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 III - I run away from  Home - The Return of the Prodigal - Death of my Mother -Bantrach Dhomhniull Roy


“Time wasted in youth is one of the mistakes which are beyond correction.”

At the millhouse was a young man-servant from Stornoway, between whom and myself a strong mutual liking had sprung up, more than a liking, indeed, rather a love as of David and Jonathan. In recalling it I am reminded of Montaigne’s words regarding his friendship with La Boetie, “having seized all my will, inauccd the same to plunge and lose itself in his, which likewise, having seized all his will, induced it to plunge anu lose itself in mine, with a mutual greed and with a like concurrence.” Accordingly, when my friend found an engagement in the stables of the proprietor close to Lewis Castle, and near his home, he found no great difficulty in persuading me to elope with him across the moor, and in a few days I, too, was installed in the service of the first baronet of Achany, in the proud position of “herd loon.”

There is a story of a British Premier’s reply to a member of his party who expressed disappointment at receiving no higher honour than knighthood. “I assure you,” said the Premier, “you are underrating the honour ol knighthood. It satisfied Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Isaac Newton.”

Like the discontented member, I was not satisfied with the honour I had received, though the position of “herd loon” on the proprietor’s estate would have been knighthood to many a Scotch lad. I spent my days alone in a large walled park of about forty acres, having as sole companions a dozen or more of Irish cows. I had plenty of time to spare for deep meditations, the first and foremost subject being my future prospects. Vague and empty they seemed as the great field in which I roamed. I saw other lads passing and repassing to and from school, and grief and anger at my own deprivation possessed me so that, like Job of old, I cursed the day I was born. At last out of my daily meditations grew the audacious resolution to ask the bailiff to allow me to go to school two hours in the forenoon and two in the afternoon. In return I was willing to sacrifice all my wages, though, indeed, I had no idea what these were to be, my friend having settled the matter for me. I was prepared to point out to the bailiff that, as the park was walled, my being there made no difference whatever to the cows; they would eat and digest just as much grass in my absence as in my presence.

I went to Sandy Buey, the bailiff. He received my plea with a smile, which showed me that my proposition was to be left indefinitely unconsidered. A higher authority, however, was over the understeward, the inexorable estate factor himself. And with bated breath and beating heart, and limbs quivering like an aspen leaf, to him I went. A perilous business I felt it to be to face a man so powerful and in religious matters, as I had been taught, so “unsound.”

In being ushered into the august presence of the titular governor of the Long Island, I felt as if seized by a sudden attack of lockjaw. The mere glance of the great man seemed to ask a dozen angry questions. “Who is this stripling? Where has he come from ? What does he want in my office? Show him the door and the street.” Being told by the usher that I came from the “Square,” he sharply asked my business. Drawing my slender frame up to its full height, I boldly repeated the logical proposition concerning the cows and the grass which the bailiff had treated with such scant respect. His face, anything but amiable in his better moods, gathered itself into a grimness altogether terrifying. “You impudent fellow, your audacity surpasses anything in my experience. Do you think I am going to feed and pay you to go to school ? You could learn nothing if you did go to school. Fishing and planting a few potatoes need no schooling. Nonsense! Impudence! Away with you instantly !3” But I did not go. I pled long and earnestly, asking at last but one hour daily. But my remonstrances might as well have been addressed to the stones of the street for all the impression they made upon him. Finally he got so angry that he told me he would send me to prison instead of to school if I did not leave his office sharp, for he didn’t want an idiot in his service. It was doubtless his modesty that led him to waive his own claim to that distinction. The threat of prison was more alarming to me than even the monotonous prospect of watching the cows cat grass, so, choosing the least of two evils, I then and there threw down the seals of office, with the title and emoluments, of “ herd loon ” upon the floor, and speedily found myself in the street, a- knight errant in earnest, a paladin drifted into the wrong century.

One might have been inclined to think that a man of education would have treated my request, however unreasonable, at least with good temper. But he did me a better turn than either of us guessed at the moment. Truly there was a merciful Pilot at the helm of my affairs, and the casting out of this Ishmael was a blessing in disguise. A calamity at the time was really the greatest stroke of luck which had ever happened to me.

