Following the Great War and the tragedy of the Iolaire disaster, a public meeting was held in Stornoway in January 1920 with the aim of preserving the memory of the 1,151 Lewismen known to made the supreme sacrifice for their country. An Appeals Committee was established with Lord Leverhulme, the Proprietor of the island, elected as Chairman, George Macleod and Colin J. Maciver as Joint Secretaries and Kenneth Mackenzie and John MacRitchie Morrison as Honorary Treasurers.
From January to July 1920, the pages of the Stornoway Gazette carried advertisements appealing for subscriptions towards the building costs of a suitable memorial that would cost at least £10,000 and more probably £20,000. The response was overwhelming. As a spur to generous donations, it was announced that an anonymous resident was willing to double the amount subscribed to £5,000 – this resident was later discovered to be Lord Leverhulme himself.
A competition for the design of the memorial was held and the winning entrant was chosen as Mr J.H.Gall of Inverness. The contract was soon awarded and, by June 1924, the masonry work was complete, forming a very striking and prominent landmark on the 300-feet high Cnoc nan Uan. The internal work, not including the mounting of 16 bronze plaques representing the four parishes of Lewis, was completed by August 1924.
Lewis War Memorial – A lasting tribute to those 1526 Leodhasaich who gave their lives – for their island and their country – in two world wars.
The memorial takes the form of a Scottish Baronial Tower rising to a height of over 85 feet. Internally, the tower is divided into an arched entrance chamber 20 feet high, and four upper chambers accessed by square and circular steel stairs and by granite turnpike stairs to the turret. A separate chamber was allotted to each of the four parishes of Lewis and in each, bronze plaques were mounted, bearing the inscriptions of every one of the fallen. The stairs allowed visitors to access the view of the Parishes from whence the dead had come. The dressed work is of fine axed Aberdeenshire granite, the walls are of native Gneiss and the floors of reinforced concrete.
The Contractors were: Messrs P & B Mitchell of Huntly, Builders; Mr Angus Macleod of Stornoway, Masons; Messrs Kerr & Macfarlane of Stornoway, Concrete and Carpenter Work; Messrs Macdonald & Son, Stornoway, Smith Work. At a the total cost of £4,000, the project transpired to be much more modest than the Appeal for Funds had first expected.
On Friday 24 September 1924, in perfect weather, over two thousand witnessed the unveiling of the Memorial by Lord Leverhulme. Contrary to the sure belief of all those attending, the 1914-1918 was not the war-to-end-all-wars. During the Festival of Britain in 1951, there were talks in progress to erect a further memorial of some kind to commemorate those from the island who lost their lives in the Second World War. The Ross & Cromarty County Council, The Stornoway Town Council, The Lewis Remembrance Thanksgiving Fund with the Lewis Branch of the Royal British Legion took up the idea and Charles Henshaw & Sons Ltd, of Edinburgh, were commissioned to produce additional bronze plaques. On 13 September 1958, General Sir Richard O’Connor, the Lord Lieutenant of Ross & Cromarty and commander of many Lewismen during that war, unveiled the seven new plaques representing the Divisions of Lewis.
Sadly, the Memorial was closed to the general public in 1975 as a direct consequence of the gradual erosion of the fabric of the stone walls and the wrought iron internal staircase. The restraints on expenditure by public bodies made it difficult for the money to be found for restoration and in 1978 a Joint Appeal Committee was set up with Members of the Western Isles Council and the Royal British Legion (Lewis Branch). The Committee, known as the Lewis War Memorial Restoration Appeal Fund Committee, set a target to raise £35,000 to restore the Memorial. In 1981, extensive internal work was undertaken and in 1982, a silicone based waterproof coating was applied to the external walls at a cost of £5,759.
Despite these remedial works, the ingress of water to the building continued to cause deterioration. The Royal British Legion (Lewis Branch) with significant financial assistance from the Western Isles Council commissioned repointing works to the exterior which were carried out in 1990 by Scott & Brown, Builders, Edinburgh, at a cost of £59,800. These works were not successful in keeping out the heavy Lewis rain.
With the building still unfit for public use, the refurbished plaques were mounted outside the tower, on granite stones. A viewing path and seating area was also provided. This last project was completed in time for Armistice Day 2002.
Saddler Philip Macleod (Steinish) of the Royal Field Artillery was the first Lewis soldier to fall at the Battle of Mons in August 1914, dying in No-Mans-Land. His name is recorded here with 1,150 others from the First World War and 376 from the Second World War. The majority of those lost in 1914-18, died in the entrenched warfare of France. The casualties of the 1939-45 war, were mostly at sea but included members of the Royal Air Force and several servicewomen.
Though the new century draws on, the names of battles such as Ypres, Somme, Gallipoli, Jutland, El Alamein, Monte Cassino and the Atlantic remain in the memories of all Lewis folk. The exact figure of those serving in WW1 forces was recorded as 6,712, seventeen per cent of whom gave their lives for the cause. If the ratio of those killed to the total population (29,603 – 1911 Census) is taken into account, it can be seen that this island paid dear, losing twice the rate of men as the rest of the British Isles. Recognition of that fact was given due notice in the House of Commons by the late Lord Shinwell, but it was but small comfort to an island robbed of a generation and so cruelly made to mourn again when 174 Lewismen were among those lost at the Beasts of Holm as 1919 dawned.
No exact figure of those serving in the Second World War has ever been officially recorded, but from the Rolls of Honour compiled by the various historical societies in the island, a figure in excess of 5,500 can be confidently extrapolated. The population figures of 25,205 for 1931 reveal that the level of service given in the Second World War was every bit as loyal as that committed in the First.
There are other memorials and plaques dedicated to the wars in the vicinity of Stornoway. Perhaps the most poignant edifice is the one overlooking the Beasts of Holm, commemorating the tragedy of New Year’s Day 1919 when 181 island sailors were lost with several of the crew of HMY Iolaire when the yacht grounded there at 1.55am and sank shortly after with only 79 souls rescued. The familiar cairn outside the Drill Hall remembers those of the Ross Battery who fell in action, while the Seaforth Highlanders plaque on the side of the old Clock School tower was unveiled in 1923. The Nicolson Institute has two plaques dedicated to the memory of former pupils who fell in the wars. Both the High Church and Martins Memorial Church, have recognised those from their congregations who laid down their lives while St Peter’s Church has a plaque to one of the congregation lost on the Iolaire and on the boundary wall is a plaque to those who had been members of the Sea Cadets. More recently, a war memorial was erected by the communities of Melbost and Branahuie and is situated opposite the former gates to Stornoway Airport. All over the islands, statues and stones mark the courage and commitment shown by the islands’ armed forces.
*Colour photos © Malcolm Macdonald and Rod Huckbody