Faith and Charity in St Kilda, 1697

The Village, St Kilda

From Martin Martin’s 1697 account of a voyage to St Kilda. (Photo by Scotproof)

The inhabitants are Christians, much of the primitive temper, neither inclined to enthusiasm nor to popery. They swear not the common oaths that prevail in the world; when they refuse or deny to give what is asked of them, they do it with a strong asseveration,which they express emphatically enough in their language to this purpose, You are no more to have it, than that if God had forbid it; and thus they express the highest degree of passion. They do not so much as name the devil once in their lifetimes.

They leave off working after twelve of the clock on Saturday, as being an ancient custom delivered down to them from their ancestors, and go no more to it till Monday morning. They believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost; and a state of future happiness and misery, and that all events, whether good or bad, are determined by God. They use a set form of prayer at the poising of their sails: they lie down, rise, and begin their labours in the name of God. They have a notion, that spirits are embodied; these they fancy to be locally in rocks, hills, and where-ever they list in an instant.

There are three chappels in this isle, each of them with one end towards the east, the other towards the west; the altar always placed at the east end; the first of these is called Christ Chappel, near the village; it is covered and thatched after the same manner with their houses; there is a brazen crucifix lies upon the altar, not exceeding a foot in length, the body is compleatly done, distended, and having a crown on, all in the crucified posture; they have it in great reverence, though they pay no kind of adoration or worship to it, nor do they either handle or see it, except upon the occasions of marriage, and swearing decisive oaths, which puts an end to all strife, and both these ceremonies are publickly performed. The church-yard is about an hundred paces in circumference, and is fenced in with a little stone wall, within which they bury their dead; they take care to keep the church-yard perfectly clean, void of any kind of nastiness, and their cattel have no access to it. The inhabitants, young and old, come to the church-yard every Sunday morning, the Chappel not being capacious enough to receive them; here they devoutly say the Lord’s prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments.

They observe the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Good-Friday, St. Columba’s Day, and that of All Saints; upon this they have an anniversary cavalcade, the number of their horses not exceeding eighteen; these they mount by turns, having neither saddle nor bridle of any kind, except a rope, which manages the horse only on one side; they ride from the shoar to the house, and then after each man has performed his tour, the show is at an end. They are very charitable to their poor, of whom there are not at present above three, and these carefully provided for, by this little commonwealth, each particular family contributing according to their ability for their necessities; their condition is enquired into weekly, or monthly, as their occasions serve; but more especially at the time of their festivals, they slay some sheep on purpose to be distributed among the poor, with bread proportionable; they are charitable to strangers in distress, this they had opportunity to express to a company of French and Spaniards who lost their ship at Rokol in the year 1686, and came in, in a pinnace to St. Kilda, where they were plentifully supplied with barly-bread, butter, cheese, solan geese, eggs, etc…

The second of these chappels bears the name of St. Columba, the third of St. Brianan; both built after the manner of Christ’s Chappel; having churchyards belonging to them, and they are a quarter of a mile distance betwixt each chappel. Their marriages are celebrated after the following manner; when any two of them have agreed to take one another for man and wife, the officer who presides over them, summons all the inhabitants of both sexes to Christ’s Chappel, where being assembled, he enquires publickly if there be any lawful impediment why these parties should not be joined in the bond of matrimony? And if there be no objection to the contrary, he then enquires of the parties if they are resolved to live together in weal and woe, etc. After their assent, he declares them married persons, and then desires them to ratify this their solemn promise in the presence of God and the people, in order to which the crucifix is tender’d to them, and both put their right hands upon it, as the ceremony by which they swear fidelity one to another during their lifetime.

Mr. Campbel, the minister, married in this manner fifteen pair of the inhabitants on the seventeenth of June, who immediately after marriage, join’d in a country dance, having only a bagpipe for their musics, which pleased them exceedingly.

They baptize in the following manner; the parent calls in the officer, or any of his neighbours to baptize his child, and another to be sponsor; he that performs the minister’s part being told what the child’s name is to be, says, A .B. I baptize thee to your father and your mother, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; then the sponsor takes the child in his arms, as both his wife as godmother, and ever after this there is a friendship between the parent and the sponsor, which is esteemed so sacred and inviolable, that no accident, how cross so-ever, is able to set them at variance; and it reconciles such as have been at enmity formerly…

The inhabitants of St. Kilda, are much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty: what the condition of the people in the Golden Age is feign’d by the poets to be, that theirs really is, I mean, in innocency and simplicity, purity, mutual love and cordial friendship, free from solicitous cares, and anxious covetousness; from envy, deceit, and dissimulation; from ambition and pride, and the consequences that attend them. They are altogether ignorant of the vices of foreigners, and governed by the dictates of reason and Christianity, as it was first delivered to them by those heroick souls whose zeal moved them to undergo danger and trouble to plant religion here in one of the remotest corners of the world