MY coloured office lights went up precisely three weeks before the midwinter solstice, and they come down tonight, three weeks after it. We have survived the six darkest weeks of the calendar, with their leaden sun and grey noon and the greater part of the day being night. We have survived the turn of the year and its burdens and tensions. Survival is much on my mind as reaction rises to a recent Saturday article on the disaster of HMY Iolaire. Laden with naval ratings from Harris and Lewis, she foundered inexplicably at the mouth of Stornoway harbour on January 1, 1919. On this first New Year of peacetime, 205 men died, 79 survived.
It was, overwhelmingly, a Lewis disaster - not a township was untouched - but seven Harrismen drowned too. Four were among the survivors (two more have been remembered by Harris friends since my article appeared) and they included, as I said, a youth from Plocrapool, Peter Campbell.
Erm - no.
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Alasdair Dan said hesitantly, the other night on the phone: ''They're saying, the bodaich, the old men, that you got that wrong. It was his brother Alick. Peter was not on the Iolaire at all.''
I responded with warmth to this challenge but tom-toms rumbled in the Bays of Harris, and I had that sinking feeling Alasdair Dan was right, as usual. Next morning I phoned a Campbell grand-nephew. Within the hour I had a visit from his uncle. Within the afternoon an old man rang from Inverness, speaking through tears of sore memory. Within the day I was out at Plocrapool - hard frost silver in the clefts of the rock, the great loch a limpid mirror. Peat burned in the wee stove as, reverently, from an envelope in a bureau, still another Campbell nephew produced two soft, fading documents.
Alexander Campbell AB, born at Plocrapool in 1892, was in the Royal Naval Reserve and in the Great War served on HMS Royal Sovereign. He was on HMY Iolaire that night, and survived. The veteran of Inverness told me Alick was the
second-last man to escape by the rope secured desperately to shore. My morning visitor told me Alick, as an old man, remarked he had survived because he had clung to the rope for dear life when it kicked above the breakers, and pulled himself along when it was immersed. He told me, too, Alick had walked home to Harris, almost as soon as he was ashore, losing himself on the Lewis moor that first night in darkness and shock. He took two days to reach Plocrapool.
A niece, still living, saw him after he reached home; his hands bloody where the skin had been stripped from his palms on the hawser. Alick Campbell did not go to war again. He died in 1970, in his bed.
But Peter, his younger brother, had a life of equal drama. In 1915 - the lad was 14 - he was sailing with his father, Alasdair Campbell, from Grosebay to Plocrapool. This Campbell was over 60, but a tough character, and the father of 13 children. Even he though, was no match for an angry sea. The craft was caught in a squall and hurled onto an evil reef off Scadabay. Alasdair Campbell was lost. Peter made the skerry and stood crying and shouting for help all night. In the morning a Scadabay crofter, John MacLeod, heard the calls, and the boy was rescued. Peter went straight to sea after that, and spent many years in the Merchant Navy. He served in the First and Second World Wars. Later he survived the fire and sinking of the passenger ship Empire Windrush - a vessel noted both in the great West Indies emigration to Britain and the transport of European Jews to Palestine.
He came home, then, to Plocrapool, and lived out his days serenely until his death in June 1991. But Padraig Alasdair Aonghas was never in the Royal Naval Reserve and was not on HMY Iolaire. Why were those brothers, then, confused? Many Harris people genuinely believed Peter was the Iolaire survivor - even some of the younger Campbells. One reason, perhaps, was their heroic sister, Marion Campbell. Marion, who died in 1996, was most famous. If you know the Highlands at all you will have seen her photograph, at her spinning wheel, or washing wool in the burn. She made Harris Tweed at her home; met, at one time or another, most of the royal family, and died both as our greatest living tourist attraction and as Miss Marion Campbell MBE, with her pinned hair and wellies and tweed skirts and vast variety of floral aprons. But Morag, as we remember her in Gaelic, was in chief a carer.
She never married. She spent her adult life caring for others - a dying sister; her sister's orphaned sons; her own mother; and then, successively, her older siblings, as they aged and failed. It was a happy house, but one dominated by Marion. She was very proud of her MBE. But for her true heroism she would accept no award and regarded sympathy or offers of support as impertinent. (Marion died, still alert and active, suddenly; which would have gratified her, for no-one was less suited to dependence on others.) The brothers were gentle bodaich and have, beside herself, rather merged in our memories. So Alick and Peter were, save to Plocrapool kin and intimates, readily confused.
There was also that reef off Scadabay, where the lad Peter stood all night in the wash screaming for help. I asked Alasdair Dan what it was called; in English, the Eagle's Skerry, in Gaelic, Sgeir ha
h-Iolaire. The irony is spinechilling and the later confusion evident. All this strikes questions in my mind. Where, today, is there a man who would haul himself to desperate life from a foundering ship in January seas and then, without halt for treatment or pity, set off on a two-day tramp over moor and hill to his distant home?
Is there a teenager in Scotland who, having spent all night on a seaswept rock, having seen his father drown, make the sea his career? Or serve in two world wars and cap it all by surviving a major disaster? Or a woman who would devote her life to caring for kindred, indignantly rejecting offers of respite care - and still, amid the rounds of nursing, feeding and cleaning, pursue a business and entertain busloads of tourists?
And that home, at Plocrapool, this home of unsinkable Campbells, was not a mere home of survivors: it was a happy home. The people of that generation were physically strong. They ate sparely and walked everywhere. Their lives were uncluttered by material goods and mental stress. They had faith. They were not necessarily pious, but they believed in a God of Providence, and when disaster bit they did not question it or seek someone to blame. If ever anyone qualified for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for fuss and recrimination and thousands in compensation, it was these Campbells. But in those days there were no social workers to tell them that.
I sat in that home, on Friday, amid its serenity and memories, and held two pieces of paper. One was a curt note from the Admiralty at Stornoway, in January 1919, granting Alexander Campbell an extra 48 hours of leave, for he was summoned to the Admiralty Court of Inquiry. The other was a docket, from His Majesty's grateful Government, granting the same Alexander Campbell AB ''for the loss of effects on HMY Iolaire'' the grand sum of two pounds, 17 shillings and fivepence.