Tolsta District News 1941 as reported in the Stornoway Gazette
From the once fertile ground off Tolsta Head, a local boat with small lines returned last week with a grand total of one dozen haddocks.
During the week scores of seabirds, dead and living coated with thick oil, have been washed ashore.
A fraught relationship
The people of Tolsta have always had an ambivalent love-hate relationship with the sea. Their crofts were small, the weather was changeable and the growing season was short. By contrast, Broad Bay and the wider expanses of the Minch were teeming with fish.
If a man was a member of a boat-crew with well equipped fishing gear he could sustain a reasonable life-style, together with enough cash to pay the rent and save enough to survive in the prevailing subsistence economy. If he relied solely on the land there were hard times when he had to survive by supplementing his diet with shellfish from the shore. Resorting to ‘maorach a'chladaich' was regarded as a case of extreme poverty. It is very ironic that this formerly-despised shellfish now fetches high prices in the best restaurants throughout Europe and beyond.
However, this reliance on the sea was to take a heavy toll of human life, both in war and peace. When I was growing up in Tolsta between the two World Wars the atmosphere was palpably depressing and oppressive. I would meet many women dressed in black and wearing the customary widow's black ‘bonnet' adorned with elaborate layers of black crepe. At the time I considered them old, but they could only have been middle-aged. They were walking to the Thursday prayer meetings, which were then held at midday, before they were relegated to the evenings. Even when motorcars became prevalent some back-woodsmen frowned on their use, except for secular occasions. How customs and ancient observances have changed in contemporary society!
One such old lady was Annabella Maciver, who became Mrs Macleod on her marriage, and whose house I passed several times a week, when going and coming from school. She lived with her family of two – Murchadh Barabail and Doileag Barabail . The fact that her daughter was called Doileag suggested that her husband had perished before or shortly after the girl was born. It was the custom to give a female version of a man's name after the death of a father or near relative.
This old lady is cited as an extreme example of a life, which was haunted and devastated by a series of tragic deaths connected with the sea. In all, there were six drownings in her immediate family, at intervals throughout her long life. Each event is recorded here in historical order.
The first tragedy was that of her grandfather, Angus Murray Aonghas Alasdair Gobha , who was drowned while rock-fishing somewhere between Tolsta and Gress. His body came ashore at Traigh Sheilibhig and was buried there because he was so badly decomposed that he could not be taken home for a normal funeral.
The second tragic event was that of her father, Murdo Maciver, who was drowned while fishing off Wick in August 1881, at the age of 52. He was a son of Donald Maciver Dòmhnall Mòr an Lodain (1796 – 1873), who came to settle in Old North Tolsta before moving to Croft 26.
By the third calamity she became a widow when her husband Donald Macleod (1850 – 1890) was drowned in a boating accident off Glen Tolsta. He was a son of Dòmhnall Mòr a'Ghlinne who was, at one time, the shepherd at Glen Tolsta.
Her brother, Donald Maciver, Seaman R.N.R., who was married in Peterhead, was the fourth victim to be claimed by the sea. He was lost on H.M.S. Newmarket on 17 th July 1917 aged 53, having subtracted five years off his age in order to enlist.
A second brother, Murdo Maciver, was drowned off the Australian coast on 4 th December 1924 at the age of 54.
Fate was to strike the sixth and final bitter blow when her son-in-law, John Maciver Iain,mac Iain Mhic Aonghais Ruaidh (Cobbers) was drowned in the Iolaire on 1 st January 1919 at the age of 33. This tragedy left her daughter Doileag a young childless widow.
In later life she had the consolation of her son Murdo surviving the war and living to draw his old-age pension. He was a skilful and intrepid fisherman, who had several narrow escapes while skippering open boats in gale-force winds out of Cladach Ghìordail.
Stornoway Gazette 1942
An Atlantic Double - Two Lewismen decorated for saving shipmates
When a British ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic , some months ago, there were two Lewis seamen in the crew, Angus Murray A.B. of 25 South Shawbost and John Maciver A.B. of 14 New Tolsta.
They got away in separate lifeboats and the lifeboats were separated in a gale. Murray, by his skilful seamanship, brought one boat to safety after nine and a half days. Maciver by his skilful seamanship saved the other.
It is now officially announced that each of them is to receive the British Empire Medal for ‘skill and resource in bringing survivors to safety in circumstances that would have daunted the bravest'.
There have been several occasions since war began on which a single list of awards has included the names of as many as three Lewis seamen, but this is the first on which two Lewis seamen have been decorated simultaneously for gallantry arising out of one incident.
SS Richmond Castle Torpedoed
In 1942 John Maciver Iain Mhic Crò and Angus Murray Shawbost were shipmates on the Richmond Castle .
On 4 th August 1942 the unescorted, 7,798 tons Union Castle liner, Richmond Castle was torpedoed and sunk by U-176' southeast of Cape Farewell, some 700 miles east of Newfoundland. There was just enough time, from the point of impact until the ship sank, to launch the lifeboats.
