Saturday, 25 August 2007

A story of internment

1 March 1916 - Groningen, Holland
The 1,500 men of the Royal Naval Division have been interned in this northern city since late 1914. Among them are just over 100 men from the Isle of Lewis. Donald Macleod is one of them. He was born in the village of Gearrannan near Carloway in December 1891. Donald was in the 1st Royal Naval Division, Benbow Battallion. His former schoolmaster at the Nicolson Institute, Mr Gibson, wrote him a Christmas card at the camp in December 1915. Donald replied on 2nd January 1916, extending best wishes to teachers and pupils at his school. He also expressed the wish that Holland would go to war, which would release his companions in Benbow Battallion and himself back into service for Great Britain.

On 1 March 1916, Donald was lying ill in the University Hospital. He died of pleurisy that day. A collection is held among the burghers of Groningen to buy a huge Celtic cross, out of sympathy with this lad of only 24, who died so far away from home. His mates from D company, Benbow Battallion have organised a huge wreath, in the shape of an anchor.

On passing along Groningen’s main street, people stop and bare their heads. Shopworkers stand outside their premises, residents outside their doors, including maids and servants. The cortege finally pulls up at the Southern Cemetery, where Donald is laid to rest.

Donald’s wish was not to be granted. Benbow, Drake, Collingwood and Hawke Battallions were to remain interned until the Armistice, in November 1918. Those that returned to the island after the war would not readily speak of their experiences. They felt it a matter of shame that they had led the ‘cushy life’ of an internment camp, where their fathers, brothers and sons had fought and died in the trenches or in the North Atlantic.

Two more Lewismen would not return home, but lie buried at Groningen: John MacLeay, of Shader, Barvas and John Smith of Lower Bayble. A fourth, Angus MacLeod of Portnaguran, was discharged home for being unserviceable - suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. He died at Plymouth.
There are suggestions that four internees from Lewis perished in the Iolaire disaster of 1919, when the ship returning them to the island foundered outside Stornoway Harbour.

Friday, 24 August 2007


I recently found an old, linen-backed map of central Lewis, showing the Grimersta Estate. This stretches between Loch Roag (south of Great Bernera) and Loch Langabhat. The map was part of an arrangement between James Matheson and others over shooting and fishing rights on the estate. The map is annotated with coloured sections, stretching from the northern shores of Loch Langabhat, from Loch Coire Geurad to the current B8011 Uig road (marked in blue) and north from the road to the shores of Loch Barraglom, south of Great Bernera (marked in red). Other sections, demarkated in dotted blue, stretch from the Grimersta River westward, and include the island of Great Bernera.
The map itself is endorsed with the text:
This is the plan referred to in the Minute of Agreement annexed to the Lease of Grimersta shootings and fishings, dated twenty second, twenty sixth and twenty ninth days of November Eighteen hundred and seventy two and is subscribed by us of even date therewith.
Signed by James Matheson, Alex D. MacLeay and a signature I cannot decipher.