remembering the Tuscania

Killeyan beach is one of my favourite Islay spots, and last year it was also the location in which we photographed one of my all-time favourite designs – the Oa hoody.

Killeyan’s spectacular rock stacks and formations overlook the sea. It is a wonderful place for a solitary wander with only the occasional wild goat for company.

But almost a century ago, this quiet Islay shoreline was the scene of a terrible disaster, which is being commemorated with a wreath-laying ceremony in Islay today.

The Tuscania was an Anchor Line vessel, whose usual service was to carry passengers between Glasgow and New York. But on January 27th, 1918, The Tuscania set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey with over a thousand US troops on board – young men who had been sent to fight in the battlefields of Europe.

The Tuscania journeyed up the eastern seaboard to Halifax, where it was joined by other troop transporters to travel in convoy across the Atlantic. On February 5th, land was finally sighted, and identified as Islay. Passing through the North Channel dividing Islay and Rathlin Island, the convoy was now well on course for Liverpool, its destination. But its progress had been tracked by UB-77, then patrolling the Hebridean coastline.

With the firing of the first torpedo, the Tuscania sank. Soldiers struggled to reach lifeboats which were in danger of being crushed by the listing ship. Some men were rescued by other vessels in the convoy, but many were cast adrift on the waves, just off the rocky shores of the Oa.

Over 200 young men were to lose their lives in the sinking of the Tuscania. This was the largest single loss of American life since the Civil War, and news of the disaster rocked the United States to its core. And for Islay, the impact of the sinking of the Tuscania was profound. Hundreds of young Islay men had already been lost to the war, and the disaster brought the conflict home to the island in the most terrible way imaginable. In the archive of The Museum of Islay Life are poignant memoirs, letters and albums which document the events of that awful night. Islay photographer, Archibald Cameron, recalled how a “shudder of horror went through the hearts of our fellow islanders as in the grey dawn of morning they found the shores strewn with the bodies of the unfortunate victims. The bodies were tenderly collected and every effort made to procure their identity. Large crowds gathered to pay their tribute of respect to the fallen, and after solemn services, the bodies were reverently laid to rest.”

One location for the graves of the men lost in the disaster was at Killeyan.

The archive also includes moving accounts of the incredible efforts of Islay folk to save and care for the Tuscania’s survivors. Farmers Robert Morrison and Duncan Campbell spent the entire night of February 5th rescuing men from the treacherous cliffs and shores of the Oa, and were later awarded OBEs for their bravery. Mrs A Currie of Port Ellen looked after several survivors, and later received a letter of thanks from the governor of California, for the kindness she’d displayed: “I am told that you personally treated the boys with the same sympathy and tenderness that their own mother would have used.”

“The shock of the Great War has vibrated to the ends of the earth,” wrote Archibald Cameron in his photographic album commemorating the disaster, “and common suffering has made the whole world kin.”

In 1920, the bodies of the dead were repatriated from Islay to the United States, and the American Red Cross erected a monument on The Oa to their memory.

Standing on the cliff-face, high above the sea and overlooking the spot where the Tuscania sank (and where its wreck still lies), the monument has a hopeful beacon-like appearance. It can be seen from many spots in Islay, but its cliffside location rewards a walk, and some reflection upon the kinship and common suffering it represents.

The plaque reads: “A tribute from Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America to the memory of his fellow citizens who gave their lives in nearby waters.”

Tom shot these thought-provoking photographs around the Oa’s American Monument while we were working on our Islay book . . .

. . . and Les Wilson has just published a new book about Islay and the Tuscania, The Drowned and the Saved, which is now available from Birlinn Press.