What I have learned as a teacher, musician, and community member is that whether dealing with historical or present trauma, the arts are a way for humans to process, express, communicate and heal from something too complex or too difficult for words. The communities of the Outer Hebridean islands have chosen many art forms to help honor the men of the Iolaire and help its community heal from this tragic loss.
January 1, 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the shipwreck of the HMY Iolaire. Two hundred of the men died just 20 yards off shore from Stornoway harbor and the returning sailorsʼ home island of Lewis. Very little was spoken about this tragedy even though it was the UK’s worst peacetime maritime disaster since the sinking of the Titanic and left a community traumatized - dealing with the loss of a generation of men. Two musical compositions were commissioned to commemorate this disaster and I attended both as part of the Celtic Connections music festival. In preparation for the concerts, I researched the history of the Iolaire and learned that the men onboard were heading home from the end of the World War I and anxious to be with their families for the New Year.
Due to navigational error, the ship hit the rocks known as the Beasts of Holm. Even only yards away from shore, the winter seas were so harsh that men in life boats or wearing life jackets drowned. Only 79 men survived, 40 of whom were helped ashore by the heroic act of John Finlay Macleod. His local knowledge of the waters helped him strategically time his journey to shore. He knew that seven smaller waves were followed by three bigger ones. It was this third wave that carried him over the rocks to make it to shore and inspired the title of one of the commissions by Gaelic singer, Julie Fowlis, and fiddler, Duncan Chisholm: An Treas Suaile (The Third Wave).
Although there are no videos or audio of this commission, here is an example of the beautiful collaborative work that Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisolm do:
The second commissioned work by composer, Iain Morrison and imagery by Dalziel and Scullion is titled Sal, which can mean salt, saltwater, the open sea and tears.
According to this BBC article, a public inquiry into the Iolaire lasted only two days. Many on the island felt that this tragedy contributed to future emigration from the Western Isles for over one thousand men from these islands had already died during the war.
It felt surreal watching these commissions after having just seen an Alaskan opera commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Princess Sophia when it hit the Vanderbilt Reef in the Lynn Canal in October 2018. There was little news covering this tragedy because it was overshadowed by the armistice of World War I. People wanted to hear happy news. Whether in Alaska or Scotland the people of these more isolated areas are using the arts to honor, process and heal.
,This is a personal blog, sharing my experiences living in the UK from January - June 2019 as a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching scholar. This blog is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.