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The Father of St. Kilda

The desire to see foreign countries was awakened n me at a very early age. How strong was this trait of the combined Celtic and Norse blood which ran in my veins my history is witness. As a boy I was brave, ready to hold my own against all comers, light-hearted, but always full of confidence. Whether at angling, rock-fishing, or any game, no boy in the place could beat me. Steadiness of aim and purpose, frankness of speech, and truthfulness at any price were my ideal virtues. As I grew older I cared less for the society of my playmates, and preferred the conversation of the elder folks. Thus I acquired a sagacity beyond my years, and an inborn foresight and regard for the consequences of my actions. I was habitually quick and sound in perception, and tacitly circumspect in all my doings. These qualities often stood me in good stead, and enabled me to get off scot-free when my comrades were caught and punished for one or other of those pranks in which I was generally the instigator and leader. I was quick, too, at reading character by physiognomy, a gift I have since found invaluable in my singular and varied career. Beyond this I was endowed with an extraordinarily tenacious memory. These qualities being given, how much there is to be found by one who diligently seeks! Yet, strange to say, the possession of these qualities only served to render my boyhood extremely unhappy, because, I presume, of the surroundings in which I was born, or perhaps because of the star under which that insignificant event took place. True, I could never angle for favour or popularity. These I looked upon as ephemeral, and despised; for even in my boyhood I had a strong craving for what was true and lasting.

I was born in the Lewis, in the remotest parish of that Ultima Thule, and nursed among seas and crags, amid surroundings stern and simple such as discipline the spirit for a life ot toil. I opened my eyes upon a world of winds and storms, and the instinct of stress and of endeavour thus implanted has never left me, and never will.

There is no finer picture in all the wild and remote Hebrides than the Butt of Lewis, looming out of the dark blue waters of the North Atlantic like a grim sentinel, guarding “ in filial strain Britannia’s barren coast.” Its steep tower-crowned heights, its rugged rampart of cliffs, have faced for ages the rude winter gales of the broad Atlantic. The coast tine is tortured continuously by the ocean waves, which have fretted the reefs \tito cruel fangs, lurking wolf-like and ravenous round every point and inlet. Among the tumbled precipitous masses, and the rocky ledges of the granite cliffs, the high tremendous seas fling their girdle of snow-white foam, with laughter of tossing surge. At the tide-swept promontory of the Butt's Eye, where one looks east and west over an endless stretch of luminous dark blue water, a rainbow gleams unceasingly on the shimmering veil of flying spray.

Yet notwithstanding the stern majesty of the coast, the island’s inner aspect has a charm peculiarly its own. It has a milder climate and softer air than many other parts of the British Isles, and would be a pleasant place to live in all the year round if it were not lashed by so many storms of wind and rain bred in the broad, restless Atlantic, which beats upon its shores. Yet these ocean-born storms lend an invigorating quality to the air, and keep the hills and valleys of an emerald green unrivalled among these northern islands. The temperate influence of the Gulf Stream softens for it the harsher asperities of winter, and frost and snow do not often come to stay very long. When the sun shines and the skies are clear blue and the sea rolls in, white-crested, to the yellow strand, the dark mist-cloud and sweeping “rack” are easily forgotten.

The island, too, has its share of historical and antiquarian interest, in its varied associations with remote ages and the scanty but venerable ruins that yet remain. The treasures of romance, the tales of daring and of suffering that cling about these antique buildings, ought surely to quicken the imagination of writers and make the task of invention light, for where there is a tuin there is a story. It cannot be doubted that the Roman general Agricola landed at Ness when circumnavigating the British Isles in 82—83 a.d. Three miles west of Port Ness, near the spot where I first saw the light, there is an inlet, a very beautiful spot, called after Agricola’s son-in-law, the Stoic philosopher aud moral^t, Seneca. Thus with a record dating back to the beginning of the Christian era, the Lewis can even claim a patron saint of its own, who lived there for many years labouring to lighten the darkness of the rude West. He was of the clan MacGhillie Mhoire, and was known as St. Oran the Good and the father of St. Kilda.* His descendants held the position of Breilhcamh of the Lewis till a comparatively late date. He built the old St. Peter’s Church in Swanbost Valley at Ness, and also St. Thomas' Temple at Europie, the latter probably in memory of a visit of St. Columba to the island. The literature of the island might have been considerable, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to collect the facts and traditions. Clearly, the island was first peopled from two points—Loch lnehard by the Norsemen, and the Sound of Harris by the Celts. Later, a third colony, of Piets, crossed the Minch from Point of Stotr, and settled on the peninsula of Long Point on Broad Bay, where they built a church, finally extending their conquering rights to Bay-head, now vStearn-a-bhaigh (Stornoway).

