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An ancient fund which has been providing reassurance for fishing families for almost 120 years is setting out on a modernisation plan in 2023.

The Funeral Fund Association for Lewis Fishermen and Women was founded in 1904, offering fishermen and women and their families, in Stornoway, Point, Back and Lochs, the comfort of knowing that their loved ones could be carried home with dignity if they should die away from home.  

At the time when it was founded, many fishing folk were based at mainland ports, especially those working in the herring industry. If a family member died suddenly on the mainland, the fund would help pay for a coffin and for transport back to Lewis. It was a product of hard times, but it also offered part of the respectful culture of death and mourning still evident in the islands.

Times have changed, but the fund remains important to Lewis families. For a small annual payment, residents of the Broad Bay area and Lochs, including Point and Stornoway, can be sure that the extra cost of ‘coming home’ is supported at a desperately sad time for families.

But with changing times come changing ways. For many years the late Catherine Macleod of Lochganvich single-handedly managed the collection of subscriptions, usually paid by one family member and often for numerous people.

Catherine had a relationship with each subscriber, ensuring that a team of collectors made individual contact with each as the new membership year began each New Year.

With her untimely passing and with changes in practices at Third Sector Hebrides, quickly followed by the demands of lockdown, when door-to-door subscriptions could not be collected, it’s become obvious that modernisation is needed.

But that doesn’t mean the end of the traditional support. Chairman Iain Macsween says the organisation has changes in mind to streamline and make more effective the collections and payments, but to keep the essential feeling of reassurance that the fund provides.

He said: “We held our first post-Covid AGM in December and all the collectors came along. We decided we wanted to try and modernise the association. Six trustees were elected to share the burden of responsibility and we agreed to begin by updating update the rules, to make the fund work for everyone.”

That includes looking to change to the traditional age range, which has since 1904 offered membership to those aged from one year old to 55. A change could mean that families are able to add newborn babies to their family list, helping out if anything tragic should happen while they are away from home.

Iain went on to say: “Over the years it has become difficult to know who was once involved in the fishing, and we never ask for proof. That’s led us to consider changing the name of the association so that it becomes more of a general fund for the funeral expenses of anyone who passes away off the island.”

For a cost of £1.50 per person per year, in the event of death away from home, the fund contributes up to £400 towards the cost of the coffin and up to £800 towards transport back to Lewis.

Right from the beginning it has proved its worth to Lewis people. The 1904 account book shows that, in the first few months, three people were repatriated for burial in their native land.

Iain said: “It’s poignant to read of a bygone age, when the fund would be communicating arrangements by telegram. Some records mention puffers departing from fishing ports to bring remains back to Stornoway, from where they would be carried on to the bereaved family. They must have had some comfort knowing that the expense incurred was covered by the Funeral Fund.”

Over the years the fund has made other contributions to good causes. It did its bit during both World Wars – in 1915 and 1944 the committee members agreed to buy War Stock to help the war effort.

The fund has also gifted money to the hospital in Lewis, each year since 1934. From 1949, annual donations began to the sanatorium and to Coulegrein House, and it now donates to all the care homes in Lewis, including Bethesda Hospice.

The fund is run by volunteers who update information, pay out claims and collect door-to-door in many areas. Members are beginning to take up the idea of making direct bank payments and the fund is encouraging this.  

In 2023 the six trustees hope to get the fund officially registered as a charity, offering more robust financial protection. What remains, though, is the unique sense of reassurance that comes from knowing that any death of a fund member away from home will trigger support.

Iain said: “Although our ability to pay for repatriation is limited to the UK, we have had enquiries about relatives in Australia. Obviously, we can’t meet all those costs, but we would support the last stage of their journey home, once they reach UK soil.

“It’s important for every member that we have an up-to-date record of who in their family is covered and whether the year’s membership has been paid. That’s what we want to maintain, the security of knowing it’s all taken care of.

“I get the impression from our collectors that people are reassured that they’ve got this bit of support. Elderly people, especially, are desperate to ensure that it’s in place and are worried because recent changes have made it more confusing to pay.

“We aim to smooth that out and, from 2023, it’s not just fishing families that can have that reassurance. If you stay in Lochs, Point, Stornoway or Back, you are eligible for membership. We just need to hear from you.”

Anyone wishing to renew their membership for the coming year, or become a member, can make a one-off payment each year, or set up a standing order at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Stornoway or via internet banking.

The committee asks that any member paying in this way notifies them by text, email or letter of their name and address, including names of all those being paid for.

Details for who to contact to find out the details are: telephone 07516 545375, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by post to chairman Iain Macsween at Westlea, 8B Shulishader, Point, Isle of Lewis HS2 0PU.

The pictures show early records kept by the association – the cash book, 1904 accounts and a unanimous resolution to support the war effort made by the committee ‘after a patriotic discussion’ in 1915.