By Donald S Murray
Look around the moorland of Scotland’s islands and it is easy to see reminders of this country’s war-torn past.
Sometimes this even takes us to the present day. Drive to Saxa Vord in Unst at the northern tip of Shetland and you can see the collection of military installations on the edge of the moorland there. They range in shape from the golfball like structure of an old radar station to the heights of a steel pylon. A similar collection can be glimpsed in Uist – both north and south – in the Western Isles. Again there is a giant golfball perched above the road that circles North Uist, not far from the Balranald Nature Reserve. At one time I recall an old bath sitting beside the high fence that had been built to deter intruders from discovering the State Secrets enshrined within that site. Clearly designed for either cattle or very tall sheep to drink from, it looked more than a little incongruous, the high-tech and the traditional way of life on the island clashing on that particular spot, neither looking as if they quite belonged. The juxtaposition looked odder still when one discovered there was a chambered cairn, dating from Neolithic times, only a short distance away.
Yet as a meeting place of the absurd, it is hard to beat the location of the military buildings a driver might come across shortly after crossing the causeway between Benbecula and South Uist. Standing on the slope of Rueval near the village of Lochdar in the last-named island, they stand behind a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus high upon her shoulder. Entitled Our Lady of the Isles, this 30 foot creation was sculpted from granite by the artist, Huw Lorimer. In its own way, it is a talisman, placed there by a local priest, Fr John Morrison – known as Father Rocket – way back in 1957 to try and prevent his parish becoming a military settlement at the height of the Cold War. For all that part of that island is now a Rocket Range, used by the defence industry to test the deadly effectiveness of the missiles they produce, its presence certainly assisted those who campaigned to transform this part of the Western Isles into a town where small crofters had been deprived of their land to make way for servicemen and women.
There are other reminders of recent conflicts found along the edge of moorland in these islands. They include the many war memorials – including the ones in North Uist, Benbecula, and South Uist – that stand on the edge of miles of heather and bog. Yet what is truly invisible these days are any sign of the small battles and skirmishes that took place elsewhere in these empty acres. I write about one of them in my new book The Dark Stuff published by Bloomsbury. There are some reminders of these days alongside the shore of Loch Dibadale near my childhood home in Ness, Isle of Lewis, a location where the warriors of the Morrison clan can be found among the gashed and broken bodies of their rivals, the Macaulays.
For all my words, I am all too aware that it is only the major battlegrounds of the moors that we remember; those like Marston Moor, Culloden or Glenshiel or where the Covenanters strove against their enemies in Dumfries and Galloway in a bitter, religious conflict. The rest are unseen and invisible, consigned to the past like the whole concept of warfare among moorland. Nowadays, it appears that mankind prefers to wage war in city streets – like Aleppo, Basra, Sarajevo – where women and children are as much among the victims as armed men.
And, of course, there are the others who came to island moors by happenstance. They include the pilots of various planes – the Mosquito, the Lancaster, the Flying Fortress – who crash-landed in places as far apart as Cunningsburgh in Shetland and Coll in the Inner Hebrides, Orkney and Staffin in Skye. The following poem is not based on any one of these incidents, but a work of the imagination, an attempt to be true to them all and the manner in which these kinds of incidents impacted on the lives of crofters and the communities to which they belonged.
Moorland Incident in Wartime
When that Lancaster ploughed into peat,
the heat was so intense that crofters thought
of visions of the factories and streets
burning in the mainland’s cities
and not these empty acres grazed on by their sheep,
and they made their way towards it, crossing streams
licked dry by flame or else charred black by oil
darker far than peat-banks, glad they could not hear the screams
of the men that had flown it, trapped by fire and dampness,
the lacework of glass and steel within that wrecked machine.
It hung around a long time; that pall of smoke
across both bay and village, shifting east or west,
wherever the wind drifted; its darkness choked
men working on their croftland, stained the weekly washing,
darkened rain-storms, cloaked
the thatch of island homes, as if all hell had seeped
through the earth’s surface, permeating dreams
with the same force that once burned
turf and heather, cutting through the peace of sleep.
Afterwards, they’d head there - on both picnic and pilgrimage
to see the blackened wing-tips, the burned-out fuselage
and thought of them as memorials to the lost
sons whose passing had been recorded in the short,
curt language of a telegram, the hurried note
of a commanding officer. ‘We thought
the world of George/ Roderick/ John
and are sorry now he’s gone.’
They had something they could stand beside - steel that propelled
their young sons closer, dark reminders of the oil that fueled
their ends, a tail-fin that might serve them for a headstone
until the hour it rusted, no longer then a perch for hawk or buzzard to hunt from.
Now the gash within that landscape’s healed,
time sealing it till there’s no sign of the space that steel
and fire crashed through.
It’s as if blood and metal congealed
in that spot until there could be seen
fresh shoots among the heather
- each a vivid shade of green.
The Dark Stuff by Donald S Murray is published by Bloomsbury Books.
Photograph shows Our Lady of the Isles. Image: Barbara Carr via Wikimedia Commons.