Although apparently a native of Gairloch, Kenneth Campbell (1862–1929) was brought up and educated in Oban, before attending the University of Edinburgh as a medical student. Alexander Carmichael thus had plenty of opportunities to get to know him, whether during his own rather unhappy stay in Oban between 1878 and 1880, or else while at his summer house in Taynuilt, or indeed in Edinburgh itself.
Campbell left Skye for St Kilda, where he was to spend a year as a supply teacher, on Tuesday 3 June 1884. He travelled out on the proprietor MacLeod of Dunvegan’s boat the Robert Hadden, ‘a large smack’ (the ornithologist Charles Dixon who was on the same voyage refers to it as a ‘tight little smack of about eighty tons’) ‘with provisions receiving in return all the natives have to give in the way of cloth, oil, feathers, cheese, tallow & dried fish’. Kenneth Campbell’s description of St Kilda is rather unusual compared to most Victorian accounts, given that he spent a considerable amount of time on the island rather than just a few hurried hours, and, unlike most visitors there, he could actually converse with the islanders themselves rather than rely upon a translator. His islanders are much more of a community, more recognisably Gàidhealach, perhaps, than the dour or grasping caricatures sketched out by the tourist day tripper. But they were certainly strongly evangelical: when Campbell asked about religious remains on island, ‘the invariable answer is ‘Papanaich, a ghraidh, droch dhaoine, a ghraidh.’
In June 1884 a yacht party voyaged to St Kilda, among them Alexander Ross, who was helped by Campbell – ‘a very intelligent and obliging young gentleman’ – in gathering geological specimens, and David Whyte, the photographer from Inverness. Whyte took the accompanying photograph of the islanders: Kenneth Campbell is the man in the bowler on the left.
Campbell’s time on the island certainly affected him: his obituary states that he ‘was a delightful raconteur of his reminiscences of that period.’ It is noteworthy that in September 1885, after a catastrophic storm had swept away the islanders’ harvest and one of their boats, young Alexander Ferguson (1872–1960) was moved to write to his old schoolteacher, then working in Uig, Lewis, for help. Rather extraordinarily, the boy’s letter, placed in a wooden ‘St Kilda mail boat’, landed near Àird Uig, reached Campbell, was printed in the Inverness Courier, and, together with two letters of the same tenor from the island minister, caused a public outcry which led to a ‘relief expedition’ sponsored by the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland the following month.
It seems rather probable that it was in fact from his friend Kenneth Campbell that Carmichael heard the account of the last great auk which has already been printed in this blog. Campbell’s interest in the bird may have been spurred by his acting as a translator for the ornithologist Charles Dixon during the latter’s visit to St Kilda. In the late 1890s Campbell appears to have given another speech in which he gave the story of the great auk much as Carmichael scribbled it down. The account was reported in the Westminster Gazette in March 1898, then reprinted throughout the world in newspapers as diverse as the New York Times and the Otago Witness. These years were a time of rocketing prices for surviving great auks’ eggs, mainly thanks to the apparent obsession (or was it canny publicity-seeking?) of H. C. Middlebrook, antiquarian and publican, whose Edinboro’ Castle Inn, Camden – like a number of London pubs at the time – had a free museum of curiosities on the side to attract customers. In all Middlebrook purchased four great auk eggs for vastly inflated prices – possibily fuelling the contemporary debate about the need to protect endangered wildlife.
CW MS 395 fos.4–5, 21–25.
Anon., ‘The late Dr Kenneth Campbell, Oban’, An Gàidheal, xxiv, 7 (Giblein, 1929), pp. 105–6.
Charles Dixon, ‘The Ornithology of St Kilda’, Ibis, 5 (1885), pp. 69–97, 358–62.
John A. Love, A Natural History of St Kilda (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009).
Michael Robson, St Kilda: Church, Visitors and ‘Natives’ (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2005)
Alexander Ross, ‘A Visit to the Island of St Kilda’, Transactions of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club, iii (1883–88), pp. 72–91.
Image: ‘Nurse Ann MacKinlay in a group with some St Kildans and the Schoolmaster of that year – Mr Campbell’: Robson, St Kilda, p. 572.