During the dark small hours of New Year’s morning, 1919, the Admiralty yacht, HMY Iolaire, with nearly 300 men aboard, foundered on the ominously named rocks, The Beasts of Holm, just yards from shore and within a mile of the safety of Stornoway Harbour on Lewis in the Western Isles.
The men aboard were returning from the horrors of the Western Front at the conclusion of the Great War. Although within site of their homeland, almost within touching distance, rough seas prevented them from swimming ashore. Many who attempted were drowned, one man, John MacLeod bravely succeeded in getting ashore with a line, from which a further 30-40 men were able to drag themselves to safety. The last survivor was not found until daylight - one man, Donald Morrison, was found still hanging on to the rigging for dear life. Seven others had been with him, but had not been able to hang on throughout the night.
205 men were drowned that day. For such a close knit and remote island community, the tragedy must have come as unbearable blow. The loss cannot be imagined, not a family was unaffected.
(Iolaire survivors Donald Morrison and John Macleod)
The loss of over 200 men, together with the 1000 who had died in the trenches, effectively deprived Lewis of a generation of men. Emigration to America and the mainland UK escalated. Today the population of Lewis is half of what it was the night the Iolaire went down.
Your scribe signs of for the evening, disturbed at this savage twist of fate - To get so close to home, after been so far away for so long, only to drown within site of land. If there is a God, he works in cruel and mysterious ways.
Between the years of 976 and 1018 AD, a state of war existed between Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire, led by Basil II and nicknamed the "Bulgar-Slayer".
The culmination of one particular episode of the carnage, at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014, was especially grim. 14000 Bulgarian soldiers were ambushed in a valley and trapped, they had little choice but to surrender and were swiftly taken prisoner. King Basil divided the soldiers in to groups of 100, blinded 99 men in each group, and left one man in each with one eye so that he could lead the others home.
It is said that the King of Bulgaria, Samuil, died of a heart attack when he saw his newly blinded army march past him, other reports say he died three months later, either way the effect must have been devastating.
The author of these words shudders at the thought of those thousands of blind men struggling to find their way home, groping in to the darkness and pinning their hopes on just one man, somewhere in the group, with only one eye. He also wonders at he eventual fate of the blinded soldiers, what use did eleventh century Bulgaria have for 14000 blind men? One suspects their subsequent years were spent in poverty and misery.
The Shakers were a religious sect, an offshoot of the Society Of Friends (Quakers), who originated from the UK in the late eighteenth century.
They followed the teachings of Mother Anne Lee and the name "Shaker" derives from their habit of trembling, shouting, dancing, shaking and singing during religious worship. Anne Lee was frequently harassed by the authorities in the UK and imprisoned on several occasions for blasphemy. During one stay in Manchester Prison, Anne Lee stated she had "directions from God" to take her band of followers to America. They founded a community in Watervliet, New York State in 1776.
Over the following decades their numbers swelled to a peak of perhaps 6000 members in the 1840s. As they practised celibacy, they were unable to 'breed' new members of the sect, they overcame this by adopting the children of local "fallen women". Many other Shaker communites were founded throughout America, the town of Shaker Heights in Ohio was originally one of these settlements.
As with many sects, the appeal of the religion eventually began to wane and by 1908 there were only around 1000 remaining Shakers. Their numbers have continued to decline since then.
In 1992 Ethel Hudson , the last surving member of the community at Canterbury, New Hampshire, died at the age of 96. This left just one remaining Shaker community, at Sabbathday in Maine.
It is unclear how many Shakers remain alive, certainly less than ten, possibly as few four. It is evident that there days are now seriously numbered and in a matter of years they will be gone forever. They will leave an impressive legacy, not only did they practise a unique religion, but they left their mark on subjects as diverse as furniture design and hymn writing.
The author of these words, an agnostic, will mourn the passing of the last Shaker. If anyone reading this knows the exact number of those who remain, he would be very interested to know the answer.
Your humble scribe offers the following tale as todays melancholy fare...In an unnamed pioneer township in Ohio, wild animals, ravenous beasts of the night, were devouring the populations chickens, hogs and cows. So great were the losses that one of the bloodiest big game hunts in history was instigated.
The town's men armed themselves and posted themselves around the borders of their colony. At the cry of a horn, echoed from bugler to bugler, the men waded forward, driving game before them towards the centre of the township. When the ring had been tightened to some half mile in diameter, an order was given to fire and the men fired at will.
