Full story of Iolaire disaster which killed 201 people to be told

The Iolaire.
The Iolaire.
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It is the maritime disaster that has haunted the Western Isles for almost a century.

Now the full account of the Iolaire tragedy, which claimed 201 lives when a ship carrying Lewis and Harris servicemen sank just off the coast of Stornoway, is set to be told for the first time.

The human stories behind every single drowning victim and all 79 survivors will be set out in a major new book which will be launched in the town in November.

The event, part of Faclan: the Hebridean Book Festival, will be the first of a special of special events being held in Stornoway to mark the centenary of the tragedy.

The book has been co-written by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John Macleod after almost two decades of research into the tragedy and its legacy among the islanders.

It will recall how the New Year’s Day disaster had such a devastating effect on Lewis and Harris, where there was barely a family who did not lose a blood relative, that it was rarely spoken about even half a century later.

The Darkest Dawn traces the lives of the survivors who were so guilt-ridden and traumatised that they decided to emigrate from the Outer Hebrides to as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The yacht was carrying hundreds of soldiers home after the end of the First World War when it crashed into rocks known as the “Beasts of Holm” 20 yards from the shore in the early hours of the morning.

Mr Macdonald, whose grandfather was killed in the disaster, said: “It was a huge tragedy for a small community that had already lost more than 1,200 men in the war.

“The story of the Iolaire has only really been told in patches before rather than its entirety. We’ve put together portraits of all 280 men that were aboard the Iolaire and have managed to track down photographs of around two thirds of them. It’s taken 20 years to put together there was no definitive list of everyone who was on board, but there were lists in newspapers, death certificates and an official roll of honour.”

The book explores how the Admiralty largely escaped blame for the disaster, even though a public inquiry found that insufficient care was taken in the approach to the harbour, that no orders were given by officers, that there was a delay in life-saving equipment reaching the scene, and that there were insufficient lifebelts, boats and rafts on board for the number of passengers.

“The book will chart what happened from when the men left their various bases and travelled by train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, where they sailed from. The trains were running late, which didn’t help, but when they left there was only a force two gale. By the time they hit the rocks it was a force eight and by the time the vessel sank it was a force nine. It really was an awful night.

“Sleet was coming down, there was no moon, the searchlights didn’t work, the wrong flares were sent up and their radio wasn’t working. Absolutely everything went against them. It was the first peacetime new year’s morning so many locals would have had a few drinks or been in their beds. It was very bad timing.

“At the time the Admiralty certainly tried to blame people in Stornoway for the disaster, but there were more than 100 naval ships in the harbour. The Iolaire sailed with half a crew and didn’t have proper look-outs. If it did it wouldn’t have happened.”