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Professor Ewen Cameron explores the experience of the Scottish highlands between 1918 and the late 1930s, a period of sustained discussion about the economic and cultural future of a region reeling from the aftershocks of the First World War
Loch Treig, Lochaber, one of the first Highland lochs to be dammed as part of a hydro-electric scheme

Historians writing about the Great War emphasise that the date of the armistice, 11 November 1918, can be misleading. In many areas of Europe this date is not especially important and ‘aftershocks’ of the war continued until the mid-1920s. While events in the Scottish highlands were not of the same order as those in eastern Europe, this idea of seeing continuity between war and peace is helpful in trying to understand the ‘inter-war’ period. Thinking more specifically about the highlands, it is important not to indulge in exceptionalism. To see the experience of the region as distinctive, or unique, even in a Scottish context, is to neglect the ways in which its history interconnects with wider themes in Scottish and British history, not least the effects of the global economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s.


The effect of deaths in battle were exacerbated by terrible events after the cessation of hostilities. Principal among these in a highland-Scottish context was the sinking of the Iolaire on the morning of 1 January 1919. The ship had left Portree on the evening of 31 December 1918 with around 280 naval reservists returning home to Lewis and Harris after war service. In the early hours of 1 January 1919 it struck rocks just outside Stornoway harbour and sank within sight of the town, resulting in the deaths of 201 men. In a poem about the disaster, Reverend John MacLeod of Arnol, who later emigrated to Canada, described how his father was found ‘fuar bàthte air an tràigh’ (‘cold drowned on the beach’) and of the devastating effect on his family. This was one of the worst maritime disasters in British history and an event of truly tragic proportions in Lewis, the home of most of the dead. Comment on the disaster in the newlyfounded Stornoway Gazette made the link to the fact that Lewis lost around 1,000 men in the war but that the loss of the Iolaire was a tragedy of a different order:

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About History Scotland

After the Great War: Rebuilding a nation Five great reasons to read History Scotland this month * New research on what life was like between the World Wars * Exploring the link between crime and military service * Special report on underwater archaeology at the German High Seas fleet scuttle site in Orkney * The women registrars who broke into an all-male profession * A new study of the controverial marriage of Queen Victoria's daughter Louise BONUS DIGITAL-ONLY CONTENT: Video report on a forgotten treasure trove of Victorian photos Exhibition preview: Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs Video: living history food & drink experience