Coming Home

One of the greatest privileges of writing this blog is the way it has brought me into contact with people who contact me to say it speaks to them, or comforts them, or makes them laugh. Recently, I heard from a man with Point connections (and, despite that, I still got back in touch!) regarding my blog on the ‘Iolaire’ and its place in our heritage.

 As proof of what I was saying about our ancestry, and our connection to the island being an unbreakable chain, a heaving line that brings us home, no matter where we are, I have pleasure in sharing the following with you. It is a story, written by Anna Cumming and published in her school magazine. She was neither born, nor brought up, here in Lewis, yet the ‘Iolaire’ is also part of her identity too. You will agree, I am sure, that what we have here is a fine and sensitive writer – and, hopefully, a future guest blogger as well!

As I fought my way through the bustling crowds in Kyle of Lochalsh, I made my way to the ship that was to take me home  from the War. It had been a long fight, wearisome and brutal. Everyone, from the youngest infant to the oldest man, had  been affected in unspeakable ways. Those who had not lost anyone in this fight were few and far between; over a thousand  men from our island had perished. And for many, the pain of separation from young men going off to fight had been the  hardest sacrifice they could ever have made …

Mother stood in the kitchen, baking oatcakes and humming an old Gaelic folk song as I carried in the fish I’d caught that day while fishing with my best friend Will. Father, I think, was next door with Christine, my younger sister, no doubt planning her upcoming wedding to Murdo.

It was with a heavy heart that I gave mother those fish. Will and I had been discussing the war that day, and in particular the navy. After he had told me of the need for sailors, he had said something that had inspired me. Will wanted to go to war and to fight for his country. I admired him for his bravery. I relished the idea of adventure. And so I had signed up in the town. But how could I tell father? Christine? And how on earth could I break my mother’s heart?

I still remember the look on her face when I told her. All the colour drained from her cheeks, and she stared at me in shock. And then she did something which took more bravery than anything I have ever seen. She smiled. Told me she was proud. Said she loved me.

And that is what kept me going through four years of pain and terror. It was for my mother, the most valiant, strong woman I have ever known. I wrote to her every week from wherever we were, to reassure her. Sometimes, Christine wrote to me about Murdo, who was now her husband, and Mary. Mary was her little two-year-old girl, who had been born to them on my thirty-third birthday. That was the best birthday present of my life, a niece. And I had never seen her.

But the war was over now; I was coming home. It was all going to be so much better. Will and I had written to our families, telling them to be at the docks early in the morning. It was going to be wonderful! And I knew a secret – Will was going to  propose marriage to his girlfriend, Catherine. She would get such a shock!

Sitting in a tight corner on the ship, I watched the stars with Will. He loved the stars. It had become a routine to look up at them whenever the night was clear, and imagine that our families were watching too. I think Will mainly thought of Catherine when he looked at them, but mother was the person in my heart. If I knew her, she’d be turning the house topsy-turvy, preparing for our return. I could already imagine her face when our boat came in. Her joy would be unbounded.

Glancing up as I came out of my reverie, I saw that the stars had disappeared behind a dark cloud, which was covering them like a shroud. I could barely even see my own hands.

“Lights! I can see the lights!” laughed someone, and as I looked out towards Stornoway, I laughed too. All of the coast was lit up with hundreds of twinkling lights, sending out beams as if to cheer us on our way. We were coming home, and it felt amazing.

An uneasy whisper started in the bow of the ship; the Arnish lighthouse was strangely out of place. Will glanced at me, brows furrowed.

“That’s not …”

CRUNCH! What was that? We crashed to a halt, lurching forward on top of one another. A sense of foreboding swept over me, until it engulfed me utterly. I was frightened, frightened in a way that no gun or torpedo had ever made me feel.

A few men yelled, but most managed to stay calm. Will bit his lip, drawing blood, before turning to me, his eyes gleaming in the darkness.

“Roddy, I’m going to go and get the lifebelts and give them out to those who can’t swim. This doesn’t feel good, and –”

As he spoke, there was another lurch. Suddenly, I realised that my worries were about to be realised. Will leapt up and grabbed some lifebelts, giving them out to those who couldn’t swim. Angus, Donnie, Alex, Norman … the list went on and on. I helped him, determined to be as brave as he was, and to do my part. I wasn’t the only one

John, another good friend and stalwart companion, had grabbed a rope and tied it firmly around both his waist and the mast. Nodding briskly at me, he dived into the wintery ocean. I couldn’t see him after that. It was pitch black, except for

the faint, flickering light from the lantern hung from the mast. All I was aware of was the motion of reaching for a lifebelt and giving it out, reaching for a lifebelt and – nothing. We were out of lifebelts. Some men were jumping overboard in an attempt to swim to shore; one began climbing the mast for refuge.

Just then, someone let out a cry: “The rope! It’s tightened! John has made it!”

The now taut rope was evidently secured to something on the rocky shore. Just as I took my place in an orderly queue, I felt a tug at my arm. It was Will. I have never seen a man look as courageous in the face of danger as Will looked that night, his hair wild, his eyes sparkling with a determined fire.

“Roddy! I’m going to swim to shore. No, don’t you dare try and come with me, you know that you can’t swim well.”

I tried to protest, but he held his hand up to silence me.

“Now, now, Roddy. I will swim alone, for that rope is needed for those who cannot swim, and I’ve a greater chance than most. You get on that rope and keep safe. I promise you I’ll be alright!”

