Monday, 23 November 2009

HMS Rawalpindi

Today is the day in 1939 that HMS Rawalpindi was sunk by Nazi German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The brief battle has gone down in naval history as an incredible display of bravery on the part of the Rawalpindi's crew. After trying to hide themselves from the Germans in the North Atlantic fog south of Iceland, they were ordered to surrender by the Scharnhorst. In response, the captain of the Rawalpindi said: never. And he fired a shell at the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau to underline his point. Bear in mind that the Rawalpindi was a converted passenger liner, kitted out with a gun and some armour plating. The Scharnhorst had to reply in kind, and sank the Rawalpindi. The bravery was noted by the German admiralty (sic!). All but 37 of the Rawalpindi's crew were lost in the sinking. Their sacrifice was not in vain; before battle commenced, the Rawalpindi had been able to signal the position of the German battlecruisers to back to base on the Clyde, and an armada of British warships was heading north to intercept. More on this story here.

In a separate blogpost in 2008, the following information transpired:
Rawalpindi was an Armed Merchant Cruiser, converted from a passenger liner by adding 10 pieces of gunnery. While patrolling north of the Faroe Islands on November 23, 1939, she investigated a possible enemy sighting, only to find that she had encountered two of the most powerful German warships, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau trying to break out into the Atlantic. The Rawalpindi was able to signal the German ships' location back to base. Despite being hopelessly outgunned, Captain EC Kennedy of the Rawalpindi decided to fight, rather than surrender as demanded by the Germans. The German warships returned fire and sank Rawalpindi within forty minutes. Two hundred and thirty eight men died, including Captain Kennedy. Thirty seven men were rescued by the German ships and a further 11 were picked up by HMS Chitral (another converted passenger ship). Captain Kennedy, the father of broadcaster and author Ludovic Kennedy, was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches. A detailed account, from the perspective of the Scharnhorst, can be read here.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons afterwards: "These men might have known, as soon as they sighted the enemy, that there was no chance, but they had no thought of surrender. They fired their guns until they could be fired no more, and many went to their deaths in the great tradition of the Royal Navy. Their example will be an inspiration to thosse that come after them".

In spite of these fine words, and in spite of later German reports, captain Kennedy was 'merely' [not my words] mentioned in despatches, and the crew have not been posthumously rewarded for their bravery.

This entry is dedicated to the 238 that lost their lives that day, and to the bravery of all 276 crew.

A list of island casualties, all Royal Naval Reservists:
31 South Bragar
Aged 29

Leading Seaman MURDO MACKAY
Mac Choinnich Dhomhnuill Alais 'c Dhonnachaidh
53 Back
Son of Kenneth and Henrietta MacKay
Aged 33

Domhnall a'Bhard
52 North Tolsta
Son of Angus and Margaret Smith
Aged 19

Dollan Mhurchaidh Alasdair
10 Cromore
Aged 20

21 Swordale
Son of Mr. and Mrs. Donald MacKenzie
Aged 26

25 Swordale
Son of Donald and Mary Macleod
Aged 31

39 Lower Bayble (also Marybank)
Son of John and Christina Nicholson; husband of Williamina
Aged 36

14 Sheshader (also Marybank)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

HMS Royal Oak

On 13 October 1939, the Royal Navy's HMS Royal Oak, at anchor in Scapa Flow, Orkney, was struck by four torpedoes from German submarine U-47. The first torpedo did no major damage when it struck just before 1 am. The last three torpedoes, fired at 1.16 am, proved fatal. Within 13 minutes, Royal Oak turned turtle and went to the bottom, taking 833 crew with her. She currently still lies in 100 feet of water, upside down, reaching 5 metres / 17 feet below the surface of the water. The site is marked by a green wreck buoy and has been marked as a wargrave.

Tomorrow, the 70th anniversary of this tragedy will be remembered in Orkney's main town, Kirkwall. Last year, I visited Orkney and called in at the Royal Oak memorial ashore at Scapa, near the local Coastguard Station. I'll share some of the pictures I took at the time, dedicating this entry to the memory of all those lost there in 1939.

The wreckbuoy

Monday, 5 October 2009

Who is who?

Researching the two Rolls of Honour for the Isle of Lewis yielded a strange piece of confusion. Neither the historical society in Uig nor the one for East Loch Roag were able to clarify this for me.

