Monday, 31 January 2011

Coastguard demo

I attended a rally at the Coastguard Station this lunchtime to join a protest against the proposed closure of the station. A short march was held in front of the station, with banners and placards protesting against the closure. A handful of people held speeches, some very powerful, and with the chant "Save Our Station", the rally was closed at 1.30pm. The weather was suitably inclement with strong winds and persistent rain. Our (current) ferry, the MV Clansman saluted the Coastguard station upon entering port by blowing her whistle.

Trades union banners

Save Our Station

The march

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Uist Memorial

The WW1 and WW2 casualties from the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay are now remembered on a new site. Compiling it still leaves me with the nagging feeling that many names are still missing. My sources were the War Memorials on Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra, as well as the various cemeteries in those islands. Information was supplemented from the croft histories. If anyone spots an omission, please leave a note on the guestbook on the site.

On matters Uisteach, the excellent Cladh Hallan cemetery project, which lists all the burials at that large graveyard, was highlighted on the BBC's An Island Parish program. And please spare me the Father Ted comparisons.

Great Bernera

I visited Bosta Beach on Great Bernera this afternoon, in part to see the Tide and Time Bell that was installed there last July. The apparatus appeared to be lacking its clapper, leaving the beach only resounding to the crashing waves.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Old and new, the slipway by the Bernera Bridge"]Old and new, the slipway by the Bernera Bridge[/caption]

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Croir"]Croir[/caption]

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="The Time and Tidebell at Bosta"]The Time and Tidebell at Bosta[/caption]

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Remembering - lost villages

Today, the former inhabitants of the village of Imber on Salisbury Plain held an event to commemorate their village. Imber was evacuated in the 1930s, and its residents never allowed back. The village buildings remain, and are in continual use for military training. At least another ten other villages across England have been depopulated for various reasons during the 20th century.

Regular readers will recall a couple of blogposts here about the abandoned villages in the Pairc area of Lewis. They were cleared in the years up to 1826; the croft histories for Pairc (except for Stiomrabhagh, Orasaigh and Leumrabhagh) all end in that year. It may well be possible to trace the descendants of the residents of Brunigil, Stromos, Airigh Dhomhnuill Chaim, Rias, Scaladale Beag and Mor, Gilvicphaic, Ceannmore, Bagh Ciarach and Bagh Reimsabhaigh, Bunchorcabhig, Glenclaidh, Smosivig, Caolas an Eilean, Valamus and Valamus Beag, Ceann Chrionaig, Brollum, Hamascro, Mol Truisg, Molhagearraidh, Ailtenish, Buhanish, Gearraidh Righsaidh, Ceann Tigh Shealag, Gearraidh Reastail and Stiomrabhagh. The Angus Macleod Archive in Kershader has a few stories from there, and of course the famous Pairc Raid of 1887 came to a head at Kinloch Shell.

However, I feel it my duty to keep alive the awareness of the memory of those places, and indirectly the people and their stories.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Fuel prices

I don't own a car, but whenever I pass one of the petrol stations in Stornoway, I do glance at their price board. Fuel prices are now well above £1.40 a litre, and diesel was at £1.50 on January 5th. I'll nip up the road later today to check, but in the meantime, I can report that these ridiculous prices are forcing people to leave the island, or at least relocate closer to their place of work. I heard from at least one person who is in the latter position.

There was a lot of hot air from our esteemed parliamentary representatives, when the idea of a rural fuel derogation was rejected by HM Treasury in London. I think there should be more emphasis on the discrepancies between rural locations. The same tanker that supplies Inverness and Scrabster also calls at Stornoway. So, why is fuel here so much dearer than in Inverness? I think that should be investigated by the council and / or the Scottish Government, and the causes dealt with immediately.

