Island looks to the 100th anniversary of Iolaire disaster

The remains of HMY Iolaire which struck rocks just 20 yards from shore on January 1 , 1919 killing around 200 servicemen as they returned to the Western Isles from World War One. PIC: Contributed.
The remains of HMY Iolaire which struck rocks just 20 yards from shore on January 1 , 1919 killing around 200 servicemen as they returned to the Western Isles from World War One. PIC: Contributed.
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It was a New Year’s Day tragedy so heartbreaking that for decades the people of Lewis rarely spoke of it.

Now, a very public commemoration is being planned for the centenary of the Iolaire disaster which claimed the lives of around 200 returning servicemen, just 20 yards from the shores of home.

How the tragedy was illustrated in the Stornoway Gazette. PIC: Stornoway Gazette/Contributed.

How the tragedy was illustrated in the Stornoway Gazette. PIC: Stornoway Gazette/Contributed.

There was barely a family on the island that didn’t lose a blood relative when the Iolaire inexplicably veered of course and crashed into rocks at the Beasts of Holm in the early hours of January 1,1919.

Of those known to have died, 174 came from Lewis with seven Harrismen among the dead. A further 18 crew and two passengers on their way to the Stornoway Naval Base were killed.

The men, mostly naval reserves, made it to Armistice but drowned within such painfully short reach of their families who had gathered on Stornoway pier in high winds and swirls of sleet to greet the heroes.

As daylight broke, the scale of the disaster started to emerge. Bodies were strewn around the rocks, discarded overcoats washed up around them. Children’s toys and gifts lay among the wreckage of Britain’s worst ever peacetime naval disaster.

The design for the new element of the Iolaire memorial which will be added to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. PIC: Contributed.

The design for the new element of the Iolaire memorial which will be added to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. PIC: Contributed.

Such was the devastation, it was not the done thing to speak about what happened that night. Sorrowful scenes of small boats navigating the rocks at Holm to pluck servicemen form the water were painfully etched in the island’s eye, as were the horse and carts that delivered bodies home to villages around Lewis. Such was the death toll, the island - already suffering from heavy wartime losses - ran out of coffins.

Roddy Murray, founding director of An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, who has been involved in plans for the commemoration, said: “It is arguably the most devastating tragedy ever to happen to the island.

“These men had been away for four years, there was a great senses of anticipation and celebration of them coming home and for families to be together, and then this happens, something so catastrophic.

“It took the island the best part of 50 years before it was considered reasonable to discuss it.

The first time there was any public expression of the tragedy was in 1959 when BBC Radio Scotland journalist Fred Macaulay interview a dozen survivors of the tragedy.

For a long time, the only book printed on the events of the night was published in Gaelic in the 1970s, Mr Murray added.

Mr Murray said: “With the centenary, it is important to lay it to rest and to commemorate what happened appropriately.”

A new element of the Iolaire Memorial, which wasn’t unveiled until 1960, will be added in time for the centenary.

The memorial, designed in collaboration by Angus Watson, Will Maclean and Marian Leven of the Royal Scottish Academy, depicts the heaving rope used by John F Macleod, of Port of Ness, to save around 40 of his comrades.

Macleod jumped ashore with a line, miraculously made land, wedged himself in the boulders and hauled ashore a hawser along which most of the survivors struggled to safety.

It is hoped to hold an event at Stornoway Harbour on Hogmanay 2018 to mark the 100 years since the night the men stepped onto the overcrowded HMY Iolaire at Kyle of Lochalsh which set sail across Minch around 8pm.

The boat, whose lights failed, headed into the pitch black despite the Stornoway harbour lights came into view in the distance.

Around crashing onto rocks and tiltng to 45 degrees, dozens of men died after jumping into the water in a bid to escape.

Many more perished as waves “rolled in like mountains”, breaking up the Iolaire and throwing the servicemen against the rocks as the gale strengthened to Force 10.

Six men lie in graves in Sandwick Cemetery marked only Known Unto God given they were so badly injured no one could identify them.

Eighty two men survived the Ioliare. Around a third of those known to be lost were never recovered from the sea.

Malcolm Macdonald, of Stornoway Historical Society, has written a new book on the Iolaire which will be published ahead of the centenary and brings together information on every man known to have sailed on the boat that night.

He said: “What happened that night has never been satisfactorily explained .

“There is view here that the Admiralty got away scots free. They were never questioned in court. It was the locals who were questioned.”

A two day inquiry was held at Stornoway Sheriff Court in February 1919 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.

No evidence of intoxication amongst the crew was found.

Mr Macdonald said: “Today, such an inquiry would last months or even years. The feeling still carries on that the Admrality wanted to close the book, the war was over, it was done and dusted.

“For a long time I didn’t know much about what had happened to my grandfather as the Iolaire left my father an orphan and he just didn’t want to talk about it.

“People generally dint’s talk about it on Lewis and Harris. It was really just too painful to mention.”

READ MORE: Scottish history timeline from 1054 to 2014