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.