Iain Morrison on marking the centenary of the Iolaire tragedy

Musician Iain Morrison, whose great grandfather died in the Iolaire disaster off the coast of the Isle of Lewis, talks to Susan Mansfield about marking the centenary of the tragedy and how art can help remember an event that traumatised the island

Iain Morrison, who has been commissioned to write a new piece of music about the Iolaire, premiering at An Lanntair on 27 October. PIC: Roddy Murray
Iain Morrison, who has been commissioned to write a new piece of music about the Iolaire, premiering at An Lanntair on 27 October. PIC: Roddy Murray

It was an event so terrible it was not commemorated until many years later. It took 40 years before there was even a memorial to the sinking of the Iolaire. The sombre obelisk overlooks the Beasts of Holm, the rocks off the coast of the Isle of Lewis on which the ship sank in the early hours of 1 January, 1919, with the loss of over 200 lives.

The tragedy, the worst peacetime shipping disaster in British coastal waters in the 20th century, was made worse by the fact that the men on board the HMY Iolaire were survivors of the First World War. On what should have been a night of celebration, the ship sank yards from the shore in a savage storm. To communities which had already suffered terrible war-time losses, it was an unbearable blow, a loss so painful it remained wreathed in silence for decades.

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Roddy Murray, founding director and head of visual arts and literature at An Lanntair, Stornoway, grew up on Lewis and, until he was in his forties, knew about the disaster only in broad terms. As the centenary approached, he set out to try to imagine what it must have been like for the close-knit island community to cope with such a tragedy.

“I tried to understand the effect on the community, how people coped. Now we’re familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, counselling and therapy; none of that was available. I came to the conclusion that the Iolaire had a post-traumatic effect on the community as a whole, not just on individuals and families. Maybe the only way people could cope was to move on, not talk about it. The centenary provides an opportunity to properly reflect, put the event on the historical record, give it its appropriate due.”

For the first time, a programme of events at An Lanntair will commemorate the disaster. Two major new musical compositions, commissioned by An Lanntair and 1418 NOW, will explore different aspects of the story. Singer-songwriter Iain Morrison has made Sal (Salt), a collaboration with visual artists Dalziel + Scullion, while Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and fiddler Duncan Chisholm have An Treas Suaile (The Third Wave), which has been inspired by the story of John Finlay MacLeod, a survivor of the disaster who managed to help dozens of others reach safety.

Visual artists Mhairi Law and Alec Galloway have made new work in response to the disaster, and an important new book, The Darkest Dawn, by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John Macleod, the product of nearly 20 years of research, will be launched as part of Faclan, the Hebridean Book Festival. A new memorial sculpture by artists Will Maclean, Arthur Watson and Marian Leven has been commissioned.

Murray says: “History will tell you what happened, art will tell you what it felt like. A reinterpretation of the experience has emotional resonance than you can’t get from reading the hard facts. It’s a great responsibility for the artists and musicians to do justice to it, to have appropriate gravity and also bring it alive in a new way.”

One person more than conscious of this responsibility is Lewis-born Iain Morrison, whose new composition, Sal, will premiere at An Lanntair on 27 October. His great grandfather lost his life in the disaster, and he describes the story as “part of my musical DNA”.

For Morrison’s family, the tragedy was compounded when his grandfather, the son of the man who died in the Iolaire, lost his life when fishing from rocks in the 1980s. “The Iolaire was never talked about, but the sea and the story the sea had played in our family’s life was very prevalent,” he says. “There was a definite fear of the sea. The awareness of living on an island, the closeness of life and death, from a very early age these things were ingrained in me.”

Sal combines music, words and film, references both the Free Church Gaelic Psalm-singing tradition and the classical piping tradition, of which Morrison’s father is a celebrated exponent. However, Morrison says, initially he had doubts about taking on the commission. “I grappled with it. It’s not just me I had to think about, it’s a whole other set of things. In the end, one of the reasons I felt I could approach making art about the Iolaire is because it was so deep in me. I put every ounce of myself into this.”

He describes Sal as “a meditation” which also grapples with questions around the disaster: the decades of silence, the impact of the islands’ Calvinism, the various voices and agendas which have been brought to bear on the story. But, ultimately, he wants to bring a space for reflection, a sense of hope. “I struggle to make anything that doesn’t have that, I think there has to be some hope, redemption, a sense of life moving forward. I suppose that’s why art is important in this context, that’s what art can offer.”

Visual artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion have worked closely with Morrison to produce a film which is similarly meditative, drawing on the landscape of the islands, the rhythms of ordinary domestic tasks and close-up footage of faces of those living on the islands today – some of them strikingly similar to the faces in black and white photographs of Iolaire victims.

Dalziel said: “Our access into a lot of this is through Iain himself, responding to his music. But we’ve also spent 20 years holidaying and doing projects on Harris and Lewis, we’re very familiar with the landscape and the sea. It’s a harsh environment, a beautiful environment, the sea is never far away, these are the things we responded to: the tragedy, through Iain, and our experience of the landscape.”

Scullion adds: “Iain spoke to us about the desire to see the light

beyond this, about how life moves on and continues. It was a very male tragedy, men who had survived the war lost on the brink of returning,

and those who remained on the islands, particularly the women, having to keep going, raising families, without their sons or their men folk. The domestic tasks continue, like washing being hung out, but there is anger in that too, the slapping of the sheets.” - Susan Mansfield

Sal by Iain Morrison and Dalziel + Scullion is at An Lanntair on 27 October and 29 December; An Treas Suaile, by Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm, 9 and 10 November; Dawn to Dark: Mhairi Law and Alec Galloway is at An Lanntair 9 November-22 December. The launch of The Darkest Dawn – The Story of the Iolaire Disaster is at An Lanntair on 1 November. www.lanntair.com