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Sacrifices made by the Western Isles

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Between 1914 and 1918, thousands of men, and women, left the Western Isles to fight in the war.

A huge number went to sea but never returned, and tiny communities, which already had fragile populations, suffered massive losses.

Donald MacLeod, a Lewisman living in Aberdeen, said: “My father lost one brother, six first cousins and 12 second cousins in World War I.

“In fishing ports such as Stornoway, the fishermen were called up as reservists which meant a lot of the fleet was tied up.

“In the first week of the war, 3,000 Lewismen were conscripted to the Royal Navy.

“Often it was the quiet fishing villages around the Scottish coast where the pangs of death were felt the most.”

The first Lewisman killed in WWI was 19-year-old seaman Kenneth John MacLeod, Royal Naval Reserve.

He was killed in action on September 14, 1914, during the engagement between HMS Carmania and the German auxiliary cruiser Cap Trafalgar in the South Atlantic.

The Carmania was crewed up with ratings of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and sailed from Liverpool on August 15, 1914 to join the North Atlantic patrol.

Included among these fighters of the RNR were many men from Lewis and Harris, including brothers and cousins.

In his book, The Ship That Haunted Itself, author Colin Simpson writes: “As the Cunard official history remarked, they were Scottish fishermen of the best type.

“The Scottish fishermen were far more experienced in handling the small ship’s boats in a heavy swell than were the marine infantry.

“Many would have been Gaelic-speaking, and those who spoke English would have the leisurely soft brogue of the Scottish Highlands.

“The Navy League decided to present a plate to selected ships of the Royal Navy that had rendered outstanding service in the war. The Carmania was the only civilian ship so honoured.”

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, many of the men from Lewis were either fishermen, whalers or merchant seamen voyaging around the globe.

The local girls were likely to marry seafarers they had known all their lives, but many paid a high price as the cruel sea took its toll.

Christina Buchanan, from Breanish in Uig, had a life haunted by death at sea.

Her father drowned before she was born, while her husband drowned when he was swept overboard by the boom on a boat in Loch Broom.

At 21, she was a widow with three sons – the youngest just three weeks old when her husband died.

Two of her sons died as a result of the Great War while a third was interned in Holland for most of the war.

Malcolm John Buchanan, Cameron Highlanders, was killed in action in France in September 1914, aged 26.

His brother Neil, Royal Naval Reserve, died at home in 1917, aged 27, from an illness contracted on war service.

Two of her grandsons lost their lives during WWII.

Her crofthouse faced the Atlantic and it’s said that when asked how she could bear to look at the sea which had devastated her family, she replied: “I have faith in God, every night before I go to bed I go on my knees and pray.”

With so many of their menfolk at sea, no one in the UK followed the war at sea closer than those living in the Western Isles.

Every time it was announced a ship had been lost, islands on Lewis and Harris would worry that their husbands and sons were still safe.

Throughout the war, many a piercing cry was heard as another family was given bad news, but the islanders bore their losses with stoic dignity.

News of the Battle of Jutland brought fresh anxiety as every district was represented on the ships engaged in the battle.

Soon, official telegrams were displayed at all the telegraph offices and they were eagerly scanned by old and young who learned a number of islanders had been killed on HMS Black Prince, HMS Broke, HMS Defence, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Invincible.

Others died later after being wounded in the battle.

The biggest blow was the death of 11 islanders on HMS Invincible, the flagship of the Third Battlecruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Simon Hood – who was also killed.

It’s thought he valued the Lewis seamen in his crew greatly which may explain why his widow wrote to the Lewis widows.

Her letter included reference to the battle and the ship sinking in 10 seconds.

She wrote: “One can be so thankful that these brave men did not suffer, and that there was no time for them to grieve or to think one sad thought.

“I hope that you will keep this letter and will sometimes read it over – and I only hope that this short account will help you as it has helped me.”

Compared to other villages, North Tolsta had a high casualty list.

In 1914, it had around 100 houses with able-bodied men, 41 of whom were killed, including 11 on the Iolaire, while some of those who did survive were left injured for life.

The Iolaire was one of the country’s greatest shipping disasters.

The boat was packed with Naval Reservists and merchant seamen from Lewis and Harris who had survived the war and were coming home on Hogmanay.

For some, it was their first visit home since the start of the war.

Boarding HMY Iolaire at Kyle of Lochalsh on December 31, 1918, brothers met brothers, cousins met cousins and neighbours met neighbours

Their joy at being homeward bound was cut short when fate dealt a cruel blow.

Early on the morning of January 1, the boat hit the infamous Beats of Holm outside Stornoway harbour resulting in the deaths of around 205 men who had survived the horror of the war.

In all, 174 Lewismen and seven Harrismen were drowned within sight of the Stornoway harbour lights. Many bodies were never recovered.

It was the most tragic single event to hit Lewis and Harris and one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.

Some 39 MacLeods, brothers and cousins, were drowned and it’s believed this is the highest number of seamen bearing the same surname ever drowned on the same European naval ship.

Reflecting on the losses islanders suffered during the war, Mr MacLeod in Aberdeen said:
“For their loyal and valiant war service the islanders received no largesse from the British government.

“In fact, Westminster wanted rid of them and encouraged them to emigrate so they would not claim back land stolen from the people during the Clearances.

“Lands raids in the Highlands worried the government; Russia had gone red, the Clyde had gone red and Whitehall was terrified that the Highlands would go the same way.

“For every four young Lewismen who went forth to death during the war, another 10 had gone forth to exile within a few years of demobilisation.

“This led to a steep decline in the population of the island.

“Many of the villages that provided the ‘War Heroes’ are now derelict.

“There is not one deep-sea fishing boat left in Lewis and the Hebridean fishing grounds are now the province of the EU trawler fleets courtesy of the Westminster Government.

“It all reminds me of a report on the Seven Years War in the Edinburgh Courant, July 18, 1763: ‘Were not Highlanders put upon every enterprise where nothing was to be got but broken bones’.”