Spiritual Heritage

Spiritual Heritage – St. Kilda

The island of St. Kilda lies in the Atlantic, beyond the Outer Hebrides – ‘It’s bare rampart of precipitous rocks rising in rugged grandeur from the sea, inaccessible save where on the east there is an opening at which in certain states of the weather it is possible to land.’

An acute infectious epidemic almost eliminated the already small St. Kilda community in 1727.  However, by 1764 ninety people are recorded as living on this remote Island – ’38 males and 52 females, a total of 19 families and 9 individuals.’ It is further noted that – ‘many of those recorded in the 1764 census were the families of new settlers from Skye and Harris: Gillies, MacQueen and McCrimmon replacing the old St Kilda names of MacDonald, Morrison and Campbell.’ In 1823 there were 108 recorded inhabitants.

In out last post, as we examined the life of ‘The Apostle of the North’ – Dr. John MacDonald, we mentioned a number of times that his visits to Skye coincided with trips to this remote archipelago which lies almost 100 miles to the West. What was it that drew MacDonald again and again to this difficult to reach and remote place with so few inhabitants?

The first Protestant missionary came to St Kilda in 1705. Although remaining initially for only four years, he was later commissioned by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and returned to the Island where he remained until his death in 1730. For the next hundred years, although visited by a number of missionaries and ministers for short periods, little seems to have been accomplished in relation to either the social or spiritual condition of its people.

John MacDonald’s first visit to St. Kilda in 1822 was also undertaken at the request of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. On Route he arrived at ‘Roudel’ on the Isle of Harris, on the 7th September. However, due to bad weather he was forced to remain here for about a week. While awaiting passage to St. Kilda MacDonald went to see a local minister in Harris, who ‘received him kindly’ . The minister told him that St. Kilda was part of his parish, although he had never seen it! As we will see in a later post MacDonald was not idle while on Harris and his preaching during that week made an impact that was to be felt long after he left.

The vessel in which MacDonald travelled to St. Kilda belonged to the tacksman (1) of the island, who went annually to receive his rents. At 4.30am on the 15th of September they sailed from the ‘Long Island’ and although the voyage was delayed, by two o’clock they reached St. Kilda where they were warmly welcomed. The men were given accommodation in the house which had been the home of a previous missionary and was now occupied by Alexander MacKenzie, the teacher who, in June of that same year, had been appointed by the Gaelic School Society.

That evening, at six o’clock, the whole population met in the barn, used as the schoolhouse. MacDonald preached, taking as his text the message of ‘goodwill to men.’ September was the busiest season of the year for the community – the scanty harvest of the island was being cut – and the young gannets, on which the people depended for their livelihood, had to be collected. MacDonald informed the people that over the ten days during which the vessel remained, he would preach every evening when the work of the day was over. Some historians have used this incident to discredit MacDonald, his attitude and style of evangelism. (2) However in relation to his preaching among the people, MacDonald records – ‘I told them …. I would suit the hour of the meeting to their conveyance, which might in general be at six in the evening, or whenever the business of the day was over. To this they readily assented, and expressed their willingness to meet at any hour I chose.’ McDonald’s preaching it is said formed – ‘A course of religious instruction, in which the hearers are carried forward through the most important truths relating to sin and salvation.’ During his stay on the Island, MacDonald ‘went freely among the people in private.’

Writing of these days the Rev. Thomas Brown comments –

‘All who ever met Dr. MacDonald know how frank and genial his nature was, and can well understand how welcome such intercourse must have been. One day, for example, he finds the whole population out in the harvest-field, every family busy cutting down their own small crop. They were eager for giving and receiving news. MacDonald noted – “I endeavoured to gratify them as much as I could, and they in return entertained me with all the little tales of their island. I found this gave me readier access to their minds.” Towards the end of his visit MacDonald began to notice an effect among his listeners. His last two sermons were from 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”‘

MacDonald noted in his diary – ‘Many during the whole time were much impressed; but towards the conclusion, when I hinted that this probably might be the last opportunity I should have of addressing them, they all began to weep. The scene was truly affecting and quite overcame me. I concluded as abruptly as I could – for to continue was impossible. At least five or six appear to be under serious impression; while the general body seem to feel more than an ordinary concern about their eternal interests .. ‘

The next morning the whole community, men, women, and children followed MacDonald down to the shore, and ‘amidst cries and tears, in which my landlord and I were obliged to share, we shook hands. After we got under way they ascended the brow of a steep hill and sat, following us with their eyes, till our little bark became no longer visible.’