I don’t know why I trusted him, I really don’t. Most probably, it was because Will had never broken his word before. Anyway, I obeyed him. As he dived overboard, I gripped the rope and took a deep breath before leaping off the tilting deck.

That passage in the darkness, being tossed by the rolling waves was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done. As the sea crashed against me, dousing me repeatedly with foam and spray, I could hear the shouts of the other men. When I reached the end of the rope, it was all I could do to crawl up on to the shore, safe.

The sun shone in through the window as I blearily opened my eyes. It was bright, and yet there was a coldness in its gleam, as if even the sun could not laugh. As my mind pulled itself together, I shook my head. Where was I?

“Roddy! Oh thank goodness!” cried someone, and I was pulled into a warm hug. From the warmth and scent of fresh bread, I recognised my mother, and nestled into her arms, finding comfort amidst distress. After a moment of this, I released myself. Around my bed were clustered Murdo, Christine, father and a little girl who must be my niece Mary. And then I saw Catherine. She was crying.

“Catherine …” I said, fear stabbing my heart, “Catherine, where’s Will? Catherine!”

“Oh Roddy,” she said, “He’s … gone.”

Mother wept, “And not just him, either. Around two-hundred lost their lives last night. They – they swam the wrong way. Out to sea. Their bodies started washing up on the beaches this morning.”

That was the moment when my heart broke.

Years later, and I stand gazing up at the stars, thinking of Will. How he risked all to give others a fighting chance of survival. His dreams, of children and a home of his own with Catherine. All his goals and ambitions, wasted so young. I sighed. Will really wasn’t coming home.

 

 

 

Gaelic Rock, Gaelic Soil and Community

Next Saturday will be a valedictory one for Gaelic rock, as Runrig perform for the very last time. The week preceding promises to be good for Gaelic soil, marking as it does, the fact that so many acres of this beautiful land are now under the care of those who love them best. This, in case you hadn’t heard, is Community Land Week.

It was probably Runrig who contributed most to the awakening of my consciousness of the land issue. When, at age ten, in the centenary year of the Crofting Act, my eyes were first opened to the fact that I lived at the very edge of political power, I began to see the importance of knowing the hand which history had dealt my people. But my love for the music of this band directed my questions – most of which they had asked before me.

In the song, ‘Fichead Bliadhna’, we have the very real anger of young Gaels, demanding to know why they had learned the history of every civilization on earth but the one to which they belonged. Nothing else Runrig has done, however, compares to the album, ‘Recovery’, for making this very valid point. It is filled with an awareness of how much land and crofting have shaped who the Gaels are.

When I was a teenager, still in school, I used to have to purchase the ‘West Highland Free Press’ in secret, and smuggle it into the house. My father had not outright banned it, but he disapproved of its (Labour) editorial bias. I didn’t exactly love it for that myself, but I adored the opinion columns, and the feeling that even local politics here in the island were important.

And now, in this one week, it feels as though all those strands are somehow weaving back together. While I was thinking about this blog, and letting the ideas percolate in my brain, I listened again to ‘Recovery’. It is just as I remember it, raising past wrongs and the small acts of heroism which brought about change. Its closing track, ‘Dust’, brought something else to mind as well, particularly the line that runs, ‘Oh deep the faith and pure the light that shines inside and guides your people’.

You see, my upbringing wasn’t just one of social politics and the plight of the Gael. I, like everyone else of my generation, was steeped in the history of another people whose relationship with land was also a bit complicated: the children of Israel.

It was in connection with them that I was startled to hear the minister use the term ‘security of tenure’ in church recently. Being the central plank of the 1886 Crofting Act, it brought the horror of eviction without just cause to an end. We can scarcely appreciate its importance today, however, if we do not know what went before. That was very much the point that Runrig made so well.

The children of Israel received security of tenure in their covenant with God. Land apportioned to them as part of this was a blessing and only became otherwise whenever the fifth commandment was breached. In other words, when familial relationships broke down, that land of promise became nothing more than a mere commodity to be fought over.

Land is frequently the focus of division – challenged wills, unseemly squabbling over croft tenancies, sibling rivalry carried to the extent of litigation. It is no coincidence that, when you look at the archaeological record, fortifications developed very swiftly after man ceased to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, and began to lay claim to particular territories. Homes were reinforced against marauding intruders; smiths fashioned swords as well as ploughshares.

We are fortunate in Lewis to have so much control over our land, and it is appropriate to celebrate that fact with a special week of events. It would be quite wrong to take the blessing for granted because it is not actually ours by right, but by providence.

Stewardship of God’s providence is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and it is reassuring that it is being done more and more by people who are well-informed, and who genuinely care for the land.

My only worry is when I see attitudes manifest that would suggest land somehow takes precedence over people, which it ought not. Conservationists wish to protect the wildlife and its habitat, even at the expense of human society. Crofting has done much to shape who we are – it has formed the landscape, to an extent, and it has maintained a population where there might otherwise be only ruins and cold hearths. And, in its turn, crofting has been afforded legal protections which allowed a little security, a little breathing space and, eventually, the chance to develop and grow.

I want what is best for the place in which I live. Most of the people here do. We may differ in our opinion on what that is, or how to get there, but we ought to be able to do that respectfully, and without malice.

It was Runrig, channeling the prophet, Isaiah who said it best, I think, in the one song of theirs that I never really liked – ‘Alba’. They sang the prophet’s words in Gaelic, about the accumulation of wealth which so often comes in the form of land:

‘Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.’

This week, and all the time, community is every bit as important as land.

 

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