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Iolaire – Scottish Review of Books

Call na h-Iolaire, The Darkest Dawn

Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod, (edited Annie Delin)
Acair, £25, ISBN: 978-1789070248, PP486
by Ian Stephen


May 20, 2019 | by Ian Stephen


THERE is already a strong body of responses, in oral literature, song, story, drama, fiction and non-fiction to the loss of 201 lives within yards of Holm shore at the entrance to Stornoway harbour on the first morning of 1919. It took the combination of oral language and melody for the grieving Islanders to share their first responses. Many village bards in Lewis and Harris gave voice to the loss. A page on the Iolaire on the website of the National Library of Scotland gathers several of these compositions. Recordings are also available on Tobar an Dualchais. Those composed by Murdo MacFarlane are probably the best known, due to his uncanny knack of combining lyric and melody. Yet most of the survivors could not yet speak of that night.

A long period of near silence was broken in 1959 with the publication of Sea Sorrow by the Stornoway Gazette. In the same year BBC Radio broadcast a seminal programme built on recordings of the survivors just at the time they were able to speak out. This was followed by the sensitive and well-constructed BBC documentary film, now re-shown as part of the 2018-19 exhibition mounted at Museum nan Eilean, to mark the centenary. The great strength of this film is that survivors and other informants are given space to speak for themselves. ‘Am Patch’ relives the trial of holding to the single surviving mast, through the storm and the dark. The tension of gripping on, is still in his voice and tight body. John Finlay Macleod, the Ness boatbuilder, speaks with everything he’s got, including hands and eyes, as he outlines how the vernacular knowledge of waves was an element in his achievement of swimming a heaving-line ashore.

The tradition is not static. The late Stornoway singer-songwriter Iain Macdonald recorded his own song, in English (Beneath Still Waters, Greentrax, 1986) and Alyth MacCormack has given a public performance of her new song on the subject, appropriately in Sandwick Hall which is walking distance from Holm Point. An Lanntair arts centre commissioned two new collaborative performance works as part of its own commemoration programme.

What about attempts to write down exactly what happened and what about further literary explorations of the subject? In 1978 Acair published a documentary work, in Gaelic, with a summary in English titled Call na h-Iolaire. It was by Tormod Calum Dòmhnallach (Norman Malcolm Macdonald,1927 – 2000). I would like to detail this writer’s response as it encompasses both non-fiction and fiction and yet his huge contribution could now be missed. Macdonald had an admiration for Simenon as well as Styron along with respect for Hebridean bards and storytellers. His short, innovative novel, Calum Tod, was first published by Club Leabhar in 1976 and later republished by Canongate. Macdonald’s brother was a creel-fisherman, working out of Broad Bay. That might help explain why the critic Douglas Gifford judged that, on the subject of the sea, Macdonald even surpassed George Mackay Brown. Macdonald, from the village of Tong, Lewis, was also a dramatist who described his exploration of the male and female tensions in Anna Caimbeul as ‘The first Japanese Noh play in Gaelic.’ Among other dramatic subjects were studies of Morrison, Lewis-born mate on the Bounty; MacPherson, the originator of the Ossianic literature which swept Europe; Murdo Macfarlane’s tragic song of World War I; and of course the Iolaire disaster and the shadows left by it. Many of these were gathered in his posthumous novel Portrona, which appeared in 2000.

It is brimful of vigour. The tone varies from cheeky authorial interventions to passionate defence of oral culture across Gaelic and several breeds of spoken English. Yet I would say the scene which still resonates nearly twenty years later, in this reader’s head, is when the disorientated survivor from the Iolaire wanders the desolate streets of Stornoway. That chapter, ‘The Morning God Nodded’ contains, for this reader, some of the most powerful prose ever to emerge from the Highlands and Islands.

Other fictions have the story in their background.  Anne Macleod’s The Dark Ship is a novel where the main concerns are different and the disaster seems just part of the story. Poets have taken a more direct approach. Norman Malcolm Macdonald’s Fad has a haiku-like poem where the recovered dead are no longer the expected ones, with clothes airing for their arrival. The one word ‘ticketed’ is enough to convey the cold that came from all the lights going out. There are two poems by Iain Crichton Smith, the later, stranger and bolder one included in the collected poems published by Carcanet. He is followed by the next generation’s response in work, for example by Anne Frater.

