North Bute Lit: ‘Grief unutterable’

The Iolaire Monument in Stornoway, Lewis.
The Iolaire Monument in Stornoway, Lewis.

At the North Bute Literary Society meeting last week, Jana Bielikova gave a very thoughtful talk about the people of Lewis following the tragic sinking of the troop ship Iolaire near Stornoway Harbour in 1919.

Jana retold the story of the Iolaire and the loss of 205 men who, having survived the Great War, were returning to their island homes at the start of peacetime. Her talk set out to refute the public and press view of the succeeding few years that the soul of the island had been destroyed that day, and though physically hearts continued to beat, the people were overwhelmed with despair.

The scale of the disaster was immense. Approximately one fifth of the men of Lewis served in the war (6,000) and, including the Iolaire victims, over 1,000 perished. Every township and almost every household was affected. On that night 58 women were widowed and 209 children were left fatherless.

Jana then filled in the context of life on Lewis immediately pre- and for a few years post- 1919. Life was hard, the people were poor, and scraping a living from a combination of fishing and crofting. Lord Leverhulme bought the island in 1918 with grandiose plans to build infrastructure, introduce industries and double the population to 60,000. He had a mixed reception from the crofters who were wary of relinquishing their land rights.

Between 1919 and 1923, whilst coping daily with the consequences of the Iolaire disaster, the people still found the strength to fight against various Land Reform and Crofting Acts, even resorting to land-raids. Leverhulme was a well-intentioned business man but he had completely misunderstood his tenants’ needs and wishes. Eventually he withdrew all his connections to the island in September 1923.

Jana’s well researched argument was that through all the despair, hardship and uncertainty of the post war decade the people, collectively, had not succumbed to grief, and given up – they were still able to fight for their future, or had the strength to sail away with hope in their hearts for life in a new country.

From January 10, 1919, edition of the Stornoway Gazette: “No-one who is now alive in Lewis can ever forget January 1, 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of the bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their homes under the most tragic circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm has plunged every home and heart in Lewis into grief unutterable.”

Scott McMaster will talk on the ‘Jacobites’ on Tuesday, February 7, 2017.