They shot everything that moved. After the thrashing had stopped they waded forward once again, shooting every beast they flushed from the thickets and swamps. At last the circle closed and the men faced each other over the carcasses of twenty two bears, seven wolves, one hundred and three deer, two mountain lions, one wildcat, plus turkeys and countless smaller game.
One of the competitors of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games Women's Triathlon, was the Australian, Emma Snowsill.
Four years ago, her boyfriend and training partner Luke Harrop was killed when he was hit by a car on a training ride. Devastated, she stopped training and in the months that followed his death she seemed to withdraw from the triathlon world, for very understandable reasons.
Months later Luke's sister, Loretta Harrup, another triathlete visited Emma. After Loretta offered to be her practice partner, Emma was persuaded to start training again.
Another two years passed during which Emma swam, cycled and ran with renewed vigor and determination, no doubt inspired to train in memory of Luke. This, combined with the training and guidance of Loretta, herself an Olympic medalist, obviously worked wonders. At the Melbourne Games, Emma Snowsill won a magnificent gold medal, the winning margin was over 30 seconds, this despite her stopping before the finish-line to exchange long hugs and congratulations with friends and family.
Your humble scribe salutes the courage of Emma Snowsill and wishes her every success at the 2008 Olympics. He signs off for now, comforted by the thought of the happiness and hope that can sometimes spring from desolation.
Gough Island, lies far out in the Atlantic Ocean, it's nearest neighbor is Tristan da Cunha - itself the world's remotest inhabited island.
Gough is an important sea bird colony and hosts one of the world's largest albatross breeding grounds.
Conservationists have recently reported aggressive groups of unusually large and violent human-introduced house mice which have been posing a problem for the breeding grounds: The mice are eating alive defenseless albatross chicks sitting on their nests.
The chicks, described as "big spherical balls of fat covered in down", have no defense mechanism against the mice. The attacker weighs about 50 grams, the victim can weigh 10-12 kilos.
The albatross faces a perilous future. Not only are the chicks been devoured alive, but other factors such as line fishing and ingestion of plastic floatsam are also causing their wholesale destruction. Of the 21 species of albatross, 19 are threatened with extinction.
Many have admired these majestic birds. They can soar for miles, for days without flapping their wings, the wingspan of a wandering albatross can reach 11 feet, all species of albatross mate for life - and an albatross can live for 60 years. The author of these words grieves at their bloody slaughter and curses his fellow man for the terrible harm wrought upon a species that has never caused humans even the slightest danger.
For years, locals who lived near the campsite at Los Alfaques, close to the to the town of Tortosa in southern Spain had been complaining to the authorities that tanker drivers were using the dangerous, twisting coast road rather than pay the toll on the nearby expressway. Residents were alarmed, for they new the tankers were full of pressurized liquid gas from the nearby refinery of Tarragona.
The authorities made a fatal mistake when they refused to listen. In July 1978 a tanker crashed in to the campsite and burst in to flames. Blazing gas spewed over a radius of 400 meters and a 60 meter ball of fire swept through the site setting caravans and tents ablaze. The force of the explosion was so strong that some tourists on the adjacent beach were blown in to the sea.
More than 170 people died , many bodies charred beyond recognition, all because a driver refused to pay to take the safe road.
One hopes that the protests against the transportation of nuclear waste on the British rail network, another costcutting measure, don't prove to be as ignored as the doomed protestors of Los Alfaques. Your fearful scribe prognosticates a fatal nuclear accident or attack in Britain during the next 10 years. There have been a couple of near misses this year already.
In 1555, Ivan The Terrible ordered the construction of St Basil's Church in Moscow. He was so pleased by this piece of work by the two architects, that he had them blinded so they could never create anything more beautiful.
He was known to throw cats and dogs out of the windows, and in 1581 Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, causing a miscarriage and killed his own son in the fight that followed.
Your scribe cannot help thinking that Russia must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when he died in 1584, probably poisoned by mercury.
The island of Gruinard, lies just of the North West coast of Scotland.
For fifty years it was quarantined, too dangerous to set foot on, following war time experiments in 1942. The soil was contaminated with anthrax , landing on Gruinard could have been fatal. The victims of the original experiments were eighty sheep, they all died within days
The island has now officially been declared safe (forty sheep were placed there and they lived). The possible dangers of visiting Gruinard has been disputed by some eminent academics; Dr Brian Moffat, archaeological director of an excavation of a medieval hospital near Edinburgh, said his team had encountered buried anthrax spores which had survived for hundreds of years. He said at the time: "I would not go walking on Gruinard. If anthrax is still active at Soutra, there is no reason to suppose it has not survived on more recent sites. It is a very resilient and deadly bacterium."
