View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Metagama in reverse

In May 1919, a young woman called Mary got married in Glasgow to an American by the name of George. He had served in the Canadian Forces during the war, and was a chauffeur. Four months later, they went to Canada, to cross the border into George's home city of Detroit. For a while, they lived there, but it would appear that Mary had soon contracted tuberculosis - if not already back in Glasgow.

In June 1922, Mary filled out a passport application to return to Scotland to visit her parents. The application stated that she was to return within two years. As was the case in those years, her husband was also named, although he did not travel with her. Mary was booked on SS Metagama to sail from Montreal to Scotland. In May 1923, Mary sadly died in the home where she was born some 27 years before, of tuberculosis. Seven months later, her sibling Margaret also died of TB. The story goes that they shared the same room for a year, slowly succumbing to their illness.

I have seen a portrait photograph of Mary, looking gaunt, ill and obviously suffering from consumption. I have looked into George's life after his wife departed for Scotland, and it does not present a handsome picture. At all.

You may ask the relevance of this story in relation to the SS Metagama.
Well, in April 1923, 260 islanders departed Stornoway for a new life in America on board this ship. Circumstances in the island were depressed, following the heavy loss of life in the sinking of HMY Iolaire (where over 180 islanders drowned upon returning from the war) and the lack of employment. They were so excited at the prospect of a new life out west.

A year before, a young woman had embarked SS Metagama to return from her new life in America, which, by all appearances, had not been what she might have expected it to be. She came to die in the bosom of her family.

Thursday, 21 July 2016


Things are beginning to look very frightening in Europe all of a sudden. 

France's president Francois Hollande wants quick Brexit talks now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, meaning there are divisions in Europe. Divisions and instability, caused by the massive influx of migrants from the east and south, leaving right-wing political parties in charge across the continent. Scotland, if it is granted another independence referendum, will break away from the UK.

Following the battering that American forces have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years, there is little appetite in the States to get embroiled in any further foreign adventures. The anti-Islam and anti-Latino hype will reach a crescendo if Trump gets elected, and the USA will turn its back on the rest of the world. Forgetting that the world will come to it, even if it doesn't want it anymore. If Trump gets in, he'll let the rest of the NATO alliance go to hell. That will have consequences in Europe, which relies on the American forces to really keep them safe.

Putin, already champing at the bit, will have no hesitation to reclaim the Baltic States, and experience little if any resistance in doing so. Neither will there be any resistance to his plans to expand westwards into Europe, if he so wishes. 

Donald Trump is an idiot, but a dangerous one. He is a salesman, not a politician. He has picked up a few ideas that he finds to appeal to people, and is very good at flogging them. Appealing to base sentiments of fear of strangers, anger against one particular group (Muslims), who are being held up as being to blame for all ills - where did we hear this all before? Cast your mind back 80 years, and you have your answer.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Lews Castle

Last Thursday, 14 July, I visited Lews Castle which has been opened to the public for the first time in many years. Since the 1980s, the Castle had lain empty and unused, and was slowly falling into disrepair. A few years ago, a £19 million refurbishment programme was started and after many delays, the Castle was opened today.

Lews Castle, the country mansion of erstwhile landowner Sir James Matheson, was built in the middle of the 19th century for £60,000, which equates to £7 million in today's money. His fortunes came from the opium trade with China, something that even sparked a war between China and Great Britain. Sir James is credited with spending £329,000 (about £40m now) on the island of Lewis, with a road building programme and 'improvement'. Sir James's memory is tarnished by assisting 1,771 islanders to leave for Canada, America and Australia. They were removed as unable to pay the rent. The 1851 diary of his chamberlain (we'd call John Munro Mackenzie a manager today) shows cold contempt for the crofters, cottars and others who were unable to keep up payments. Rather than improve their lot on the ground, they had to emigrate. And when things did not go according to plan, it all became rather a nuisance.

Lews Castle today is resplendent in its former glory, but the contrast with the lot of Matheson's tenantry in the 19th century is excruciatingly jarring. One islander whom I accompanied on this visit was moved to tears. The rooms I visited were mostly completely empty, with the exception of the Ball Room, where dining tables were set out. The Castle also has a cafe and a small shop.

In a separate, newly built wing, the Western Isles Museum is housed. It has most of the exhibits on show that were featured in the old premises on Francis Street, but has moved in the 21st century with audio-visual and interactive displays. Full marks for that.

P7142440 P7142436 P7142432 P7142425
Six Lewis Chessmen are on permanent loan from the British Museum

P7142412 Morning Room
P7142407 Dining Room
P7142394 Library
P7142383 P7142381
Ball Room
P7142376 P7142375 P7142371 Entrance Hall
P7142367 Store Room Cafe
Further pictures here

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Cameron, May and Corbyn

David Cameron is about to hand over to Theresa May as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Cameron was in office for just over 6 years, first heading up a Conservative / Liberal Democrate coalition, and since last year a single party, Conservative government. As Tory PMs go, he wasn't too bad. The way he left office was not something that I find very good.

The UK voting to leave the EU was his prompt to leave office. The EU has always been a divisive issue in the Conservative Party, and over the last few years, the Tories were running scared of the Eurosceptic UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). That was enough for Cameron to give in to demands for a referendum, something that he was not obliged to organise. He did. Although I was not following the debates, these appear to have been highly polarised. Worse than that, I have been horrified at the levels of racism and xenophobia that seem to be about in the UK. The perceived flood of migrant workers from other EU countries could be to 'blame' for that.

The referendum result has also served to split the Labour party. Although current leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a challenge to his leadership, I expect him to be returned as leader. He is held to be on the left flank of the party, and with Cameron's successor Theresa May positioned towards the right of the Conservative Party, politics in the UK appear to be back where they were some 25-30 years ago. Highly polarised.