The Tragedy of the Iolaire

By Kenneth Gibson MSP 

Many readers will know of the horror that befell HMS Dasher in 1943 between Ardrossan and Brodick, yet this might be the first time they have heard of the Iolaire tragedy, the worst peacetime British sea disaster since the Titanic; one that hit the Isle of Lewis and its close-knit communities hard.

I bring that tragic New Year 100 years ago to the fore to highlight the moving remembrance now taking place.

Two months after the Great War ended, leave was granted for many to return home. On Hogmanay 1918, HM yacht Iolaire set off from Kyle of Lochalsh at 7.30 pm. At 1am, the ship was sailing too far east, for reasons that remain a mystery. Lights on the Beasts of Holm rocks warned of danger, but the ship failed to turn. Her momentum pushed her forward and, as a gale took hold, she carried on full steam ahead into the pitch-black night and struck the rocks at 2am on New Year’s morning. Of 280 men aboard 201 men died, including 174 from Lewis. Forty of the 79 survivors were saved by the heroism of one man; John Findlay Macleod.

The islands’ contribution to the Great War had been considerable, with 6,172 men from Lewis serving in the armed forces, a source of pride for an island of just 29,603 souls in 1911. However, losses were heavy; almost 4,000 casualties, a third of them killed. From the 51 houses in the village of Leurbost alone, 32 men were killed or badly wounded in the Great War. Eleven more would be lost on the Iolaire, which sank less than one mile from safe harbour.

Having survived the horrors of war, young islanders drowned as their families gathered to welcome them home to communities that had missed them sorely. A third of those lost would never be recovered. Many bodies given up by the sea were washed up on Sandwick shore, a sight haunted those who saw it for the rest of their lives.

The tragedy impacted on islanders for decades. Morale was shattered and mass emigration followed. John MacLeod, author of “When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire,” a comprehensive account of the disaster, said:

My grandfather … a boy of eight at the time never forgot standing outside his door … in the village of Cross and seeing carts coming over the brae with coffins. Carts passing the house. Carts with one coffin, two coffins, four coffins. Coffins after coffins.

Lewis ran out of coffins, which had to be brought from Kyle. That detail encapsulates the scale of the tragedy, discussion of which remained taboo for generations.

A century on, the disaster is now entirely out of human memory. People now discuss the Iolaire. A new generation of islanders wants to understand the pain the tragedy inflicted and to know the men they lost and the grief felt by those left behind. With the last survivor and the last child who lost a father now gone, people are finally free to revisit the tragedy and give it the commemoration it deserves.

One particularly moving contribution to the centennial remembrance is Catriona Black’s animated film “You are at the Bottom of my Mind,” shown on Hogmanay, which builds from stories told in Gaelic from decades past by survivors and witnesses, and adds a traditional music score specially written for it. It is layered with photographs, such as the seaweed-covered surface of the deadly Beasts of Holm and the gravestones of men lost to the sea. Those poignant details remind us of the brutal reality of what happened that tragic night.

The programme of memorial events being held in Stornoway can be found on the An Lanntair website.

The wreck of the Iolaire on Jan 2nd 1919.