Islay letter with Hugh Smith

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First World War commemoration

WW100 Scotland, the group tasked with marking the end of the First World War hostilities in 1918, has selected Islay as the major setting for next year’s centenary commemorations.

One of the main focal points in the commemoration will be the American Monument which stands proud on a cliff top on the western edge of the Mull of Oa peninsula and has become an island landmark.

It was erected by the American Red Cross in 1920 and based on a Pictish tower design created by architect Robert Walker. It commemorates the lives lost in two separate marine disasters that took place in the closing months of the First World War.

In February, the troopship Tuscania was en route to the UK from Nova Scotia and carrying more than 2,000 American servicemen when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Channel, seven miles off the coast of Islay.

The loss of life was horrendous – more than 200 US servicemen died along with 60 members of the British crew. While most had drowned, others received fatal injuries after being washed up on the treacherous rocky coastline which had greatly hampered rescue attempts.

Five weeks before the signing of the Armistice, HMS Otranto, a convoy commodore ship sailing from New York and also carrying US servicemen, sank off Machir Bay in the Kilchoman/Kilchiaran district after colliding in appalling weather conditions with her sister ship HMS Kashmir. The Kashmir eventually made it to the Clyde, leaving a badly-holed Otranto.

While some of those on board were rescued by the destroyer Mounsey and taken to Belfast, of those remaining on the stricken ship, 431 were drowned when the vessel sank. Among those drowned were 351 Americans and 80 members of the ship’s crew. Sadly, a large number of the bodies were never recovered.

The loss of life in these two disasters shocked the American nation and at the base of the Oa monument is a carved wreath with an inscription which reads: ‘A Tribute From Woodrow Wilson, President Of The United States Of America, To The Memory Of His Fellow Citizens Who Gave Their Lives For Their Country In Nearby Waters 1918.’

There is little doubt that these tragedies greatly impacted on the island which already had lost men on active service.

Consequently, those involved in these rescue operations were either young lads or middle-aged men and all their efforts were rightly lauded, as were those of Police Sergeant Malcolm MacNeill at Bowmore, who played such an integral part in the rescue attempts and in the follow-up operations.

The Bowmore police officer, who was honoured by the monarch with an MBE for his efforts in the rescue operations, was the maternal grandfather of the Labour peer Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.

As part of next year’s events, the brass whistle from the Otranto, currently housed at the National Maritime Museum at Irvine, is being loaned for display purposes to the Museum of Islay Life at Port Charlotte which already owns the bell from the ill-fated Tuscania.

It is these tragedies and the part that the Ilich played in the rescue of the survivors and the respectful funerals of those lost, as well as the loss of Islay’s own, that are being remembered with these commemorative events whose overriding themes will be remembrance, reflection and reconciliation.

WW100 Islay is supported by the Argyll and Bute WW1 Commemoration Steering Group which is chaired by Lord Lieutenant Patrick Stewart.

Arias aplenty

Local opera buffs will be more than amply catered for when Scottish Opera’s Opera Highlights’ performers take to the stage tonight (Thursday October 19) in Bowmore village hall at 7.30pm.

A varied programme, arranged by the opera company’s head of music Derek Clark, will include excerpts from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and favourites from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. Also included will be a premiere performance as well as lesser known gems.

Singing for their supper will be baritone Alexey Gusev, soprano Lucy Hall, mezzo-soprano Kate Howden and tenor William Morgan. Elizabeth Rowe will be at the piano and directing the proceedings is Jack Furness.

Hugh Smith, 4 Flora Street, Bowmore, Islay PA43 7JX. Tel: 01496 810 658