It all began with the failure of the fire in our sitting room to catch alight.
Uncle Norman took out a couple of broadsheet pages from the Daily Express, the only newspaper we could buy at the local shop, and stretched its breadth across the fireplace. It was his way of encouraging the embers we had sought to preserve since the previous night to spark and glow, bringing them to life once more. For a long time, the clumps of peat I had brought in the previous night defeated his efforts. Each one was too large, too damp, taken – in my laziness – from the opening of the stack where wind and rain whipped and soaked them thoroughly.
Slowly, however, fire took hold. Little flames flickered and sparked, their tiny tongues stretching out and expanding in the darkness below the newsprint. Eventually, he pulled the newspaper away, the fire now bright and blazing, smoke billowing into the room.
'Tha e ceart gu leor a-nis,’ my uncle pronounced, admiring his own achievement.
I grinned, looking at the newspaper he had used. There was a scorch-mark on the page, a few words toasted and turned brown by its proximity to flame. Ironically, they told the story of a man who had burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense.
The American was called Norman Morrison.
The sheer ordinariness of that name in the landscape of my home district of Ness helped me both notice and recall it. I had a second cousin who bore the exact same Christian name and surname. There were a clutch of brothers a few miles up the road in the nearby villages of Borve and Shader who shared it; their parents clearly lacking the imagination to provide their four sons with any other forename. (One of them drove the bus to school most afternoons and mornings. Another was distinguished from the rest by the fact that he wore glasses.) Down in the Decca Station in Lionel, there was yet another soundalike.
Tormod na Casaig – or Norman Morrison – was employed in some capacity that I imagined – at that time – to be both secret and mysterious, charting the presence of Russian spy planes and submarines in the North Atlantic, rounding, perhaps, the Butt of Lewis on which our red sandstone lighthouse stood. In hindsight, in a time before the arrival of satellites, he was probably on hand to assist ships find their bearings when they veered close to North Rona, skirting the northern edge of the Minch.
And then there was Tormod Ailean, Norman Morrison from our village. I saw him often as either he or I walked down the road through South Dell. Sometimes he would be wearing his suit for either a kirk service or a wake that followed someone’s death in the community. He would often be called upon to pray, his loud, sonorous voice trembling with the responsibility of expressing both grief and sympathy for the family that had lost someone they loved. At other times, I would see him going out to work on the croft or feed his flock of sheep. Mostly he would be wearing the uniform worn by most men in the district at that time – dungarees, a cloth cap perched on his head, an old Harris Tweed jacket stretched across his back.
Norman Morrison in America also wore a Harris Tweed jacket. He put it on the morning of 2 November 1965, the day he walked with his daughter Emily to the Pentagon, beside the Potomac River in Washington DC.
This was, perhaps, in tribute to his Scottish background a generation or so before; its influence strong in the Presbyterian faith of his parents. It was this that led him to his course of study, both in the College of Wooster in Pennsylvania and what is now known as the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Seminary. It also may have generated the desire to travel that led him to study at Edinburgh University for a term, part of his year-long journey around Europe and the Middle East.
By 1965, however, he had settled in Baltimore, working with the Quaker community there. At the age of 31, he was married to his wife Anne and the father of three children, Ben (6), Christina (5) and Emily, who was only 11 months old when she was taken on that fateful walk to the Pentagon. His final destination was to stand some 40 feet away from the office of another man with a surname easy to translate into Gaelic, Robert McNamara (the son of the sea), who was the secretary of state for defense in the government of Lyndon B Johnson.
It was there he performed his final act of protest.
It is not utterly clear what happened. In some accounts, he handed over his daughter Emily to a passer-by before he poured kerosene from a jug full of wine upon himself. In another view of the event, he placed the infant on the ground before he set himself ablaze. All the stories mention, however, how people rushed up to him and attempted to douse the flames. They used their hands, briefcases, a newspaper or two.
All to no avail.
It is easier to find out what motivated him.
In his letter to his wife, he mentioned how he wanted to bring an end to the bombing in the Vietnam war by his example, how he could not tolerate the loss of life in the forest and jungle there. This was especially the case with how children were being killed, their homes being burnt and destroyed around them. He mentions, too, the story of Abraham, how the Old Testament patriarch offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God, suggesting that – until the last moment – he had intended his daughter Emily for the same purpose, as a way of showing the American people what was being done in their name in the countryside of Vietnam.
Whether his final act was one of madness or not, the subject was one he wrestled frequently with in his prayers. In his own, extreme way, he imitated some of the old men I knew in my youth – whether they were called 'Norman’ or not – in the firmness and fervour of his faith, the way in which it caught fire and burned through them...
Donald S Murray is the author of a number of books, including ‘Herring Tales’ (Bloomsbury) and ‘The Guga Hunters (Birlinn). On 29 January, he will be among a group of artists, both musical and literary, in ‘Stand And Stare’ in Celtic Connections. The fare will be much lighter.