Debut novel inspired by Hebridean Iolaire disaster wins major literary prize

A debut novel inspired by the haunting impact a maritime disaster had on the islanders of Lewis a century ago has won one of Britain’s leading literary prizes

As The Women Lay Dreaming explores the impact the Iolaire disaster had on generations of the same family on the Isle of Lewis.
As The Women Lay Dreaming explores the impact the Iolaire disaster had on generations of the same family on the Isle of Lewis.

Donald S Murray has claimed a Society of Authors Award for As the Women Lay Dreaming, which explores how generations of the same family were touched by the sinking of the Iolaire just 20 yards from the shore at Stornoway.

The tragedy, at the Beasts of Holm rocks, claimed the lives of 201 servicemen returning home from the First World War in the early hours of NewYear’s Day in 1919.

It was said to have had such an impact on Lewis and Harris, where there was barely a family who did not lose a blood relative, that it was rarely spoken about even half a century later.

Murray’s book looks at the ripple effect of surviving the disaster on islander Tormod Morrison and his family, particularly when his grandchildren from Glasgow come to live with him two decades after the disaster.

Murray, a teacher, journalist and writer born in Ness in the north of Lewis, won the Paul Torday Memorial Prize in the literary awards, which honours the best debut novel by an author over 60.

Judge Sarah Waters said: “Just a few pages into As the Women Lay Dreaming, I knew I had found our winner.

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“Murray’s novel is the slimmest book on the shortlist but it’s a book that’s big with beauty, poetry and heart. A wonderful achievement, a brilliant blend of fact and fiction, full of memorable images and singing lines of prose.”

Last year it emerged that a feature film adaptation of As the Women Lay Dreaming was in development.

He said at the time: “I actually started writing the book back in 2002 but just couldn’t get it right for a long time. I really wanted [to write] about the Iolaire disaster and the impact it had, particularly on the crofting townships of Lewis, because that’s where the bulk of those who died came from.

“The disaster was clearly very traumatic for Stornoway in its initial impact, but it had a huge long-term effect around the island.

“In my childhood no one really spoke about it – there was an in-built reticence on the subject. There were a lot of spinsters and widows left behind but there were also a lot of men who did not want to trust themselves in a relationship as they could see how much pain the disaster had brought.

“That’s what I wanted to write about and decide to focus on the effect it had had on the life of one man.”

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Meanwhile Shetland poet, filmmaker and musician Roseanne Watt was a double winner in the awards, which saw 32 writers across the UK share a £100,000 prize fund.

Watt was honoured in the Eric Gregory Award category, for the best poetry collection by a writer under 30, and the Somerset Maugham Award category, which recognises fiction, non-fiction and poetry by writers under 30.

Among the other winners were drag troupe founder Amrou Al-Kadhi, for debut book My Life as a Unicorn.

Society chair Joanne Harris said: “This year, as the health crisis makes authors’ precarious careers even more of a challenge to sustain, it is more important than ever to celebrate the work of the winners.”

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