View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

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 - 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

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 - 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

Looking back

Was surfing the web just now and as I was listening to recordings by Winifred Atwell, I was reminded of a presenter on the BBC Worldservice, Gordon Clyde. In the 1980s, I frequently submitted requests to his classical music request programme "The Pleasure's Yours", which I used to listen to on Sunday mornings. Living in Holland at the time, I could hear it in relative clarity on medium wave 648 kHz, rather than be subjected to the vagaries of shortwave radio. It taught me a lot about classical music. Gordon presented the programme from 1973 until 1990.

I was sad to read an obituary in The Times, stating that he had died on 26 January 2008 at the age of 75. His wife Anne died in 1990; they had one son. Gordon, thanks for many hours of great music - the pleasure was certainly mine, and many people's around the world. RIP.

Hurricane season

Once more, I'm plugging hurricane awareness as the 2009 North Atlantic hurricane season is now less than a month away. If you are in the path of hurricanes, start preparations now. A good place to review is on the National Hurricane Center's webpages. When a storm forms, I tend to reflect it on my own Tropical Cyclones blog, but you must always refer to the NHC for the latest up-to-date advice.

Stay safe.

Sunday Ghost Story

I have recently started reading a blog from New Zealand, called Whitemeadow's Wanderings. It contains what I could term a ghost story - pop along and have a read. Bear in mind, when reading the rest of the blog, that they are currently going into autumn.

Sunday 26 April

Quite a nice morning, although with a chilly breeze. Sun is coming out as I type and it can only get better.

The outbreak of human swine flu in Mexico has claimed 81 lives so far. The virus, which causes the illness, is of the H1N1 strain which is known to cause seasonal flu outbreaks. It has changed to incorporate genetic material from flu viruses that affect birds and pigs, hence its name of swine flu. Confirmed cases are also reported from the USA and elsewhere. The WHO is warning that a global outbreak is possible, a pandemic.

The ship pictured above is the MV Hebridean Princess, the former Caledonian MacBrayne's ferry MV Columba. She has plied Hebridean waters for 40 years, latterly as a luxury cruiseliner. The company that deployed her has hit on financial troubles. Both ship and company have been taken over by a new owner, ensuring that this icon of the Hebrides continues to sail.
The Hebridean Princess, which can carry up to 49 passengers and charges up to £7,000 for a cruise, was selected by the Queen in 2006 to carry her on her 80th birthday cruise round Scotland's western islands. The picture above shows her coming into Stornoway at the end of that journey.