From Marvig to Nanaimo

"The Iolaire", Donald finally managed to utter. A heavy silence hung in the room as grandfather composed himself. Distant cries of seabirds drifted in through the open windows. Although a heavy seamist had settled in, sounds permeated through it clearly. Boats chugging up and down the channel near the shore, chainsaws at work in nearby forestry plantations. But all that was lost on Donald. "You can't imagine", he continued, haltingly. "Two hundred guys - wiped out at a stroke". A car drove down the lane, headed for the marina at the bottom. "They had lost a thousand since 1914. In the trenches, to the U-boats, in the desert". Donald looked at me. "People were prepared for that. However dreadful and empty those losses appeared to us, it was their duty. And they did their duty." My eye glanced at the small picture of an early 20th century steamship that carried the name Iolaire. "But they were so happy that three hundred and more were on their way back to Stornoway that Hogmanay evening. Never mind that they were a couple of hours later for the Bells." Donald's voice steadied as he continued his narrative. "But... no. Not 200 at a stroke. And my father was one of them."

Donald sat in contemplation on board his small fishing boat. The chill of the January morning was augmented by the even more chilling news that had reached the village from Stornoway, of a shipwreck with major loss of life. As he tied up his boat along the small jetty, a group of men, dress in black could be seen making their way through the village. Donald quickly walked up the path and grew increasingly apprehensive as the men stopped at the door of his home. His mother answered the knock on the door. Even from the distance, the colour could be seen to be draining from her face.

"I need it for fishing", Donald objected. His uncle shook his head. "There is no way we will ever permit you to go out to sea again. We have lost too many to the sea. Cannot afford to lose any others". The young man felt as if his blood drained right down to his feet. After losing his father, Donald felt he needed his time out to sea more than ever. "No discussion, Donald. I'm sorry, but I've already taken steps to prevent you taking to the sea again." With leaden feet, Donald walked down to the water's edge. His boat sat there - with a gaping, jagged hole in the bottom. His uncle had spoken the truth, and there was no way that craft would ever take to the waves again.

The little man alighted from the vehicle, and to Donald's surprise, quickly moved round to the driver's side to open the door. "It's your last day as my driver," Lord Leverhulme mentioned gravely. "You are off to Canada next week, to look for a new life". The proprietor extended his hand. "I have a meeting now," he continued, putting on his hat. "You'll be off on the Metagama on Saturday. Call round on the Thursday, when you're back up from Marvig, and I'll have something to help you on your way". Donald followed Lord Leverhulme into Lews Castle, but emerged a few minutes later in his normal daily attire. Apart from friends and family, Donald's links to the island were gradually falling away in preparation for his departure.

“It felt so strange”, the old man said. “Five years beforehand, I would never have contemplated leaving Marvig. Our family had lived there for a long time”. The penetrating whine of a powerboat whizzed past on the water below the house, mingling with the on-going sounds of logging from the opposite direction. “The Iolaire changed everything. I couldn’t go out in a boat, because the family had forbidden it. In those days, you did as you were told and no ifs or buts. Not like nowadays, with all those cheeky youngsters”. I smiled at Donald, whose face creased into a broad grin. “Aye. So I found myself driving his lordship around. No complaints, he was a fair employer, a good man.” The grin faded. “The right man in the right place – at the wrong time. Had great ideas, but they fell on deaf ears in the island.” Donald sighed. The telephone rang, and he got up to answer it. “Your dad”, he said after a brief exchange. “Wanted to know if you had arrived safely and all that”. I was surprised. “I told him I had come into Vancouver and Victoria no problem”, I told my grandfather. “I haven’t had a chance really to tell him that I’d gotten into Nanaimo, but no matter”.