The two servicemen pictured below are both described as John Macleod from 1 Enaclete and Finlay Maclean from 36 Breasclete.

1916 Roll of Honour
Finlay Maclean, Breasclete, Roll of Honour 1916

1921 Roll of Honour

Finlay Maclean, 36 Breasclete - Roll of Honour 1921

1916 Roll of Honour
John Macleod, Enaclete - Roll of Honour 1916

1921 Roll of Honour
John Macleod, Enaclete - Roll of Honour 1921

Friday, 2 October 2009

In recent years, I have assisted someone to trace their ancestors, using census returns. In Scotland, censes are taken every 10 years, starting in 1841. They are publicly available up until 1901; the 1911 census will become available in 2 years from now. A census provides an eerie look back down the year, showing a very narrow insight what was going on in the land on a specific evening. A babe in arms in 1891, for instance, living in a town in northeastern Scotland turns up visiting his aunts in Stornoway as a lad of 10 in 1901. The inaccuracies can provoke furious conjecture, particularly as the census takers in the Western Isles may not have been familiar with the Gaelic names and their spelling.

A different, more poignant insight, was created by an interim Roll of Honour here in the Isle of Lewis. There are actually two Rolls of Honour, one published in 1916 and the final one (for the First World War) in 1921. The 1916 Roll, which I finished transcribing this week, lists 4360 names, as opposed to 6030 in the 1921 list. Not all the names in the 1916 list are present on the 1921 list, and the total number of these discrepancies could run in the hundreds. The poignancy lies in seeing names of men, still alive in early 1916, who would die in later years of the war. The Battle of the Somme, which commenced on 1 July 1916, would claim many, as would the Iolaire Disaster on 1 January 1919. Quite a few other names are not on the 1916 list, as they had not yet joined up. I remember the case where one brother signed up for military service after his brother had been killed on the Western Front. Both never returned.

Image courtesy Daily Mail

Friday, 18 September 2009

Harris War Memorial

The Harris War Memorial on-line, which was first published in August last year, has been extensively revised and updated with more information on many of the casualties. This contains listings for both World Wars, ordered by village. Any further information is more than welcome, in fact, desperately needed.

A Roll of Honour was never published for Harris for the First World War, leaving only the War Memorial at Tarbert for reference. Finding further information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (the primary source) can be very tricky and time-consuming in some instances.

All the main islands in the Western Isles now have their WW1 and WW2 casualties listed on line.
I would like to close this post by dedicating it to the memory of all the approximately 2,500 men from these islands who laid down their lives for King and Country during World Wars I and II.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Uist & Barra War Memorials

The information from the War Memorials for the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra has been transferred to the Internet. Apart from the actual war memorials, pictured courtesy Scottish War Memorials Project, the cemeteries in the islands as well as the invaluable Commonwealth War Graves Commission website were all sources for further information. There are gaps, like there are in the information on Lewis casualties.

To reiterate: these are lists of the Fallen from both world wars. For the sake of clarity, there are separate pages for the First World War and for the Second World War.
Graveyard in Eriskay
Graveyard in Eriskay

Friday, 11 September 2009


Mingulay, one of the Barra Isles or Bishop’s Isles, is currently unoccupied. The last permanent inhabitants left in 1912, leaving the island as a haven for wildlife and a place for grazing sheep. The reason I am flagging this up in passing came about through researching the First and Second World War roll of honour for Barra. One of the sons of Mingulay appears in the listings for WW1:

Seaman Roderick Gillies
Son of John and Flora Gillies, of Mingulay, Barra
Husband of Mary Macdougall Gillies, of Caolis, Vatersay, Barra, Inverness-shire.
Military unit: RNR, HMT Robert Smith
Service number: 3560B
Date of death: 20 July 1917, at the age of 35
Memorial: Portsmouth Naval Memorial, panel 27
Local memorial: Barra & Vatersay, Nask, Barra
Mingulays former settlement, image courtesy
Mingulay's former settlement, image courtesy