This and a great deal more I learned as a boy from old Angus Gunn, the Herodotus of the island, who told his tales of old with much emotion, tears glittering on his long white eyelashes, and running down his aged cheeks. To question his veracity would be an unpardonable insult. He had a rare, a marvellous and uncontaminated memory ; and truth telling, literal, strict and absolute, was the first article of his faith. And undoubtedly the accuracy of many of his stories is attested by historical facts. The original people of the island (Celtic) now inhabit the whole western side, having fled before the Pictish intruders to the verge of the Atlantic. These form the population of many hamlets from Callanish—the famous Druidical stone hamlet—in the west, to Borve in the east, and are noticeably distinguished by their dark complexion and diminutive stature. Near all these hamlets may be found visible traces of defensive fortifications in loch or on reef, thrown up when the ocean forbade further retreat. There is no doubt as to the predatory habits of the interlopers. The traditions of their cattle-lifting forays are second only in vivid interest to the thriiling records of the Border raids. Many bloody battles were fought between my ancestors, the burly Morrisons of Ness, and the fierce Macaulays of Uig, that would not have been unworthy the daring audacity of Rob Roy himself. Would that the author of “ Waverley ” had visited these scenes ! Without him, or another such as he, the tales and traditions of the Long Island must perish unknown to the world.

The island had many successive proprietors, but records only survive of three. The big burly McLeods held sway for a long time, the McKenzies of Seaforth for a shorter period, though their rule will be favourably remembered for its kind and humane dealing with the poor crofters. In 1844 Mr. (afterwards Sir James) Matheson bought the place from the Seaforth trustees for £190,000. The previous year he had married a Canadian lady, a Miss Mary Jane Perceval, of Spencer Wood, near Quebec. With the advent of the new proprietor came in an evil hour the potato disease. In these trying times he showed himself a generous landlord, considerate and humane towards the crofters. As feudal superior he recognised his responsibilities, and did much to improve the condition of the people, of whose nature and requirements he had a true understanding. He established a system of popular education by means of primary schools, and in this good work Lady Matheson heartily seconded him by building a seminary for the higher education of young ladies. Alas, that the time was gone when 1 might have shared in these advantages ! He assisted many poor people, utterly unable to help themselves, to emigrate to Canada. Many of these it has been my privilege to visit after many years in their new homes amid vastly improved circumstances. This considerate kindness and mild and beneficent habit of dealing secured the cordial and happy relationship between landlord and people with which his name shall always be proudly associated.

But this is not a biography of the first baronet of Achany. Neither is It a history of the Lewis. Should no such history exist, however, this outline will perhaps serve to revive the memory of the old and stimulate the imagination of the young. I have attacked the theme, with what Dr. Johnson called “ the intrepidity of ignorance.” It is submitted as an endeavour, and if the necessity is the justification of an endeavour, the charity that is greater than knowledge will surely temper judgment. Style, subtlety, and literary refinement I have not to give, and, indeed, these do not always attract, sometimes rather repel, the common-sense reader. I have no qualification, in the literary sense, for the task of writing a book. I have not at command the phrase which condenses the essence of a paragraph or a page. But if the portraits which I here present are patiled with neither subtlety nor vigour, I have at least laid my prejudices to sleep, and have, I trust, spoken with candour and charity even of people to whom I am not and cannot be attracted. Indeed, the greatest care has been exercised that no undue personal reference should prejudice judgment.

Yet another word. We hear sometimes of the privilege of birth. For my own part I know of no birth so privileged as that which places a man face to face with the facts of life, untrammelled by tradition and convention. Thus, free from the first in my outlook upon life, my themes ought to appeal to every youth. I hope not a few will find in them matter for thought and consideration. The reader will discover, as he proceeds, how picturesque a career has been developed out of an origin, temperament and circumstances strangely diverse and striking.

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