The steam train juddered along the track, at not a lot faster than walking pace. It whistled at regular intervals, as it had done for innumerable hours, or at least, that's the way it seemed to Donald. Rolling hills stretched all around, endlessly. Not verdant green, but a tired, brown-grey green. When the wind rose, it whipped up clouds of dust. Rolling hills. Like rolling waves. Donald continued to gaze out of the window, but did not see what was passing. He did see the memory of his mother's face when he finally left the croft in Marvig, when they both knew they would never see each other again, although Donald had promised to return. The hundreds of people in Stornoway, many of his friends among them, who had gathered to see off all those who were leaving on board the Metagama. The flaming beacon near the Butt of Lewis, in fact the burning home of one of the emigrants. The smoke of it was the last thing espied of the island, long after the landmass of Lewis has sunk below the horizon. The endless rolling waves of the North Atlantic, day upon day upon day. And now the rolling grasslands of Canada. The train came to a halt. "Here's your station", the conductor said outside his window. Donald picked up his kit and jumped down on the boards that made up the platform. A lone house stood, perhaps a mile away in the distance. The sole habitation for miles around.

“I don’t know who got you to alight here, son”, the farmer said. Donald was shocked at his appearance. “You can sleep in the shed, but you’ll have to go back on the train in the morning. We barely have enough food to feed ourselves.” That was patently obvious from the man’s appearance, gaunt, thin and generally appearing malnourished. “We’ve had a terrible couple of summers down here”, he continued. “See all the sand that’s blowing around? That’s good earth blown away with the wind. We’re left with nothing. We’ll probably have to up sticks this winter”. Donald was horrified to hear this story, but the man beckoned him to come inside. His spouse, looking equally unwell, set an extra plate on the table for Donald to join them. The rations were pitiful, and when he explained that he had come from Scotland to start a new life, the farmer shook his head. “Not in this region, son. Move west. Plenty of plots there, and we’re headed that way before this year is out.”

The gently rolling hills, with mountains on the distant horizon. Like the gently rolling swell of the Minch back home. Only in verdant green, not the gunship metal grey of the northern seas. Donald stood at the fence around his new home, a ranch they called it in these parts. In his hand, a letter from his mother, in reply to the one he had sent An image flashed before Donald’s eyes, of his mother, standing outside the door of his old home in Marvig, as she opened his letter. But just as emotion threatened to get the better of him, Donald caught sight of a horse and cart approaching his farm from the distant main road. Something was not quite right, and that was borne out by the noise of snapping wood and one of the wheels coming off the cart as it approached the fencing around Donald’s homestead. The driver jumped free of the wreckage and rolled head over heels into the grass. Quickly, Donald dashed the few hundred yards to the scene of the accident. When he reached the wreckage of the cart, the figure of the driver rose up from the grass nearby. Shrieking with laughter. It was a girl. “Bloody cart!” she swore. “They have a motorcar at my dad’s place, but will they let me drive it, no!” Donald’s apprehension quickly evaporated as he helped the young woman to her feet. “You ok?” he asked, but he knew the answer before it was given. “Ach yes, it would have been a different story if I hadn’t jumped clear”. Donald looked at the girl more closely. “I’m Anna”, she announced. “I’ve heard about you, well done for getting this place up.” She glanced past Donald. “Nice ranch you have here. What’s your name?”

I smiled at my grandfather. The cart crash was a family joke, and it was often portrayed that Anna had literally jumped into his arms at the time of the accident. "We got to see quite a bit of each other and just over a year later, we tied the knot", he went on. A thought entered my head. Never before had my grandfather told the story of the Iolaire, and how it had prompted him to emigrate. "What would you have done if the Iolaire had never happened?" Donald put down the teacup he was drinking from. "I would never have left the island. Would have married an island girl and raised a family at Marvig in all likelihood", he replied. A long silence fell. The logging had stopped and fewer boats were plying in the channel outside Nanaimo. The lazy sound of flies and bees was slowly dying down as the afternoon drew to a close. "Without the Iolaire?" he resumed after a while. "I would never have emigrated." I nodded. "I would never have met Anna". Something of sadness crept into his face. "I would never have met you." An even longer silence fell. "It is quite a thought, you know. But without the Iolaire..." I could see the tears welling up in my grandfather's face. And a lump grew in my own throat. He stood up and so did I. "Without the Iolaire", I took over, barely able to speak, or contain my own emotions. "If it hadn't been for the Iolaire," Donald resumed. "You, my granddaughter... " He had to stop. I completed his phrase. "I would never have been."

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