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Remembering - WW2

Today is the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, a military campaign that sparked off the Second World War. In the 6 years following, many thousands would lay down their lives in the defense of freedom. The Western Isles, once more, stood in the breach and supplied dozens of its young men to the services between 1939 and 1945. The death toll makes for sobering reading - having just transcribed the war memorials for all of the islands in the Western Isles (courtesy the Scottish War Memorials Project).
Lewis - 448
Harris - 58
North Uist & Berneray - 36
Benbecula - 6
South Uist & Eriskay - 51
Barra - 54
Total: 653
Lest we forget.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

29 August 1930

It was 79 years ago since the last few dozen people were evacuated from the archipelago of St Kilda (Hiort), 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. The move, requested by the people themselves, came in the wake of a decline in population and the increasing problems posed by their remoteness. St Kilda has remained without permanent habitation since, with only Ministry of Defense personnel monitoring the rocket range on Uist and National Trust for Scotland staff looking after the remains of the houses there. Upon departing their shores, the St Kildans left a handful of grain on their tables, alongside the family bible, opened at the chapter Exodus.

A few houses have been restored, and cruiseliners regularly call in the summer. Reaching the islands is still difficult, due to the weather and sea conditions found in the North Atlantic. Efforts have been made to retain the history and culture of the islands, and quite a few books have been written. Yesterday was the first-ever St Kilda day. It is a good thing to celebrate culture. Celebrating an extinct culture in 21st century fashion is something that doesn’t sit very easy with me.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Roll of Honour

The Roll of Honour 1914-1919 for the Isle of Lewis has been published on-line on this link. It is a straight transcription, with some paraphrasing here and there to condense wordy descriptions. Otherwise, no information has been added that was not in the copy, residing in Stornoway Library. More extensive information on men that died as a result of the war has been collected in the Faces from the War Memorial site.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Roll of Honour - 1

Currently in the process of transcribing and publishing the Roll of Honour for the First World War for the Isle of Lewis. The transcription is actually complete (a 6030-row Excel file is the result), and the current task is to transform it into a decent HMTL-file, suitable for uploading to the web. A trial-page, for the village of Aird in Point, can be viewed here. Feedback welcome.

This is the intended preface:

In 1921, the Stornoway Gazette published this listing of all men from the island of Lewis who were known to have joined the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom or its overseas dependencies in the battles of the First World War.

This book, now nearly 90 years old, contains mostly very summary information on the approximately 6,000 men and women who joined up. At times, only a name is given. Mostly, a service, regiment or division is also given. When a man did not survive, the date, month or year of death is usually given, sometimes with his age and circumstances how he met his death. Any medals awarded, where applicable with a quotation from the commendation, are also mentioned.

Quite unique is the collection of portrait photographs contained in the Roll of Honour. It brings the drab listings to life – and elicits great poignancy. Some 400 portraits show the faces of the Fallen. Young men, hardly out of boyhood in some instances. Hardened veterans of the mud and horrors of the Western Front, of the searing heat of the deserts of Mesopotamia. Experienced sailors, lost in the cold waters of the North Sea in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. As it includes many of those lost when H.M.Y. Iolaire ran aground and sank a mile or two outside Stornoway. The death toll of that tragedy on New Year’s Day 1919 now stands at 205. The Roll of Honour lists 172. All were returning home after the war had effectively ended in November 1918. Sixty of those lost were never recovered.

The loss of life is greater than shown in the Roll of Honour. Personal research has pushed the total up to nearly 1,300, meaning that 150 names of the Fallen are not recorded in the Roll of Honour. In the aftermath of the slaughter of the Great War, it is a miracle that so many names were retrieved within those two years. Another source of uncertainty lies in the huge diaspora that already existed in the years before 1914. Nearly a dozen men are recorded in the Roll of Honour as coming back to the “Old Country” at their own expense to do their bit. From places as far apart as Alaska, Patagonia and Malaya. How many of the more than a million who died at the Western Front had ancestors from Lewis, or were even born there? If there was no family left in the island, and no record of such was ever made, the link is irretrievably lost.

These days, there is a heightened interest in the history of the Great War. Its centenary is approaching (2014), and in January 2009, the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the Iolaire was commemorated in Stornoway. Many people around the world are researching their ancestry, and in view of the continual migration from the island over the decades, the Internet is proving to be an invaluable tool.

Copies from the Lewis Roll of Honour from 1921 are in very short supply. One lies in the library at Stornoway, but not everybody is able to make the journey to the Hebrides. It is for this reason that the listings from the Roll of Honour were copied and will be uploaded to the Internet soon.

