A young filmmaker based on the Isle of Lewis will be producing the movie based on The Women Lay Dreaming, the acclaimed new novel by Lewis writer Donald S Murray exploring how generations of the same family were affected by the legacy of the tragedy, which struck when a naval yacht crashed into rocks near Stornoway in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1919.
The project, which has won the backing of a new talent project to find “Scotland’s filmmakers of the future” being funded by the BBC and Channel 4, is being undertaken by John Murdo MacAulay, aged 25.
MacAulay will be mentored by a team of writers, directors and producers who have worked on the likes of Killing Eve, Doctor Who, Derry Girls and Poldark during a week-long residency in the Isle of Skye. The Young Films Foundation was launched last year by Chris Young, producer of The Inbetweeners and the Gaelic drama Bannan, which he set up and made in the south of Skye.
MacAulay received Murray’s book as a Christmas present weeks after it was published last November and submitted an outline of the project to the Young Films Foundation initiative in March after securing the backing of the author.
He said: “There was a great deal going on in Lewis in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the disaster. It felt like everyone on the island had come together to remember such a tragic event and the people that had lost their lives. Everyone on Lewis has obviously been aware of the Iolaire, but perhaps not the details we now know about because of the centenary.
“I actually learnt a great from the book itself as to what had gone on. Its account of the disaster is very accurate.
“As soon as I finished reading the book it just popped into my head that it would make a great screen project.
“Luckily I have a mutual friend with Donald and he was interested in taking it forward with me.”
MacAulay, who currently works for the Lewis-based production company Corran Media, is planning to produce the adaptation of the book.
It focuses on the ripple effect of surviving the disaster on islander Tormod Morrison, who is on his way back from serving in the First World War, when tragedy strikes on the last leg of the journey home, and events two decades later when his two grandchildren are sent from Glasgow to the island.
MacAulay added: “The thing about the book that really struck me was that all the nuances in it felt very real. There was nothing that was exaggerated or blown out of proportion. It’s a good and honest account of life in Lewis back then.
“It was obviously really important that nobody else had the rights for the book and also to build up a relationship with Donald and build up his trust. It’s his baby, as such. The idea for the film has to be true to the story in the book.”
As The Women Lay Dreaming, described by the author as “a sideways look at the disaster,” was named Scottish book of the month by Waterstones when it was released and it was recently shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Prize, which will be decided later this month. Murray said: “I actually started writing the book back in 2002, but just couldn’t get it right for a long time.
“I really wanted about the Iolaire disaster and the impact it had, particularly on the crofting townships of Lewis, because that’s where the bulk of those who died came from. “The disaster was clearly very traumatic for Stornoway in its initial impact, but it had a huge long-term effect around the island.
“In my childhood no-one really spoke about it - there was an in-built reticence on the subject. There were a lot of spinsters and widows left behind, but there were also a lot of men who did not want to trust themselves in a relationship as they could see how much pain the disaster had brought.
“That’s what I wanted to write about and decide to focus on the effect it had had on the life of one man.
“I was very lucky as my editor at the publishers Saraband, Craig Hillsley, helped bash it into shape. It was only in the last month of writing it that I felt I was getting it right. I was delighted to get it out.
“It’s already been successful beyond anything I had imagined. It was very timely when I put it out. It felt like its time had come.”
Young Films, which has been operated on Skye since 2014, has secured the backing of Film4, Channel 4, BBC Scotland, BBC Films, MG ALBA, Screen Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Torabhaig Distillery for its new film school.