‘Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away’

If you are from Lewis or Harris, you cannot fail to have noticed the many types of memorial we are having right now to the Iolaire tragedy. Many of us will attend a good number of them but there will not be many people who will attend them all. 

Part of that is due to the exclusivity of tickets – but I also feel, personally, that there is only so much any of us can handle, on the Iolaire, in a certain space of time. Simply because it is so, so hard.

I’ve been to four Iolaire events so far. The launch of Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John Macleod’s book, The Darkest Dawn, plus the musical compositions Sàl by Iain Morrison and Dalziel+Scullion and An Treas Suaile by Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm, followed by, most recently on Thursday night, the formal opening of the Sandwick Hall Iolaire Exhibition.

This is very close to home for me.

I grew up in the house at the end of Lower Sandwick, about half a mile from the Beasts of Holm, where the yacht struck in the early hours of January 1, 1919, with such devastating consequences.

Unlike the generation before me, I don’t remember ever not knowing of the Iolaire. There was no longer a terrible silence because, by the time I was born in the 70s, people were talking about it. 

But it was strange, being at the exhibition opening in the Sandwick Hall. This is the same hall that, before it was renovated, was where I had gym and music lessons when I was in primary school.

It is right next door to the old Sandwickhill Primary School and had been chosen for a community exhibition on the Iolaire – in particular the connections to Sandwick, Point and Stornoway – because it is the closest public space to Beasts of Holm, where 201 men had lost their lives.

All photos here are from the Sandwick Hall Exhibition (taken on my iPhone), apart from the picture of the Beasts of Holm which is courtesy of Chris Murray

The hall is just yards from where the road from Stoneyfield meets East Street and many of the survivors would have walked up this road – traumatised and barefoot – before turning left or right.

When I walked to school as a young child – up to the junction and then right, after crossing the fields from the bottom of Lower Sandwick to Stoneyfield – I was walking in their footsteps. 

And at all the events I’ve been to, I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of ghosts.

I don’t know if I’m alone in finding them as difficult as I do. Or in thinking that I have probably reached my limit of how many I can handle. I’ve chosen not to try to get a ticket to Dileab – and I didn’t try to get a ticket for the main civic events on December 31 and January 1 because I didn’t have an immediate ancestor who was lost in the tragedy (although I did have a relative who was lost, as it turns out – Malcolm Martin, from 21a Balallan; a relation on my mother’s side). 

When tickets are so limited, there is something to be said for standing aside so families who were more directly impacted can get tickets. But I also have a sense that I’m close to my own limit, although I will be going to the launch of Margaret Ferguson’s exhibition of 100 portraits. 

It’s quite hard to describe but willingly immersing yourself in any Iolaire event – particularly any of the artistic responses – is really difficult. It’s almost physically painful. And it’s so hard, that I think we might have needed these 100 years, as a people, to be able to start facing it. 

The ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, the First World War memorial plaque issued to next of kin

I actually find our grief response over the Iolaire quite interesting. I’ve heard a lot of comments about it over the past six weeks or so and I’ve taken the subject of the Iolaire back onto my blog tonight because of some of the remarks made during the formal opening of the exhibition on Thursday, and how they have chimed with thoughts I already had.

My dad recently remarked that he had “heard more about the Iolaire in the past few weeks than I have in 50 years”. But I wonder if what we’re doing is going through one huge, mass catharsis… and, maybe, if we will emerge from it on January 2 feeling a little bit better.

I, too, am a believer in what Carl Jung called the ‘collective unconscious’ – and I’m sure Iolaire grief is lingering in the subconscious minds and emotions of islanders, just as family connections to Iolaire sailors are evidenced in our blood.

The Iolaire is in our DNA.

It might go some of the way to explain our strength of reaction – because it is more than just a response to the terrible sadness and tragedy of the story. 

The formal opening of the exhibition in Sandwick was marked by a few speeches, prayers, poetry and music, as well as the gift of flowers to those who had helped make the exhibition possible. 

The Rev William Heenan, of St Columba’s Old Parish Church, and Sandy Matheson, Honorary President of Stornoway Historical Society, were the main speakers at the event – and both spoke about how the island community has inherited grief and how these memorial events will enable a process of healing.

Part of the ensign of the Iolaire, retrieved while they dragged for bodies

Rev Heenan said: “As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the Iolaire disaster, the memories of the inconsolable loss of life still evokes deep emotions in our island population – emotions that have been inherited from previous generations who lived through that fateful Hogmanay night and who had personally experienced the ‘darkest dawn’ of New Year’s Day 1919.

“The cloud of silence which then enveloped this island and her people and which has pervaded this community in every generation since, is only now beginning to lift.

“These last four years of rolling commemorations for the First World War and the various major battles fought during it, have in some respect helped to prepare us, for this the hardest and final of these commemorations – the loss of the Iolaire. 

