We recently returned from a weekend trip to Stornoway and, staying in Sandwick, one of our priority ports of call was the memorial to the men lost on HMY Iolaire, which went down nearby on 1 January 1919 in the process of bringing home some of those from Lewis who had survived the First World War.
It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the loss involved. This remains one of Britain’s worst maritime disasters: in peacetime for the rest of the UK; while war memorials on Lewis and Harris are the only ones to list the dates of the First World War as between 1914 and 1919 so as to encompass the loss of HMY Iolaire. Nearly 200 islanders perished on it, on top of the 1,000 men who had died (out of 6,000 called up: one in two Lewis men, of whom one in six never made it home) during the War itself. Yet, few outside the islands know of the tragedy. We might surmise some of the reasons for that, but these would include a shameful desire to hush things up in the interests of morale among the wider public, not least amidst the substantially reticent results of the Naval Court of Inquiry run by the Admiralty in private and which were not released into the public domain until 1970 (there was also a public inquiry, whose outcomes did have greater impact, held in Stornoway). Despite the tragedy taking place just yards from the shore, the bodies of some 64 of those who died – nearly one in three – were never found: heavy naval uniforms and a surging swell, and a lack of life-saving equipment due to the boat being vastly overcrowded, being among the factors of blame. It is also impossible not to be both touched by the scale of the tragedy and angry about these things as well as that the loss of the Iolaire is not more widely known.
Erected in 1960, and in spite of some local opposition, the memorial overlooking the site of the wreck is a fairly simple granite affair, added to which there is a stone cairn; the impact of both being undermined – of course temporarily – on our visit by the construction of a new DDA-compliant access path and, more long-term, by a line of small-scale wind turbines located perhaps rather too close at hand. And, indeed, by those who, on the day, had somewhat thoughtlessly chosen that spot from which to attempt to fish (the campaign to have the site of the wreck of HMY Iolaire designated as a war grave seems long overdue).
In the centre of Stornoway itself, there is also a recently-constructed tribute designed by students of the Nicolson Institute whose touching idea it was to collect stones from each of the home villages of those who were lost – and including, therefore, some from typical port and naval towns both in mainland Scotland and from England since the crew of the yacht, which had been commandeered into naval service during the war, were substantially English (but also included some men from Cardiff). The last three stones were collected by Angus MacNeil MP from the Thames, representing men from London (and nearby) who were lost and are among the 18 on the south face of the cairn (adjacent to the left on this view) listed as from ‘Sasainn’.
I should be absolutely clear at this point that ‘Sasainn’ is simply the word which is commonly used today in Gàidhlig (and, indeed, similarly in Irish) for ‘England’. There is no attempt to denigrate – this is, not least, a memorial; and high school students have been closely involved.
Yet the word itself is complex, and difficult: most people will know of the term ‘Sassenach’ (used pejoratively to denote the English); while the derivation of the term itself is originally a very broad way of denoting anyone who came from outside Gàidhlig-speaking areas (and thus includes lowland Scots) and where, in some respects, it might be seen as the counterpart of the similarly pejorative ‘teuchter’, the lowland word for those from such areas (= ‘bumpkin’ or ‘yokel’). ‘Sasainn’ itself originally referred to ‘Saxon’. Perhaps oddly, ‘Sasainn’ also bears absolutely no relation to the Gàidhlig for the English language (= ‘Beurla’).
There is thus something of the concept of ‘outsider’ contained in the continued use of ‘Sasainn’ to mean ‘England’, which is problematic both in itself as well as in the context of the islands (and the language) opening up to outside influence. This is not at all a criticism of islanders themselves (at least, the large majority of them who are outside the influence of the shockingly rabid right-wing irrelevancies of the type set out here by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) – and, indeed, I did visit the still pristinely-painted mosque in the centre of Stornoway. The islanders I’ve met have been without exception warm, open and hugely welcoming – and which in itself says quite a bit about the ways in which language can change meaning over time and used as it evolves without regard to the historical precedents. And, perhaps, it ultimately says more about my perceptions of myself as an English-origin outsider than about others’ perceptions of me.
But I do wonder whether Gàidhlig needs another word for ‘England’ which conveys, at least to this outsider, a rather less apparently loaded set of meanings.