I walked about the streets of Stornoway, down to where the point of rock juts out into the bay. At the end of this point stands the ancient ruined castle. Many a woeful and romantic tale lies buried there, irrecoverably lost to history. The slope behind this point is covered now with buildings in substantial blue granite masonry, topped by the grand “auld kirk,” the only indestructible one in the island, with steeple pointing heavenwards as if to defy disruptionists to all eternity. Opposite, on the west side of the bay, stood the lordly castle of the new proprietor. If I had gone to him with my proposition, doubtless I should have fared better. But it was not to be. A wiser Leader held my hand.

In the distance I saw Arnish Rock and its strange beacon, where no lamp is ever lit, but which sends a clear light far over the sea. The method of reflected light is familiar enough now; but, for the benefit of my unversed readers, I shall describe it here.

On the mainland six hundred feet away is a lighthouse proper, and from a window "n its tower a stream of light is projected on a mirror the lantern on the summit of the Rock of Arnish. The rays are caught by an arrangement of prisms, and by their action are converged to a focus outside the lantern, from which point they diverge ;n the desired direction.

It was behind this rocky point of Arnish that bonny Prince Charlie, wandering in 1745 a deserted refugee, accompanied by the loyal and devoted Flora Macdonald, received news of the dour refusal of the Stearn-a-bhaigh authorities to extend him a welcome. There was comfort for the Ness “herd loon” in the thought that, harshly as Stornoway had treated him, royalty had fared no better at its hands. At least I had got from it all the benefit of a dire experience, inexpressible experience, before my pride was sufficiently humbled to allow me to return to Ness. So I said, “I will arise and go to my father.” And if there was no fatted calf to kill, I got pot-luck and a loving mother’s embrace. Yet discontentment had grown upon me till, like the pearl in the oyster, it had become a “splendid disease.” Nothing could be done for me beyond prescribing tonics for a weak mind, and this my mother nobly did. At the same time my clothes upon my back were falling in rents. Truly fate did its best to force me into a corner, and all but succeeded. As the parsons say, “Here endeth the first lesson.”

Needless to say, no change had taken place in Ness during my absence. It was October when I returned, the month during which rural Lewis holds its festival of religious oratory— the “Sacrament.” At that time everything that has been done or thought or felt in the spiritual sphere finds its ample audible expression. Week by week in the various valleys in rotation immense crowds may be seen who have come from all parts of the island to listen eagerly. It :s far from my wish to speak slightingly of such a grand parliament of religion. There is no worthier subject of speech nor any that has inspired nobler utterances. A Chrysostom in Greek, a Savonarola in Italian, a Massillon in French, a Whitefield in English, a Christmas Evans in Welsh, and such men as Peter McLean, of Stornoway, and John Kennedy (both of whom I remember) in Gaelic—these have produced effects on the human heart by the handling of this theme such as are not to be paralleled in political, or any other, oratory. This power of the spoken word is one of the primal forces among men, and will not die out, but remain one of the chief governing powers of the world.

No listener among our glens ever tired of these sermons. The people had a thirst for sermons, four hours long, or more, as they might be. And, truly, the open-air temple is so surrounded by that which is most beautiful that it is made easy through Nature to commune with Nature’s God. Indeed, I am of opinion that fishermen are emphatically of a religious turn of mind. The nature of their employment is more calculated to direct their thoughts inward than is the case in most other industries. The solitary work of the miners in the bowels of the earth, one might think, would have a similar tendency; but there is no evidence in mining districts that religion has more than ordinary influence in regulating the lives of the people. In both it may, however, be said to act thus: “wrest from life its uses and gather from life its beauty.” I have never forgotten Peter McLean’s text, “Anns an la sin bithidh tobar air fhosgladh do thigh Dhaibhidh, agus do luchd-aiteachaidh Jerusaliem, air son peacaidh agus air son neoghloine ” (Zech. x ’i. i). This good man was an emotional, even passionate, preacher. In fluency and fervour he has probably been surpassed by none. His voice was remarkably clear, vibrating, and penetrating, so as to thrill through the largest church, and there was no chance of any one’s dozing when he was in the pulpit. When denouncing some wrong which had roused his indignation his feelings seemed to get the better of him, and he “slashed” with his voice in a perfect hurricane of verbal blows. My hair felt as if it rose on end. He carried his hearers in chariots of fire. He bore down on their conscience with irresistible and overwhelming power. He was the Michael Angelo of the pulpit in Lewis.