Roll of Honour - 2

Some sobering statistics were extracted from the transcript of the Roll of Honour.

Out of the 6,030 names, more than 500 were recorded as serving in the Canadian forces.

Each year of the war, from 1915 until 1919, saw the loss of 200 island men. The year 1914 is an exception, as the war did not start until August; 1919 is also an exception, because the war was over. The sinking of HMY Iolaire brought about that year’s total.

The majority of the 1,150 fatalities mentioned in the Roll of Honour are quoted as “killed in action”. This includes battles at sea as well as on land. They were mainly men under the age of 30, with the largest number in the age group under 25.

Naval forces accounted for half the Lewis contingent, with the land army in the other half. The RAF (and its predecessor Royal Flying Corps) had 28 Lewismen serving in it.

Outside Stornoway, the villages of Habost (Ness), Coll, Back, Knock (Point), Leurbost, Ranish and North Tolsta contributed each more than 100 men. The largest loss was suffered by North Tolsta, to where 50 did not return, out of 216 who enlisted. Men (and nearly 30 women) enlisted from virtually every village in the island, including the distant hamlet of Hamnaway in Uig - nowadays 8 miles from the nearest road, in those days 30 miles from any decent road.

Finally, the most common family names were Graham, Macaulay, Campbell, Smith, Murray, Maclean, Mackay, Morrison, Maciver, Mackenzie, Macdonald and Macleod - the latter surname contributing more than 1,270.

Talk on Clearances

Lucille H. Campey spoke at Stornoway Town Hall last night on the above subject. She took a novel angle on what is a central theme in the history of the Highlands and Islands, namely with a focus on Canada rather than Scotland. It is not easy to summarise a 60 minute discourse within the confines of a blog, but will go so far as to describe Ms Campey’s stance as controversial.
The exodus to Canada from the Outer Hebrides as well as other parts of Scotland is well documented. Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island in the far east of Canada are littered with pointers to the settlement of people from western Scotland, in placenames, culture and traditions. The mechanism of this migration is the underlying issue, and focuses on the landlords and his tenants.
I’ll focus on the town of Helmsdale in Sutherland to make my point. Two years ago, a statue was erected there to celebrate the achievements of the Highlanders in Canada. I’ll be the last to deny that the Scottish diaspora has achieved great things in their new homelands, whether they be Canada, the USA, Australia or New Zealand - or wherever. Why weren’t the people of the Highlands and Islands not put into a position where great things could be done at home?
Reference was made to the 1886 crofting reforms, prompted by overcrowding and poor soil (according to last night’s speaker). Having read some of Lord Napier’s reports, there was good soil to be had in the Highlands and Islands, access to which was denied to the tenants of the local lairds. Ms Campey denied that coercion played a major part in the drive to emigration, something that I do not believe will go down well with those that are intimately familiar with the history of this region - I do not claim to be. There are some who will say that government, rather than assist in the emigration, should have assisted people to remain. That was not the spirit of the time. If people were unable to afford their rent, set arbitrarily by lairds or his agents, they could be evicted. Conditions at the time, particularly after the potato famine of 1846, were undeniably dire for both tenants and landlords. But a landlord, committed to his tenants, would have worked with them - as was asserted as early as the 1880s, see the Napier report.
The focus in last night’s discourse was on the opportunities afforded in Canada to those who emigrated there. A more egalitarian society, as opposed to the class society to be had in Great Britain. Start a new life in a wilderness, away from materialism and an unjust society. Many people did very well indeed, achieving a wealth that would not have been possible in Scotland. Others did not do very well at all. Some could not afford the crossing, and ended up owing the fare to the ship’s captain. And when he came to claim his debt, the emigrants would once again be left with nothing.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of Scots overseas. But I’ll also be the first to assert that a lot of emigration, even bearing in mind society in the 19th century, would not have been necessary.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

've been extracting some statistics from the transcription of the Roll of Honour for Lewis. Of the 6,030 names on the roll, nearly 570 served in a Canadian unit. More than 700 came from Stornoway, not surprising as this was (and still is) the largest centre of population in Lewis.

The most common surnames were Macleod and Macdonald, which combined comprise one third of the Lewis contingent.

