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Features / Iolaire disaster novel takes author back to home turf

Donald Murray.
Donals S Murray.

A NOVEL by Quarff based writer Donald Murray based on one of the greatest disasters to affect the Western Isles is to be published later this year.

As The Woman Lay Dreaming is a fictionalised account of the effects of the Iolaire disaster when over 200 men, most islanders returning from “The Great War”, lost their lives within a mile of Stornoway harbour when the Iolaire hit rocks and sank on New Year’s day 1919.

The loss, one of the worst in British naval history, had a profound effect on the Western Isles, which lost the best part of a generation of young men.

The novel represents 10 years of work for Murray including “many wrong turns”. At first he had started to write the story from the perspective of many different victims and survivors, but abandoned this in favour of concentrating on the story of a fictional family profoundly affected by the disaster, with the setting on a neighbouring croft to the one where Murray was brought up on the Ness of Lewis.

He said: “This had a huge effect on the rural, Gaelic speaking community. It had a huge psychological effect.”

Stornoway, he said, had the biggest war memorial in Scotland, but the fact of the Iolaire disaster is by contrast hidden.

Researching the novel was difficult, said Murray, owing to the paucity of historical works on the naval role in WWI. There is also still a reluctance to speak about the Iolaire, with the tragedy still almost a taboo subject when Murray was growing up.

There are nonetheless many tales of bodies washing up on the shore to be discovered by loved ones or neighbours. There are also numerous supernatural stories from the era, but the trauma was such that the memory of the victims, many returning from the navy or merchant marine, has had little public expression.

Murray can personally remember one hero of the tragedy, John Finlay MacLeod, from Ness, who was credited with saving as many as 60 lives by swimming to the rocks with a rope which enabled the men to make the shore.

Another survivor Murray remembers, known as Am Pach, was found clinging to the mast of the ship the following morning. Men above and below him had fallen into the sea.

Murray has written a number of successful fiction and non-fiction works in recent years, including Herring Tales and The Guga Hunters.

He praised the “courage” of Manchester based publisher Saraband for taking on a book with “three big minuses” – namely it is literary, historical and set in the Highlands and Islands.

“I knew this had to be done by a Scottish or northern publisher,” he said. “I always thought it was a book that needed writing and it would have been very difficult for anyone much younger than me to write it.

“I also think it needed a Gaelic speaker to write it to give access into people’s way of thinking. Too often in the Highlands and Islands we have outsiders tell our story.”

As The Woman Lay Dreaming will be published on 6 November, shortly before the centenary of Armistice Day. Before then Murray will be busy making revisions to the text.