A great exuberance of music and song; sombre two-minute silence; a heart-rending list of villages and victims and a line-up of talented performers ranging from Primary School pupils to those for whom that is an all-too distant memory…

That was the formula for the Dìleab concert, hosted by The Nicolson Institute and the Comhairle nan Eiean Siar Department of Education, Sport & Children’s Services, which took place last night (Friday, 14th December 2018) at Ionad Spòrs Leòdhais.

Missing from the event were a 15-strong group of singers, musicians and dancers from Castlebay Community School and also the Sgoil Lionacleit Pipe Band, their islands stormbound and isolated.  As Frances Murray, Rector of The Nicolson Institute, commented in her closing remarks about the event which marked the approaching centenary of the Iolaire tragedy, this was “a very poignant reminder” of the impact of bad weather on island life.

Those leaving the concert – having given the performers and organisers a long and sincere standing ovation - will also have appreciated the darkness and stormy weather enveloping Stornoway – and, looking across the harbour, seen how, despite modern electric lighting ashore, the sky and the sea were joined together as dark as ink and as remorseless in their movements as a century ago.

This event was the culmination of the Dìleab project which schools across the Western Isles have been engaged in during 2018.  Pupils mostly from The Nicolson Institute but also from Laxdale School, Stornoway Primary School and Sir E Scott School in Tarbert, along with a host of local musicians reacted to the Iolaire tragedy through music, drama, dance and song.

The event began with Fanfare for the Common Man by the American composer Aaron Copland.  This was written in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and performed last night by The Nicolson Institute Wind Band.

Performed and introduced mostly in Gaelic, the concert ended with the traditional Eilean Fraoich song performed by The Nicolson Institute Trad Orchestra, Wind Band and choir along with many members of the audience. 

The event also included big screen displays on both sides of the stage showing close-ups of the performers, aspects of the story and related images, including a newsreel of the Melbost Bard, Murdo Macfarlane, talking about the morning after the tragedy. There were readings of eye-witness accounts and a re-creation of the Ross Battery band as it would have been at the time.

Speaking at the end, Frances Murray said that while the event was about remembering those lost in and affected by the Iolaire Disaster: “Tonight was also about hope for the future as personified by these young people which you have seen performing here. Their talent, their exuberance and their faithful acknowledgment of their heritage has all been evident in their preparation for tonight’s concert and in their performance.” She said that on a night of many emotions, her primary one was pride in the young people involved.  She praised all those involved – who were far too many to list in detail. She talked of “passing the baton of remembrance on to the younger generation” and said we “entrust to them the duty of continuing to honour those lost on the First of January 1919.”

Commenting on the welovestornoway.com Facebook Page, Mary Ann Macleod said: “It was an absolutely stunning evening to commemorate the Iolaire tragedy with the most amazing local talent including masses of schoolchildren.  A credit to the community!”

And Marina MacDonald said it was a “fantastic performance.  Hats off to all the organisers and performers!”  And Dolina Mackenzie Maclean commented:   It was an amazing performance right through.  Thoroughly enjoyed the concert from beginning to end. Teachers and pupils must be very tired tonight!”

The event also formed part of the Comhairle's engagement in the national Year of the Young Person