Island archivists are asking for a huge collective effort to make sure the times we are living through are recorded for posterity – just as significant events in the islands have always been before.
But there’s a new urgency to their appeal as the ‘significant historical event’ that we are now living through will probably see the least tangible evidence left behind, simply because we all live so much of our lives on digital media.
Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean have posted examples of a letter and photograph recording two great floods in Stornoway – one in 1869 and one in the 1920s – and they are comparing events like these to today’s Coronavirus pandemic.
In a public appeal on Friday (10 April) they said: “As well as collecting from the past, we need to document the present. We are currently living through a significant historical event. We would like your help to capture the local and personal experience of how our islands are responding to this unprecedented time.
“We have amazing letters from the First World War in our collection that shine a light on the social issues and daily activities during this time. But with the digital age, there will be nothing similar to let future generations understand how the Coronavirus impacted on the Outer Hebrides.
“So we’re asking the people of the Outer Hebrides to help by recording their experiences of the Coronavirus pandemic, which we will add to our collections and preserve for future generations.
“We would like you to keep a daily diary. Absolutely anyone can take part and it can be as simple as writing things down, adding drawings, or photographs. It can be handwritten or typed, whichever you prefer.
“What’s happening outside and how this is impacting your daily life? How is it affecting your work or studies – what changes have you made to accommodate this? How are you keeping in touch with family and friends?
“What has your community / voluntary response been? What’s your view on the international, national and local political response? What media sources are you using to keep up with what’s happening? Have there been any benefits to the lockdown – what are the positives?
“We’d also like to know about local initatives such as NU Gin hand sanitiser, or leaflets from local helpers. Help us capture the unique local and personal response to this unparalleled moment in history.”
The archive examples show a letter from 1869 describing a great flood in January of that year. In it the correspondent writes: “Stornoway was visited last Friday and Saturday morning by an uncommonly high tide, which has caused a large amount of damage.
“The whole of the piers along the South Beach from the steam boat landing to Dr Miller’s house were undermined by the sea and broken down, the large stones composing them being driven to the walls of the South Beach houses.
“After the tide receded and the wind moderated the appearance which the South Beach presented was sad indeed. The whole street was quite impassable with debris of every description.”
The photograph shows a similar incident on South Beach in the early 1920s, with the street lifted and broken by water and a rowing boat washed up onto the steps of the Town Hall. The windows of the Town Hall are blocked up after a fire which virtually destroyed the building near the end of the First World War (Tasglann nan Eilean).