My father had died at sea. For a long time, when I went to sea myself, I thought about him, and whether I would finally come across him again. Often the currents would bring people back to us. They didn’t this time. So it was strange to me to be about to die myself in the same way.
It was New Year’s Eve 1918, which I thought was a fine date at the time.
I had been waiting for a passage home to the Isle of Lewis on the pier on Kyle. I was to be on the ship Sheila but heard that the ship HMY Iolaire was heading home in time for the New Year and I managed to get on board with a couple of hundred other RNR lads. The Great War was over and we were safe. No more Flanders mud or North Atlantic covoys.
I went down to the saloon and found my brother Murchadh, who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years now, except in his photo, HMS Wessex on his headband. The same look as everyone else in the black and the white. Don’t tell them at home what you’ve seen. We held each other for the first time in our lives and looked in each other’s eyes. You’re alive, he said.
I had gone up for some air and to see how close we were and I could hear a couple of men talking about how she was taking the wrong route, that she was heading closer to Eilean nan Uan, towards Point. I thought the Captain would see the lights in the town, they must have had lights on the pier for those waiting for us. Some said afterwards that there was drink involved, but there wasn’t. Who would drink too much and home so close? And we were still in uniform. One man thought he saw white breaking over the beasts of Holm, wondering why we were so close to these rocks, but his voice was taken away on the wind. The sea was running high, in the trough it dropped away so it was like a summer evening.
When she struck, she made such a noise. If it had been a gentle night, you would have heard it for miles, the metal on the rock, the screeching. She must have run onto the rocks fast enough, she lost buoyancy and went over almost on her beam ends. The lights slowly going out so that there was such a darkness between us.
A heavy sea was running and I saw men streaming up from the saloon. I looked at one officer, he was facing the wrong way, unable to move. I was hoping for an order. The lifeboats started going over the side with no order.
I saw one man I knew well grab a rope and go over the side trying to get into one. I myself was as if nailed to the spot I was in, unsure what to do. I saw the lifeboats had gone down the wrong side, the windward side, and the little boats had started to be broken against the side of the vessel and the rock on which she sat. He managed to get his hand on another rope and I seemed to wake up somehow and I gave him a hand back up the side.
I had lost my brother but I was sure I would see him again. I don’t want to give the impression it all happened in minutes, although it was hard to keep your mind on what the time was doing. Some were on the deck thinking that it would be best to wait for them to come for us from the town but I turned and saw what the waves were doing to the ship, breaking her up and that soon the reef would break her back and it would be good to be on land before that happened.
We were none of us so sure of the shape of the land , just the loom of it. Iain Mhurdo, a man from the village of Ness, was looking at the waves and the black of the land and then he said he would take a rope, a light rope across. He was a carpenter in the Navy, his family were boatbuilders and he had learnt to swim behind the breakwater in the port of Ness. There weren’t so many men on board who could swim but he was good in the water.
He took the rope and wound it three times round his fist, hooking his thumb round it and he went to the side and dropped into the water. He did it quickly, he maybe didn’t want to think too much about it for it was likely he was going to his death. We saw him being carried in on a roller, but then the wave took him back out so that he was further away than where he had started.
We saw him waiting there in the water, I wondered what he was doing. He didn’t make to swim, and then he faced the other way looking at the waves. I thought maybe the fear had taken him. But what he had been doing was waiting for the third wave, the highest wave that would take him in. It was a great wave, breaking white and smooth after the foam as she passed so that there was no sign of the land above it.
This wave carried him into the rocks and he managed to get a grip. It pulled him under and we strained our eyes to see what was happening, but the water shed off him until there was air around him and we saw the distant shape slowly make its way upwards and felt the line tighten.
A man was right forward and we heard a shout on the air from Iain Mhurdo, faint like a bird in the sky. The rope was turned round a cleat but not tied off in case the ship took another lurch and the first man took a hold of the rope and stepped over the side. The sound of the lifeboats being broken against the side had stopped now, they had all been lost and a man, his lungs full, lay on the deck, drowning in the air.
There were no lights going up, no orders, there was nothing but the great blackness and sometimes bodies pushed together closed moving with the swell and too many dangers to make sense of it all. I thought of them waiting on the pier, and felt sorry for them. It was New Year’s eve and we were coming back from the Great War. A toy washed along on a wave, kit bags floated like little seals, hump-backed, little circles of hats.