John Kennedy, of Dingwall, was more refined and scholarly, brimming with knowledge, and a master of beautiful illustration. His style was highly imaginative, and his gestures free and graceful. One illustration I specially noted and remembered. His text was “Agus tbubhairt mi ris. A Thighearn, tha fhios agadas. Agus thubhairt e rium, Is iad so iadsan a thainig a’ hamhghar mor; agus nigh iad an trusgain, agus rinn iad geal iad ann am fuil an Uain ” (Rev. vii. 14). His subject was tribulation, and explaining that the word came from the Latin tribulum, meaning a roller or sledge for threshing corn, he showed that in the same way tribulation sifts men as wheat.

But the people of my native parish would do well if they would, like the Moravians, make Christ the Inspirer of fishing, housekeeping, and ploughing, as well as of psalms and prayers. Still it is no disadvantage that there is in their character underneath the genuinely religious qualities a basis of worldly wisdom and homely prudence which will never fail to have its value.

To turn to the elders,—ornaments to any cause. In addition to their duties in catechising the whole parish, a most trying ordeal awaited them at Communion. For the presiding minister might turn up the Bible at anyplace where the leaves might chance to open, and call upon one of the elders to address the multitude on a certain verse of which he had no more intimation than of the day of his death. After an oration of an hour or more the speaker had the privilege of choosing a text in the same haphazard manner and calling upon a brother elder to discourse upon it, and so on, until all the Kirk session had shown their expository paces. That such a system was possible shows how deeply these men must have drunk in early life at the fountains of Scripture, stimulated partly by training and habit, partly by the inborn religious instincts of their race. Truly their knowledge of the Scriptures might put to shame many ministers of the gospel. It was no small reproach to the Church and the Sustentation Fund that all those arduous duties which should by right devolve upon those who receive its emoluments were undertaken without remuneration merely out of whole-souled devotion and exemplary zeal. Such was their singleness of purpose that, with but one exception, no friction ever arose among them. This is worth recording for the attention of those outside of the highlands and islands. This alone proves them to have been worthy Christian men, among whom conscience was supreme.

This Communion season was exceptionally memorable to me, for it was the last which my mother saw. The winter that followed was extremely cold, and her illness, already of long duration, became increasingly alarming, making it evident that nothing could be done but await with resignation and patience the approaching end. The end did come, on Christmas Eve, 1858, and she began her eternity of rest, a golden circle, like the ring upon her dying finger, without breach or ending. When the long-dreaded blow fell, which no agony of suspense, no schooling of philosophy, no practice of Christian submission, can altogether soften, I was prostrated by an insidious malady. A cold winter’s blast off the Atlantic Ocean, a wind that might have swept the fields of death for a million years, was heard outside as I came to look at her. The winter’s wind, the image of death, the imagination of the heavenly Jerusalem, have been inextricably mingled in my thoughts ever since. There was the angel-face. They told me the features had not changed. Had they not ? The serene and noble forehead— that might be the same. But the frozen eyelids, the awful darkness that gathered beneath them, the marble lips, the stiffening hands laid palm to palm as if in the last solemn supplication—had these not changed ? Was that my mother as in life? Verily in death there lies a mute, ineffable, voiceless horror before which all human courage is abashed. Yet it was not fear, but awe, that fell upon me as I looked, for I saw, not the visible symbol of mortality, but the great promise of eternity encircling and bearing upwards into the far heavens the departed spirit. Hastily I kissed the cold lips that I should kiss no more, and slunk away from the house with stealthy steps, like a guilty thing. “Be calm, good wind; blow not a word away.” The love which is altogether holy between child and mother is no doubt privileged to linger through life and revisit by glimpses the sunshine and the darkness of declining years. Thus I felt that if the intelligence given by a kind Creator, and nourished by her, were not to be altogether obliterated, the hearty desire to do justice to her memory should always remain with me. Nay, from the moment I left her grave I had but one hope: that she whose spirit was watching my humble endeavours might not watch in vain.

