He used to alarm me in the morning. I’d see him stride from his home to the post office as the sun rose late in winter, swiping the air with his walking stick and cursing all and sundry that lay around him.

An old man my fellow-villagers called Hero, he once stayed in the blackhouse next to our house, spending much of his day in the wooden shed that stood outside his door, the tools of his tailoring trade decorating the walls.

While he was there, he seemed to be utterly peaceful, one of the most decent and calm men a small child could ever meet. While playing a game of football beside our peat-stack on the opposite side of the road, I can remember our ball escaping beyond the goalposts, trickling before his feet. He handed it back to me with outstretched fingers, a grin upon his face. “Siud e… There it is,” he said in Gaelic.

But in the early hours of the day, it was a different matter. Rage overwhelmed him; an endless mix of oaths and blasphemies echoed and blustered from his lips. What seemed to be just about as disturbing as his actions was the way my fellow-villagers reacted to them. They’d either pretend they weren’t happening or shake their heads sadly.

“Poor Iain. He’s suffered a lot.”

They were right to forgive him. Even the most strict and stern church elders knew Hero had much to be angry about. In contrast, as a young boy, I wasn’t aware of a great deal of the truth about Iain Morrison or Iain Thormoid Ban’s life. I didn’t know, for instance, how three of his brothers had lost their lives in the First World War – Alex, Angus and Finlay being killed in various locations at sea during that global conflict.

Due to the existence of enemy ships, Alex met his end just outside Fastnet Rock off the south-west coast of Ireland while Angus drowned in the Aegean Sea off Greece. In contrast, Finlay’s life came to a more “domestic” close, his ship sunk by a mine off Montrose.

Nor was I conscious of how the boys’ father, Norman (or Tormod) had reacted to this loss. Apparently he spent much of his time crying over their absence, comparing himself to other men who had sent their sons to the conflict and seen them all arrive home safely.

He was clearly wracked by a deep and inexplicable guilt, an endless examination of his own frailties and inadequacies. It was one he experienced night after night, sobbing continuously over the passing of his children.

And as the sole survivor, Iain was the equivalent of the title character in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, returning home to comfort and give strength to his parents in their old age. Unfortunately, life rarely provides people with the saccharine ending seen in Hollywood films. The tone was probably set by the manner in which he came back to Stornoway on the boat the Sheila. He got drunk that night, seeking comfort from the whisky he poured down his throat before he faced his mother and father.

As a result of his actions, he travelled all the way to the mainland port of Kyle of Lochalsh, unaware that the boat had even landed. Standing on the quay waiting for him were his parents. They had travelled what was then a considerable distance, the 25 miles from Stornoway to their home in South Dell, in the hope that they might accompany their son on the last leg of their journey.

They journeyed back without him, being told, perhaps, by a few of his fellow-villagers, how Iain had been on board the vessel, unable to stand with the mingled effects of grief and drink. With each mile they travelled, their sorrow and humiliation sank deeper and deeper, unable, perhaps, to be lifted when Iain finally arrived at their door a few days later.

There is little I know of the rest of the story … I am aware that my great-grandfather gave Iain a little corner of our croft where his blackhouse stood while I was growing up. Only one wall still stands of that building. It helps to shelter a band of trees my brother has planted there. One can only surmise that Iain was unfit for croftwork; these rages that afflicted him each morning making him, too, a difficult companion with whom to share a home.

I also know that shortly after he died, both some of the other village boys and I were guilty of a small crime, entering his blackhouse by a door that lay open; no-one troubling to employ a lock and key in these dim, distant times.

We opened a drawer in his kitchen dresser to discover a horde of glittering medals lying there. Our eyes widened when we saw the gold, silver, bronze that probably belonged to Iain and his brothers, the brilliant array of colourful ribbons that trailed from them on a loop.

It is at this point I confess to a crime I committed, the sin of avarice… Both my friends and I took these medals and buried them in the garden in front of our house. They did not lie for long there. Either my father or uncle saw us working with a spade at that spot and went out to investigate.

Finding our horde, they simply took and returned them to their rightful owners. Not a word was exchanged; no scolding took place. Instead, we went back to the place where we had left them a few days earlier to discover our cache of buried treasure was gone.

Yet, despite the fact that there is now little physical trace of them, I often think of both Hero and his brothers – how both their lives and youth was taken from them by the forces of history that washed around their time. The thought makes me grateful for the age in which I have grown up and lived.

For all that we may sometimes moan and complain, we are the lucky generation, the ones which war and conflict largely overlooked and forgot.

Donald Murray


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.