FOCUS Gairm nan Gaidheal: Call of the Gael

Roddy Murray, head of visual arts at An Lanntair in Stornoway, assesses the Gairn nan Gaidheal project…

Just recently the British withdrawal from Afghanistan was complete. If you go to the BBC website you can see the names and photographs of the 453 who died there over the 12-year period. It’s been a time for sober reflection to seal the national debate on whether we should have been there in the first place, and to heal and salve the anguish of those directly affected.

Yet consider this. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 19,240 British soldiers fell on that single day. Fourteen were from Lewis with the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforths and to this day there is a spot on Stornoway golf course called Redan, the ridge the assault was meant to overwhelm.

In the final tally, of the 6,712 from the Isle of Lewis who served, 1,151 never returned — an attrition rate of 17 per cent, the highest in the whole of the UK.

At the Faclan Book Festival it was a discussion point I had for the historian Trevor Royle, who contributed to Gairm nan Gaidheal and had that same evening formally opened the exhibition. How do we even begin to assimilate and understand the enormity of the Great War, its impact and its aftermath?

There’s a quote often missattributed to Stalin that ‘a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic’. It is more probable that it was said by a French diplomat in 1932 in reference to the War.  Either way, therein lies the challenge — not so much in documenting or cataloguing these four years in facts and figures, colossal though that task might be, but in evoking the emotional and psychological desolation and cost. One wonders if it is a bit like contemplating infinity: our minds are not calibrated to process it. It invokes a feeling akin to vertigo.

In this centenary year, though, it cannot be avoided or ignored and it is to Proiseact nan Ealan’s credit that they have risen to this monumental challenge. In their endeavour they collaborated with designers The Creative Cell who developed the structure of the exhibition. It is a formidable achievement in terms of the information assembled, testimony gathered and editorial control.

Indeed it is no slight task to review it, such is the density of material and the intensity of the experience it seeks to commemorate. Language seems barely adequate.

Earlier this year we saw ‘Sequamar’, also commissioned by Proiseact nan Ealan, the remarkable, insightful play by Donald S Murray based on the exorbitant price that the Nicolson Institute paid. It was compelling because it focused on and examined the effects of the War at a localised or micro level rather than the epic, broad sweep of the various theatres: the Western Front, Gallipoli, Macedonia, the High Seas and so on. Here the reality of the conflict was revealed in terms we could grasp. Neighbours, friends, family, the knock on the door.

A similar approach has been taken with Gairm nan Gaidheal: Call of the Gaidheal. Yes, the broad sweep of the War is documented chronologically and comprehensively in some detail, with careful and informed reference and emphasis. But it is counterpointed with the voices of the communities. This speaks movingly of the reality and it is fitting that bespoke versions of the exhibition will travel to all the communities it represents throughout the Western Isles from Lewis to Barra.

We journey in time from the beginning with its pressurising, paternal propaganda infused with its message of duty, honour and obligation — values that in 1914 really did mean something — to the bitter  harvest of the Front and the other theatres, where names like Mons, Loos, the Somme, Passchendale, Gallipoli have become a grim shorthand for slaughter.

Regiments, such as the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders, had high concentrations of Highlanders and Islanders and benefited from the shared sense of comradeship, community and mission that they brought, fully formed, to their units. The dark side of this was that these same ‘armies of pals’ who fought together also fell together as they entered the lethal curtains of machine-gun fire from the opposing trenches.

Murdo Macfarlane, the Melbost Bard, wrote in his poem ‘Naoi Ceud Deug ‘sa Ceithear Deug’ (1914):
Bhris an stoirm, san tuil dhòirt
‘S air an Eòrpa rinn tigh’nn
Tuil fhuil dhearg nam fir òg  

The storm broke, the flood poured
And overwhelmed Europe
The flood of young men’s blood  

What snaps the exhibition together three-dimensionally are the gathered artefacts, loaned from homes throughout the islands and particularly those from the museum at Ypres recovered from the battlefield. For in this we have the personal touch to go along with the voices. A cigarette packet, a Christmas tin, clogs brought back from Holland…

Perversely, a shell is a rather beautiful ornament in its own right.  Some of those on display have been carved and embellished much, one supposes, like old sailors did scrimshaw. The polished brass speaks of the war which began on horseback and ended with tanks: of a world in painful, violent transition. When Charles Emmerson spoke later that evening about his book ‘1913: The World Before the Great War’, one acutely felt the sense of loss. As if a great city bursting with people and potential had burned down in the night.

‘Death Pennies’ were presented to next of kin of all British and Empire personnel who were killed.  Of the 1,355,000 eventually issued, three were for the Macleod brothers — Alexander, William and Norman — of 10 Portnaguran, Point.

As resonant a date as the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the Armistice was signed, is the first day of the first month of 1919 when 181 Lewismen were lost on the Iolaire on the Beasts of Holm.
On a school desktop in a case in the exhibition, among the patina of initials is carved the name ‘Patch’: Donald ‘Patch’ Morrison, the last survivor of the ‘Iolaire’, who spent that long night on the mast before being rescued the following morning. Only then was the Great War finally over for the Isle of Lewis, although its legacy would last for generations.

Gairm nan Gaidheal is at An Lanntair, Stornoway, from 27th November – 6th December. The Gairm nan Gaidheal project is up for two awards at the Daily Record Scottish Gàidhlig Awards in Glasgow on 19th November.

The photo above, courtesy of the In-Flanders-Field-Museum-Ypres, ©Australian-War-Memorial-Canberra, shows soldiers in the trenches of Ypres