The author is inclined to agree with Dr Moffat, for he won't be visiting either. Here lies a corner of Britain that will forever be linked with anthrax, surely it still lingers there in the soil, waiting to rise again.
Salvatore Giuliano was only 28 when he was killed. He spent most of his adult life on the run and died in a hale of gunfire, after he was betrayed by his own cousin. His name may be familiar to those who have read "The Sicilian" by Mario Puzo
He was born in the town of Montelepre, Sicily in 1922. His early years were shaped by political turmoil and then war in his native land.
The Mafia have long dominated Sicily's history, but their influence was on the wane thanks to a brutal clampdown ordered by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Ironically the American invasion of Sicily gave the Mafia fresh impetus, many imprisoned Mafia bandits were released from jail and some were eventually placed in positions of authority.
As Giuliano grew up, Sicily became ever poorer. From an early age he was involved in smuggling contraband across the mountains and in to Montelepre. Ages 21 he shot and killed a policeman after been discovered with an illicit stash of grain.
Instead of becoming just another of the many hundreds of fugitive bandits hiding away in the wild Sicilian hinterlands, Giuliano stood out as a figure of defiance, within months he had recruited a growing band of fellow outlaws who he led on Robin Hood style raids, robbing the rich to feed the poor.
Hiding in the mountains, Giuliano soon reached near legendary status through out Sicily. Sadly he was always doomed to be exploited by the ineradicable Mafia. He was talked in to putting the frighteners on the attendees of a May Day celebration, specifically because the Mafia wanted to remove the Socialist Party who organized it. On May 1st 1947, Giulianos men, hidden in the mountains over Portella Della Ginestra opened fire on the families below, who were innocently enjoying the days festivities. Eleven were killed and thirty were wounded.
Unsurprisingly, after the massacre Giuliano's influence began to decline. He was pursued in to the mountains and lived his remaining years constantly dodging the authorities, protected by a now shrinking band of men. As his support ebbed away and the police and army increased the size of their search parties. At the end, 1000 men were looking for him.
On July 5 1950, Giuliano was shot and killed. Shockingly, the man who pulled the trigger was none other than his cousin and long time co-conspirator, Gaspare Pisciotta . He claimed that he had been offered amnesty and a pardon for "getting rid" of Giuiliano. Evidently Pisciotta's hopes of freedom would be dashed - he was poisoned four years later in his prison cell.
The author of these words reflects on the life and death of Salvatore Giuliano. He was obviously a man who managed to pack a lot in to his 28 years. The author has passed that age now and he has chosen, like most of us, to fade away rather than burn out. When Giuliano died, after years on the run, maybe his life flashed before his eyes. Maybe he wondered at the broken dreams and the betrayals that had brought about his folly, the author doubts that he died happy or fulfilled.
During the twentieth century, only two objects struck the earth with enough force to destroy a whole city. Each object, one in 1908 and one in 1947, struck isolated parts of Siberia. Not one human being was hurt on either occasion. Pure luck.
Opinions vary as to when the Earth will be at real risk from another meteorite. As a society, we seem to place enormous faith in the very few astronomers who claim to be able to predict these events. After all, everyone agrees that, ultimately, a doomsday strike is inevitable.
Your humble scribe, a nervous individual, places no trust in the witterings of optimistic pedagogues who quote centuries or millennia, rather than years or decades, as a potential time scale for such an event. He waits and on occasions he peers hesitantly upwards to the beyond, watching for fire from heaven.
A friend spoke of a strange experience today.
Whilst walking alone, she saw a shadow touch another shadow's hand on a wall in front of her.
The image was precise and clear, she looked around and no one was there. She is a sensible, level headed person and is certain of what she witnessed.
What can this mean? She thinks it's a message from her mother, who died recently. The event defied rational explanation.
The author has mused over this event at length. He remains puzzled at the circumstances and unusually uncynical at his friend's spiritual explanation.
Recently the body of a local lady was discovered in her flat. She'd been dead for five weeks before the alarm was raised.
It is understandable that, on occasions, it might be a few days before the body is discovered, however when days turn in to weeks, as with the above story, then serious questions need to be asked. It doesn't stop there either, not infrequently we read of corpses that were found after months or sometimes even years.
