The American Monument is a stone memorial tower around 20m tall, with a diameter of around 10m at the base, tapering towards a conical top. The tower occupies an isolated location, set on a raised rocky platform on a coastal cliff edge at around 130m above sea level, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Mull of Oa. The memorial commemorates some 550 American soldiers lost in two separate maritime disasters off the coast of Islay in 1918.
The monument was commissioned by the American Red Cross in 1918 and was designed and built in 1920, as inscribed on the monument, by architect Robert James Walker, and George Read & Son, builders, Catrine. It is a rubble stone tower constructed of dark grey local stone collected from the surrounding cliffs, with pale rubble contrasting banding and sandstone ashlar detailing.
Stone steps on the north east side of the tower lead to the primary dedication, a two metre tall brass plaque set within a large carved stone moulded architrave appearing as a doorway. Directly above is a small cast bronze American eagle clutching a wreath in both talons, partly set in a smaller roll-moulded architrave. The plaque is dedicated to the American soldiers and sailors lost in the wrecks of the transports SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto. It also bears a quote from a poem by Theodore O'Hara, "Bivouac of the Dead", published in 1850: "On Fame's Eternal camping ground, their silent tents are spread, While Glory keeps with solemn round, the bivouac of the dead."
Further up the tower in line with the plaque is an octagonal moulded date stone, inscribed with the date 1918 and two carvings of an American star and a Scottish thistle. Towards the top of the tower are two parallel bands of lighter rubble work with regularly spaced, small square niches with darker stone which appear as windows.
A small circular bronze wreath plaque is located at ground level, on a concrete plinth at the seaward side of the tower. This plaque contains a personal tribute to the memory of his fellow citizens from Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America from 4 March 1913 to 4 March 1921.
Statement of Special Interest
Placed in a prominent coastal setting, the American Monument at Islay is a rare example of a war memorial that is associated with American casualties of war in the United Kingdom. The design is a sensitive interpretation of a lighthouse or watchtower building type, looking directly on to the site of the sinking of American ships during the First World War. The monument is associated with nationally important historical events and its conception is well-documented.
The American Monument on Islay is the only memorial to some 550 American soldiers lost on the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto, approximately half the total American lives lost during the Atlantic Operation of the First World War.
In our current state of knowledge the building is considered to meet the criteria for listing.
Age and Rarity
The American Monument on Islay is the only memorial to more than 550 American soldiers lost on the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto, approximately half the total American soldiers lives lost during the Atlantic Operation of the First World War. The dead from SS Tuscania represented the first American combat casualties in the First World War, and the largest single loss of American lives since the American Civil War some 50 years earlier.
Soon after the sinking of SS Tuscania on 5 February 1918, the suggestion was made at the American Red Cross Headquarters in London that the installation of a suitable monument on Islay should be considered as a tribute to the memory of the American soldiers who had lost their lives in the service of their country, remote from the general theatre of war.
After the sinking of HMS Otranto on 6 October 1918, plans for the monument were modified by the American Red Cross as a memorial to both ships. The original plan for a plain granite shaft was replaced with, what was felt to be, a more appropriate design for the rocky surroundings and one in keeping with the island tradition of watchtowers and cairns to mark important and significant sites.
Monuments erected to the fallen dead of the First World War are common across Scotland and were built in their hundreds in local communities around the country. A great number of these memorials were adapted and expanded following the Second World War and are not rare. Many are of simple standard design, such as the ubiquitous Celtic cross. Those which are of notable design and that may commemorate a significant event in the history of national conflict may be of interest for listing.
The American Monument still retains its original plan and form and its conception is well recorded in documents held by the American Red Cross. It was specifically designed for its setting as a watchtower or lighthouse facing out towards the sea. A significant connection also exists to historically important events and the American Monument appears to be the only known memorial, in Scotland, to American servicemen lost in the First World War.
The quote on the main plaque from the "Bivouac of the Dead", a poem written by Theodore O'Hara to honour his fellow soldiers from Kentucky who died in the Mexican-American War (1847), is common on memorials and war cemeteries in America, but appears on only two in Scotland. The second memorial is the Dornoch War Memorial, dedicated in 1922 not to U.S war dead, but to those killed whilst serving in the 5th Seaforth Highlanders during the First World War.
Architectural or Historic Interest
The entrance is sealed and the interior is not meant to be accessible.
The monument is designed to represent a traditional tower or cairn. It has retained its original plan form and appears unaltered.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
The tower was constructed in a similar manner to a lighthouse. The method involves building from the inside around a spiral staircase, working upwards constructing the staircase and walls simultaneously. Once the American Monument was built, the entrance was sealed and the memorial plaque added where the entrance had been. The tower was constructed of local stone collected from the surrounding area, and oral tradition on the island tells of locals collecting the rocks from the local cliffs in lamb carts, and hauling them up to the construction site. The monument shares some design aspects with the First Washington Monument, located approximately four miles (6.4 km) east of Boonsboro, Maryland.
The tower occupies an isolated, exposed location on top of high sea cliffs, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean within the Oa Nature Reserve on the Mull of Oa, at the southwest corner of the island of Islay. A well-marked path leads through fields and rough grazing from a car park at Upper Killeyan Farm to the monument, a distance of just over 1km.
This is a site of remembrance and was specifically chosen because the wreck sites of the Otranto and Tuscania, where so many Americans perished, are nearby and both visible from the monument. There has been no change to the setting since the date the monument was erected.
There are no known regional variations.
Close Historical Associations
The American Monument has a close historical association with an event of national and international importance which took place in the coastal waters of Scotland in 1918. The loss of some 550 American soldiers in connection with the wrecking incidents of the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto represents approximately half the total American soldiers lives lost during the Atlantic Operation of the First World War. This event figured highly in the American consciousness, with the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, offering a rare personal tribute to his fellow U.S. citizens.
During the First World War, approximately two million American servicemen were successfully transported across the Atlantic Ocean to England and France. Of the many troopships travelling eastward, German U-boats torpedoed three, one of which was SS Tuscania, on 5 February 1918, with the loss of over 200 American soldiers. It was the largest loss of American life on a single day since the Civil War over 50 years earlier. The only other troopship lost crossing the Atlantic was the HMS Otranto, on 6 October 1918, with over 350 American soldiers lost in the disaster, making this the single most costly loss incurred in overseas transport of American troops during the First World War.
SS Tuscania was torpedoed on the 5 February 1918 by U-Boat UB-77 under the command of Commander Wilhelm Meyer, sinking the ship and resulting in the loss of around 250 personnel, the majority of which were American soldiers. The monument overlooks the site of the wreck of SS Tuscania, some 7 miles of the southern end of the Mull of Oa.
The second incident took place on 6 October 1918, involving the troopship HMS Otranto, under the command of Captain Ernest G W Davidson. Otranto was accidently rammed by HMS Kashmir and later sank, resulting in the loss of some 470 lives, again the majority being American Soldiers. The site of the wreck of Otranto lies at the south west end of Machir Bay, which is also visible from the monument.