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The lost sons of Iona

Hay, Kirkpatrick, Dougal, MacFadyen `They were as much a part of the island as the very rocks themselves'

Max Macleod
Tuesday 15 December 1998 00:02 GMT

Ican see the red boats dancing, over the Sound of Iona/ I can see the seagulls prancing, over the sound of Iona" (a traditional song). As a freelance journalist who spent most of his childhood holidays on the Hebridean island of Iona, it was inevitable that I would be called up on Sunday morning. The grotesque news had begun to filter through about the loss of the four young men who had drowned the night before, while returning to the island from a dance on the neighbouring island of Mull.

At first I found it almost impossible to speak. As a child, my abiding passion had been a wooden dinghy almost identical to the one in which the men had been travelling when it overturned, and I knew every inch of that sea journey which they had been making. Worse still, I knew the families that they were all anxious to get home to.

I too have been to the dances in the village of Bunessan and returned after them across the Sound of Iona in the moonlight. I too had seen the phosphorescence explode from the boughs of my dingy as it crunched through the waves, as they would have done. I too have heard running waves heaving unexpectedly out of the darkness, as they would have done, felt those waves lift the boat, as they would have done, and bailed the salty spray from the bilges. Though not with as much passion as they would have done.

Such moments have been among the most exhilarating of my life, and I can remember throwing my head back and yelling at the stars at the glory of it all. It was, so they tell me, a starlit night when they died.

Two days after the accident I feel I must write something, because wherever I have been today I have heard mutterings from those who don't understand what happened on that night. Many have seemed only too quick to assume that the drownings were a result of a group of foolish young men who went to sea in an inappropriate boat with too much drink in them. To me, it is inconceivable that that was the case.

So what did happen on Saturday night on Iona? We shall never fully know. But what we do know as fact is that five highly experienced young seamen, who probably knew that stretch of water better than anyone else alive, made a valid decision to cross it in weather certainly no worse than that in which they would have crossed it many times before. They were travelling in a small boat that was famous for the steadfast way that it went about its normal task - which was to deliver the crew of a fishing boat every day across that very same stretch of water. We also know that the coastguard has said that the boat was not overloaded. And that all but one of them was lost.

Were they drunk? No. I simply cannot believe such a possibility. It was well-known in the locality that whenever these boys were out they always appointed a non-drinker in the party and the local publican has confirmed that this was the case on Saturday night. These weren't daft laddies; they were grown men and experienced seamen all.

Was the weather too rough then? Patently yes, but I can only assume that it was a freak patch of roughness rather than general bad weather - otherwise they would have stayed with their friends on Mull, just as they would have done on many other occasions.

So what went wrong? If I had to chance a guess, I would envisage a freak shower of rain which blocked out the moon, a huge wave roaring down the shallow Sound of Iona, a chance moment when the lack of visibility coincided with the arrival of that wave, and the boat eventually overturning. Maybe there was a rock involved. In Gaelic we have a saying: "The sea forgives, but the rocks are merciless."

So what should we make of it all? Should we dismiss these men as hot- heads who got their just comeuppance? Well, you can if you like, but I won't.

Recently I read a remark by Woody Allen, who said that much of the purpose of New York society was to create a situation where nothing ever happens. These guys lived in a place where "things" happen all the time, where danger and risk are integral parts of everyday life, and where indeed it is only those who take risks that survive at all.

Even though these men died young they will have probably lived more in their short lives than many who die old in cities. I salute them. But it is those left behind on the island who will have to pay a heavy price for this accident.

I have been thinking today particularly of one widow, a good woman - if the term has any meaning at all - who has lost her only son, after losing his equally decent father to cancer when that man was in his forties. I have been thinking of a young girl howling in a caravan. I have been thinking of three families who have lost their only son.

And I have been thinking of the 70-strong community on Iona.

Yesterday a community worker who works on Mull and Iona phoned me to say that she didn't believe that the tiny island community of Iona would ever recover from the loss of so many of its most promising young men, but I had to disagree with her.

Nevertheless, the loss is great. Take, for example, Logie MacFadyen.

Logie, just 23, ran his family croft on the north end of the island. It overlooks the white sands of Iona, which were made famous by the Iona colourists Peploe and Bunty Cadell. Logie's father, the late Doodie MacFadyen, was one of the most respected members of the community and now lies buried next to John Smith, the former Labour leader. Doodie died of cancer while he was still in his forties and Logie was just in his teens.

After his father's death, Logie would return from school at Oban on the weekends to work the croft. The community was hugely impressed by the way a child did a man's job. It is particularly sad that now with Logie gone, his widowed mother, Jane, will have to manage the land all by herself.

Then there is Bob Hay, 23, a member of the Beaton family. He helped crew a tourist boat which took visitors out to Fingal's Cave on Staffa. Davy Kirkpatrick, 23, also lost, worked on the prawn trawler The Silver Spray, with Ally Dougal, only 19 and another fisherman who has fallen victim to this tragedy. The Kirkpatricks will be very hard hit. They are a well- known Iona family, specialising in boats, running a fishing vessel and a tourist boat.

The Beatons, the Kirkpatricks, the Dougals, the MacFadyens are as much part of the island of Iona as the very rocks themselves and, although the island community is vulnerable, it is also perversely a very strong one because of those families and several others like them.

The community will react with immense sadness, dignity and self-reliance. As locals the men will be entitled to be buried at the Rehlig Oran, which in the medieval period was known as the Westminster of Scotland. Here lie the kings and chieftains of Scotland in the medieval era. King Duncan was buried near to his murderer Macbeth, of Shakespearean fame.

No one knows when the funerals will take place as, at the time of writing, only one body has been found. The grieving will be nurtured by dozens of their extended family, many of whom will return to Iona when the funerals are possible, and by hundreds of other mourners who know the families through their annual visits to the island.

At this moment on Iona the tiny community is suffering a downturn in its fortunes. The school is under threat of closure. The people are suffering from bad seasons in tourism and farming while the price of housing is now equal to that in London. But the community will survive. It will survive because it is built from people like the ones who were lost on Saturday night. Decent, hard-working people, people who are prepared to take a risk. People who love the place. People who deserve our admiration. Let our prayers be with them this Christmas.

"Oh that I could live forever, near to the Sound of Iona/ I would leave thee never never, lovely Sound of Iona."

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