Half of the men from Lewis served in the Navy, including Naval reserves (2,400). The other half were in the landarmy, in units like the Seaforth, Gordon and Cameron Highlanders as well as the Ross Mountain Battery.

Some 1,150 died, and each year of the war (excluding 1914, but including 1919) claimed about 200 of them. Half of the fatalities were killed in action, either on land or at sea. According to the Roll of Honour (sic), 172 lost their lives in the Iolaire disaster (see disclaimer at the end of this post). The majority of those that died were aged 18-23.

The vast majority of medals awarded were Mons Star and 1914 Star, both given to those involved in the fight for Antwerp and the withdrawal from Mons to the Marne in late 1914.

As the Isle of Lewis has more than 100 villages (including Stornoway), it will take me a number of days to compile the webpages for each village. They will appear under my own website, which will be fully revamped with a shift towards local history.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The 36 villages of Eishken

The district of Eishken in southeast Lewis was cleared in 1820. It is a large area, with some large mountains on it (by Hebridean standards). Beinn Mhor rears up to more than 1,700 feet. Eishken had 36 townships in it at the start of the 19th century. I've managed to trace 27:

1 Bhalamos Beag
2 Bhalamos Mor
3 Caolas an Eilean
4 Bagh Ciarach
5 Ceannamhor
6 Scaladale Beag
7 Scaladale Mor
8 Stromas
9 Brinigil
10 Bagh Reimsabhaigh
11 Smosivig
12 Glean Claidh
13 Brollum
14 Ceann Chrionaig
15 Mol Truis
16 Mol Chadha Ghearraidh
17 Ailtenish
18 Budhanais
19 Ceann Loch Shealg
20 Eilean Iubhard
21 Isginn [Eishken]
22 Steimreway
23 Cuiriseal
24 Gearraidh Riasaidh
25 Bun Chorcabhig
26 Gilmhicphaic
27 Ceann Sifiord

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Local history file

The three previous entries are a mission statement on my work on areas of local history for the island of Lewis. The First World War had a large influence on the island, one that cannot be overstated. The loss of nearly 1,300 men, constituting one out of every twelve alive at the time dealt a savage blow to this small community of barely 30,000 in 1914 (nowadays it is about 20,000). The impact of the Iolaire Disaster cannot be overstated either. In placing my and others' findings on the Internet I hope to make this material available to anyone across the world with an interest in them. I also aim to keep alive the memory of the 1,300 who died in the First War and the 400 lost in the Second. Their sacrifice helped shape the world we know today, and ensured your and my liberty.

Local history file: HMS Timbertown

In January 2005, I obtained a copy of the book “Lewis: A History of the Island” by Donald Macdonald. It mentions the fact that during the First World War, a number of people from the island were interned at Groningen, a city in the northeast of Holland. Being from that country myself, I was intrigued at this unexpected link between Lewis and the Netherlands. I was to find out later that an even more surprising connection exists, going back to the 17th century.
After publishing a letter in the Stornoway Gazette, I received a handful of reactions from local people, whose ancestors had been interned at Groningen. With the help of several of the island’s historical societies, I managed to compile a list of more than one hundred names, as well as the story of HMS Timbertown (as the internment camp was known amongst its inmates). Groningen historian Menno Wielinga, from his side of the North Sea, added to that in no small measure.

In October 1914, the British Expeditionary Force, sent to Belgium to hold the tide of advancing German forces, found itself at Antwerp. The onslaught from the Germans could not be stopped, so the British withdrew west. Trains were supposed to take them to the Channel ports at Zeebrugge and Ostend, but our group missed their train. The officer in charge commanded them to head north, into the Zeeuws Vlaanderen area of southwestern Holland. On crossing the border, they handed themselves in. They ended up in Groningen for the duration of the war, more than four years. Their story is told on the English Camp website.

One poignant detail concerns the return of the internees to Lewis after the Armistice of November 1918, and particularly in the aftermath of the Iolaire Disaster, of which more in the next paragraph. Upon learning of the hardships suffered by survivors of the trenches and the Atlantic crossings, not to mention the deaths of so many fellow islanders (relatives, friends and acquaintances), the former internees felt ashamed. They had had a (relatively) easy time in a camp, whilst others had died, suffered injury or been witness to unspeakable horrors in combat. So, many lived out their lives and took their stories into the grave.

