It’s a well-worn argument, but the lack of Scottish history taught in schools has undoubtedly had a negative affect on the Scottish cultural psyche. To quote Sam Henry (then President of Scottish Association of Teachers of History) in The Scotsman in 2005 this situation means, “we are not doing justice to pupils and their grasp of their own heritage and their ability to come to terms with the world.” I won’t go into it much further here, except to say that a prime example of such gaps in many people’s knowledge of Scottish history, outside of the Highlands and Islands, is the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1st January 1919 off the port of Stornaway. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters with over 200 out of the 283 aboard dying. They were returning from the First World War, so close to home they could almost touch it. The very definition of a national tragedy.
The first I heard of it was in song (in my mid-30s) and I found it embarrassing that was the case, if understandable. However, learning about it in this way does suggest that such stories told artfully can help fill in those gaps in people’s knowledge and awareness. So it is with Donald S. Murray’s new novel As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband Books) which gave me an insight into the Iolaire disaster which no history book could manage, in a manner similar to the way Iain Crichton Smith’s novel Consider the Lilies gives perspective to, and understanding of, the Highland Clearances. Murray’s is a powerful book, one which tells of a survivors’ story and the effect such a terrible event can have even through the generations.
It is told over three periods of time, beginning in 1936 with Alasdair’s story – a boy who we first meet in Glasgow. Brought up hearing Glaswegian on the city streets, his mother spoke Gaelic and his Aberdonian father Doric. This linguistic confusion represents a key theme as the novel unfolds. After their mother’s premature death his father struggles to cope and Alasdair, and his sister Rachel, are sent to stay with their grandparents, on their mother’s side, on the Isle of Lewis, a move which is jarring to say the least. We then jump to 1992 where Alasdair, now an art teacher back in Glasgow, is finally taking the time to look through his grandfather, Tormond Morrison’s, journals.
These journal entries make up the rest of the novel. They look back on Tormond’s time in World War One, and the Iolaire disaster, trying to make sense of both. His original diaries sank with the boat, so these are recreations, including, vitally, some of his drawings. Written in a mixture of Gaelic and English, Alasdair tries to make sense of Tormond’s account of a time defined by understandable confusion and turmoil in an attempt to place himself in his grandfather’s shoes. They conclude with the boat’s sinking, the event central to the narrative as Tormond was on board the Iolaire the fateful day it went down.
Murray explores many themes as he compares people and places, touching upon class, religion, art, memory, family, grief, and much more. Beginning chronologically, Tormond’s story is one of a young man who is trying to work out who he is and what he believes. His discovery of a skill for drawing, married to a desire to better understand the lives of others, offers him the promise of another, or at least a different, life. When this is encouraged by Foster, an Irish senior officer, he begins to dream as to what the future could hold, despite having ties and commitments at home. The tragedy of the Iolaire puts paid to those, and Murray makes clear that while the fallen are rightly mourned, the individuals who survive deserve care and consideration. Those who make it home in body often leave something of themselves behind.
In 1936, when young Alasdair and Rachel join Tormond and his wife Catriona, the problem with mutual understanding comes not only from a language barrier (literally for Rachel, who is so traumatised by this move she refuses to speak), but from the cultural differences between the children’s life in Glasgow and what is expected on Lewis. For instance, what passed for religious knowledge and education in the city, where knowing the simplest of prayers was sufficient, just won’t pass muster. However, the two are looked after and loved by their grandparents, and as they become accustomed to their new surroundings, and close bonds are formed, particularly between Tormond and Alasdair, things improve markedly.
In 1992 the older Alasdair looks back on these years with great fondness – in many ways the time which would shape his life. A love for drawing and appreciation of nature which his grandfather would inspire would provide the spark for his own career in art and teaching, but as he reflects on the journals he also begins to understand more about this man who gave him so much. At the centre of As The Women Lay Dreaming is a call for greater understanding and empathy. Tormond, who had witnessed too much at a young age, still had the capacity for love, and forgiveness.
As important was the way he used his art and writing to try to help him come to terms with the world around him. This, in turn, would not only allow his grandson to better comprehend a man who had a huge influence on his life, (although he knew him only briefly), but also better understand himself. With As The Women Lay Dreaming Donald S. Murray has pulled off a similar feat. It not only brings to life the disaster of the Iolaire, but also a place and its people over two periods of time, using personal and individual stories to examine wider themes. This is a novel which reveals new layers with every reading. It is history brought to life through fiction, and when it is done in a manner as moving and beautiful as this it is invaluable.