The rage of a long-forgotten night-time storm surrounded a crowd packed into the main library in Stornoway last night (Tuesday 28th November), as the timbers of a vast wooden sailing ship cracked and splintered.
Shivering and praying in almost complete darkness, the audience felt how much of the masts and rigging were swept away leaving the Annie Jane adrift at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in an immense storm which took thousands of lives all up and down the west coasts of Britain and Ireland.
Then with her cargo of iron shifting in the holds, a vast wave swept across the deck taking all the remaining structures away…along with the lives of almost all those who had fled to the deck from the pitch-dark watery hell below.
Remaining alive…one man with his arms wrapped around the stump of a mast and a woman with one of her children strapped to her body.
Now the wreck of the Annie Jane was swept ashore on the Island of Vatersay and when daylight came on September 29th 1853, only 102 had survived of the 450, mostly young people, aboard. The average age of both crew and victims was around 22!
Demonstrating the imaginative power of words even in this video age, this tragic story was outlined by debut author Allan F Murray, from South Dell. His pioneering book on the tragedy was being launched by Stornoway publishers Acair in an event attended by more than 100 people and which heard calls for proper attention to be paid at last to the fate of these victims.
In a quiet but authoritative voice, often trembling with the passion which he had brought to many years of painstaking research, Allan F Murray read passages from the book – including several from first-hand accounts which have never been widely published before.
The audience was spellbound and angered in equal measure by the immense destructive power of this vast storm and the callousness of the administrative response to those victims, who remain to this day in two unmarked mass graves somewhere under the sand dunes adjoining West Bay on Vatersay.
When the tragedy took place, almost no one lived on Vatersay itself as the previously numerous population had just been cleared from the land by the landowner…and many of the survivors, some of whom were still there a fortnight after the disaster, were accommodated in pigsties.
Mirroring the way entire families were caught up in this disaster, the successful publication of the book involves other members of Allan F Murray’s family and also his neighbours. Some of the artwork was done by his daughter Rebecca; his daughter Anna translated a major text from French and made a key research breakthrough in the National Archives; his son-in-law Craig created a website (http://www.anniejane.net) which provides a focus for research and contributions from descendants of those involved; his neighbour David Green, a former publisher and Acair stalwart, was proof-reader and editor; and – indirectly – his brother, writer and poet Donald S Murray, who declined to take an interest in writing a book on the Annie Jane after Allan F Murray first became aware of the tragedy almost 20 years ago.
The event also heard from Outer Hebrides SSPCA officer Calum Watt who arrived on the Outer Hebrides at the start of the 1990s and first visited Vatersay then and found the existing monument. Calum said he had waited 27 years for this book – and indeed had tried to do research himself in past on the tragedy. He made an impassioned plea for action to preserve the site from coastal erosion and to properly mark the graves and remember the victims.
As an addition to the planned programme of the book launch last night, a moving song about the tragedy composed jointly by Calum and Point-based Alan Fish –was performed by Alan, accompanying himself on the guitar.