Customs of the St Kildans

St Kilda is not in the parish of Uig but we can see it from coast around the upper end of the district, and boat trips run there from Miavaig on the Cuma and with Seatrek, so we take an interest in it.  The following is from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 9 April 1877, and written by J Sands, Ormiston, who visited St Kilda twice, in 1875 and 1876.

The ground is now all dug with the spade, but I saw a cas chrom or two put away in the rafters of barns.  A wooden rake is used instead of a harrow.  Oats, bere and potatoes are cultivated, and a few cabbages and turnips. Reaping hooks are sometimes used to cut the crop, but in general it is pulled up by the roots, the straw being used to thatch old houses and cellars [the cleitean, presumably.] The grain is thrashed out with a flail.  It is scorched in a pot or put into a straw tub (like a flat-topped beehive) and dried with heated stones.  It is then ground by hand-mills.  The women sit on the ground half-naked and work at the mill like furies.  Sheepskins, stretched on a hoop and perforated with a hot wire, serve as sieves.  The meal is baked into cakes and made into gruel and porridge.  Meat is often cooked along with these.

The St Kildans are warmly clothed, which probably accounts for the immunity they enjoy from pulmonary and other diseases. The men make all their own clothes, and also dresses for the women.  The gowns of the latter seem of a very antique fashion.  They are fastened on the breast with a large pin made from a ling hook. Their plaid is secured with a brooch made from an old penny. The bill of the sea-pyot or oyster-catcher was formerly used as a pin for the gown and plaid. In warm weather the women are often to be seen on the cliffs and in the glen without any clothing but a woollen shirt. The men also strip to their underclothing when engaged on the cliffs.  The brog tiondadh or turned shoe was universal until within a few years. Specimens are still to be seen. They are made without welts. Caps of lambskin were also the fashion, but I have only seen one.  A live peat, stuck on the end of a stick, served for a lantern on a dark night.  I have often used it myself.

Lucifer matches, although used by the minister, are looked upon as curiosities by the people, who smile when one is struck. Nor is there a flint and steel on the island. The turf fires are always kept burning and if one happens to go out a live turf is borrowed from a neighbour. When parties of men or women go to the adjacent islands they take a kettle of burning turf with them. If the embers are covered with turf and ashes the fire will survive for a great many hours. I myself had no matches, and never required to borrow a cinder for some months. The fires in St Kilda have probably been burning for centuries.

The sheep are plucked, sheep-shears being unknown. The wool is spun by the wheel into thread for cloth, blankets and stockings. Thread for sewing is spun by the spindle and distaff. The women dye the thread with indigo (bought from the factor), and with lichen found on stones. Almost every man is a weaver in winter.

The looms are all made of wood without any iron. The cloth they make is all twilled, which requires four treadles. They buy leather from the factor, but tan sheepskins. Martin says this is done with the roots of tormentil. On many told me that bark found under the turf was used to tan leather, but I neglected to prosecute the inquiry, not seeing its importance at the time.

The ropes used on the cliffs were formerly made of horsehair and even of straw, and accidents were more frequent than now when lines of hemp and Manilla are employed. Some of the old horsehair ropes (forty years old) were, however, used last year.  Middle-aged men remember when there were horses on the island.  They are now extinct.

The stone implements used to split open solan geese and other sea fowl, and also to cut up the carcases of sheep and cattle. One man told me he had seen a long thing stone used to fell oxen.