Thursday 31 January 2019

The Sinking of HMY Iolaire 1st January 1919

                                       Part one -Introduction


                       Image of the Iolaire memorial, the Isle of Lewis, courtesy of the
                      IWM, via non-commercial licence copyright Donald I Macleod reference WME44784


The worst British Maritime natural disaster since 'The Titanic' occurred in the early hours of 1st January 1919. Men from the Isles of Lewis and Harris who had served in World War 1 were returning home. They had spent up to 23 hours travelling across Britain to converge on Kyle of Lochalsch station, then the pier. It seems that the authorities weren't prepared for the numbers of men who had gathered seeking transport the Western Isle. A yacht that had already been commandeered by the Admiralty- HMY Iolaire- was ordered from the Isle of Lewis over to Kyle of Lochalsch, to take the men to Stornoway. At 7.30 pm 31st December 1918 the voyage began. The weather worsened during the night, with a strong gale and squalls breaking out.

It was later to emerge that the crew were undermanned and not used to navigating at sea in the dark. When HMY Iolaire was being steered to enter Stornoway Harbour a terrible misjudgement was made. The Iolaire ended up striking rocks known locally as the 'Beasts of Holm', just before 2am Ist January 1919, 30 feet from the shore . It seemed that the yacht initially got stuck, then driven back into the sea, then battered against the rocks again, finally to sink.

There is a slight disagreement regarding those who died, figures suggested range from 201- 205. The most likely is 174 men from the Isle of Lewis, 7 men from the Isle of Harris, 18 crew and 2 passengers.  Around 80 men survived, but with the terrible knowledge that their homecoming was going to become  perpetually overshadowed by so many losses occurring in one night amongst a relatively small population.

The thought of families preparing to welcome their young men home from war, only to be called out to identify their bodies washed up on the beaches, is heart breaking. And some bodies were never found.

The centenary has seen an official commemoration service on 1st January 2019, a new memorial, a commemorative art installation, an exhibition in Stornoway, along with new poetry and songs, have been written about the tragedy. Particularly impressive is Lewis musician/songwriter Iain Morrison's piece An Isolaire Sal. Mr Morrison's great grandfather  was one of those who died in the tragedy.

So many commentators have mentioned that for generations the tragedy was hardly spoken about in the communities who had endured such loses . The Centenary of the Great War seems to have released a need to create and to commemorate.

 This poem -'Last night the Iolaire was Torn' by Murdo Macfarlane is taken from Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914- 1918, published by The Scottish Poetry Library and Polygon. Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn- By Murdo Macfarlane ( first four verses ) 
The lassie sang sweetly
in Lewis last night,
baking her bread
with a heart full of light
and thoughts of her darling,
longing for the sight
of her true love
come safely home.
The war is now over,
won by the heroes
who come home tonight:
the Iolaire’s cargo.
Put peat on the fire
and tea from the jar; Oh,
I’ll not sleep, sweetheart,
’til morning comes.
They’ll tell their tales
and we’ll listen to them,
to the feats of the sea-faring
tartan-clad men;
of the brave ones who fell
and will not rise again,
so many fine lads
who were brought down.
Hear the wind moaning –
Oh, hear it blow,
hear the sea’s mocking cry
come from the depths below.
The poor lads who must battle
the sea and the foam!
Spread your wings, Iolaire,
haste with my love.......

 Whole poem can be found at     Birlinn Publishers  page on the 'Iolaire'

Links connected with  HMY Iolaire 

National Poetry Library of Scotland  page on responses to  Iolaire  Listing of the casualties 

Malcolm MacDonald , local historian , talks about Iolaire
Iain Morrison  musician from Isle of Lewis commissioned work to mark the Centenary of the sinking of Iolaire  
Both Malcolm and Iain are descendants of men who died on the Iolaire 
In Sight of Home The Iolaire   Excellent BBC Scotland Documentary 

Michael Bully  Current projects
A Burnt Ship       17th century war & Literature blog 
Bleak Chesney Wold new blog launched February 2023 -Charles Dickens/Dark Victoriana