Angus Murray later wrote, “I assisted in lowering the last boat as the ship heeled over, sinking. I shinned down a fall and swam to the lifeboat. It was waterlogged. We had to swim to a raft as the lifeboat capsized. It took quite an effort to right the boat and to bale her out. A lot of its equipment including the sails, food and water was lost. There were eighteen of us, including the Chief Officer, aboard. John Maciver was in another boat with the Second Officer. The Captain was in the third lifeboat.”
The U-boat surfaced briefly beside them and kindly gave food and field dressings to the three boats. The first night the three boats sailed in tow on course for Newfoundland , but during the night a westerly gale blew up and they lost sight of each other for several hours. The Captain's boat kept heading for Newfoundland , but John's boat and Angus's boat set of in tow again, but this time they were heading for Ireland. However they soon drifted apart and lost sight of each other.
Angus Murray describing conditions wrote, “As the days passed we seemed to be making good progress. However, we could only guess at our speed. Daytime was not too bad, but it got very cold at night. We rubbed each other's hands and feet with oil to restore circulation and generate a bit of warmth. The daily water ration was the main thing we looked forward to, though we also took a little food.”
On their tenth day at sea Angus and the others in his boat were picked up by a Navy Corvette and landed in Londonderry.
A young radio officer in the lifeboat, Peter Franklin of Yorkshire , said of Angus: "He was the only fellow in the boat who knew anything about small boats, and our Chief Officer had the sense to let him get on with it. His soft gentle manner gave us confidence and hope."
The conditions in John Maciver's lifeboat would have been very similar to those described by Angus and ,no doubt, just like Angus, John with his experience of open boats in Tolsta, would have played a key part in sailing the boat.
It was several days later before John was rescued by the SS Suffolk – a ship that John had previously served on. What a coincidence and what a reception he would have got from his former shipmates. But rescue came too late for many of the crew members of Richmond Castle . Of the original 18 in that lifeboat only 7 survived their punishing ordeal in the Atlantic.
John and Angus were indeed worthy recipients of the British Empire Medal.
Several weeks after their rescue John and Angus met up again. This time in Tolsta, when Angus was a guest at the wedding of John Maciver and Catherine Campbell nighean Aonghais Eachainn of 44 North Tolsta.
Sadly John never fully recovered from his days and nights in the Atlantic in an open boat and he died a young man in May 1945, before the birth of his son Iain Aonghais .
After his death the family received the following scrolls:-
This scroll commemorates
J. Maciver, Able Seaman
Held in honour as one who served King and Country in the world war of 1939-1945 and gave his life to save mankind from tyranny. May his sacrifice help to bring the peace and freedom for which he died.
The Minister of Trasport presents his compliments and has the honour to transmit the enclosed Awards for service in the war of 1939-45.
The minister shares your sorrow that John Maciver B.E.M. in respect of whose service these Awards are granted did not live to receive them.
Air Mail Plane
This article by the late Donald Macdonald (28) Loddle in 1991, gives a good description of the of the ‘Air Plane Episode' and also gives an insight into village life around 1940.
The incident occurred around the beginning of November 1939. I was weaving at the time as I had not reached the age for the RNR. I ran out of bobbins the night before and decided to catch Logan 's bus to town and get enough to finish the tweed. Logan and Fortaidh had no timetables. You caught the bus in the morning and you were trapped in Stornoway till they had finished their business. When I got back to Tolsta around 4pm I noticed three youngsters at the end of our house, Dolaidh a'Ghrèin (Donald Mackenzie, School Road ), Easy( Angus Maciver of 26) and Aonghas Beag Bhiagain (Angus Murray of 29).
I just reached them when the drone of an aeroplane coming from the direction of the Ard, attracted our attention. Very soon a bi-plane appeared, maybe a Tiger Moth. The plane flew along the machraichean and over the Sìthean Mòr and when it got to Abhainn Lìgh it turned right to Gob Hàis and then south along the sandy beach. The Sìthean Mòr hid the plane from us and when it did not reappear at the south side we came to the conclusion that it must have landed on the Sandy Shore.
I handed the bobbins to my mother and the four of us scurried towards the shore. Darkness was approaching. There were no fences on the crofts and the crops had been gathered in for the winter, therefore we could cross all the crofts. Our target was the gap at the bottom of croft numbers 44 to 48. A gap created mainly by a stream, which we called Allt Phuilleam . As we were running we were expressing our thoughts to one another – thoughts that would fill another couple of pages! We concluded that it would be a German plane, and, of course, it would be carrying a Spandau , and so it would take some doing to capture the pilot!
As we approached from the high ground we could see the plane a short distance from the Cleite Beag . Between the plane and the shore was a line of sand dunes with muran growing on them. We decided to keep behind the dunes till we were abreast of the plane. I could see that the pilot was outside the plane and there was enough daylight for me to see the red, white and blue around the fuselage.
I stood up and said, “Come on boys, she's British!” We approached the pilot who encouraged us to come forward. He came forward also and asked whether or not we could speak English. I said, “Yes”, and then he asked where he was and what part of the globe was it. I told him that he was on North Tolsta Sands on the Isle of Lewis. He shook his head in bewilderment and said, “You better come into the cabin and show me on the chart.”
