28 July 1914. Now there’s a date that changed the world! Or was that 11 November 1918? I guess it is the whole four years, isn’t it really? And the impact is so obvious that I’m not even going to mention it here.
Instead I want to mention a different but no less profound impact that was felt in one small part of the British isles; a felt very differently. I am talking here of the Gaelic crofting communities of the Outer Hebrides – a people and area long since used to sending their sons away to war, whether for their clan chiefs or, after 1745 especially, the British army. And this particular impact begins with Joseph Chamberlain’s Radical programme of 1885 which began the famous ‘three acres and a cow’ campaign. For a people long-deprived of the land they believed was rightly theirs, this campaign was music to their ears. So they went off to the war in 1914 in greater numbers (proportionately) than most other areas of Britain, convinced that on their return the land would be made ‘a place fit for heroes’ to live in. The war had its predictable impact but many came back. And they came back to exactly the same awful living conditions they left.
In the 1880s a previous generation had rebelled against those conditions. Had rioted, assaulted officers of the law and seized land. The war generation was not going to sit idly back and continue the struggle for daily survival. They too revolted, with an intensity not seen before. And by and large they won the land. Villages exist in the Highlands and islands today simply became of this rebellious generation.
But….. On the 1st January 1919 a troopship carrying nearly 200 demobilised soldiers and sailors was due to arrive in Stornoway – the main port on the island of Lewis, at that time, incidentally owned by Lord Leverhulme the founder of Lever Brothers, the company that makes Persil. The boat was called the Iolaire and it was arriving in the middle of a vicious storm. The Captain got his approach wrong and the boat struck the Beasts of Holm – a notorious bunch of rocks in sight of the Stornoway harbour lights. The result was tragic. 174 people were killed and their deaths impacted on virtually every family on the island. I could detail many consequences here but I do not have the space. Instead let me finish with the tale of another ship. In April 1923 the Metagama sailed out of Stornoway harbour carrying 300 emigrants for North America. It was followed by a number of others. The generation that had survived the war was leaving – a pattern that was repeated across the Outer Hebrides. The islands were plunged into a cycle of economic depression and ageing population that they continue to struggle to recover from. The Iolaire disaster – a profound but indirect consequence of 28 July 1914 – loosened the Gael’s attachment to the land and to the land of his birth. The world changed.