A maritime disaster a century ago still casts a shadow over the Isle of Lewis. On New Year’s Day 1919, HM Yacht Iolaire sank near the mouth of Stornoway harbour, a mere 20 yards from the shore in what remains the greatest peacetime disaster at sea since the Titanic sank. The Admiralty yacht, with 24 crew and space for 100 passengers, was in fact carrying 260 men returning from the First World War when it hit the rocks known as the Beasts of Holm (from the Gaelic name Biastan Thuilm). The loss of life was profound affecting almost every community on the island. It was also avoidable.
The official death toll was 205 though it may have been higher as the ship was overcrowded and passenger records were incomplete. Seven men from Harris also died along with most of the yacht’s crew who came from elsewhere in Scotland, England and further afield. The bodies of at least 56 men were never recovered. In a single event over a few short hours, almost a fifth as many Lewis men lost their lives as died during the whole of the preceding four years of war. With a population of around 30,000 at the time, there were few families on Lewis not touched directly by the disaster.
Two weeks after the centenary, I visited the site of the disaster for the first time. What I found most shocking was how close to shore the yacht was when it sank. That more than 200 men had survived an awful war only to die within sight of home, seems particularly cruel.
The official Navy inquiry into the disaster was condemned as a whitewash by local people. Held in private, its conclusions were not made public for more than 50 years but even then provided little clarity. None of the officers or crew on deck at the time survived and so the inquiry concluded that there was no way to explain what had happened. In contrast, a public inquiry before a jury in Stornoway concluded that officers and crew had been negligent and there was insufficient life-saving equipment on board.
The inadequacy of the naval inquiry was compounded by the Admiralty’s insensitivity in putting the wreck of the Iolaire up for sale only 15 days after the disaster at a time when the bodies of the drowned men were still being recovered.
Near the existing memorial to the men who died, erected 40 years or so after the disaster, a new scupture stands overlooking the site of the sinking. Commissioned to mark the centenary and created in bronze, the sculpture by Arthur Watson, Marian Levan and Will Maclean resembles a coiled and knotted rope. Arching across the paving on the seaward side is a roll call of the names of the drowned men.
In Stornoway, I also visited a centenary exhibition of 100 portraits by local artist and GP Margaret Ferguson whose family was directly affected by the disaster. Created over a two-year period, with one portrait for each year since the disaster, the exhibition commemorates the large number of dead and the few survivors. On display with a number of other artifacts, the portraits are grouped according to the communities in which the men lived. They represent fewer than half of the men involved in the tragedy yet still manage to convey a sense of the scale of the disaster and its impact on communities throughout Lewis. The free exhibition runs until March 2 at the Stornoway arts centre An Lanntair.
As a further commemoration of the event, a new book about the tragedy was published in late 2018 which traces the stories of the drowned and the survivors. The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod, published by Acair, is the result of 20 years of research. Quoted in The Scotsman, Mr Macdonald said: “The story of the Iolaire has only really been told in patches before rather than its entirety. The book (charts) what happened from when the men left their various bases and travelled by train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, where they sailed from… when they left there was only a force two gale. By the time…the vessel sank it was a force nine. It really was an awful night. Sleet was coming down, there was no moon, the searchlights didn’t work, the wrong flares were sent up and their radio wasn’t working. Absolutely everything went against them. The Iolaire sailed with half a crew and didn’t have proper look-outs. If it did it wouldn’t have happened.”
For more about the Iolaire, its centenary, the impact on the Lewis community and the The Darkest Dawn, I recommend these two blog posts from local writer Katie Laing:
All images are the copyright of Ella MacDonald unless otherwise credited.