How can it be that in the 21st century, that this still happens? We can send a rocket to the moon and beyond, we can split the atom, yet allow our fellow man to rot where he fell.
Imagine, if you will, your last declining days before you expire. Nearly all of us will be comforted to know that someone, anyone would know of your demise.
To have no one who cares enough to check and see if you're dead or alive, no family, no friends no health or social care professionals, is a damning indictment of our modern society.
The author signs off for now, heavy hearted at this state of affairs.
The sky is becoming less blue.
Particles of airborne pollution are thought to be creating a thick blanket of dirty grey. This blanket of pollution was preventing the ''scattering'' of sunlight as it passed through the atmosphere, causing the sky to darken.
In years to come will the blue sky have become a treasured memory? In our old age, might we look to the up to the heavens though a sickly yellow and grey tinged celestial sphere?
The author of these words is chilled at the thought of old age in an overpopulated world, with rising sea levels, mounting terror and anarchy, with only the fond recollections of a pure blue sky.
Nauru , a small Pacific Island faces a worrying future.
Once the world's richest per capita nation, it is well on the way to becoming one of the poorest. There are lessons to be learnt from the destruction of a nation, lessons that are likely to be ignored by the people who most need to learn them.
Interestingly one of the linked articles mentions the Japanese, who occupied the island during WWII. Their solution to the endemic leprosy problem on the island was to place all the sufferers on a boat, before taking the boat out to sea and sinking it.
Luciano Pavarotti, the opera singer was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer .
Despite optimistic statements from his managers and publicists, anyone with a smattering of medical knowledge will know that pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal of all carcinomas.
He is undergoing treatment in the USA, but all the dollars in the world might not be able to save him. For those who hold out hope for him, brace yourself for this statistic: Some 33,700 Americans will learn that they have pancreatic cancer this year, and 32,300 will die. (Source)
Pavarotti is one of the lucky few who was able to have surgery. But this improves his chances only minimally
If there is any cancer left in his system at all it could end up spreading to his stomach, spleen, large bowel, nearby large blood vessels and possibly the lymph nodes. It could end up getting worse if the cancer then spreads onwards towards his liver, lungs etc. Media reports allude to Pavarotti about to embark on a course of chemotherapy , which lends weight to the theory that something malignant remains within the body.
Even if the operation was entirely successful, there will be massive damage to his digestive system. He is likely to become diabetic (unless he is already?) the removal, or partial removal of the pancreas will destroy the natural flow of enzymes and insulin which are essential for the digestive process.
The author of these words, a melancholy soul, wishes Mr Pavarotti the best for the coming months. He signs off considering the above facts, we all have to battle in life, when the fight wears us down, it is always worth considering that someone out there faces a challenge far worse than your own.
The Jarawa inhabit Great Andaman Island in the Indian Ocean, they number between two and three hundred souls. Until recently they were regarded as one of the most socially isolated indigenous tribes in the world. During the late twentieth century a host of anthropologists, sociologists, linguistics experts and other assorted boffins finally wore down their resistance and eventually "friendly contact" was made, largely by way of the tribesmen been lured out of the bush to collect gifts such as plastic buckets and oranges. The contact may eventually reap doom for the Jarawa, history shows that indigenous islanders can be virtually wiped out by disease, the population decline of the Marquesas Islands serves as a classic example of this
Sadly, it has already been reported that measles has struck some of the Jarawa. With virtually no immunity to introduced diseases and no access to adequate medical care, their future looks precarious to say the least.
The history of Great Andaman Island bears witness to another tribe virtually destroyed. The Great Andamanese , who were not as resistant to the settlers as the Jarawa, were virtually obliterated. In 1858 there were estimated to be over 5000 Great Andamanese, today there are just 46 left, living on a reserve with many addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Another tribe, the Onge , who inhabited the neighboring island of Little Andaman, have seen their lands stripped away for development by the Indian administration, who took over with increased vigor when the British left in 1947. A nomadic tribe, they are now confined to only small areas of their own island, there are fears they may vanish altogether if tourism takes hold there. Their current population is 97, down from 700 in 1860.
Only one tribe in the Andaman Island group remains in tact and still totally isolated from the outside world. The Sentinelese of North Senitinel Island live a prehistoric life style, shunning the outside world and killing any invaders. How much longer before the ruthless march of globalization swallows up the world's few remaining tribesmen?
The author of these words mulls over the thought, a pervading sense of the apocalypse sweeps over him.