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The Iolaire Disaster Marker, near Stornoway Harbour
The Iolaire Disaster Marker, near Stornoway Harbour

The Loss of Lewis

Monday December 31 2018

Thomas Baldwin reports on the centenary commemoration of a post-war disaster in the Western Isles.


It was at 2.30am on New Year’s Day 1919 that HMY Iolaire approached the port of Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis.

On board were over 280 sailors, who had survived World War One and were returning home to the Hebrides. They were within sight of the lights of home, less than a mile from where a welcoming party was waiting at the quayside.

But instead of welcoming their loved ones home that night, many of those wives and parents were to recover their bodies from the shore the next day.

Overloaded, struggling in high winds and with a crew that was unfamiliar with the area, the ship missed the harbour entrance and instead struck the rocky outcrop Biastan Thuilm (Beasts of Holm), and quickly sank. Pre-war, the Iolaire (Gaelic for ‘eagle’) had been a luxury yacht, and the lifesaving equipment she carried was woefully inadequate for the number of people on board that night. Many of the men couldn’t swim, and those who could were hampered by their heavy navy boots.

Despite being only yards from the shore, only around 80 men managed to make it out of the freezing water. Half of them were saved by John Finlay Macleod, who swam ashore with a rope among which others managed to pull themselves to safety.

The death toll – variously given as 201 or 205, but inadequate records mean it could have been slightly higher – represents the largest loss of life in United Kingdom waters in peacetime. More importantly, it also represents a generation of young men from Lewis (home to 179 of the victims), which had already suffered terribly because of the war. The tragedy cast a pall over the island, with many of the survivors, and the families of those who had died, not wishing to talk about it for many years. There was opposition to the erection of the Iolaire memorial at Holm, just outside Stornoway, in 1958.

However, over recent years the community has embraced plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster, the last major event of the World War One centenary.

The official community remembrance event takes place tonight (New Year’s Eve) at 9.30pm in Lewis Sports Centre. Tickets for the free event were quickly taken, but it will also be broadcast on the internet.

Tomorrow (New Year’s Day), a short service will be held at the Iolaire memorial. At this service a new sculpture will be unveiled, bearing the names of those lost and the communities they came from. It will feature a bronze wreath composed of maritime insignia, and a depiction of a coiled heaving line, the type of rope used by John Finlay Macleod to help survivors ashore.

Also on the island, services will take place at Cross Church of Scotland at 6pm on today and Uig Parish Church at 3pm tomorrow. An exhibition on the Iolaire was opened at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway in October, and there have also been a series of cultural events.

In Glasgow, a Service of Remembrance commemorating the disaster will be held on Sunday January 6 at 11am. Everyone is welcome, in particular people with roots in Lewis and Harris, and naval personnel (there will be free parking in Cathedral Square for the duration of the service).

Finally, a specially-commissioned multimedia commemoration, An Tres Suaile (The Third Wave) has been written by Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and fiddler Duncan Chisholm. Already performed in Stornoway in November, it will be repeated at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 24 as part of the Celtic Connections festival. The evening combines original music and song with poetry, spoken
word and visual imagery.

Professor Norman Drummond, chair 
of WW100 Scotland and the Scottish Commemorations Panel, said: “It is beyond our comprehension that over 200 men perished so close to home after surviving the War in what remains one of the worst UK maritime disasters of the 20th Century. When you look out from the Iolaire War Memorial to where HMY Iolaire hit the rocks, you are struck by just how close they were to shore. It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families on their return and then the sorrow that was to follow.

“It is right and fitting that we hold a WW100 Scotland Commemoration in their memory and reflect on the lasting impact this tragic incident had on future generations on the Western Isles and far beyond.”