Fascinating insight into St Kilda

Life on St Kilda was harsh, according to the census, with a dull but nutritious diet. Photograph courtesy of Bill Cameron.

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Judging by the media coverage, the recent rediscovery of a list of inhabitants of St Kilda in 1764 has certainly caught the public’s interest. Until late last year, the oldest known record of the population dated from 1822. The 18th-century private census, which was discovered among the papers of Clan Maclachlan during cataloguing by the National Register of Archives for Scotland (NRAS), shows there were 90 people on the main island of Hirta in June 1764 consisting of 38 males and 52 females.
Census records can make dull reading but, unlike the 10-year national ones which don’t provide any great detail until after 1841, this one is much more interesting because it tells us what the people lived on. It states that every individual ate 36 eggs and 18 birds daily which equates to 3,240 eggs and 1,621 birds being consumed on the island every 24 hours. A highly nutritious diet, no doubt, but a pretty boring one after the third day, to say the least. There are only a few ways to cook an egg or a fowl and with no deep-fryers, microwave ovens, exotic herbs or copious amounts of fine wine, even Michael Roux and the participants of Master Chef would be pushed to liven up that menu.
In no way can these figures be accurate; they must be exaggerated because, no matter how good the able-bodied St Kildan men were at scaling the cliffs, they would have found it difficult to collect a million eggs and half a million birds in one season.
The surnames of the inhabitants in 1764 include: MacQueen, Gillies, Morison, MacDonald, Macleod, Mackinnon, MacVicar and MacCrimmon. They were more than likely the direct forebears of the families mentioned in the 1822 census and of those who came ashore at Lochaline in 1930 when St Kilda was abandoned.
Of equal, or indeed more, interest is who made the census and how did it end up in the Maclachlan family papers? Scholars and historians are now pretty sure that it was compiled in connection with Dr John Walker’s report on the Hebrides.
In 1764, the SSPCK (the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge), the General Assembly and the Board of the Annexed Estates, commissioned the Rev Walker, a pioneer of scientific botany and geology and minister of Moffat, to investigate the state of religion and education in the Hebrides and to give an account of the area’s population, natural history and the state of manufacturing, agriculture and fisheries.
Dr Walker saw the Hebrides just as the ideas of the Improvers were reaching them, and his report gives a final opportunity to see the basis of the old island economy, and the life and conditions on them. He set off in the summer of 1764 but did not have sufficient time to visit St Kilda, though the island is included in his report. He must have received his information from others, most likely the ministers of the various parishes.
It is interesting that the figure Walker gives for the total St Kilda population was 90, a figure which matches the number of inhabitants in the census taken on June 15, 1764, exactly. Perhaps these details have been provided by Alexander MacLeod, formerly the schoolmaster at Eynort in the Parish of Bracadale, Skye, who was appointed assistant minister on St Kilda in June 1763.
So how did the census find its way into the hands of the Maclachlans who hailed from Mid Argyll?
The Maclachlans were a scholarly clan and lovers of the Gaelic language and literature of the Highlands, and were said to be the oldest traceable family left in Europe. One of them, John Maclachlan of Kilbride, who died in 1803, was a noted collector of manuscripts and papers. It just so happened that the wife of the Rev Alexander Buchan, St Kilda’s first resident missionary, was a Campbell and related to this distinguished family.
It has been suggested to me that although Catherine Campbell and her husband lived on St Kilda some years before the 1764 census was taken, she maintained her links with the island and Argyll after her husband’s death. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that she was given the census and passed it and other papers to the Maclachlans.
It is interesting to note that a MacCrimmon, presumably hailing originally from Skye, was enumerated in the 1764 census. One wonders if he was a piper and, if so, did he take his pipes with him. I haven’t come across any references to pipers on the island prior to 1930.
The sound of the pipes means different things to different people. In 1718, Elizabeth Cameron, widow of Major Donald Cameron, son of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, submitted a petition to King George I complaining that as her husband, a non-Jacobite, was lying dying in one room, she was in labour in another. Not only had they been robbed by his brother and friends but, ‘to compleat the scene of cruelty’, she said, ‘a set of bagpipes and drums were ordered to be played upon us day and night for some time’.

Iain Thornber