Lewis and the Isles saw many men lost to the First World War despite their relatively sparse population. Of the 30,000 people who lived in Lewis at the time of the 1911 census, some 6,200 joined up during the war. Of these, more than 1,200 died during or after the conflict. Like so many similar coastal communities, the disproportionate loss of predominantly young men would have had an enormous impact. The tragedy of the First World War would take its toll even after the cessation of hostilities in November 1918. On New year’s Day 1919, HMY Lolaire foundered and sank less than a mile off shore near Stornoway harbour, claiming the lives of more than 200 men returning home to the Islands.
Seaman Norman MacDonald, R.N.R., eldest child of Norman and Christy MacDonald, was born in Breaclete, Great Bernera, off the Isle of Lewis, on the 13th of February 1885.
The 1901 census shows Norman, aged 16, at 5 Breaclet, with his parents and 7 siblings: John (14), Catherine (12), Mary (10), Donald (8), Angus (6), George (4) and Donald John (8 months). Donald John only lived to the age of 5 years. Another boy was born in 1904, but only lived for 5 days and remained unnamed.
Norman joined the Royal Naval Reserve in 1904. He served in Howe Battalion, part of the Royal Naval Division, from 19 September until 27 October 1914, during which time he participated in the defence of the Belgian city of Antwerp. Formed from surplus naval men, the RND was a unique formation in World War 1 and fought alongside the Army. Norman was discharged to the Royal Navy Barracks, Portsmouth on the 27th of October 1914. We do no know when he joined the crew of HMS Laurentic.
The following obituary appeared in the Stornoway Gazette at the time of his death:-
Seaman Norman Macdonald whose loss in the sinking of the Laurentic is deeply deplored. Norman joined the RNR at the age of 19 and has served for 13 years, being at the time of his death 32 years of age. He was one of the most likeable young men one could wish to meet, and he was a general favourit wherever he went. During the summer he generally went to the East Coast herring fishing, but during the rest of the year he prosecuted lobster fishing from here. When bad weather prevented the boats going out, his company was much sought after, and his cheery presence will be much missed. His father is an old RNR man, having served in the first-class reserve for the long period of 27 years, while two brothers are in the Seaforths.
Norman’s body was never recovered after the sinking of HMS Laurentic.
His brothers Donald and George served in the Seaforth Highlanders. Donald was wounded and later discharged; he died in military hospital in 1922. George was gassed but survived. His brother John, who was in the Canadians Engineers, also survived.
Norman MacDonald is remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial; Great Bernera Memorial, Breaclete (a memorial paid for with money collected locally and with donations from exiles and friends) and on his family’s gravestone in Bosta Cemetery, Great Bernera.
British Commonwealth War Graves Registers, 1914-1918
http://www.ancestry.com: UK, British Army and Navy Birth, Marriage and Death Records,
1901 Scotland Census: Reels 1-446. General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh.
Scottish War Memorials Project: http://www.scottishmilitaryresearch.co.uk
Lewismen Lost in the Great War: http://lewis-lost-ww1.blogspot.com
Imperial War Museums: http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/57332
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission: http://www.cwgc.org