From the Editor—Friday Reflections

Stout Island Defense

The Friday Reflection by James M. Kushiner

September 3rd, 2020

Saturday, August 29, 2020, marked the 90th anniversary of the evacuation of St. Kilda.

We should not allow the the idealization of either the noble savage or of "simple villagers" blunt our awareness of the sharp line between good and evil that runs through the human heart. The St. Kildans had a sense of justice and injustice, just as we do. The "political" life of St. Kilda is recognizable.

Martin Martin relates a revealing episode, ca. 1695. St. Kilda was the property of the Laird MacLeod, the "steward" of St. Kilda. He visited "once every summer to demand the rents, viz. down, wool, butter cheese, cows, horses, fowl, oil, and barley." The St Kildans "have neither silver nor gold, but barter among themselves and the steward's men for what they want."

"Some years ago, the steward determined to exact a sheep from every family in the isle, the number amounting to twenty-seven; and for this he put them in mind of a late precedent, of their having given the like number to his predecessor. But they answered that what they gave then was voluntary, and upon an extraordinary occasion of his being wind-bound to the isle, and that this was not the custom afterwards. However, the steward sent his brother, and a competent number of men, to take the sheep from them by force; but the natives, arming themselves with their daggers and fishing rods, attacked the steward's brother...and forced him and his party to retire, and told them that they would pay no new taxes; and by this stout resistance they preserved their freedom from such imposition." (A Descriptiom of the Western Islands, 190)

Life was hard, and labor for these goods was often dangerous. Gathering eggs from nests in the cliffs and laying snares there for fowl could be lethal. Fowlers' snares are "made from horsehair, having a noose at the distance of two feet each; the ends of the rope at which the noose hangs are secured by stone." One native,

as he was walking barefoot along the rock where he had fixed his gin, he happened to put his toe in a noose, and immediately fell down the rock, but hung by his toe, the gin being strong enough to hold him, and the stones that secured it on each end being heavy. The poor man continued hanging thus for the space of a night, on a rock twenty fathoms height above the sea, until one of his neighbours, hearing him cry, came to his rescue, drew him up by the feet, and so saved him." (191)

St. Kilda's "politicians" did not live off their fellows without a willingness to suffer abuse. In settling a dispute with the steward, their representative officer, to whom each family paid a measure of barley per annum for his services,

"is obliged to always dispute with the steward for what is due to any of them, and never to give over until he had obtained his demand, or put the steward into such a passion, that he gives the officer at least three strokes with his cudgel over the crown of his head; after these three strokes, he has done the utmost that is required of him by their ancient customs." (A Late Voyage to St Kilda, 291-2)

Should the steward give the officer but one blow, "the inhabitants would not be satisfied if he did not so far plead as to irritate the steward to give both a second and a third blow."

St Kildans were also "charitable to strangers in distress," including a company of French and Spaniards who lost their ship in 1686. But they were no fools, having enough experience of seamen's "rudeness" that they had "great prejudices...against seamen in general." They resolved upon set terms upon which to receive strangers:

"They will not admit of any number exceeding ten, and those too must be unarmed, for else the inhabitants will oppose them with all their might; but if any of them, not exceedingly that abovesaid, come peaceably, and with good designs, they may expect fire and water gratis, and what else the place affords, at the easiest rates in the world." (303-4)

And in case human passions bested a St Kildan: "If any man is guilty of beating his neighbour, he is liable to a fine not exceeding the value of two shillings sterling," four shillings and six pence if he draws blood. The steward hears and judges each case "for their future quiet and happiness." (293)

The St. Kildans prized quiet and happiness, but also law enforcement, for they knew what made for order and disorder, weal and woe. Weal, to be kept, needed to be protected.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.