As First World War centenary commemorations draw to a close, the Outer Hebrides marks a special anniversary, for the aftermath of the war brought a particularly savage tragedy to these islands. On Hogmanay 1918, a yacht packed with returning servicemen sank after hitting rocks less than a mile from the harbour at Stornoway with the loss of 201 lives. For many years, the sinking of the Iolaire seemed a disaster too terrible to comprehend: men who had survived the war, drowned just yards from shore, even as their families joyfully awaited their return. On top of already heavy wartime losses the event would leave no community untouched, yet it was shored up behind a wall of silence. It was 1960 before a memorial was erected near the site of the sinking at the Beasts of Holm.
Sal: Iain Morrison and Dalziel + Scullion, An Lanntair, Stornoway ****
Margaret Ferguson: Iolaire 100, An Lanntair, Stornoway ****
However, the centenary has brought a very different mood to the islands. For what is perhaps the first time, the story of the Iolaire is being told everywhere in the Western Isles. There are plays and exhibitions, school projects and public artworks. A new memorial by Will Maclean, Marian Leven and Arthur Watson will be unveiled at the Beasts of Holm by Prince Charles on 1 January.
An Lanntair in Stornoway has commissioned an extensive programme of events at the centre of which are two new musical compositions co-funded by 14-18 NOW. Both Sal (Saltwater), by Iain Morrison, a collaboration with visual artists Dalziel + Scullion and An Treas Suaile, by singer Julie Fowlis and violinist Duncan Chisholm will be reprised for Celtic Connections in January.
Performed at An Lanntair on 29 December, two days before the anniverary, Sal had a particular intensity. Morrison, whose great-grandfather died in the disaster, has produced a work which carries the weight of history without being subsumed by it, an intense, poetic meditation about loss, but also about life. The central section, Roinn (Share), speaks of a salt-water communion, a shared cup of tears, but also something which cleases and heals.
Morrison’s composition takes its multi-part structure from a traditional pibroch, and also echoes at times the Hebridean tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing. Drawing deeply on the musical traditions of the islands, it is also entirely contemporary. At times, it is achingly beautiful, at times, angry; often, repetitive chords and drumbeats become relentless, like the waves, like the tragedy itself. Songs in English and Gaelic are meshed with short excerpts of survivors’ testimonies recorded by the BBC in 1959.
The heartfelt performance by Morrison and five other musicians is matched in its intensity by Dalziel + Scullion’s film footage, shot over some weeks on the Hebrides. Images of landscape and seascape, interiors, still lifes and even underwater footage marry closely the references in the music. Images take on particularly power in the light of the story: a knotted rope, a barometer, a man walking up a dirt road. Quiet interior shots evoke a domestic world equally touched by the disaster. .
The film seems to pace out time: the hollow carved in sand by a marsh grass blown backwards and forwards by the wind. In the later sections, dancer Reece Caver paces out time more literally, though these seemed to lose a little of the power of the direct connection to the islands.
Early in Sal, Dalziel + Scullion juxtapose grainy black and white photographs of men lost on the Iolaire with their own film portraits of men on the islands today, a powerful reminder of likeness and connection. There is something of the same power in the Iolaire 100, a marathon project undertaken by local artist Margaret Ferguson who has painted the portraits of 100 of the men who were on the ship.
If a photograph freezes a moment in time, her colourful, expressive oil paintings seem to bring them back to life. Each one is entirely individual: a quizzical frown, a playful smile. Ferguson includes her own great-great uncle, Alexander Mackenzie, lost on the Iolaire, and Marion, his wife, struck dumb for weeks by the news of what had happened to her husband.
A portrait is an act of commemoration. To have portraits of men who have been remembered chiefly in absense and silence for 100 years is an important act. Some of the most expressive have no hint of a uniform, nothing that places them in time. They could be young men in t-shirts and hoodies on the streets of Stornoway today.
In the gallery they are grouped according to their communities, and many at the show seemed to be seeking out a face from their own families. Each man seems very much alive – not ghostly, not threatening, but affirming the life he once had, and which all of us have. At a safe distance of 100 years, it seems that, at last, the islands are reflecting openly on this terrible tragedy, remembering the lost, and also the ways in which life goes on. - SUSAN MANSFIELD
*The Iolaire 100 exhibition runs until 2 March; Sal will be performed at the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, on 22 January