Notes from a niseach

A sense of loss

There is no doubt that the most chilling hours in life are when we are reminded that, like the rest of us, the lives of the young are fragile.

It is easy to recall the time when this first – really – occurred to me. It was the hour when I discovered that Angus Smith, a boy who had been in my year in school and hostel had been killed. Startling as this news was, the way in which the event had taken place was even more shocking. My friend had died as a result of a flash of lightning, the victim of a bolt that struck as he walked down the village road in his home community of Barvas at the northern end of the Isle of Lewis. Even more bizarrely, it had killed him outright while leaving those with whom he had linked arms – his sister and another girl – with scorch-marks on their sides.

It was an event that I, in my first months down in Glasgow after just leaving school, found hard to take in. It seemed so absurd and – to use that word that teenagers now claim for their own – “random”. I kept thinking of how we had been together for a number of years in the hostel, learning to “chat up” girls together – an art I never quite mastered. With his small size and my tall, gangling frame, we must have been the ultimate “odd couple” to those who observed us. Yet despite this difference in our scale, we got on very well with each other, laughing and joking together. Our relative sizes might even have helped our friendship. It gave me the opportunity to practise my charms on the taller of the two girls. He was free to try and win over the smaller one.

Since then, through my work as a teacher, I have seen the lives of a fair number of young people come to a close. These individual and family tragedies have occurred in a variety of ways. There have been the inevitable car crashes, those falling victim, too, to the excesses of drink or drugs. There have even been occasions when a teenager or young adult has sought his or her own end, with all the devastating effect that this can have on a household or community.

Each of these events has brought its own bewilderment, and there have been times when they have been as puzzling and surprising as that first occasion I encountered death. The bright and talented girl about to go to university going out one night to a dance, struck down by a quick and fatal illness. The young man, during his first years fishing, drowned during a storm at sea. A child stepping out in front of a vehicle. Each one bizarre and frightening. Each one seemingly “random”.

Living in a small community, I have sometimes observed how parents and families cope with such happenings. There are those who seem unable to do so. They retreat into themselves or sometimes into alcohol, understandably challenged and frightened by all that has occurred to them. There are some who go into denial, putting a mock-cheerful face to others when we come across them in the street.

“And how are you today?”

“I’m fine . . .”

Then there are those who possess faith. They react in the same way as the rest of us to the loss of their children. “Why did it happen . . ?” they ask. Again, as one of them who had experienced that loss explained to me, they obtain no answers to their queries, no solutions to their bafflement. The difference, they say, is that they have somewhere to take their questions, an assurance that someday the answer might be revealed. And in that thought, they achieve a kind of calmness, a strength and force in the face of grief.

And there is too the way chosen by Angus’ family. His end has come again to my mind over the last few weeks for a number of reasons. There was the fact that his brother, Eric’s photograph appeared recently in the Shetland Times. Captain of the lighthouse ship, the Pharos, he is not an unfamiliar figure in the streets of Scalloway and Lerwick. There was also the way that the school community of Sandwick – where I work – have had to cope with the loss of a young girl in recent weeks. Despite the thirty years that separated them, Angus Smith and Vaila Harvey had much in common. They were both – in terms of height and build –small, slender figures. They had a similar bright breeziness, a buoyancy of spirit. They both, too, had a strong sense of the community to which they belonged.

There were also similarities in the way their families chose to mark their passing. A short time after he died, Angus’ family performed what was probably a revolutionary act in the context of the islands at that time. To commemorate his life, they set up an annual award in his memory. It is a shield that even today is given to the person who has done most for their community over the previous year. It provides, as Eric pointed out to me, no solution for the family’s loss. That never goes away. However, it creates something of worth and value from his passing, marking his spirit in a real and meaningful way.

Vaila’s family – like that of the late Callum Younger – have done much the same, providing the community with a focus for their own grief in a celebration of her life within the school in the last few weeks. At that event, they reminded us of her talents – how she loved to play the saxophone, sing and perform on stage; how she put us at ease when she met us in the last months of her life, knowing she was suffering a potentially fatal illness. In doing this, they raised a considerable sum of money for a number of good causes, both within and outside our own locality. And we can only salute her parents Paul and Elizabeth, sisters Bryony and Holly for the way they coped with the sorrow and tears that must have nearly overwhelmed them during these days. They have done much in the memory of a remarkable, young lady who brought a great deal of pleasure to those of us who encountered her in life.

Donald S Murray


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