Donald S Murray’s first novel, As the Women Lay Dreaming, was published by Saraband, just before the anniversary. Its success, like the proven audience for the commemorative events, testifies to a continued fascination with the painful subject and a need to respond. It is beyond the scope of this summary to explore this work in more detail. I would simply suggest that this writer uses his first hand knowledge of an upbringing in a North Lewis village to convey a sense of an inner darkness, passing down the generations. An account of the grounding enters the narrative. The imagery of the man on the mast and the swimmer with the heaving line are also present but these are filtered through layers of time-shift and point of view. The premise is that a found memoire is paraphrased by a narrator, a generation on.

Like most people with a family background on Lewis and Harris, I too have a lost relative. Conversations with my brother and our cousins confirm that this was never really spoken about. I was aware of the family link but it only recently became clear to me that my mother was called Johann after her father’s lost brother, John Smith of 11 South Shawbost. His name is now on the bronze at Holm and a summary of his naval war experience is in a comprehensive new publication from Acair.

I’m certain I was not the only one who took in the past new year quietly, with this book open, by a window on the sea. It is by no means the first non fiction work since Macdonald’s Call na h-Iolaire. So why was this one necessary?  I would suggest that a valuable part of John Macleod’s When I heard the Bell was a most sceptical analysis of the documented facts. The research is thorough and the bibliography comprehensive. Macleod’s analysis properly records the losses of those from the Isle of Harris. The author is unstinting in his assertion of the culpability of the Admiralty in the causes building to the tragedy. He also reproduces Macdonald’s discussion of the navigational error, with contributions from a ferry skipper and a local yachtsman. It was through this book that I learned how my great uncle’s widow asserted her passion even in the process of being means-tested for a widow’s payment from the relief fund. This was raised by public subscription and not provided by the Admiralty or any other British establishment. Under the section ‘relationship to the deceased’, she wrote, ‘He was my dearly beloved husband.’

However, the author’s voice is ever present in this book. At times this risks obscuring the stark implications of bare facts. Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod have conducted countless hours of meticulous research. Sadly, MacLeod (a vivid storyteller and chronicler of his childhood time on the island of Scarp) did not live to see the publication of what must have been years of careful sifting. The key is surely the restraint in its presentation. The authors have kept their own personalities well in the background. Instead, accumulating detail, as well as visual documentation, they  offer what must surely now be the definitive account of the tragedy. Past and present cultural responses are also listed as are, with due acknowledgment, products of previous research, like the navigational discussion.

Design and production standards are of the highest standard and make the volume of information manageable. The ship and its crew are rebuilt and its destruction is conveyed by first hand accounts. The failures of ‘the authorities’ are also detailed, in cold ink rather than in emotive statements. This book puts an unerring finger on the contradictions.  A witness states, ‘Orders from the bridge were subsequently given to bring the hawser amidships.’ Yet all the other evidence is consistent. There was a failure in the grounding and a failure to take charge of the situation afterwards. The hawser was deployed and moved by the seamen themselves, not under instructions from the officers or crew of the ship. Macdonald’s fiction also accurately refers to the conflicting testimonies. Even the local mariners who crewed a rowing vessel to deliver ‘am Patch’ from that mast were denied the credit. The naval harbour master, Lt Wenlock claimed, ‘I succeeded in rescuing him with some difficulty.’ First-hand sources reveal a desperate effort from Admiralty personnel, at the Inquiry, to present a semblance of taking charge.

Only after all the information is presented do the authors allow their own comments. They make the key point that several witnesses who might well have shone a lamp on the lost track of the ship were not called. Most telling is the exclusion of the skipper of the fishing Vessel Spider. His crewman described sighting the Iolaire but the skipper might well have helped pin down its actual course to its fatal grounding.

These sailors and the people of Lewis and Harris were let down after they had given their all. It was only when the islanders took their own initiative that a means of survival was provided for all too few. Island authorities also had to push hard for an inquiry that would go further than a token sham. They were let down yet again when the Admiralty locked away a set of incomplete papers for fifty years. Their memory is well served by this important and fascinating publication.








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Blog / Discussion