[Entry amended]

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Now remembered

Last address in Lewis: 10 South Dell
Son of Murdo and Flora Morrison of 10 South Dell
Service unit: 3rd Gordon Highlanders
Service number: 3/5645
Discharged at Aberdeen on 29 May 1916 due to gunshot wounds and TB
Date of death: 16 March 1917 at the age of 23
Died of wounds at home
Interred: Old Ness Cemetery, Swainbost, lair 95
Local memorial: North Lewis, Cross

I am pleased to announce that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has formally recognised Norman's status as War Dead from the Commonwealth, and a stone is to be (has been?) erected at the Swainbost Cemetery (referred to as Old Ness).

It is a matter of pride for me personally that Norman's sacrifice is finally recognised and he will be remembered for perpetuity by CWGC, and in that old, windswept graveyard by the sea. I am equally grateful to the volunteers from the laudible In From the Cold Project for facilitating this process of recognition.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Six years ago today

11 January 2005 is one of those days that everybody who was in the Outer Hebrides at the time will not forget. A deep Atlantic depression moved past our islands, bringing with it winds of force 12 on the Beaufort scale, with gusts in excess of 130 mph. At the time, I was staying in Kershader, 12 miles south of Stornoway as the crow flies - more like 22 miles by road. At 6.22pm, the power went off, not to go back on again for 48 hours. The wind was already howling around the building. Blue flashing lights penetrated the darkness from across Loch Erisort - police cars were stopping traffic on the Stornoway to Tarbert road after a lorry driver reported a sheep flying past his windscreen. The driver of the South Lochs bus that night was mightily relieved to make it home in one piece, he told me later. Trees were downed, roofs taken off, vehicles crushed under trees - and hundreds of them toppled in the Castle Grounds in Stornoway. High tides lapped at the doors of people on Cromwell Street and Bayhead in the town. Boats were torn off their moorings and smashed into the ferry terminal. Slates became like missiles, and pedestrians blown off their feet. Some who sought refuge were denied entry; others were taken inside.

The next morning dawned breezy and bright. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief. That was a bad one, but it's only damage. By 9.20 am however, reports start to emerge from the Southern Isles. Five people are missing in South Uist, after they fled their home the previous evening at around 7pm. Rising tides had started to approach their home, and pebbles were hurled against walls and windows. They enter two cars and drive from their home at Eochdar towards the causeway, linking South Uist and Benbecula. A fatal decision. That road parallels the stretch of sea that separates the two islands. The southeasterly storm, combined with a springtide from the northwest pushed the waters of Loch Bi up; but on account of the floodtide they could not drain into the sea. The loch flooded a small causeway, sweeping the cars into the water. By morning, the five missing people are found dead. They include a mother and father with two young children and a grandfather.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Sunday sailings

On 26 December 2010 and 2 January 2011, Calmac had a ferry calling at Tarbert, Harris. Both those days were Sundays. It was for the first time in history that a ferry had docked at Tarbert on the Sabbath. Calmac have explained that the aforementioned calls were for operational reasons, as not having a sailing on those days would have left Tarbert without a ferry for three days in a row.

It was revealed today that Calmac are conducting a consultation on implementing a Sunday service between Tarbert and Uig (Skye) with the start of the summer timetable on March 27th. Feelings within Harris appear to be divided. However, Calmac now have two precendents on their record where they have introduced Sunday sailings against some local opposition. The first was in 2006, with the Berneray to Leverburgh sailing, and the second in 2009, when the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry began to ply on the Sabbath. It would stand to reason to expect a Sunday service to be commenced on all the legs of the Uig - Lochmaddy - Tarbert triangle. You could argue that Harris residents could drive to Stornoway (40 to 60 miles away) on Sunday, but there is unfortunately no public transport to take non-drivers there on that day of the week.

