose to give rein to my Celtic imagination in making it more precise. Being a Scot, I have naturally begun with a pedigree, but the reader will admit that this is but a very small ell of the genealogical tree.

During my childhood my mother suffered for some years from ill-health. But she was still erect, dignified, graceful in person, and possessed of admirable beauty of countenance. Her dark eyes had a striking lambency, her smile inspired love, the habit of her genial mind was to reflect the moods of others and seek to make them happy, never thinking of herself, and all this she did with singular tact and a playful, simple grace. Utterly incapable of servility or obsequiousness, her gifted and lofty nature was always in peace and charity. Contentment with all around her was stamped upon her countenance and mien. Yet there was no weakness in her character, and, like Cromwell's mother, she could exhibit in a marked degree, when other assistance failed her, the noble faculty of self-help. Such was my mother, a wise and noble woman. She has passed away like the setting sun. Suns do not set to die, but to rise again; and so would it be with the setting sun of what we called the dream and drama of life.

The whirligig of time goes round, and there comes a truce even to religious disputes. The disruption agitation which had closed the schools ended at last, and left calm in the island. But I was in my tenth year before I began to study the curves and angles of the Roman alphabet. It was by no means an easy task after several years of truantry to sit quietly most of the day facing those horrible letters. Many a time I might well have wished that Cadmus, King of Thebes, had never been born to afflict future generations in far-off isles of the sea with his abhorred alphabet. My reason and my imagination lay prisoners, held down by the most depressed spirt that ever tenanted the frame of a boy. I was not of a disposition, however, to give in easily, and I fell upon a scheme for making peace with my tormentors. At play-time I ran to the sea-shore, book and stick in hand, and drew the outlines of my foes upon the sand. Gradually I became familiar, nay friendly, with them, and my hatred gave place to a sense of their usefulness and worth.

I remember one of my companions who shared my difficulties, but fell upon a very different scheme for overcoming them. Never was the study of hieroglyphics attacked by a method so original and so bold. He was not a stupid boy at play, though bewildered into imbecility by the task of learning. He was not an ordinary boy, however, and had a pair of ice-coloured, ball-less eyes, and various other abnormal characteristics, including apparently the digestion of an ostrich. For one night, being in despair over this unconquerable alphabet, he carefully cut out the twenty-seven abstruse symbols, put them inside a piece of dough, and ate them. Alas that the morning light brought no solution of his difficulties! He never learnt his letters. Had Nature flung him forth upon the world, with his poor distracted brain, in some mood of cruel sport, or had she given him a double share of her own secret, so that he needed no other teacher ? Perhaps it was so.

Our teacher had of course been imported from the mainland, and I very soon observed that he looked upon his pupils as inferior beings. This, of course, made sympathy impossible between us, and was a serious bar to progress. There was no compulsory attendance, and only those boys went to school whose inborn love of knowledge led them to do so of their own free will. Parents seldom attempted to enforce daily attendance, clinging still to the primitive idea that the less educated a boy was, the less chance there was of his leaving the island. The only compulsory item in our school attendance was the daily contribution of a peat for the schoolroom fire. The boy who came without his peat under his arm was absolutely refused admittance.

As for the matter of his teaching, there was but one subject: the faults of the lately adored “Auld Kirk” and the perfections of the new regime. Since the days of the disruption sectarianism racked the whole island. Still the former way of thinking had its supporters, and there was room for bitter controversy. People lived at enmity within the same house, sitting at the same fireside, and probably praying silent, bitter prayers to the same Providence. But even our instruction In ecclesiastical differences was soon cut short. One day several of us lingered overlong at our play, and were late in returning to school. The teacher thereupon assumed his prerogative of using the “tawse,” and punished us somewhat severely. Among the culprits were the minister’s children. This outrage on the dignity of the ministerial office was unpardonable, and the teacher, unfortunately for him, and also for me, was instantly dismissed. Once more I was thrown back, and my hopes of learning disappointed just when they were at their highest. For only a few days before I had, by dint of hard work, been awarded a prize-book for exceptional diligence in study, and surely never did man or boy feel more honoured since the days ol Mordecai the Jew. But again I was to feel the pinch of the shoe, not in money, but in education.

I was not to be beaten, however, and I made a firm resolution that a task of reading should be performed regularly each day. From that day I was my own master and my own pupil. I had my own thoughts, and faced for myself the problems that met me. The discipline ol it all was good for me. “The virtue lies in the struggle, not in the prize.”

