Book Review: When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire

Share this article

When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod Birlinn, 272pp, £16.99

ON THE FIRST MORNING – A bright, cold morning – of this year, some 300 people assembled at a bleak headland on the east coast of the island of Lewis. Wreaths were thrown into the sea and a memorial service was held.

The gathering earned a little media coverage. Ninety years after she was lost in the foaming tide a few yards off that Lewis headland, a dwindling number of people in mainland Scotland, let alone the rest of the UK, are familiar with the epic tragedy of His Majesty's Yacht Iolaire. Fortunately, a book has just been published which may help to cure our collective amnesia.

Number-crunching comparisons are, in such cases, invidious. Ten lives lost at sea are each as precious and irreplaceable as a hundred. But with more than 200 men drowned, the wreck of the Iolaire remains, in the words of John MacLeod, in When I Heard the Bell, "the worst peacetime loss of a British ship in British waters in all the 20th century".

For as long as there are people living in Lewis and Harris, it is safe to say the Iolaire will never be forgotten. If her destruction, off Holm Point in the early hours of New Year's Day, 1919, was momentous in national terms, in the Hebridean perspective it was catastrophic. John MacLeod is probably right to suggest that Lewis in particular – the largest and traditionally the healthiest Hebridean island – has not yet recovered from it.

There were 29,000 people living in Lewis at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. There was a uniquely high proportion of island men in the Naval Reserve and a low proportion in "reserved" industrial work, so almost 7,000 signed up for one kind of service or another.

When the Armistice was agreed, on 11 November 1918, just short of 1,000 of those servicemen had been lost at war. It was a terribly high toll taken from a small, insular community. More terrible yet was the fact that almost two months after the guns had fallen silent, a further 20 per cent was to be extracted.

For the best and most obvious of reasons, late in 1918 efforts were made to get most of the men of Lewis and Harris and Skye and other islands home in time for New Year's Day. That is why the railhead harbour at Kyle of Lochalsh was, on New Year's Eve, 1918, crowded with hundreds of "libertymen" waiting for a passage back to Portree, Tarbert or Stornoway. To assist with their transit, the Stornoway depot of the Royal Naval Reserve dispatched to Kyle its 190- foot steam-powered steel yacht, the Iolaire.

In the glazed stare of posterity, any calamity of such an enormous scale will magnify by a million-fold small steps taken to one side or another which would, in the normal course of events, be insignificant and forgotten. Everybody who boarded another boat in Kyle that night reached home safely. Almost three-quarters of the 284 men who were directed onto, or stumbled aboard, or hitched an opportunistic ride in, or crewed the Iolaire would be dead before dawn.

So we know now that 11 men from the southerly island of Harris – who officially should have had to wait in Kyle for at least another day – jumped over the rail, and that seven of them would never see the Clisham again. Some men boarded the Iolaire because their brothers or friends were already on it. And there were others who did not, for the opposite reason.

The Iolaire sailed at about 9pm that New Year's Eve. Five hours later, at the end of the second hour of 1919, with a storm blowing, she ran onto the appropriately named Beasts of Holm rocks, just to the east of the entrance to Stornoway harbour. That is where the 205 men, most of them from rural Lewis, drowned. That is where, in feats of great heroism and endurance, 79 managed to save themselves and each other.

The navigational error was extreme and aboard the ruined yacht officer control was negligible. John MacLeod inclines towards the popular conclusion that the captain and perhaps also some of his officers had been drinking. But Commander Mason drowned, and so did most of his crew, leaving their own families across the United Kingdom to grieve.

And so did almost 200 men from Lewis and Harris, killed after the Armistice not by one stray, resentful sniper's bullet, but in an avalanche of loss that left each and every parish of the Long Island numb with shock and horror.

It is an indication of the depth of the shock that 40 years passed before the people of Lewis erected a modest monument at Holm Point. They were not in denial of their trauma – how could they deny it? They simply held it close to themselves, a private tragedy so huge in its implications that broadcasting its trivial details could appear almost indecent and disrespectful of their dead.

Since the 1950s, there have been occasional radio and television programmes made, magazine and newspaper articles written about the death of HMY Iolaire. When I Heard the Bell is the second full book devoted to the subject, and the first to be written chiefly in English.

John MacLeod's research has been exhaustive. His knowledge of, and respect for, the people who continue to be affected by the loss of the Iolaire informs every compelling page. He has managed to create a body of prose that examines and recreates the minutiae of that last journey home, while simultaneously inhabiting it with credible human beings. He pays homage to its victims by presenting them as the three-dimensional witty, resourceful, flawed, frightened and heroic men that they were.

When I Heard the Bell is a sombre and evocative and wholly magnificent piece of work. If a better non-fiction book is published in Scotland this year then we will be very lucky indeed.