During the following winter his thoughts often dwelt on St. Kilda, and the following May (1823) found him on his way to visit the people again. On catching sight of his approach the people flew down to the shore and, when he stepped on land – ‘they all pressed round me, and grasped my hand, each in his turn, when I thought they would have wrung the very blood out of it. Few words passed for a minute or two but the tears trickled from every eye. I was overcome myself … God knows my heart was full.’

On this occasion MacDonald, to the obvious delight of the people, announced he would hold meetings twice daily. Following the weekend services, on Monday, 16th May, every member in the community met at 7am to hear MacDonald preaching from Romans Chapter 2. He also held an examination of the Gaelic School school. The scholars numbered fifty-seven (35 males, 22 females), including fifteen or sixteen married persons – about half the population of the island.

On this second visit, the hearts of the people, he records, were more open to receive the Gospel. One old man, Finlay McDonald, whom he had met on his previous visit, had now lost his eyesight. ‘Upon my averting to this and saying it were well for him if the eyes of his mind were opened, – “I trust they are,” says he. ‘And what do you see?’ said I. “That I am blind” says he – “I see that in myself I am a ruined sinner, but that Christ is an Almighty Saviour.” But what if He is not willing? Said I. ”Willing! Says he, “would He die for sinners if He was not willing to save them? – No! No!”‘

Following the evening service on Thursday, 26th May, Alexander MacKenzie, the Gaelic Society School Teacher, noted that some of the people – ‘retire to secret places‘, and ‘heard them earnestly engaged in prayer.’

Prior to leaving the Island MacDonald noted – ‘It was delightful in the evening, between nine and ten o’clock, to hear the praises of God and prayer ascending from almost every family in the village.’ The evening before he left MacDonald took as his text – ‘Now the God of peace be with you all.’ Anticipating his imminent departure a woman in the gathering burst out crying. Others were similarly affected. It was with great difficulty that MacDonald continued – ‘I felt much affected, so much so that I could at times scarcely give utterance to my sentiments, and the sobbings and crying of the people interrupted me not a little.’

During 1824 MacDonald was busy on behalf of his friends in St Kilda. On the 8th January the Inverness Courier records his fund raising activities and notes several ‘contributions in aid of buildings to be erected for the accommodation of a missionary and place of worship.’ He eventually raised some £800.00 for the building of a church and manse, which was completed in 1830. In a letter dated 11th July, 1825 to the GSS, Alexander MacKenzie reports that all the Island inhabitants met together for worship on the Sabbath unless prevented by illness. He goes on to write of – ‘The Rev. John MacDonald’s acceptable visits to us, and his pious and laborious labours of love here, will not soon be forgotten.’

On 15th June 1826 MacKenzie wrote again to the Society noting that – ‘Our worthy friend Rev. John MacDonald, is expected to visit this Island soon.’ In a letter to the Gaelic School Society from ‘Urquhart Manse, by Dingwall’ dated 18th January 1827, MacDonald gives an account of his trip. This would appear to be a visit which has not been recorded by any of MacDonald’s biographers.

During his examination of the Gaelic School he had the pupils read the 7th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke – particularly the story of the woman who wept at Jesus feet. He then asked them questions regarding the portion they had just read. Addressing a question in relation to the behaviour of the woman  MacDonald records asking –

‘“What made her weep?” “Her sins,” replied a little girl (I suppose about 10). “How do you prove that her sins, sitting as she was at the Saviour’s feet, were the cause of her weeping?” “Yes” replies the first boy, “You told us yourself lately, (when preaching from Zech.12:10) that a sight of Christ whom we have pierced, would make us weep.” This boy had scarcely done, when another, a little older than he, added, “The love of Christ too made her weep.” “Ah yes,” says an aged man, one of the parents, “the love of Christ! that indeed melts the heart!’

After examining the school MacDonald addressed “a few words of advice” to the parents and children. They all listened attentively and he recorded “many of the young people were in tears”. He also records that seven or eight young men, all under 20, as well as four or five married men, met together for prayer and reading the scriptures once a week.