As a result of the religious upheaval in the island the resources of the people had been heavily drawn upon to provide a new Free Church. A manse was as yet beyond the reach of the community, and the minister was accommodated in the house of the miller. In Scotland there is an extraordinary respect and honour paid to a Free Church minister, the more perhaps because he is so often a son of the people who has raised himself by his work and his exertions to this highly esteemed position. The mere accent of the word “menister” suggests deification, and his presence produces an effect of awe. Unfortunately the miller proved unworthy of the honour conferred upon his house, and, what was more serious, unworthy of his place among a simple, God-fearing, and honest-living folk. When his offence against the hitherto unimpeachable moral tone of the community was discovered, he was summoned before the minister and Kirk session and ruthlessly excommunicated. He was driven from the parish and the island, and if the will of the minister and Kirk session could have brought it about, would have been summarily transported to Van Diemen’s Land under sentence of penal servitude for life, with a strong recommendation for eternal punishment. “Then gently scan your brother-man” was scarcely the motto of these stern judges.

That there was a lack of justice as well as of charily in the local ideas of righteousness was evident from their appreciation of the new miller. He was a man after the heart of the religious community,—a Free Kirk elder in whom should be no guile. Yet in a larger view he can hardly be said to have obliterated the stain left by his predecessor upon the mill-house. For he had not been long its tenant before he showed that his special besetting sin of covetousness was likely to work as much evil as his predecessor’s. By his influence thirty acres of land were taken at one stroke from his neighbours without any abatement of rent, and walled round in solid security. He then sought to evict from this stolen stronghold of his, two families who had lived there for generations. One of the cottages belonged to a man called Shiemas Og, and so distracted with grief was he at the thought of being compelled to leave his home that his mind became quite unhinged, and for the rest of his life he was a hopeless lunatic. His wife was compelled to earn a livelihood as she could, and betook herself to the unlawful practice of shebeening whisky; while Ian Bain, the other dispossessed cottager, soon found rest in death. I am far from saying that the elder acted thus because he was an elder. He was merely one of those who try to serve two masters, and being keenly conscious that there was a sphere of self-interest as well as a sphere of religion, he wished to fix an anchor on something that had promise for the present as well as on assurance for the future.

Yet a religious revival of extraordinary intensity had accompanied this man’s arrival in the parish. Daily labours, family duties, all ordinary avocations, were neglected. For the day of judgment was at hand, bringing with it the end of all things mortal. The metrical version of the Psalms of David was studied and repeated with earnestness and zeal, but as for other reading, what was it but a lie, dishonourable to the Supreme, and disgraceful .n a professing Christian ? All innocent amusement was deemed as out of place as a ballet dance during an earthquake. Plato himself turned Puritan would have felt that too perfect attainment brings despair when attainment means the laying to heart of the Shorter Catechism, surely, as it seems to me, the work of befogged theologians deliberately sitting down to invent an instrument of torture for the immature intelligence. Very young I had to digest as best I could the Ten Commandments as given to Moses, and even the stronger meat of effectual callings and such doctrines. I asked my mother once why all communicants at the Lord’s Supper were old. “Because they know what they are doing, and are responsible,” she said. “They are not any better off than the others,” I replied. “They go at their peril, and if they stay away, it is at their peril. Tell me how they are saved thus.” I was promptly sent supperless to bed for my logic.

Yet this revival of Calvinistic severity had no effect in putting an end to the superstitions which still lingered among the people. My father, the son, as I have already said, of a notably Christian mother, Kate Bain, tells that when he was a young man one of the last duties he had to perform each evening at twilight was to carry a pot of milk to a hillock hard by, and pour it over the fairy abodes. There they held high court in their palace beneath the fairy hill, and from there they sallied forth at night, to do good or evil according as they had been used: to bake and spin and work for favoured mortals while they slept; oftener to wreak revengeful spite on those who had failed to propriate them, and to carry off the young and fair to their mysterious hillock abodes, around which weird strains of fairy music might at times be heard.

Of my own knowledge I can record one serious example of extreme superstition in my own parish. A young man was very “sweet” upon a maiden, and the “cries” were almost in view when suddenly his mother turned round on the bride elect, and openly accused her mother and aunt of witchcraft. They had, she declared, obtained licence from the devil, and, transformed into hares, hod sucked the cream from the teats of the cow, carried it home, and made all the butter they required, and more. The young man, “full of all subtlety and mischief,” as St. Paul says, was nothing loath to take up the task of proving his mother in the right. He made two false assumptions, however, which proved disastrous to his attempts. In the first place, he took for granted that, as the girl’s mother was lame, he would know her even in hare shape by this peculiarity; and, in the second place, he believed that the girl still loved him enough to save him from being torn to pieces by the witches, whom she would no doubt accompany in order to learn the dark art. One evening, as he set off to court another girl, two witch hares and a leveret met him, which compelled a hasty retreat. After arming himself with a boat’s helm, he undauntedly set out again to the new ground of his choice. But he had not gone far before the witches made a second attack, and before they had done with him they tore out by the roots every hair that God had planted on his big head. He was afterwards carried, more dead than alive, to a neighbour’s house, where he slept twice round the clock, so great was the relief after the night’s tension. Cunningly he shaved himself to support his mother’s superstition, but nature betrayed his scheme by a copious growth of hair.

