Isle of Lewis and the Great War
Lewis is green but barren, rolly roads through flatland with a whole series of small villages with names like Air Dhail or Sladar Uarach. Most of the town signs are in gaelic with an english translation below. After a mile or so you are on to the next town. Almost ever town of any size had a war memorial like this. I am sure I saw at least five or six of them during our visit to the north end of the island.
One shop owner explained that the community commemorated the centennial of the Great War by placing wreaths on their doors of homes where families had lost a relative in the war. She said it was humbling to see how many wreaths their were in their community. Afterwards they brought the wreaths to their towns memorials. The memorials list the Lewismen who died during the war. She mentioned one person's family had lost four sons and that there was a small war museum at the Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, their local community center. Robyn and I paid a visit.
The mural on the side of the building made it clear what it was all about.
Inside was a small cafe. They had turned the dining area into an exhibition. It was a very personal display of artifacts, medals, documents and artwork by current residents. Each poppie on the wall had a serviceman's name next to it.
A local artist Dr. Margaret Ferguson was commissioned to do a single painting, but produced ten portraits of soldiers or their family members like this one. Her work is moving, and always hits a higher level of clarity around the eyes.
Here is an example of one of the medal sets on display. The large copper medallion was referred to as the "dead penny" because it was what the family recieved if they lost a husband or son. It has the soldiers name engraved on it.
This display came from one small region of Lewis. In the town of Stornaway there is a War Memorial on the top of a 300 foot rise in the center of town for the entire Island. It was so tall and narrow that I thought it was some kind of disquised cell tower when I first saw it. On our way back to Stornoway to catch the ferry we made a quick run up the hill to take a look.
The memorial takes the form of a Scottish Baronial tower. The island started raising funds for the tower in 1920 and it was complete in 1924. It had a central spiral staircase and four chambers with windows. The windows in each chamber were oriented to a single parish of the four main "parishes" of Lewis. Bronze plaques were installed inside the chamber naming all the fallen "lewismen" from their community. Eventually moisture and rust forced the tower to be closed and the plaques were moved out into the stone circle you see in the foreground.
Close up the monument is impressive.
To understand the impact of this war on Lewis you have to look at some statistics. The island population was around 29,000 in 1914 and 6,712 men enlisted. Of those 6,712 enlisted 1,151 men died during the war. That ratio was double the rate that occured for the rest of the British Isles. As if these losses where not enough, in 1919 a ship returning sailors home from the war struck the " Beasts of Holm" a rock outcropping at the port of Stornoway. This is the same port our ferry left from. 174 men drowned just a few 100 feet before reaching home.
The plaques themselves are sobering, names are listed alphabetically and for such a small community clearly you had brothers, sons and cousins that knew each other. This was one of several plaques for the parish of Uig.
While I was at the small museum I was looking at this medal display about Donald MacLeod.
It caught my eye because this young man died some 8 years after returning home after never fully recovering from being sprayed with chlorine gas. Robyn's grandfather was also gassed during the war and he told me about it in the direct language of a scotsman.... "Awful stuff" he said. While I was looking at the display a mom came up with her young son and said "See those medals? Those were earned by the great uncle of the man's house we are staying at."
All this combined with the comments of the guy at the fish shop made me realize that on Lewis the Great War is not about history, it is real and personal. They lost a generation of men in their community and they still grieve. They also paint and teach and get angry and remember.
As a foriegner visiting their community they helped me remember too and that was a gift I had not expected during this trip.