Islanders dedicate hilltop monument to war dead: Sailors lost at sea are remembered 75 years on. John Arlidge reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ISLANDERS on Barra yesterday paid tribute to heroism at sea when they unveiled a war memorial - 75 years after the end of the First World War.

Residents on the Hebridean island, who were embarrassed that they had 'never got round to building a memorial', gathered on a hilltop above the Atlantic Ocean, where 120 sailors died protecting vital shipping lanes in the First and Second World Wars, to dedicate the monument.

Schoolchildren led prayers in Gaelic and as a piper played before a two-minute silence, Dr David Greer, the local Church of Scotland minister, told the crowd: 'This memorial is not to glorify war or celebrate victory but to remind us of the sacrifice made for justice and peace.'

Veterans of the North Atlantic campaign recalled lost comrades. Neil MacNeil, 75, who joined the Royal Navy aged 19 and spent 12 days adrift in a lifeboat in 1942 after his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat, said: 'I knew most of the men whose names are recorded. I can still picture them. We were at school together and then we all went to sea. That was how it was when we were young.

'The sea was our livelihood from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head. You grew up in boats - fishing and sailing - and when you left school you joined the Merchant Navy. When war broke out everyone joined the Royal Navy. Many of the men found their ships torpedoed but if they were rescued they kept on taking supplies across the ocean.'

The two-metre high stone and admiralty brass monument, listing the names of 120 seamen from deckhands to commanders, was built after Captain Roderick MacKinnon, a former master mariner, raised pounds 32,000 in donations. He said: 'Six years ago I saw a man laying a wreath at a war memorial on a neighbouring island and I decided that after 70 years it was time we had one too. It was a collective shame that none had been built but after the war work was scarce. People were too busy trying to find a job to find time for a monument.'

Mr MacNeil added: 'The population went right down to around 1,500 after the war and it became difficult to get the money and the manpower . . . It would have been much better if we had put it up earlier but still, better late than never.'

(Photograph omitted)