The Isle of Lewis and the Great War
The Blue Max Project is still alive, just in hibernation while my wife and I spent a good part of our summer on a trip to Scotland. Part of that trip took us to the Isle of Lewis, located at the far northwest corner of the Scottish Highlands. In the port town of Stornoway I started up a conversation with a fishmonger in his shop. Once he knew I was from the United States the conversation became political, talking about our elections and Donald Trump (who has cousins that live on the island). I asked him his opinion about Brexit and got this quick response;
“Brexit? Here’s what I think about Brexit. There are a lot of dead Scotsman buried in the Fields of Flanders....and what did Europe do for us….nuthin!!”
Now if you can put the politics of that statement aside for a moment ( believe me there are plenty of Scottish people who voted to stay in the European Union) what stunned me about this statement was a 35 year old man speaking so passionately about the Great War. I could visit a thousand butcher shops in California and talk politics until I was blue in the face and very unlikely that anyone I talked with would bring up World War 1 with such passion. I didn’t know the Island’s history, but the rest of our visit made it very clear how personal the effects of the war were on these islanders. I thought I would share with you some of the things I saw during the visit.
Along the northern coast, Lewis is green but barren, very few trees, with narrow roads that rise and fall through a series of small villages. Most of the town signs are in Gaelic with an English translation below, names like Siadar and Aird Dhail. After a mile or so you are on to the next town. Almost every town of any size had a war memorial like this. I am sure I saw at least five or six of them during our drive to Port Nis.
A shop owner explained to us 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 there 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 that there was a small war museum at the Comunn Eachdraidh Nis ( their local community center) and my wife 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 a World War 1 exhibition. It was a very personal display of artifacts, medals, documents and artwork by current residents. Each poppy painted on the wall had a serviceman's name next to it and the date he died during the war.
A local artist Dr. Margaret Ferguson was commissioned to do a single painting for the display, but produced ten portraits of soldiers like this one. Her work is moving, the eyes of her subjects are piercing.
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 received if they lost a husband or son. It has the soldiers name engraved on it.
This display was more of community effort more than a museum but it was full of heart and care. If you travel to the south east end of the island in the town of Stornoway there is a much more formal display. The War Memorial is located on the top of a 300 foot rise in the center of town. There are long views of the island in all directions from this vantage point.
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 towards 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 occurred for the rest of the British Isles. As if these losses were 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 within eyesight of home after returning from the war.
The plaques themselves are sobering, names are listed alphabetically and for such a small community clearly you had brothers, sons and cousins that all 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, He never fully recovering from being sprayed with chlorine gas. My wife’s grandfather served with the 7th Battalion of the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders and we was also gassed during the war and he told me about it the first time I met him in the simple direct language of a native born 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 by the man 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 foreigner visiting their community they helped me remember too and that was a gift I had not expected to receive during this trip.