It was my turn on the rope, I wished it wasn’t. I thought of her at home, the fire would still be on no doubt. She would be waiting for the lightening of the sky. I knew it wasn’t going to hold when I took a hold of it, something in the way it was singing, vibrating against your hand. But I had nothing else to do. I saw a wave come along the ship now, she had settled partly, and I saw three men start to climb the mast, the Patch was one of them and his brother. He would make it through the night, holding onto the mast. I was so full of guilt at losing my brother, that it almost stopped me. Why should I have a rope in my hand, when he didn’t. I stepped off the boat anyway. Wanting life is strong.
The rope stretched. Full of water now, the rope and I, and I felt a heaviness come behind me, was it a wave, no it was a man, and my feet touched the water as if I was a seagull, they seemed to dance just touching the surface, I must have looked something from the shore, a dancing man in the air, going down and down, downwards and blackness on every side, and wet feet now, the cold of the sea was in my shoes. And then I felt another weight on the rope and could feel the panic of another man singing through its fibres there was a wall of white ahead of me now but I wasn’t sure it was land because the world was white and then I was wholly taken up in the waters.
It was peaceful there and I almost for a moment was grateful until I felt a great force take me and lift me up, like a whale comes to the surface, a great shifting like the earth parting beneath me and I felt rock and a raining of stones. I couldn’t see what I was holding onto but I thought I had maybe been thrown up like Jonah by the sea, onto a sgeir and part of me now wished that it was over, all over, instead of having to watch the final moments of the ship and my friends. But that was taken away from me as it was so dark, I heard instead as she settled and she was just like an animal, like I remember the sound an animal makes when it’s taken to the barn and it knows it’s the end and its throat is cut and it looks at you, how could you, it thinks, you were supposed to keep us safe and you didn’t.
With the lightening of the day, I saw that instead of a sea rock, I was on land. There were other men around me, some dead, some alive. One lad I knew, he had been through four years of war in France, and now here he was, washed up a hundred yards from his mother’s house. I saw one man go back into the water, to go back to the ship to get his brother and then I saw another do the same. I felt filled with a great awfulness thinking of how I would tell my mother this, and how other men had gone back into the sea to find their brothers but I had not. I thought of having to walk across the moor to get home and I had almost made my choice to stay, I was so cold now anyway, or I thought I was, I didn’t feel much and my insides were dead anyway and I felt someone take hold of me and lift me up on my feet and start my journey to life again. I didnt want it. I thought being amongst the living after what I had seen and I was overwhelmed, like a holy man in the desert I was, alone and alone forever.
We reached Holm Farmhouse. The lights were on and I could see sailors and it looked like the bridge of a great ship, lit up with blankets and even something hot to drink. I didn’t cry. I never cried.
The next day the captain was found washed up on the shore wearing two lifebelts. Two days later the Admiralty had started breaking up and selling the ship off for salvage, parts of it, before the final carts had reached home with the war dead from the ship, before no land was given to us when we had been promised it.
Nobody could speak of it. Two hundred and five men died on New Year’s Eve 1918 coming back from the Great War. That day I wondered what fighting for our King and our Country had brought us, hell from the skies and the seas, and I had believed in it, but maybe it’s easier to believe in it before you’re sacrificed on the altar yourself. I didn’t believe it now and I’ve never forgiven men who send others to war to die, I’ve never forgiven them.
Some men wandered the moors for days, unable to face anyone. I found myself home and got on with things. I had lost whatever feeling I had for authority and I took the land myself, in the Raids, I took it and it was mine. I put stones on stones to make a house and a barn for animals and I was so used to death and killing that no-one chanced to take it from me.
Ian Mhurdo, the man who got the rope ashore, got the Carnegie Medal of bravery and a tea set for saving all those men. He went back to building boats in Ness. Very fine boats.
My brother didn’t make it back and that black soil was all I had left. It was all that I had, and it had a pull on me. But I went to Canada on the ship Marloch anyway. I saw the fires along the coast wishing us well, it was a tether I never seemed to break, to the island.
I lived a whole life, I lived a whole life based on the moment a rope broke, for those behind me didn’t. And I swore never to fight for anyone again, to fight for no cause made by men again, such as I had done, against those who were no enemies of mine who had also died in the water at my hand. And it made me think hard of God and what my life was and I couldn’t believe it any more. I couldn’t believe all the stories I was told.
I lived it, I lived it all the way through as well as I could, until I was an old man. I came back from Canada then to see the island again. It had never left me.
I walked to the headland, back to the headland where I had died already, on a bright skied day, warm, green, and it was, and had always been, like I was held in the grip of what had happened that night and finally the day had come where I could be free of it, as I walked into the water and I felt the cold and the quiet, I was released at last.