“However, the silent grief, borne by the people of Lewis and Harris; the excruciating pain of the sorrow which has permeated every fibre in the warp and weft of the fabric of this society; and the lack of both information and answers as to why and how the disaster occurred; have to a large extent inhibited the island from processing and working through their loss, and coming to terms with their heartache.

“Time has helped to heal some of the wounds inflicted by the events of that terrible night, enabling people to at last begin to speak about it and to process its harrowing legacy, but the scars of the tragedy still remain. They are indelibly ingrained on the psyche of islanders and their diaspora, just as the peat-banks and lazy-beds now no longer worked still mark and scar the landscape of our island topography.”

The Iolaire ‘pin flags’, sold in aid of the Disaster Fund

However, he said the work being done by this exhibition, by The Darkest Dawn, and by all the other Iolaire events, together with coverage in the media, have at last brought the Iolaire story to national and global attention.

This has meant the community has finally been facilitated “with a means and a safe forum in which to deal with a subject that has until now been too painful to broach”.

Rev Heenan added: “The closest we in our generation have to equate with the Iolaire catastrophe and the suffering of past generations, is the loss of the Pan Am flight 30 years ago, over Lockerbie on 21st December 1988 with the loss of 270 souls.                                                                                      

“I trust that this exhibition and all events related to this 100 year anniversary, which are enabling people to now speak of this tragic event, will prove to be therapeutic for our community in its prolonged and continuing recovery from the dreadful loss inflicted by the Iolaire going onto the Beasts of Holm.”

Sandy Matheson thanked Angus and Mary McCormack of Sandwick Community Council for being instrumental in organising “this most poignant and information exhibition”. 

His reflections began with a quotation from Song of Solomon: “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away” – which he felt summarised the loss of the Iolaire and its consequences.

A replica of the helmet worn by diver Victor Gusterson, who went down to the wreck soon after and was never able to return to the scene

“The Iolaire disaster cast a deep and long-lasting shadow over our community – it was the unspoken grief in the home and in the community. It was followed in short sequence by the failure of Leverhulme’s plans, by the mass emigration of young men and women on the Metagama and the Marloch, by the effects of the world depression of 1929, by the government-caused collapse of our vital herring industry and then by the new carnage of the Second World War…

“It seemed as if we had a devastatingly pessimistic future but our people hung on.”

There came “a healing of sorts” and, 50 years later, came the first of the memorials. Recently, the four years of the commemoration of the First World War had, he said, “opened a treasure chest of work” and he mentioned three “splendid” books on the Iolaire – When I Heard The Bell by John Macleod, As the Women Lay Dreaming by Donald S Murray and, of course, The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald, Chair of Stornoway Historical Society, and the late Donald John Macleod.

He thanked various people involved in organising the events that recognised and commemorated the Iolaire, and performances of music and poetry followed. 

Anna Murray read a poem by Ian Stephen, ‘The Beaufort Scale’, and Nicolson Institute Head Boy John Alasdair Bain, 18, read a Gaelic poem written by 14-year-old Luke Macleod from Gress, from the perspective of an 18-year-old on board the Iolaire. 

Alyth McCormack performed a song she had written about the Iolaire, entitled So Close To Home, with musical accompaniment by Neil Johnstone and Karen MacIver. Karen, from Glasgow, is a pianist with Scottish Ballet and a friend of Alyth. She also recently discovered her own poignant connection to her friend’s island – for Karen’s grandfather was on board the Iolaire.

And, thanks to the exhibition in the Sandwick Hall, she now knows how he managed to survive.

Alyth points out survivor Norman Maciver’s story to his granddaughter, Karen

After their performance, Alyth directed her friend to one of the display boards which told the story of crewman James Maclean. He had managed to get ashore via a waterlogged whaler which was out to the full extent of its rope and about three yards from the shore.

“Men were already ashore, and though he shouted to those back on the boat, no one else, apart from Norman Maciver, followed him to safety that way.” 

Karen read this, open-mouthed.

The Sandwick Hall Iolaire Exhibition, created by Sandwick Community Council, Stornoway Historical Society, Point Community Council and Comann Eachdraidh an Rubha, is open until February. It will be open 2pm-5pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays and 2pm-8pm on Thursdays. It will be closed the week beginning December 24 but will be open on January 1, the exact anniversary.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning. 

We will remember them.


Comments 1

  1. I wept when I read about the Iolaire memorial in Sandwick School. I remember my father frequently telling us about the tragedy and especially he would mention it every Hogmanay. My father had been the headmaster at Aird School and settled on Holm Road at the corner on the Road to Stornoway, not far from the Beasts of Holm. I have to complement Mary and Angus McCormack for having established this memorial exhibition , long overdue.

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