On the 5 th April 1827, MacDonald was again in Portree, Isle of Skye to board a Revenue-Cutter for yet another trip to St. Kilda. However, due to adverse weather they were unable to land on the island and were forced to return home. At the beginning of June, MacDonald received word that the Cutter, ‘The Swift’, was willing to make the journey once again. Consequently, he left home on Tuesday, 12th June with one of his sons and travelled to Loch Bracadale, Isle of Skye, arriving on the evening of 16th. However, bad weather again dogged their plans and they were forced to put back to Harris having reached within 15 miles of St Kilda.

Having previously been given an open invitation to preach at communion services in Uig, Lewis on the 24th, and being now storm bound in Harris, he and his son out for Uig on foot. On arrival he found the local minister ill and very weak. As a result he conducted all the services. He records – ‘The crowd which assembled on the occasion was immense. I suppose the number on Sabbath Day was not under 7000. The occasion, I trust, was a season of awakening to some and of refreshing to others, and to myself among the rest.’

The following Tuesday MacDonald and his son retraced their steps, walking the eight or nine miles back to their lodgings in Harris where he remained for some time preaching where and when he could. His host on the Island subsequently offered to sail him to St Kilda in his own boat – and, after another stormy journey, they eventually reached St. Kilda on Monday, 9th July.

Meeting with the people once more at 7am each morning there was much emotion under his preaching. On Tuesday, 10th July, MacDonald records – ‘Several of them, and especially of the young, seemed to be much impressed; and, among the rest, I observed the old man (Finlay McDonald), of whom I made mention in my last journal as having lost his sight, weeping copiously.’

The following Thursday the people deputised Finlay to approach MacDonald requesting that he add another service in addition to the two already held daily! Thinking that MacDonald was reluctant (although he was only teasing him) Finlay, with tears in his eyes said – ‘Come sir, let us be at the word – the word and its blessed fruit shall last when the world and all its business shall have passed away.’

The following Saturday Findlay was again much affected under the preaching. MacDonald noted him burst into tears during the service – ‘This affected myself greatly, and I believe many of my hearers at the time.’

Following the Sunday services, MacDonald and his companion set sail for their homeward journey, leaving the Island about 6pm. They reached Pabbay at 7am the following morning – half the time it took them to reach the island!

MacDonald’s last visit to the St. Kilda was in July 1830, when he accompanied Neil MacKenzie, a minister, who had been appointed to the charge in St. Kilda, along with his wife and child.

Before setting out for St. Kilda he preached over some five days in South Uist. Again, on successive days, crowds of people gathered to hear him. At one service he noted two young girls (Roman Catholics) ‘in deep distress and indeed in tears during the whole service.’ After one service about 50 or 60 people arrived, having travelled from a distance. Afraid to begin another service lest he should exasperate his previous congregation he apologised to the new arrivals and told them that the service was over. However, the first group insisted that he continue. Again there was evidence of weeping and some being ‘deeply impressed.’

Some three weeks after leaving home, on Thursday, 1st July the party, which included Mrs MacKenzie’s mother and sister and two other men, reached St. Kilda. They arrived at 4am while the villagers were all asleep. However, someone noticed the boat and within half an hour the whole community were on the shore greeting them. They welcomed the new minister as if he were an old friend and were overjoyed to see MacDonald once more. After the greetings on the shore the whole group walked to the now completed new church where MacDonald read a chapter from the bible, they all sang and MacDonald concluded in prayer. The new arrivals then went to the newly build manse where they rested.

During the days that followed the usual rounds of preaching and associated work took place. Old Finlay was by now a firmly established believer and, once again, was often bathed in tears during the preaching. During this visit MacDonald found it easier to speak to the people regarding spiritual matters than on any of his previous visits. After preaching on Monday, 5th July on Psalm 84:11 – ‘The Lord will give grace and glory’, he noted – ‘No subjects touch them like those of grace. They seem to melt under such topics. What an argument to ministers for holding out the doctrines of grace continually to the view of their hearers! It is such doctrines alone that are calculated to win the heart of the sinner; and to such doctrines alone will God append the seal and sanction of His power.‘ What a pity some of those who came after MacDonald did not hold to these principals bringing, due to their legalism and harsh control, disgrace to the cause of the Kingdom of God in this place which he loved so dearly! But that’s another story.

