New research on the earliest inhabitants of St Kilda

editorial image

Some of the earliest traceable inhabitants of St Kilda have been identified, thanks to ground-breaking research conducted by world-famous genealogist Bill Lawson.

Lawson, who is consultant at Seallam! Visitor Centre in Northton, Harris, has determined that some - but not necessarily all - of the later MacDonalds and Morrisons were of the original ‘Hiortach’ stock.

And his findings have been hailed by renowned writer Roger Hutchinson, author of the hugely successful book ‘St Kilda – A People’s History’.

The population of St Kilda was massively altered in 1727, when when smallpox was brought to the island.

“The story is well known, but worth repeating as it is the basis for our argument,” says Lawson.

“A party of three men and eight boys had gone to Stac an Armuinn in August to harvest gannets to take back to Hiort for the winter food supply.

“There is nowhere near the stac where a boat could be moored, so it had returned to Hiort, intending to take them off the stac again in a fortnight or so.

“But the boat had only just returned from an t-Ob in Harris, bringing with it the body, or at least the gear, of a Donald MacDonald who had died on a visit there.

“He had died of smallpox, and they had brought the contagion back to Hiort, where it spread so virulently that there was nobody left fit enough to man a boat to the Stac. The party was marooned there after they were picked up the following spring by the factor’s boat, coming from Skye to collect the rents for MacLeod.

“When they got back to Hiort, they found only an old man and a few children – all the rest had died of the smallpox.”

There is a slight confusion about the number of survivors, says Lawson.

“Rev. Kenneth MacAulay notes that of a population of one hundred and twenty-two, only four adults survived and twenty-six orphans (presumably in addition to the eleven who had been on the Stac).

“While Rev Daniel MacAulay gives nineteen adults and twenty-three children – part of the difference may be in how they reckoned the boys on the Stac, though I would have thought that their surviving that ordeal would have conferred adulthood on them!

“So slight a discrepancy would not seem important, but Rev Kenneth had counted the three men of the Stac among his four survivors, which leaves only one adult survivor on the main island.”

The important point from the point of view of the history of the community, says Lawson, is not so much how many survived, as how many continued to live on the island.

In a report of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge in 1731, it was suggested that ‘regard might be had to the people of Hirta, which Island, by the yearly transporting of people to it, will soon be populous again.’

This, argues Lawson, suggests that only a few, if any, of the original Hiortaich remained there, and it is known that most of the later families on the island had come in from Skye at this period.

Rev Kenneth MacAulay, who visited the island in 1758, reported that ‘the posterity of those who were the true natives of St Kilda are distinguished by the surnames of MacIlleMhoirre and MacIlle Rhiabhich.’

Says Bill Lawson: “The former seem to have come originally from the Lewis, where that name continues to prevail, and the latter from South Uist .

“The MacIlle Rhiabhichs value themselves not a little upon their connection with the Captain of ClanRanald, to whom South Uist belongs.

“MacIllemhoire now appears in the English-language form of Morrison, though a Harris origin seems more likely than Lewis.

“Hiort had at one time belonged to Harris, and MacLeod of Dunvegan was now proprietor of Harris and Hiort, but MacAulay himself was from Lewis, where families of the name were very numerous , so would easily have assumed that origin for the Hiortaich.

“MacIlle Riabhaich does not anglicise so easily, but the connection with Clanranald shows that they would have been a branch of the MacDonalds.

“There is perhaps also a suggestion from MacAulay’s use of the phrase “the true natives of St Kilda” that there were others there not of the original stock.

“From this we can deduce that at least some – but not necessarily all - of the later MacDonalds and Morrisons were of the original Hiortach stock.”

A confirmation of this, says Lawson, comes from the story of Lady Grange’s banishment to the island, where her only contact was a Finlay MacDonald, who had learned some English in Alexander Buchan’s school on Hiort prior to the smallpox.

Until recently, the earliest list of persons on Hiort was the census taken by Rev John MacDonald of Ferintosh in 1822.

However, papers were discovered in Castle Lachlan a few years ago containing a much earlier list taken in 1764, only a generation after the resettlement.

This list gives the names only of ninety persons on the island, who appear to be grouped in nineteen main households – three Morrisons, four MacDonalds, three Gillieses, two MacKinnons, two Fergusons, one MacLeod, one MacCrimmon, one MacQueen and – very surprisingly – one MacVicar – a name found from no other source on St Kilda.

“A survey of the names of the later families on the island brings us to the same conclusion,” says Lawson, “that that only representatives of the pre-smallpox families among the later inhabitants would have been some – but not necessarily all – of the Morrisons and the MacDonalds, the caveat being necessary because both names are also found, though less commonly, on the Dunvegan estate, so some families of these names could have been from that area.

“This gives the maximum of seven families who could belong to the pre-smallpox people, and even this can be reduced by one, as Rev Kenneth MacAulay in 1758 tells us, on the subject of ‘Roderick the Impostor’ a self-appointed religious leader of Marin Martin’s time – his posterity are now no more than two women, and these greatly abhorred – which does not sound as though they would have had many descendants!”

Roger Hutchinson, author of ‘St Kilda: A People’s History’, commented: “As you’d expect from Bill Lawson, I can’t find anything to disagree with here.

“The presence of Finlay MacDonald during Lady Grange’s banishment was always a giveaway - he’d either been away and returned (Finlay was as a boy taken by Alexander Buchan to Edinburgh as an example of what could be achieved if money was invested in educating young St Kildans), or had never really left and survived the smallpox.

He added: “Movement between St Kilda and the other islands was more regular than people often assume.

“It was such a transfer of population which caused the smallpox epidemic after all, when a Hirtan man died in Harris.

“St Kilda was not and probably never had been an entirely enclosed community.”