“Why would you want to speak to me a’graidh?” questions 103-year-old Catherine Macaskill. That’s an easy one to answer, writes Ross Macleod (Back in the Day journalist).
In front of me is an amazing woman who has lived through two World Wars; a woman who was part of the mass exodus of islanders who emigrated to Canada in the 1920s; a woman who recalls the Iolaire disaster as if it were yesterday - in short, a woman with a tale to tell.
Better known as Katag King, she was born in July 1903 in the village of Aird in Point on the Isle of Lewis. Sitting in her cosy flat in Glasgow she is going to tell us about her life up to the Second World War, and begins by recalling her school days.
“We used to walk to school in our bare feet – everyone was the same, though; nobody could really afford shoes, but as children we didn’t wear them in the summer months anyway.
“In the winter time I would take turns in wearing my sisters’ shoes; one day I’d get Dollag’s shoes, the next it would be Seonaid’s shoes and so on. Och, you youngsters don’t know you’re living today,” she adds with a laugh and dismissive wave of her hand.
Continuing, Katag remembers her teachers, and one in particular. “There was a woman from Shulishader and, oh, she could be really tough when she wanted to be. At times some of the boys would tum up late for school and no matter if it was an hour or a minute, the leather strap would come out and the boys would be made to cross their hands before getting a hard smack.
“Punishment was harsh in them days,” admits Katag. “I remember three boys breaking into a shed in Portvoller and causing quite a bit of damage.
“They went to court but they weren’t fined or jailed - they were whipped on their bare backs. One of them left the island shortly afterwards and I think that was the reason why.”
Katag goes on to share some more of her early memories with us.
She recalls: “There was a great gale one night and it caused a lot of damage. A house in Broker even had its roof ripped off and it ended up half-a-mile away in Portnaguran. Thank goodness
no one was hurt.
“In the same gale corn stacks from Aird were blown into the neighbouring village of Portvoller. I can tell you there was a lot of quarrelling over whose corn was who’s when that happened.
“The problem was soon sorted as everyone had a different way of tying the corn and it was easy to work out to whom each stack belonged - although some Portvoller folk still tried to argue!”
It seems disagreements were quite commonplace back in the day as Katag remembers another clash - this time out on the moors.
“There was a huge square poll-mònach (peat bank) that many people used to cut from. It was so big that loads of young boys used to play football on top of it.
“Well,” she declares, “over the years the banks obviously became smaller and narrower until eventually they met. The folk then started to fight over who that last bit of peat belonged to - imagine that!”
When Katag left school she started work as a ‘skivvy’ at the local post office. Many young girls at that time took up ‘skivvy’ positions within households. This would involve mainly domestic tasks,
including washing and tidying plus any fetching and carrying that had to be done.
She then went on to work at various establishments in Stornoway including the Lewis and Caledonian hotels, as well as Maggie Sticky’s boarding house, which was run by two sisters who were never slow in trying to make some extra money.
Katag explains: “Those sisters would even rent out their own room when it got busy, which meant that they ended up having to sleep in the one and only bathroom in the house.
“If I remember right one guest was absolutely bursting during the night and rather than disturbing the sisters the poor man ended up doing his toilet in a bucket - he was lucky he found one!
“Och, I could write a book on what went on in these places,” she quips with a grin.
Katag is one of the very few people alive today who physically witnessed the aftermath of the greatest tragedy to ever hit the islands - the lolaire disaster.
It was early on New Year’s Day in l9l9 when over 200 island men returning from the Great War lost their lives as the ship they were on sank only yards from their homeland.
“It’s still very clear in my mind”” she admits sadly. “It was a Sunday morning and people were getting ready to go to church.
“My Auntie Maggie’s husband was returning on the Iolaire and she was busy getting his clothes dried by the fire, ready for his homecoming.
“We were waiting and waiting, wondering where he could be, then we noticed that people who had been walking to church were turning back. It was then that news of the sinking had come through from Stornoway.
“Oh, it was just terrible,” confesses a clearly emotional Katag. “We had heard that some of the men who had survived were in such a state of shock that they were wandering about the streets of the town in their bare feet - they didn’t know where they were.”
She continues: “Every village in every island was affected by the sinking of the Iolaire. If you hadn’t lost someone yourself, you knew someone who had - it was devastating.
