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.