Some 30 years ago, local fishermen had threatened to blockade Tarbert against a Sunday ferry. The image of a gentleman of the cloth prostrating himself across the Kyleakin slipway in 1965 also comes to mind. Should Calmac send the MV Hebrides into Tarbert on Sunday 27 March, I don't think the ripples will be any worse than those generated by the ferry's entry into East Loch Tarbert.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The story of the Iolaire

It is Hogmanay 1918, and the war has been over for seven weeks. Survivors from the Western Front and the war at sea are flocking home. As are hundreds of sailors from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Three trains pull into the harbourside station at Kyle of Lochalsh, and hundreds pour onto the platform and adjoining quayside to join a ferry home. The Skye men can take the short hop to Kyleakin, or join the steamer north to Portree. The sailors and soldiers from the Outer Hebrides have a longer journey ahead of them.

The mailsteamer for Stornoway, the Sheila is alongside at Kyle, but it very rapidly becomes clear that she has nowhere near enough space to accommodate the hundreds that want to go home to Lewis and Harris. So, a cable is sent to the naval base at Stornoway, and Rear Admiral Boyle sends HMY Iolaire to Kyle to relieve the congestion. Iolaire, the former private steamyacht Amalthea arrives in the early evening, bumping into the pier as she docks.

A disorganised scramble occurs, where the throng of men divides between the Sheila and the Iolaire. No record is kept as to who goes on board which vessel. Some start off by boarding the Iolaire, then switch to the Sheila. Others do the reverse swap. Finally, at half past seven, Iolaire casts off and heads north. The Sheila follows suit in short order.

The year 1918 is drawing to a close and Big Ben in London is about to start striking the midnight hour. Six hundred miles to the north, HMY Iolaire is ploughing her way north through the Minch, passing between Raasay, Rona and the Scottish mainland. The weather, which had been reasonable upon departure from Kyle, is turning increasingly windy. A heavy swell is beginning to rise in response to the strong southerly wind. The lighthouses, which serve as reference points for mariners in the Minch, blink their messages to Iolaire. Milaid, on the rocky cliffs near Kebock Head; Rona; Tiumpan Head on the eastern extremity of the Point Peninsula; and Arnish, near the entrance to Stornoway Harbour.

In dozens of houses in Lewis, glasses are charged to the New Year. The last year of war is ending.
Dry clothes are draped over beds, a stew is heating over the fire. In the blackhouses in Ness, and the town houses of Stornoway. A kettle is at the ready on the stove. A plate, cutlery and cups on the table. From Eoropie to Brenish, from Lemreway to North Tolsta, and between Manor Park and Newton, the same scene is repeated over and over. Only two hours to go, the boat won't make Hogmanay. But it does not really matter, the boys will be home soon.

The clock strikes midnight. It is 1919.

Conditions in the Minch are now poor, and all on board Iolaire are glad that the journey is nearly over. The passengers, most of them familiar with the passage to Stornoway, are snoozing their way, lulled to slumber by the steady if roughish motion of the waves that Iolaire rides. The captain goes down below to rest, his second-in-command takes over on the bridge. A fishing boat is also on its way home to Stornoway, and is running a broadly parallel course to Iolaire.

The passengers can now see the lights of Stornoway ahead, as well as the familiar signal of the Arnish Lighthouse and its secondary beacon. All begin to stir and start to prepare for disembarkation, which is now only about a quarter of or half an hour away. But all is not well. The sound of waves striking shore becomes audible over the noise of wind and swell.

The next noise is a far greater one. Iolaire changes course abruptly, as the crew realise they have overshot the harbour entrance. But it is too late. At 1.55 am, the ship comes to a crashing halt on the rocks of the Beasts of Holm.

Iolaire was mortally damaged by her grounding, and would eventually slip from the rocks and sink into the depths beside the Beasts of Holm. Only her mast would be left showing above the waves.

Flares were let off, which were spotted by the fishing boat and the Sheila, which were running into Stornoway behind Iolaire. Conditions, however, were too severe for any direct help to be offered by any vessel, as they would place themselves into severe danger. One intrepid man managed to bring a hawser ashore, which was to become a literal lifeline for nearly four dozen souls. Others attempted to use the lifeboats, which were almost immediately swamped by the heavy swell, or smashed on the rocks nearby. For Iolaire only grounded about 50 yards from shore. Those who jumped into the sea drowned almost at once, or were smashed onto the rocks, left lifeless. A life-saving apparatus, a breeches' buoy, which had been brought from Stornoway, came way too late to be useful.