“What annoys me,” asserts Katag, her voice rising, “is that the local sailors on that ship knew they were on the wrong course and they told the captain so, but he just wouldn’t listen to them. If he had, it would have saved a lot of heartbreak and we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”
Out of the overwhelming sadness of the disaster came a story of true selfless heroism as personally told to Katag by one of the survivors.
“This boy told me he was only alive due the amazing act of one man – Alistair Mackenzie, a church elder who was a great Christian.
“As the ship began to tilt Alistair told the men to climb onto his shoulders and get themselves to safety.
“One of the men asked him: ‘What about you?’
“He replied: ‘Don’t worry, I am safe already.’
“Alistair drowned, but those two boys never ever forgot how he sacrificed himself to save their lives.”
This terrible disaster, coupled with the loss of many young men during the First World War, lingered long in the hearts and minds of islanders and no doubt played a part in the exodus of people that left these shores in 1923/24 - Katag was one of them.
She reveals: “My fiancée Norman, left Stornoway on the Metagama in April 1923. I’ve never seen the likes of the crowd that gathered in the town on the day the ship sailed. You could hardly move for the amount of people waving goodbye to their loved ones.
“Things were bleak on the island then and the Canadian government had this emigration scheme where guaranteed work was on offer. So Norman decided to head over there to see if life would be better for us.
“The passage to Canada was free at the time, but on arrival the men had to work on farms to pay for their ticket - basically they were working for nothing.
“After a month or two on the farms,” continues Katag, “Norman, along with a few other island boys, ran away from the farms where they were working and jumped on a train that was bound for a town called Keewatin.”
So Norman settled in the small Canadian town and after a year he asked for Katag to join him.
“I boarded a boat in Glasgow - I think it was the Metagama again - and was soon on my way. I was sharing a cabin with a woman who had a wee boy but she wasn’t married and this was very much frowned upon in them days.
“Whenever we left the cabin I would make sure she wore my engagement ring so people wouldn’t talk about her - I often wonder where she ended up.”
There were plenty of activities to do aboard the ship but for the majority of the crossing Katag kept herself to herself. She admits to it being a ‘terrible journey’ but does recall one highlight as the ship neared Canada.
“We sailed fairly close to icebergs and my goodness they were huge - bigger than the ship - but they were a marvellous sight.”
On arrival Katag boarded a train and made the two day journey to Keewatin where she was finally reunited with Norman. Arrangements were soon made for their marriage - but not by Katag herself.
She explains: “There were two older women from the islands who had been in the area for a while and they took over the planning of the whole wedding - they even chose my dress!
“They thought I was too young and knew nothing, which really annoyed me.”
The newly weds bought a house with money lent to them by an emigrant Glaswegian shopkeeper. They paid him back monthly with some of Norman’s wage from his job at the local flour mill.
They soon had a family, with daughter Margaret followed by a son, Jackie. Even so, Katag still couldn’t settle and it was mainly due to one thing - the weather.
“It was just awful,” she declares. “You’d freeze in the winter and get fried in the summer. During the winter months we’d have three months of solid snow and not just inches, but feet of the stuff. It would be so cold that you could spit and it would freeze before it hit the ground.
“I remember once when Margaret, who was about five at the time, put her lips to a door handle and it was so cold that her lips stuck to it – silly girl!”
She continues: “The nearby lake would freeze so hard that a team of four horses carrying a cartload of timber could easily cross it. In fact we used to buy blocks of ice that were cut from the lake and they were at least two-feet thick.”
Summertime wasn’t any better for poor Katag, with the tremendous heat and irritating mosquitoes making a horrible combination.
“It was so hot that you could hardly move,” she reveals, “and we didn’t have any air-conditioning back then of course.
“And the mosquitoes were terrible; I couldn’t go to the garden without bandaging myself up for protection.
“One time they almost ate me alive and I had to go to the doctor. He told me that the mosquitoes loved me because coming from the ‘Old Country’ my blood was rich.
“My cheeks were rosy when I went to Canada but after a year of mosquitoes drinking me dry I ended up white as a ghost and I’ve been the same ever since!
“Mind you,” adds Katag with a laugh, “the midges could be just as bad on a day at the peats!”
With only one shop in the town and little money to spend, Katag would take advantage of the hot summer weather to make the family as self-sufficient as possible.
She explains: “We had a big garden at the back of the house and I used to grow all sorts in it. Everything grew so quickly because of the heat - it was amazing.
“So I grew cucumbers, tomatoes, corn on the cob - och, you name it I grew it. Before the winter months set in I would pickle as much as I could to keep us well supplied.
“In fact there’s probably jars of my pickle still over there today,” jokes Katag.
Keewatin had a large Gaelic community and there were plenty of ceilidhs with fellow ex-pat islanders, but it’s neighbours of a different kind that Katag recalls.
“There was a large Red Indian (Native American) reservation in woods near to us,” she divulges. “They were very nice, friendly people who used to fish from the large fresh water lakes that were nearby and they would often go round the houses selling their catch.
“One day I saw one of the fish sellers going round the back of a barn and having a mùn (urinating).
“Well. he didn’t wash his hands and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not buying your fish again that’s for sure!”’
During her 10 years in Canada Katag’s health steadily deteriorated and she came down with chronic asthma, which made her decide to come back to Lewis for a break to see if the climate change would make any difference to her condition.
“The asthma soon got better and I was all set to go back to Canada at the end of the year - although I didn’t really want to.
“My father wrote to Norman and told him there was more work back home compared to when he had left and that maybe he should consider returning.”
This seemed like a good idea but fate was to deal a cruel hand which kept Katag and Norman apart for another year.
“Whilst l was away,” she discloses, “Norman took a young married couple in as lodgers to help cover the bills.
“One morning he returned home after a night-shift and to his horror, discovered the bloodied dead bodies of the young couple.
“He was arrested but the police soon realised he had been at work all night and he was released.
“It turns out the young man had debts due to a gambling problem, and in a depressed rage he shot his poor wife and then turned the gun on himself. It really was a terrible shock to Norman.
“After that,” continues Katag with a shake of her head, “I just couldn’t bring myself to go back to that house as I had known the murdered girl and her mother, so I decided to stay in Scotland.
“Norman put the house up for sale but it was impossible to sell. People had heard about the murder and that was putting them off - you couldn’t blame them could you?
“It was about a year after the incident that the man who had originally lent us the money to buy the house bought it back, but at a greatly reduced price.”
Finally Norman could return to Scotland to be with his family again, but Canada was never forgotten as Katag explains.
“My daughter Margaret went to visit relatives in Canada about 10 years ago and decided to travel to Keewatin to see where she had spent her early years.
“It was still the ‘one-horse’ town that she remembered and our wee house was still there and looked just like it had 60 years previously.”
With Canada now behind them, the family relocated to Glasgow, where Norman was offered a job at the Fairfield shipbuilding firm.
“By the late 1930s we were settled in Govan,” states Katag. “We lived in a nice, clean single end, but it was a place where I spent many a night sleeping on the floor.”
She clarifies: “You see, if we knew anyone from the islands who was coming to Glasgow we would always put them up - I never turned anyone away.
“It was mainly sailors who stayed and I remember two young men showing up at our house after midnight. Norman and I gave up our bed so they could have a good sleep before heading for their
“As the boys were saying cheerio in the morning one of them turned to me and the last thing he said was ‘I’ll pay you when I come back.’
“I never saw him again,” states a sad Katag. “He was on one of the first ships to go down at the start of the second war.”
Talking of Govan during the war rekindles memories of the ‘blitz’ that nearby Clydebank suffered during the early 1940s. The Germans targeted the area at that time due to its industrial importance to the British.
Katag reveals: “We weren’t that far away from Clydebank and I remember the bombs going off regularly. When the air raid sirens went off we were supposed to run to the back close for shelter, but there was a furniture shop nearby and we would run to take shelter in the large basement below it as it was safer.
“Norman, though, after getting used to the bombing, didn’t like giving up his bed and would often just stay in it while the rest of us took off!”
When the bombing was at its height local schools were closed for a number of months - much to the delight of the children. But eventually ‘home teaching’ was an idea put forward.
“I offered my house for this,” explains Katag, “and a teacher from the local school came round and gave lessons from my front room to many of the children in the area.
“But eventually the bombing was getting more intense and too close for comfort so we evacuated our children to Lewis where they would be a lot safer.”
On that note, alas, my time with Katag is almost up and she ends by saying: “I’ve had my ups and downs in life but I’m still going strong at 103. The only thing is my memory’s fading.”
I think some people would disagree with that last sentence, Katag!
This article was written in 2007. Katag sadly died in 2011.