Tales of this kind sort badly with the tenets of strict Calvinism, but these simple islanders found room in their believing hearts for both. Witchcraft is older than Calvinism. It has had a longer hold on the minds of men. The historical research of our own day has failed to find its origin. It has been with the human race from the beginning.

The world is indeed a slow learner. Happily it has an infinitely patient Teacher. Happily, too, we have the assurance that things are moving towards a glorious consummation when superstition and error shall be driven away, and when God shall reconcile all things unto Himself, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.

But if superstition did not retreat before religion, education did. The schools were closed. Once more, as had happened before, our juvenile energy was frittered away on unintelligible metaphysics and theology when we ought to have been acquiring a solid grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The monotony of the continual “ spiritual” instruction became well-nigh unbearable. It produced a kind of intellectual squint, and utterly deadened the imagination. It was especially hard on such a temperament as mine, for I was always of a romantic turn and saw realities through a glamour of my own creating. I lived in a future of my own imagining—a future of far travel and strange experience, for which it was my whole longing and desire to prepare myself. Yet knowledge seemed to be refused me, and despairing presentiments darkened my whole life at this period, though never without intermittent dashes of hope. All my experience of life leads me to believe with Goethe that our wishes are but the expression of our capacities and harbingers of our future attainments.

The “Auld Kirk-’ had become anathema maranatha to the people, for the Free Church were eager to find another God for themselves by mental or spiritual process! Indeed, we were always on the qui vive for a spiritual convulsion. That the social state of the entire community was truly indescribable goes without saying, and I mentally anathematise the day in which I was born.

From the grand humanism of the minister down to the fancies of whimsical mystics, who hold that it is even a sin to wear garments, and believe that heaven is only about six miles off, we had a little more than enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another. The very whisper of the “Auld Kirk” intoxicated the people and deprived them of all faculties of examination and judgment. Why, it seemed to my youthful intelligence but a day of wrath, the true gospel of charity for the moment being sealed. Nay, I go farther, that if any man had lost his religion, let him repair to this sland, and I warrant him he would find ;t. On the other hand, I had almost said, too, if any man had a religion, let him but come hither, and I warrant him also he would go pretty near to lose it. Nevertheless the spirit of religion bloweth where it listeth, like the wind. We cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. It would not be religion if we could calculate it and reduce it to measure, not because the Divine nature is what it is, but because human nature is what it is. I see before me the ancient Church of St. Peter and the Temple of St. Thomas, whose crumbled walls have had shelter from the arctic blasts, behind the high black granite rocky ledges of the Butt, for countless years. Their architects, builders, and worshippers—pagan, Druidical, and Christian—have passed away with their different views of the gods they served, in accordance with the inexorable laws of nature, in the unwritten history of their time. We must follow them in our harsh Calvinistic views of God, whose nature is all love and tenderness. But these crumbling walls remain, which are now, by an unknown instinct, made immortal, if not classic, by one born out of season. Tradition says that both were built by means of the sin of Sabbath-breaking, the islanders having begun that process from the year in which St. Columba visited the island, and continued it successfully for centuries. In those early times those who felt a necessary duty, or an overmastering desire to milk or even graze their cows on Sundays, had to pay a toll to the Church for permission to sin. Alas! with all our religion, persons now desirous of breaking the Sabbath here may learn from this that they can do so without licence or toll. It will be nothing short of a miracle if the full depth of this change has not yet to be plumbed, and it a few disagreeable surprises are not still n store for the gullible “Auld Kirk”—going away from God to God!

Once more my hopes were raised high by the unexpected arrival of a second teacher. Alas! his teaching was but a drop in the ocean. His system was the same as his predecessor’s, and his fate not unlike. This time the ground of his dismissal was some sectarian bitterness, arising directly from the presence of the minister’s son in the school. Assuredly that Free Church Moses of ours had a wonderful influence, and in his son we felt that he had brought an “olive branch” which, by some malign miracle, was turned ’nto a fiery serpent. He may have had the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the wisdom of Aristotle, but he was certainly sadly lacking in tact and taste. There was no originality in his views, though much Scotch shrewdness and humour in the language in which he clothed them. But, whatever the cause, his power over the people was extraordinary. Humour under control is a valuable element in a minister, and many will admit that the sense of humour in private intercourse is even good. It is pathetic to think, however, what crises would have been tided over, and what “removals” avoided, if only ministers had sometimes been readier for amusement than vexation. Yet the people are to blame, the crazy fanatics, the hard children of this world. He came to the parish something after the fashion that James Nayler rode into Bristol in 1656. This is not, perhaps, a very becoming way to speak of a man, but let me assure the reader, there is more lucidity than intentional disrespect in the phrase.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus