Laying bare the human cost of WWI

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Items, images and film will form part of a series of exhibitions commemorating the human sacrifice of the Hebridean population during WWI.

Last Friday evening at the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway the project ‘Gairm nan Gàidheal’ (Call of the Gael) was launched.

The evening was heralded by a poignant video beamed onto the outside wall of the arts centre featuring images and news from the era, before the audience made their way inside to view the exhibition itself.

One of the main talking points of the night was a model replica of the IMY Iolaire, which foundered off the Beasts of Holm on New Year’s Day 1919, as it carried returning servicemen home to the Islands following

the end of the war.

The model displayed in the exhibition was built by J. Campbell of Portvoller.

Delving behind the historical facts Gairm nan Gàidheal uncovers the real stories and connects to the people who lived at this turning point in history.

The project is being run by Pròiseact nan Ealan (The Gaelic Arts Agency), chief executive of the agency, Erica Morrison, talked of the unique impact the war had on the Hebrides.

She explained: “The war didn’t just have a profound effect on those who travelled to the frontline but even more so on the families left behind.

“The populations were already so small that the removal of so many men, who would never return, would create a huge gap that would be felt for generations.

“This was especially difficult in remote communities, even those that prided themselves on being so self-reliant despite significant distance from the mainland.”

She added: “The exhibitions are the latest stage of our aim to tell the compelling story about the Hebrides’ sacrifices during World War One.

“Every community throughout the United Kingdom and beyond has its own story to share about the impact of the Great War but few can be as moving and as stark as that of the Western Isles.”

Opening the launch event was distinguished historian and author Trevor Royle, who was asked to contribute to the exhibition due to his work detailing the experience of the Western Isles in the First World War.

He said: “I am also on the Scottish Government Advisory Panel to commemorate the First World War, and we wanted to spread the message out of the central belt and into the smaller communities like Lewis,

which should be recognised.”

The Great War may be as distant from us today as the Battle of Waterloo was to the Victorians, but this year’s commemorations have been an ongoing success with many communities and different generations getting involved across the whole of the UK.

Talking about the importance of this commemoration, Mr Royle added: “Not everyone who went to war died - out of eight who served seven survived - but what was important, and changed everything, was it was the first modern, industrialised warfare visited on Europe and it was paid for in the young lives of those who went off to fight, without them really knowing what they were doing.”

He continued, “There is a legacy aspect to this, we hope lots of young people will come to visit the exhibition, and young people have been very involved in finding out information about those who went off to war, some of them, were not much older than themselves.”

Talking about the exhibits the historian picked out the HMY Iolaire model as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the project and was delighted to hear it would be adorning the new ferry terminal at the end of the exhibition.

“It is great it is going to have a life afterwards,” he continued: “I also like the Gaelic poetry, which has now been put into context, so that it’s not just poetry, but a record of service.”

Later in the year, Gairm nan Gàidheal exhibitions will also take place in North and South Uist, Harris and Barra.

Following on from these next year Pròiseact nan Ealan are planning to stage a World War One theatre production ‘Sequamur’.

It tells the story of the Nicolson Institute’s Rector William J. Gibson who became a broken man following his encouragement to pupils to sign up for the war effort in 1914, only to be racked with guilt,

as 148 were killed in action.

This powerful drama will tour across Scotland visiting locations such as Inverness, Oban and Skye, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The replica model of the HMY Iolaire was one of many talking points at the launch evening of Gairm nan Gàidheal.