Around the Peat-Fire, by Calum Smith (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2001; "Anthology" Edition [with additional essays] 2010), is a memoir which crosses boundaries between personal, local and national history, illuminating all three. First published when its author was nearly 90, it is the story of and stories from the first three decades of his life, almost all of which he spent on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
Obviously it was not only in the Western Isles that the early twentieth century brought massive changes in the way of life, but there were specific local features: transition in Calum's case linguistically and culturally as well as physically and geographically, from a Gaelic-speaking home and early environment in the west of the island, to the English-medium education system and the predominantly English-speaking town of Stornoway, and other zones of interaction with the wider world. Constrained by pressure on the land and the complications of tenure and inheritance, the crofting family moved to the outskirts of Stornoway, and eventually into it. He conveys the reality of rural poverty, along with the mitigating circumstances that made it bearable, such as the freedom of the open air, the network of mutual support, and the informal entertainments. For some education was the route to a different life, but after a spell at Glasgow University Calum, having turned down a chance to be a Labour candidate, returned to Lewis and spent some time doing odd jobs while 'unemployed' like so many of his contemporaries and fellow islanders - the depression hit hard, exacerbated by the post-war decline of the formerly flourishing herring fishing industry - ending up in the late 1930s as an employee of the local Labour Exchange, the 'Burroo' (Bureau of Employment).
He does not speak for others, but having good verbal recall enables the reader to 'hear' them speaking for themselves in quotations, often at some length, almost as if taking their turn to hold the floor or ‘yarn’ at a ceilidh. There are some areas of reticence: we do not have explicit pronouncements on issues like gender relations, for example, but have the means through his observation to draw certain inferences, one being the clear demarcation of tasks combined with shared responsibilities within a strongly patriarchal society that was nevertheless more nuanced in this respect than might be assumed. It was part of the writer's aim to celebrate and commemorate the people and places he had known (including some who did not survive very long to record their own testimony – several allusions to young men are tagged with a note of how they died in the Second World War), during that past time which he was conscious, as he wrote, of being one of the few to remember.
That he succeeded well is perhaps best illustrated by the book’s favourable reception, not just in terms of sales and reviews, but through the many appreciative letters he received from readers - Lewis men and women, their descendants, and people from other parts of the world in whom it had aroused often emotional reactions and recollections. More formal recognition was forthcoming too, especially in the glowing short review in the West Highland Free Press (28 December 2001) by Roger Hutchinson, who later paid it the tribute of referring to it repeatedly throughout one of his own books, The Soap Man (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2003), to illustrate his narrative as a recurring motif, i.e. what was happening to an island family during the period he was describing. One of the things that most impressed Roger Hutchinson about Around the Peat-fire was the third chapter, dealing with the shipwreck of the Iolaire on New Year's Day 1919.
|View of Stornoway from the Iolaire memorial site, Holm|
Though often spoken of as 'remote' or even 'on the edge of the world' the island’s inhabitants were far from isolated as regards world events. In more prosperous times there had been frequent contacts with Scandinavia, Russia and North America through the herring industry, which involved large-scale processing as well as catching the fish, while young Lewiswomen made up a substantial proportion of the seasonally migrant 'herring girls' who worked in ports around the Scottish and English coasts, as far away as Yarmouth. Calum's mother started work on the fish at the age of 14, and it was in Fraserburgh, north of Aberdeen, that she married Murdo Smith from a closely neighbouring village on the west coast of Lewis, who was one of the crew on a fishing boat there while she was working on the quay gutting herring. His (Calum's) eventual father-in-law, meanwhile, was on the other side of the fish-curing business, in a family firm (Flett’s) that would have employed women like his mother, until the business collapsed along with so many others in the 1920s and ‘30s.
There is a long tradition too of association between poverty-driven recruitment to the armed forces and the island. Casualties in the First World War were heavy: according to the Scottish historian T C Smout, from a population of 29,500 on the island, 6700 had joined the forces, and 1151 had died, about 17% of recruits. Many of them were in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), a popular choice of affiliation on Lewis because of the retainer it paid to those who joined, as described on pp.26-27 of the book. But the casualties did not end on 11 November 1918. On January 1st 1919, in the early hours of the morning, H.M.Yacht Iolaire struck rocks, the 'Beasts of Holm', near the entrance to Stornoway harbour, and sank with the loss of 205 men. Most of those on board were RNR ratings going home to villages around the island after years of war service. Among them was of Calum Smith's uncle John, who was not one of the 75 survivors. In the commemorative booklet on the disaster, Sea Sorrow, published by the Stornoway Gazette in 1959, he is listed as the first of nine from the village of Shawbost: John Smith, Deck hand, R.N.R., 11 South. The list of names shows between 1 and 23 lost from each of 35 villages, and the town, grouped in 4 parishes.
As well as expressing the shared sense of shock and grief, the Town Council two days later demanded the strictest investigation into all circumstances. The Admiralty found "Nothing to account for the disaster" in its initial Court of Enquiry; there were rumours, a desire for some sort of explanation, eventually a public enquiry. Although no-one was blamed, the situation prior to embarkation was described by James Shaw Grant, Editor of the Gazette in the mid 20th century, (Hub of My Universe, p.92) as a 'familiar story of chaos' at Kyle of Lochalsh, the mainland port, such as had occurred previously at the time of island servicemen's return from the Boer War, when the lack of organisation had led to protests. At the end of 1918 neither the Admiralty nor the War Office had made adequate provision for the numbers to be transported across the Minch. Some soldiers and civilians were carried on the regular ferry, the Sheila, which made the crossing safely, but the naval ratings were put on to the Iolaire, parent ship of Stornoway naval base, which had never previously entered that harbour in darkness.
It may scarcely be possible to exaggerate the impact of the tragedy at the time, with such pervasive bereavement, but the effect on second and third generations is more problematic. Apart from a poem of two, there was little obvious cultural or physical memorial in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, although as in so many other places a large war memorial for 1914-18 was erected on a hill overlooking the town - and of course there were gravestones. Certainly the Iolaire was not forgotten in the intervening years, but direct references to it were rather rare: to ‘place’ someone, e.g. 'His grandfather was drowned on the Iolaire', or when there was a question of going to the beach near the wreck site. The first specific monument was set up in 1959, and a plaque was added nearby in 2002 (in a ceremony including phrases that may have come from a reading of this book).
Historiography of the event remained scarce. It was possible for in-depth studies of communities on Lewis from an 'anthropological'; or 'ethnographical' perspective (admittedly not history per se), like those by Judith Ennew and Susan Parman, to make little or no reference to it. Apart from the Gazette publication, the first substantial historical account was Norman Malcolm Macdonald's Call Na h’Iolaire, 1978 (the main narrative is in Gaelic, with a useful shorter outline in English). The same author included the disaster as one of the themes running through his novel Portrona (2000). Nowadays indeed it seems to be a necessary point of reference in any book with a Lewis setting, whether fictional like The Dark Ship by Anne Macleod (2002), the third novel in PeterMay’s trilogy, or non-fiction documentary like Children of the Black House by Calum Ferguson (2003). Of course it is also an integral and inescapable part of the now flourishing local 'heritage industry', and it is featured on a number of websites.
It might be worth considering how this process of remembering and adjusting over decades compares with collective memory of other events in other places, perhaps in one instructive comparison would be with the massive explosion at Halifax, Nova Scotia, in December 1917. There may be a question too of how such intensely local, specific trauma fits with the shared experience of world war.
To return to the title and the book, the Iolaire is a significant chapter but does not dominate either the mood or the content of this collection of memories as a whole. It is with the outbreak of the Second World War that the author concludes: 'Never again would things be the same for any of us.' (p.167) He was adamant that he had no wish to write about the Second World War, although he had a few anecdotes from his time in the Navy (like many others he signed on ‘HO’ - Hostilities Only), and numerous characters to remember in conversation.
|Cover of the 2010 edition|
Although this is attractively produced, a number of mostly minor errors escaped the proof-reading process. Since Calum Smith was always insistent on correct usage, they are noted below: