Lewis to fall silent in centenary service for the those lost in Iolaire disaster

Sharon Smith, great niece of Malcolm Thomson with his picture.
Sharon Smith, great niece of Malcolm Thomson with his picture.
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It was to have been the final leg of a long journey home, where a warm Hebridean embrace promised to comfort those who endured the Great War’s horrors.

Now, a century on from one of its darkest chapters, the people of Lewis will commemorate the hundreds of young men who lost their lives in the Iolaire disaster.

Victims of the Iolaire tragedy.

Victims of the Iolaire tragedy.

Community leaders and descendants of those who sailed aboard the HMS Iolaire will today join First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Prince Charles for the New Year’s Day service in Stornaway marking the centenary of a tragedy which killed at least 201 men.

Around a third of those men known to have perished were never recovered from the sea, with the naval yacht their final resting place.

The Iolaire was taking servicemen home when it set off from Kyle of Lochalsh on Hogmanay 1918. The following day, the ship was making its final approach to Stornoway when a strong gale saw it change course.

Just three miles off the coast and travelling at full speed, it struck a series of rocks known as the Beasts of Holm. The Iolaire – which means “eagle” in Gaelic – took on water and began to sink.

The stern came within just a few metres of dry land, allowing scores of men to rescued. However, many of those onboard, saddled down by heavy uniforms, were unable to swim ashore.

Ruairidh Moir, 29, is the same age his great-great-uncle Kenneth Campbell was when he perished at sea.

Kenneth was one of seven brothers who fought in the war, two of whom died.

Mr Moir said his great-great-grandmother received a letter from the king saying that she could pick one of her children to be removed from frontline duty to go back home to Tolsta, Lewis.

She decided not to make that decision and they remained in the fight.

He said: “It’s just beyond comprehension, that’s why it’s important – for their sake and our sake – that we don’t let it go unnoticed.

“200 men out of a fragile island community – if they had made it, what would the island have been now?”

Alasdair Allan, the SNP MSP, has campaigned for the Ministry of Defence to designate the site of the Iolaire as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

He said the disaster left an “indelible impression” on communities far and wide.

“The events of that awful night should never be forgotten,” Mr Allan said.

“Few families on Lewis and Harris were left unaffected and it remains one of the very worst peacetime disasters to befall Scotland.

“That is the most heart-wrenching point of all. Most of these young men had been serving with the Royal Navy throughout the First World War. Now with war over, just three miles from home and just yards from shore, they perished.

“With so many never recovered from the wreck, a fitting way to recognise their sacrifice would be to designate the Iolaire as a military maritime grave – protecting the sanctity of the site in their memory, in perpetuity.”

People will also pay their respects from the decks of MV Loch Seaforth, which will sail out off the coast of Stornoway before 201 children throw flowers into the sea.

Following today’s service, Prince Charles will unveil a sculpture commissioned by An Lanntair.

The artwork, created by Will Maclean, Marian Leven, and Arthur Watson, features a bronze coiled heaving line in reference to John ­Finlay Macleod, who helped rescue 40 of the 79 men who were saved.