Mor Macleod, a highly respected Lewis tradition-bearer and the very last orphan of the Iolaire disaster, has died peacefully in Ospadal nan Eilean, Stornoway, after a brief illness. She was 97 years old and had all her faculties to the end.
Born Marion Smith in Earshader, Uig, in December 1914 – her younger brother, Coinneach Iain Smith, would be a noted bard – Mor vividly recalled word coming (two days late) to Earshader of the wreck at Holm, on 1st January 1919, and the death of her father, 46-year old Kenneth Smith, and so many others. (Her mother, who died in November 1980, would be the tragedy’s last widow).
Over 200 returning service men had died when HMY Iolaire hit rocks and sank – just yards from safety – at the mouth of Stornoway harbour. Only 79 men survived. Celebrations to greet their home-coming on New Year’s Day 1919, turned to an extended period of mourning as corpse upon corpse washed ashore in the days and weeks to follow. Many bodies were never recovered.
It was Britain’s biggest peace-time maritime disaster and tore the heart out of an island as scarcely a single village on Lewis did not lose men in the sinking. The majority of the dead came from Lewis. Seven belonged to Harris while 31 were crew members from different parts of the UK.
Mor was frequently interviewed on the loss of the Iolaire and made a memorable appearance on BBC’s ‘Coast’ programme in June last year, quietly recalling how she had sat, puzzled, on her grandfather’s lap as his tears splashed onto her face.
But Mrs Macleod – who had spent her youth largely in the company of very old people and amidst rich oral tradition – was an authority on many aspects of Lewis lore, life and geneaology, and appeared frequently on radio and television, discussing everything from the healing properties of the bog-bean to Lewis Evangelicalism to oldtime wedding customs to how to make a really good marag.
With some help from the Iolaire Disaster Fund, and proving bright and capable at school, Mor duly travelled to Edinburgh and trained for nursing. She was duly appointed, in 1937, District Nurse for Barvas and Brue, and supplied primary-healthcare to that considerable area throughout the Second World War, armed with little more than a bicycle, the primitive physick of the time, and keen professionalism.
She had of course personally to deliver every infant born in Barvas and Brue – there were then no hospital confinements – and was quietly proud that in her decade of service she never lost either infant or mother.
She also liked impishly to recall the diplomacy necessary when pressed, more than once, if she believed in tinneas a Righ – the prevalent belief in rural Lewis that the touch of a seventh son (or, in a pinch, a seventh child) could cure scrofula, a glandular form of TB.
Retiring to marry local crofter John MacLeod in 1947, Mor settled happily into family life but never ceased to read, learn, and exercise her keen brain. Possessed of bardic dignity, matchless presence and speaking the most beautiful, purest Gaelic – to say nothing of utter, pitch-perfect command of English – in her latter decades she took quiet pleasure in being approached so often to impart lore and knowledge.
On the ninetieth anniversary of the Iolaire sinking – an exceptionally fine New Year’s Day, January 2009 – Mor sturdily attended the little open-air service of commemoration at Holm, along with the other surviving orphan: Alasdair ‘Sandy Mor’ Macleod of Garrabost, who died in 2010.
Mor and John cared at Brue for her mother, Mrs Christine Smith, in the final year or two of her life – six decades after the Holm calamity and when Mor herself was already an old woman.
– John Macleod