Website English Camp

Local history file: the Iolaire Disaster

The former private yacht Amalthea, rechristened HMY Iolaire [Eagle], was sent to Kyle of Lochalsh on 31 December 1918 to assist in the returning home of servicemen from Lewis and Harris. This was done because the normal ferry, SS Sheila, could not accommodate the hundreds that were amassed on the quayside at Kyle. Iolaire left port at 7.30 pm, and was approaching Stornoway some 6 hours later in poor weather conditions when she struck rocks on the Beasts of Holm, 2 miles south of the town. More than 200 drowned, the bodies of whom washed up on shores up to 5 miles away. Some 60 were never recovered. The exact cause and circumstances of this sinking are still not entirely clear, and Admiralty files on the incident are closed.

The Stornoway Historical Society were very helpful in supplying me with the names of those involved in the tragedy. In turn, I placed the list of names on the Internet, adding as much information as I could find in local and Internet sources. I also established a simple website, outlining the circumstances of the disaster and a link to the aforementioned list. This has since been augmented by portrait photographs of the men concerned, as scanned from Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-1918. Because the Iolaire went down a few hours after midnight on 1 January 1919, the First World War is held to have ended in 1919 in the island, rather than 1918 as is the case elsewhere in the UK. I have visited the island’s graveyards to photograph gravestones to the victims of the Iolaire Disaster, and those pictures have been included on the extended listings site.

Local history file: Faces from the Lewis War Memorial

The victims of the Iolaire Disaster constitute a sizeable proportion of all those from the island who died in the First World War. It was a small step to extend the work for the Iolaire to the whole of the First World War. I started off by photographing the panels on the Lewis War Memorial, which stands just north of Stornoway. They show the names of all who fell in WW1 and WW2. However, those listings are incomplete.

Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-1918 adds quite a few more names, as well as 400 portrait photographs, which I scanned in. This publication does not supply a large amount of information on the men concerned, but that is easily amended by cross referencing with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. It is most fortunate that accurate address references are given for many of the casualties, greatly increasing the accuracy of any matches. Many islanders had emigrated to Canada and Australia, and the National Archives of both those nations yielded a lot of background information. Another source are local war memorials, of which there are about 16 outside Stornoway.

Hebridean Connections, a website that is being expanded to include information from all corners of the Western Isles, currently provides information for the districts of Uig, Kinloch, Pairc and Great Bernera, allowing for another layer of cross-referencing and additional information. Finally, the islands graveyards once more added further information, yielding approximately 350 gravestones. At time of writing, there are 1286 names on the list for the First World War.

Faces from the Lewis War Memorial
Scottish War Memorial Project
Scottish War Graves Project

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Bragar Cemetery

One of men buried there, Duncan Macleod, died in 1943 whilst held in a POW camp in Burma. He himself is interred near the camp on the infamous Burma railway, where so many Allied POWs perished. His name is mentioned on one of the private gravestones at Bragar, and as I had him on record for the World War II memorial for Lewis, I looked into it further. I had little information on him, save that he came from Lochcroistean, a schoolhouse in the Uig district of Lewis.

His father was one of the school's headmasters, Norman Macleod, who held sway there until 1923. He died 20 January 1938 at the age of 75. He was married to Bell Ann Mackay, who died 8 December 1944 at the age of 69.

The website for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission interestingly state that they came from Tighnabruaich in Argyll. They had four children, two of whom (Iain and Chirsty Mary) died in infancy. Jessie died in May 1980 at the age of 73; their son Duncan died on 19 September 1943 at the age of 42.

Lochcroistean is located in a remote part of the island, but was itself a central school (of sorts). It acted as a hub for several side-schools, in places like Morsgail, Luachar and Ardbeag. The latter two places no longer exist. Luachar lies by the head of Loch Reasort, some 10 miles from Lochcroistean to the south; Ardbeag is even further away, by my estimation at least 15 miles to the southwest.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Tomorrow (16 April 2009) will see the 263rd anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, in which Prince Charles Edward's bid to take the British Crown was finally crushed. Culloden is a turning point in Scottish history, marking the demise of the clan system (which was already on the way out) and the start of a vigorous repression of Gaelic culture in the north and northwest of Scotland. A group of enthusiasts are reenacting the retreat, which you can follow on Twitter via @nightmarch.