Some of those that survived made their way to Stoneyfield Farm, about half a mile from the scene of Iolaire's sinking, and their terrible news was relayed to Stornoway. The flares had been spotted from the town, but had been (mis)taken for celebratory rockets.

The houses waited. The stew over the fire, the teapot on the stove. The clothes on the bed, and the made up table. The families, friends and other islanders waited. Then news filtered through into, and from Stornoway. The Iolaire was lost. Several dozen had been saved. But so many more were not. A night of terrifying uncertainty drew on. Would he be among the saved?

It is early January, and daylight is still many hours away.

It is just after 9 o'clock, and the sun rises over the mountains of mainland Scotland. Its light sweeps west, and shows up a ship's mast protruding from the sea, only a few dozen yards from the shore of Holm Point. The figure of a man can be made out, as he holds on for dear life. As he has done for nigh upon seven hours. Others had been with him, but their strength had given out, and had fallen into the sea below. The man is saved from his precarious position. He had been one of about three hundred on board Iolaire who had left Kyle the evening before, expecting to arrive in Stornoway at 2 am. Instead, two hundred would never return home, and some sixty would never be retrieved.

A gruesome sight presented itself on the shores, beaches and rocky outcrops of eastern Lewis, around the bay of Stornoway. East to Knock, north to Sandwick and Stornoway, south to Grimshader. One hundred and forty bobbed on the tide, lost in the Iolaire. Those that could be retrieved were taken to the naval base at the Battery in Stornoway, to be identified and collected by family.

Those who had not yet had news of the tragedy would soon receive it, as elders of the church went round, the bearers of the news of loss. A brother, a father. An uncle, a nephew. A son, a cousin. No village was spared. No family who was not directly or indirectly affected. The stories abound, but are not readily told.

It is 2011, and dawn has broken on a new year. Two years ago, several hundred gathered at the little memorial at Holm Point to remember. It was a beautiful mild winter's day, with not a breath of wind. We looked south, across the Minch, where the jagged humps of the Shiants, the distant lines of Skye, and on a day of exceptional clarity, even the hills behind Kyle can be made out, 75 miles away. In this day and age, a short journey. In 1919, a journey that was never completed by two hundred and five souls.

Rest in peace.

A full listing of names can be found here

The exact cause for the foundering of HMY Iolaire has never been fully cleared up, and theories abound. There are accusations of a cover-up by the Royal Navy, drunkenness on the part of the crew, and speculation on the factors played by the weather. It is not the object of this blog to apportion blame, or determine the exact cause for the tragedy. This is a tribute to the two hundred and five who perished at the Beasts of Holm that New Year's night in 1919.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

HMY Iolaire

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="The Beasts of Holm, where the Iolaire went down"]The Beasts of Holm, where the Iolaire went down[/caption]

It is 92 years ago today, 1 January 2011, that this unfortunate vessel ran aground on the Beasts of Holm and sank, taking more than 200 lives with her to the bottom. They were all sailors from the Isle of Lewis, from Harris and Berneray (Sound of Harris). They had all survived up to four years of war service, either on the oceans of the world or on the Western Front. The bodies of sixty would never be recovered, but the others lay scattered on the shorelines from Point west to Stornoway, and south to Grimshader. One was found at the bottom of his ancestral croft in Lower Sandwick. The full story of the Iolaire has been told in many places on the Internet, e.g. here.

The tragedy struck a bodyblow to the island, but is little known beyond the Hebrides. I once more post on the subject to raise awareness, and keep alive the memory of all those lost. A monument was erected near the site of the Iolaire's sinking, with a small plaque at the top of the path leading to the monument.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="The Iolaire Memorial at Holm Point"]The Iolaire Memorial at Holm Point[/caption]