Winter was always a difficult time for the inhabitants of St Kilda, but the winter of 1876-77 was unusual. From the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, 1878:
When the factor, Mr M’Kenzie, with MacLeod’s vessel, did not put in an appearance in autumn last year , as usual, the inhabitants at once began to make preparations for the winter’s store. Last harvest was very bad with them, and they knew they would be short of meal; and from the first they began to husband that commodity. They also killed a number of the proprietor’s sheep on the island of Soa, and salted the carcasses for their own use during winter. Whether they are expected to pay for these sheep I cannot say.
Moreover, their population – of (in 1878) 61 adults and 14 children – grew by nine with the arrival of a party of shipwrecked Austrians. The following is from the Times, 13 February 1877:
A Message from the Sea – Lloyd’s Agent at Stromness [Orkney] telegraphs under date February 12, 10am, that the following message was picked up in a bottle secured to a lifebuoy on the 8th inst. in the parish of Birsay and handed to him last night – viz., “St Kilda, January 22, 1877. The Pete Mubrovacki of Austria, 886 tons, was lost near this island on the 17th inst. The captain and eight of the crew are in St Kilda, and have no means of getting off. Provisions are scarce. Written by J Sands, who came to the island in the summer, and cannot get away. The finder of this will much oblige by forwarding this letter to the Austrian Consul in Glasgow.”
According the Highlands and Agricultural Society report, the Austrians were wrecked around the middle of January, and were billeted with the inhabitants, each of the 18 households taking a man or two for a few days at a time. The minister accommodated three, and the whole experience lasted five or six weeks, before they were rescued by HMS Jackal. The captain sent some biscuits and meal ashore, and the Austrians were described as “very grateful, and content with the humblest fare; very peaceable, and anxious and willing to assist and help them in everything.” J Sands himself must have got away at last too; the following year he published Out of the World; or Life in St Kilda.
The proprietor finally sent provisions in April, and in May, HMS Flirt was commanded by the Government to convey a consignment of provisions to the St Kilda, paid for partly by a gift of £100 from Austria, in recognition of the help provided to the nine castaways, and partly by the fund maintained by the Highland and Agricultural Society. The ship carried to St Kilda seed oats, bere, potatoes, oatmeal (7000lb), flour, sugar (1200lb), horsehair for ropes, leather for shoes, medicinal spirits, 30lbs of tea, 20lbs of sweeties and a parcel of turnip seed. The minister received in addition seed oats, potatoes, tea, sugar and a parcel from Walker & Sons, Aberdeen. The Society report, written by their officer John MacDiarmid, gives further detail and is a little sceptical:
From the time the Austrians left until the arrival of MacLeod’s vessel in April was the period of greatest hardship, and they had to go for a week or or two without their porridge, although they had, I think, plenty of salted meat. They say they could not afford to make any bread, that their chief sustenance consisted of brew made from the flesh of the fulmar – a sea-fowl which they catch in large numbers – mixed with a handful of oatmeal. There was little or no milk to be had, none of the cows having calved. MacLeod’s vessel brought them 16 bolls of seed-oats, 38 bolls of meal, and 20 barrels of potatoes. A good part of their land remained unsown (about one-third), and several patches remained unturned, as they preferred leaving it in that state until the supplies arrived, when they would know if there would be sufficient seed for all the land, besides food to serve them until autumn.
Judging from outward appearance, I cannot believe the St Kildians suffered much from want of food. They are, on the whole, full-faced, fresh-looking, and some of them well-coloured and quite rosy. Several of the women are, in my opinion, more than ordinarily stout. No doubt they might be wanting in farinaceous food, and had to take more than was good for them of cured meat, which may account for some of the complaints found under “Medical Report.” It may be mentioned that at this moment there are twenty carcasses of good cured mutton lying in the storehouse in two barrels for the proprietor. These were killed for him from his own flock in the island of Soa. There can be no doubt, had the St Kildians been in great want they would have used this mutton, and been made quite welcome to it by MacLeod. Of course, since the arrival of the sea-fowl in March, they have had plenty of eggs. Salt fish was very scarce with them last winter; they say the fishing season was very stormy, that they could not go out, and that on one occasion they lost the most of their lines.
The ordinary diet of a St Kildian consists of-
Breakfast – Porridge and milk.
Dinner – Potatoes, and the flesh of the fulmar, or mutton, and occasionally fish.
Supper – Porridge, when they have plenty meal.
They take tea once or twice a-week, and expressed themselves as rather fond of it. They seemed surprised at the small quantity of tea sent in proportion to the amount of sugar, and there was no evidence of the partiality for sugar and sweets which has been attributed to them. Tobacco was what they invariably asked for, and among the first questions put by the minister was, if I had brought any tobacco, and when I had unfortunately to answer in the negative, I perceived he felt far from happy.
More of the Transactions of the Highlands and Agricultural Society of Scotland can be read at Electric Scotland.