Prince Charles Edward, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, is a revered figure in certain quarters of Scotland. I am not going to beat about the bush in my negative opinion of the Young Pretender. He was very ill advised to proceed with his adventure, which was executed with a good degree of military ineptitude. I will say that if he had had the guts to proceed beyond Derby (that's where he wimped out), he just might have made it to London. At which point, his supply lines would have been cut off. His flight round the highlands and islands, looking for any boat to whisk him back to Paris should be an object of shame. He came to Stornoway in June 1746, to Kildun Cottage - which stood within the line of sight of my position - to ask for help. He was asked to leave. The burghers of Stornoway would not betray him, but could not help him either. Kildun Cottage was pulled down in the early 1970s to make way for the current Fabrication Yard.

97 years ago

The SS Titanic went down in early hours of 15 April 1912 with the loss of 1517 lives, although 706 survived. Only one of that number is left alive today - a lady now aged 97, then aged only 9 weeks. In remembering those who drowned in Titanic, I would like to point to other maritime disasters in peacetime which claimed large numbers of lives as well.

SS Norge was holed on Rockall in June 1904 and sank in minutes, taking 635 emigrants to the bottom with her. Lifeboats did manage to take 160 to safety, but there were nowhere near enough lifeboats on the Norge to take all. Nine casualties made it ashore at Stornoway, but did not survive. They lie buried at Sandwick Cemetery, 20 minutes' walk from the town. The lessons that should have been learned from her sinking (which was to provide sufficient lifeboats and rafts for all on board) could have saved hundreds of lives on Titanic. But false economies meant that the recommendations, drawn up by the Danish maritime authorities in the wake of the tragedy, were never implemented.

HMY Iolaire went down on rocks just outside Stornoway Harbour on 1 January 1919. She was carrying 300 sailors from the Outer Hebrides home after four years of war. The two lifeboats were useless, as they were smashed against the rocks immediately after launch - and would never have been enough to carry all on board.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Isle of Rum - some facts

Rum was cleared of its indigenous population in the 1820s, who were packed off to Canada. None now remain. Private owners have kept the island as their playground, taking them shooting and fishing. At the end of the 19th century, the Bullough family, textile tycoons from Accrington in Lancashire (England) decided to build a castle there. Kinloch Castle remains as it was at the start of the 20th century, with mind-boggling opulence in an area of Scotland more noted for its grinding poverty at the time. A Steinway grand-piano (which I played twice), 8 ft high Japanese vases, a billiard room. At one time, conservatories lined the exterior of the castle, fully heated. Humming birds flitted around these, until the central heating broke. Their remains are now pinned up in a glass case. Kinloch Castle was occupied by its owner for 6 weeks out of every 52 in the year. Its demise began with the First World War, when the staff were called up. By 1957, the last owner, Lady Monica, had been taken across the island to be laid to rest in the family mausoleum at Harris (different from the Harris south of Lewis). The Nature Conservancy Council were gifted the island for a nominal amount, and they established a study area for red deer.

Rum is a stunning place, but also very sad. Author John Love wrote a book about its history, called A Landscape without Figures. Permanent population 0. Current population is all workers for SNH (successor to NCC).

This set on shows 128 images of the island, including many from within Kinloch Castle. I told its history in a post on Northern Trip from October 2007, when I last visited. A photo compilation can be viewed here. The orchestrion plays here.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

In Remembrance - Iolaire 90 years ago

At 1.55 am on 1 January 1919, HMY Iolaire sank at the Beasts of Holm. More than 200 sailors, the vast majority from Lewis, drowned. About 75 were rescued. The remains of 60 were never recovered. Rather than their loved ones, many island homes received a visit from a church elder, bringing the worst possible news. Followed, not many days later, by the burials of those who had been found on the shores of Stornoway Harbour, the Braighe and Lochs. The circumstances of the sinking have never been satisfactorily cleared up.
A service of remembrance will be held on the shore overlooking the site where Iolaire went down, 90 years ago today. Although I’m not there myself, my thoughts will most definitely be on those lost in the Iolaire, their families left bereaved. I hope that by the 100th anniversary in 2019, the Royal Navy records on this case will be published to finally bring closure on a sad saga.
Those who wish to know more can visit my own webpage or that of the Stornoway Historical Society. A list of casualties and survivors has been collated on this site.