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.