Thursday, 11 May 2017

Mull 2017: Some grave matters

Whenever we are away, local graveyards, cemeteries and war memorials act as magnets to me. Quite often they are a window onto the social history of wherever we are and sometimes reveal interesting and poignant stories. I'm not sure how I should label this mild obsession of mine: it's certainly not 'necrophilia' (a rather morbid derangement). How about 'taphophilia' (“taph” from the Greek for tomb and “philia” meaning an inordinate fondness)? Nah, too clinical and not really what I do. I like to walk their paths, smell their flowers, see their statuary and read their epitaphs. Perhaps, because my interest has so many different facets, there is no single word or phrase for it. I’m all right with that. And now to what Mull and Iona had to offer in this regard.

In the small walled graveyard at Fionphort, I came across this headstone. It reads: Erected by D. McPherson, Appin. In memory of his beloved son, John, mate of SS Farho (lm). Wrecked on Tory Island. 22nd August 1874. Aged 35 years. His body was washed ashore here, a distance of 200 miles, 19 days later.
A little research reveals that SS Fairholm struck a rock in fog and sank off Tory Island on the north coast of Ireland. The full story is given in the newspaper cutting shown below. What was particularly poignant to me was realising that the Appin in the inscription is actually a small village on the mainland opposite Tobermory. With slightly different currents and/or wind directions, John's body might have returned home.
Taken from the Glasgow Herald and gives more detail of the events surrounding the sinking of SS Fairholm.

Another one from Fionphort and it mentions what happened to two sons of Duncan and Margaret Mae Gillivray MacKechnie, of the village.
Willaim MacKechnie, who is buried here, was a deck hand on HMS Lavatera and seems to have been 'lost at sea'. Swept overboard, perhaps? Lavatera was a small steam drifter (fishing vessel) built in 1913, she measured just 84 tons and originally fished out of Banff. In March 1915 she was taken over by the Navy, armed with a 3 pounder gun, and was employed as a patrol vessel. She was returned to her owners in 1920.
Their other son, Archibald, was killed on July 15th 1917, when his ship, HMS Redbreast, was torpedoed by U-boat 38 in the Aegean Sea. His body was never recovered and this headstone commemorates his memory. HMS Redbreast was an interesting ship in that it was one of the so-called Q-ships (also known as Q-boats, decoy vessels, Special Service Ships or Mystery Ships). These were heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry and were designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks, giving the Q-ship a chance to open fire and sink them. The ethos of every Q-ship has been described as 'to be a wolf in sheep's clothing'. Whatever the ethos, it clearly didn't work for Redbreast. And the Q? This refers to the vessels' home port of Queenstown in Ireland.            

Just to the south of the landing stage on Iona is this granite memorial at Martyr’s Bay or Port nam Mairtear. It is not in memory of the 68 monks killed here by Vikings in 806AD, but to the men lost in the First and Second World Wars. It's a beautiful place with stunning views over to Mull and to Erraid, once the summer home of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Never one to miss reading a war memorial, I was intrigued to see this: "Bimbashi Colin MacDonald. Frontier Batt. Sudan DFC. FCS. Aged 29 years". Bimbashi? Never heard of it but Google tells me that it is a rank equivalent to Major, originating from the days of the Ottoman Empire and retained in the Egypt Service. A little more reading suggests that DFC. FCS. are not the initials of awards but are shorthand for Defence Force.
The Commonwealth War Grave Commission's website gives a little more information but doesn't give a clue as to why Colin MacDonald was serving in a Sudanese regiment.
A little more rooting around and I come across this entry in a Year Book for Edinburgh University. Colin MacDonald had joined the Sudan Political Service and enlisted in the Sudan Defence Force from there. It is likely that he was killed in an engagement with Italian forces.

The simple granite grave of John Smith, erstwhile leader of the Labour Party and one of the great 'what if's' of British politics. What if he had lived longer? What if he had formed a government? Who knows? His epitaph reads 'an honest man'. It could very well turn out to be fitting for the present incumbent of that same position.
I liked the simplicity of this pink granite headstone. 'Here lies all that could die of Bruce Kenrick'. And does the memory of him linger on? It certainly should as he seemed quite a force. Amongst his many achievements was founding Shelter. Google his name and you'll find out a lot there about him.
The elaborate marble tomb of the 8th Duke and Duchess of Argyle placed in Iona Abbey.
I couldn't but help contrast the simplicity of this marker for an unknown Merchant Navy seaman with the Argyle tomb. It is just one of six similar found in the graveyard next to Iona Abbey, all with different dates.

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