After my mother’s funeral no power on earth could persuade me to return home. Grief had swollen into indignation. The gap that had been left seemed cruel and unjust. I hated the place that had witnessed her death. A widow relative locally known as Bantrach Dhomhniull Roy (widow of Red Donald) took me into her home, where, like Elijah the Tish-bite, I "did eat many days, and the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” Unlike the son of the widow who received Elijah, however, the son of my widow was far from home. He had been locally known as “the reader,” and had, fortunately for me, left many of his books behind, all of which were welcome. I soon became an omnivorous reader, desultory certainly, though in the circumstances that was scarcely a fault. The receptive faculty was developed in me at the expense of the creative, but patience and perseverance had cultivated the habit of taking trouble. Truly it was an invigorating time. There is no happier or healthier sensation for a young man than that of sailing on an even keel to knowledge and culture. In downright earnest I set about getting the best out of myself, and by some process which I cannot explain I found myself changed from an inveterate shirker of hard work into an earnest toiler. I began to realise how much of labour and energy must be put into any task if it is to turn out well.

I had two idols in my rustic library. Sir Walter Scott’s simplicity and genius in storytelling entirely wafted me away from Ness and from the island. Nay, I needed no food when I had him. He offered me, as it were, a spiritual sustenance, so that I forgot the earthly. But my great hero was Charles XII. of Sweden. His Life fortunately was among the books in the widow’s cottage, and I devoured it. It made a deep impression upon me, and had an influence over all my future career. It was not the story of his wars which attracted me so much as the Spartan heroism of his character. He inspired me with the idea of triumphing over weakness and weariness and pain. To train the body to bear all manner of hardships, to bathe in ice or face the burning sun indifferently, to discipline the physical powers by gymnastics, to despise the niceties of food and drink, to make of the body, as il were, an instrument of finely tempered steel, and yet have it at the same time absolutely at the disposition of the mind—that seemed to me indeed a course of training worthy of a hero. I set myself to imitate him, and succeeded at least in so fax as to be quite indifferent to the circumstances of my personal environment, and to form the habit of never admitting difficulties to be disabilities. All this had its developing influence on a slow-growing brain, not of a singular vigour, but of assimilative capacity.

After a few months of this silent education, I heard of a young man, a highly respectable and worthy fellow, who was about to leave Ness for the inhospitable regions of the Hudson Bay Company’s territory. He had already spent five years there. My whole nature centred itself in one ardent longing that he should ask me to go with him. This wish was soon fulfilled, and in a few weeks I found myself sailing under the Cape Wrath lighthouse, en route to join the Company’s ships in Hoy’s Sound. I was but meagrely equipped with knowledge after all, and had scarcely even the education necessary for a commercial life. My little store of books consisted of the Bible; Johnson’s Pocket Dictionary; Lennie’s Grammar; a book on travels, presented by Mr. Roderick Morrison, banker, my Company’s agent at Stornoway, and a distant relative of my mother’s. I had, too, an important document—the Free Church minister’s certificate of character, without which no person leaving the island could hope for any success either in this world or that which is to come. I quote it in full:—

“I hereby certify that the bearer, Roderick Campbell, is unmarried” (at sixteen years of age!), “is a bright lad, of more than ordinarily studious habits, and is of spotless character, as far as known to me.”

Signature and date duly appended.

Surely after that I could not but sing my Te Deum Laudamus and pass on at once to fame and fortune.

And thus the story of my adventures begins and that of my early days concludes, in which, though I have had much to say, the impatient reader may, perhaps, have thought there was but little to tell. Yet they have a value of their own, which shall not be easily forgotten by one who sighs and dreams of a strange past.


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