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An exhibition about one of the greatest maritime disasters to have taken place in the Atlantic – and the role played by the people of Stornoway in looking after survivors – is going on tour in the Western Isles, beginning with its opening today (Monday), in the Ionad Stoodie centre in Point.

One of Point and Sandwick Trust’s community consultants, Tony Robson, led the creation of the exhibition that details the sinking of SS Norge near Rockall in the early 20th Century. The exhibition, entitled Titanic’s Predecessor: SS Norge – An Atlantic Catastrophe, debuted at An Lanntair for a week in May and is now in Ionad Stoodie for two weeks.

After that, it will go to Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, opening on September 4 for a month and then go to the Harris Distillery, opening on October 4 for another month.

There is also the possibility that similar exhibitions could appear in museums across Europe, after a number expressed an interest in receiving the files for the information panels, during discussions with Tony. Some have already downloaded the files, including a museum in Russia. Other interested museums included the Estonian Maritime Museum in Tallinn, the National Museum of Poland and the Maritime Museum of Denmark. 

The exhibition tells the tragic story of the foundering of SS Norge on a reef close to Rockall on its journey to New York, in 1904. It was carrying nearly 800 souls – Russian Jews, Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and Danes – and more than half were mothers and children. With only enough lifeboats for 215, only 160 survived and 635 perished. Most of the lifeboats drifted in the Atlantic for days before being found by chance – one close to the Faroes, around 500 miles from the sinking – and the survivors from two of the closer lifeboats were landed at Number One Pier in Stornoway. 

Some went on to be cared for in the Lewis Hospital and others in private homes. Sadly, a number of them did not survive and they are buried in the cemetery at Lower Sandwick.

The last place to pick up a signal from the ill-fated ship was Lloyd’s Station at the Butt of Lewis on 27 June, the day before she sank.

The disaster remains the second worst civilian maritime disaster ever in the Atlantic, after the Titanic, and it made headline news around the world.

With no radio communications in mid-ocean, it was a Grimsby trawler that was first with the news, having come across the first lifeboat of survivors and taken them all the way back to its home port, a journey of five days. From that point, though, news travelled fast – by international telegraph services – and within 36 hours the tragedy was being reported in every newspaper in America and elsewhere. 

Tony obtained funding from Western Isles Development Trust and the Western Isles Lottery towards the cost of printing the informative banners, plus additional money from the local lottery to restore the lettering on the gravestone in the Sandwick cemetery.

In Tony’s view, the story of the SS Norge was eclipsed by the Titanic because the Titanic carried so many rich and well-to-do passengers, whereas the SS Norge was “full of refugees”.

Tony said the arrival of the lifeboat survivors in Stornoway would have been “sensational by today’s standards” and he described as “wonderful” the response from the town.

“The exhibition tells the great way Stornoway looked after them and there were huge crowds when the recovered survivors left Stornoway, going on to America. It is an epic story.”

(Photo from Museum nan Eilean)