When it dawned on him that he had strayed well off course he leaned back and laughed. I asked him, “What is so funny?” He then enquired, “What was the language you were speaking as you approached the plane?” I replied, “Gaidhlig.” “When I heard you I thought I had landed in a foreign country,” he said and added, “I was laughing at my own stupidity.”
He then wanted to know where he could get a phone and was there a garage where he could refuel. “When I came out of the fog and saw this land of yours, it was the most welcome sight I ever saw. There isn't a drop of fuel in this plane,” he continued.
We agreed to take him to the Post Office and assured him that he could leave his plane unguarded. In those days you could leave something in the open and nobody would touch it. Changed days!
We headed for the Post Office across the crofts till we came to Dodds – number 39. It was up the cart road of this croft that we escorted our South African airman. We considered his eyesight to be in good shape. Pity he didn't use it when he crossed the Minch!
We barged into the Post Office without knocking. As we approached the counter, Neil Mackenzie, the owner, peered over the rim of his spectacles, and, on recognizing us three, he pointed to the door and shouted, “OUT!”
Quite a number of curious youngsters had now gathered. Finally someone came out to tell us that the pilot was to be taken to Stornoway for the night.
Next morning I woke up as dawn was breaking. I could hear my father in the kitchen, so, knowing that he would have the fire going and the tea brewing, I decided to get up, get dressed, have something to eat and be first down at the plane.
As in remote areas of Scotland and especially in the islands , we were denied the privileges of running water, sewerage and electricity and so in discharging the necessities of nature, a person had to go outside to an out-house.
Once outside, to my amazement, I was aware of quite a number of people making their way towards the shore. I would not be first at the plane, so there was no sense in rushing. After my breakfast and family worship, my father and I made tracks to the shore, where quite a number had gathered, including women.
The airman arrived, accompanied by a Daily Express reporter and an official from the airport, each carrying a can of petrol. Having refueled he surveyed the ‘taking off' area. Since the weather was frosty, the area where the streams were emptying themselves into the sands was hard enough for a take-off.
He told us what his plans were. He was looking for volunteers, preferably youngsters, who would be willing to go under the wings and lift the plane up while he was taking off. He gave us a demonstration of what was required and warned us, “When the plane gathers speed and if any one of you is unable to keep up with it, then you drop flat to the ground.”
Since everybody was anxious to play a role, he got his selection without any bother and he put us shoulder to shoulder along the lower wings. He told us that he was going to taxi to the edge of the hard sand and as soon as he reached it he was going to open up and we were to do as he had told us.
With a short take-off he was airborne and made a direct flight to Stornoway Airport.
Next day, in the Daily Express, the story was on the front page. If only one could get a hold of this edition, one could read a story which was blown up out of all proportion!
London to Tolsta on Sixpence
A past edition of Seanchas carried a press report of the adventure of the two young Hertfordshire children Millicent aged 12 and Sydney aged 9, who made their way, unaccompanied, from Hitchin to Tolsta with only sixpence farthing. The children ran away from home to visit their grandparents Mr and Mrs Kenneth Campbell, Diugaidh, of 8 Hill Street, North Tolsta.
The photograph of Millicent and Sydney, which appeared in one of the national newspapers in September 1949, was taken at Inverness Railway Station as they made their way back to London.
On the return journey by steamer from Stornoway and train from Kyle of Lochalsh, they have tickets costing £3 7s 1d, each, paid out of more than £21 given to them by friends and relatives who admired their pluck.
"We've had a spiffing adventure, but we'll never run away again," they said at Inverness .
Catherine Maciver, Bantrach Dholaidh Green of 78 North Tolsta still remembers clearly that summer's evening, when Millicent and Sydney stepped off the late bus outside their house on New Street.
"The children came off the bus wearing the casual clothes they had been wearing, while playing outside at their home in Hitchin; Sydney in shorts and sandshoes and Millicent in a flimsy dress," Caitriona recalls.
"Their mother Mary Mairi Mhòr Dhiugaidh had telephoned the Stornoway police, when she realized that the children were missing. She knew how much they loved being in Tolsta and that there was a possibility, however remote it seemed, that they would try to make their way there. The policeman at Back visited the grandparents and explained to them that the children were missing. It was an anxious day among relatives and friends in Tolsta that day and so it was a relief to see the children step off the bus safe and well."
The children explained that all the way up from England and on the steamer they had kept close to any elderly travellers they saw. The other passengers assumed they were with these elderly passengers and did not ask any questions.
Millicent and Sydney had a great holiday before making their return journey, a lot wealthier than when they arrived!
A relative of their mother's, Margaret Mackay Màiread Ruairidh Staoig of 64 North Tolsta, a bus conductress at the time, gave Millicent a little blue handbag for her money and for their boat and train tickets. Sydney 's granny sewed his money to his shirt to make sure that he did not lose his.
Unfortunately the blue handbag did not make it all the way to London. Towards the end of their journey, when Millicent woke up after a snooze on the train, she realised that her bag had disappeared. It had been snatched. A bit of a sour note on which to end what otherwise had been a truly 'spiffing adventure'!