Iolaire disaster site ‘should be made a maritime grave’

His Majesty's Yacht Iolaire which was carrying 300 men when it sank on New Year's Day 1919.
His Majesty's Yacht Iolaire which was carrying 300 men when it sank on New Year's Day 1919.
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The wreck of a First World War troop transport that sank off Stornoway with the loss of more than 200 lives should be protected by the Ministry of Defence, an SNP MSP has said.

His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire was carrying nearly 300 servicemen when it hit rocks yards from the shore on New Year’s Day 1919.

The Minch is the final resting place for a third of those killed, whose remains were never found.

Now Alasdair Allan, the Western Isles MSP, has called for the site of HMY Iolaire to be listed as a protected place under the 1986 Protection of Military Remains Act.

Iolaire, a converted Admiralty yacht, was transporting Royal Navy sailors back to the Western Isles following the end of the conflict less than two months earlier.

Approaching Lewis late at night in a sudden gale, she hit rocks known as the Beasts of Holm, two miles from Stornoway, in view of the harbour lights and just yards from the shore.

The ship was hugely overcrowded, and had just two lifeboats and 80 lifejackets. Because the passengers were wearing heavy uniforms and boots, nearly three quarters of those on board died.

Poor records mean the exact death toll is uncertain, however 181 of those lost were from the Western Isles, a cruel blow so soon after a war that had already claimed 1,000 men from Lewis alone.

One passenger, John Macleod, managed to grab a rope as he swam for his life and set up a line to the shore that saved dozens of lives. Another, Donald Morrison, climbed the mast as Iolaire went down and was rescued the next day after eight hours in the water.

Events will be held across the Western Isles in January to mark the centenary.

Mr Allan said: “The sinking of HMY Iolaire off Lewis on the Beasts of Holm has left an indelible impression on the islands of Lewis and Harris.

“There was barely a family on the island that didn’t lose a relative in the Iolaire disaster and even now it is still very raw in people’s minds.

“As we approach the centenary of the sinking, it is important that the site is designated as a military maritime grave to both protect the site and commemorate the immeasurable sacrifice of those who served their country in a time of war and lost their lives so tragically close to home.

“I hope the Ministry of Defence will react positively to this request.”