About 5pm on Wednesday, 7th July, MacDonald assembled the people, under the impression that they might shortly set sail. Towards the close of the service – ‘The poor people began to be much affected, and to weep aloud. My own feelings were overcome. I felt it difficult to speak. Indeed, the idea of a separation was most painful alike to speaker and to hearers.’ In the event a ‘perfect hurricane’ delayed their parting. However, the final gathering came on Monday, 12th July. MacDonald preached from John 12:32 – ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.’ As the service drew to a close he told them that he felt both joy and sorrow. Joy that he now left them with a minister, but sorrow that in all probability he would not see them again. Upon hearing this the whole building became a ‘Bochim’ (place of weeping).’ MacDonald found it difficult to speak of the final parting, which took place on the shore the next morning. ‘Tears’, he said, ‘were shed in abundance between us.’ His thoughts turned to an earlier Apostle, who when parting with the elders of the church at Ephesus, wept with them – they sorrowing that they should see his face no more. ‘And’ says MacDonald, – ‘after his example, I prayed with them on the shore, and so we parted.’

The history of St. Kilda after MacDonald’s last visit in 1830 is recorded elsewhere and is beyond the scope of this short article. Suffice to say many of the residents subsequently emigrated, a good number to Australia. We know of a party of 36 people from St. Kilda who left the island in 1852 en route, via Skye, Glasgow and Liverpool to Port Phillip, Australia. They sailed on the good ship ‘Priscilla’. Tragically eighteen of these perished, either on the journey on in quarantine after their arrival. I wonder how many had heard John MacDonald preach?

What we do know is that the man MacDonald had introduced to the island as their permanent minister, the Rev Neil MacKenzie, did much for the wellbeing of the islands inhabitants both socially and spiritually. It was under his ministry that it is reported – ‘(On) Wednesday May 28th, 1841, a revival began in the oil-lit church.’ One young lad who remembered that evening was the then 13 year old Malcolm MacQueen. Malcolm would later sail with a number his fellow  villagers to Australia on the Priscilla. Later in life he recorded – ‘I remember Mrs. Gillies crying. There were nine or ten men in the meeting. I afterward heard one of the men telling some who were arriving with the boats from their day’s work: “I believe the Spirit of God was poured upon our congregation tonight.” This was the beginning of the revival.’ This revival continued for about a year – producing a profound effect in the community.

One hundred years after John MacDonald last set foot on the island, on the 10th of  May 1930, the people who had remained on St. Kilda sent a collective letter to William Adamson, the Secretary of State for Scotland, requesting that they should be evacuated. By the end of August that year the evacuation had been completed.



1 – A person who holds a lease and sublets land to others. Tacksmen were found mostly in the Highlands and Island of Scotland from the 17th century, and were often a close relative of the chief.

2 – Charles MacLean, in his well known book on St. Kilda, ‘Island on The Edge of The World’, refers to John MacDonald as – ‘A puritanical hard-necked evangelist’. He goes on to make the assertion that MacDonald – ‘Set about the destruction of the island culture with all the zealous goodwill of a holy bigot.’ He further alleges that the islander’s admiration and respect for John MacDonald – ‘were not returned.’ That is very obviously not true. In these and other comments Maclean shows himself to be, at best, less than honest, and at worst to be the bigot himself. He has entitled his chapter on the matter – ‘Missionaries and Disease’! It appears that Maclean, either did not acquainted himself with MacDonald’s true sentiments, or if he did, chose to ignore or misrepresent them. In relation to island culture MacDonald noted in his diary – ‘In regard to music and dancing in St Kilda, I may here observe that though the people are naturally fond of these exercises, yet as they are not connected with those habits of dissipation and debauchery which, alas, prevail too much in other places, and which oblige ministers of the Gospel for that very reason to lift up their voices against them, they are to them but comparatively harmless amusements.’ The above would not appear to be the statement of a man bent on the destruction of Island culture. John MacDonald would have been greatly grieved by the cold hand of formalism and legalism which, there is little doubt, was to grip the Island and its Church some sixteen years after his death. Anyone reading MacDonald’s diaries cannot be but touched by the depth of his love and emotion for the people of St. Kilda. He had been praying for them long before his first visit. During his first journey he composed some verses in his native Gaelic regarding his feelings, part of which read – ‘Hunger and hardship I would bear, and the danger of the sea and storm would I brave, that I might see the people, and preach to them the gospel of peace.’ Had MacLean’s comments been directed at another who came, as we have indicated, long after MacDonald last visited St. Kilda, they might have had some validity – but his attack on MacDonald demeans his standing as an unbiased historian.


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