The Iolaire Disaster – 100 Years On

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When the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the Western Isles could look forward with guarded hope for the first time in four years. The Spanish flu epidemic was still claiming lives and the mourning for the dead and tending for the wounded were major concerns. Nothing, however, could have prepared the people of Lewis and Harris for what befell them on January 1, 1919 when the HMY Iolaire foundered near the entrance to Stornoway harbour while bringing men home on leave.

HMY Iolaire. Photograph: Reproduced with kind permission from Acair and with grateful thanks to all sources as detailed in The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod.

The genesis of the Iolaire disaster lay in the desire by the Admiralty to allow as many naval ratings and men of the mercantile marine as possible home to the islands on leave for the first peacetime New Year since 1913.

But this noble aim ran far ahead of the ability of the transportation system to cope. As hundreds of men streamed out of the trains at Kyle of Lochalsh, there were two ships available to take them onwards to home and loved ones. The first was the MacBrayne’s mail boat the Sheila and the second was HMY Iolaire, a pre-war luxury yacht known as the Amalthaea, but now re-named to share the name of the Stornoway naval base, HMS Iolaire. The Iolaire did not have the capacity for the numbers requiring passage home.

The build up to the catastrophe, as indeed all other aspects of the disaster, are fully covered in the book, The Darkest Dawn – Call na h-Iolaire – The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy, Acairbooks, 2018. The authors Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod have spent lifetimes researching the topic and it is sad to report that Donald John died before he could see the wonderful fruits of his labour in print.

In the confusion at Kyle some sailors even came off the Sheila to join a brother or friend on the Iolaire with heart-breaking consequences. The men from Lewis and Harris had in some cases served all through the war as members of the Royal Naval Reserve. They had seen action, survived sinkings where many others drowned and, incredibly, there were even those among them some who had been invalided out of the army or naval service, but had chosen to re-enlist of their own volition when they felt stronger again.

Malcolm MacDonald, grandfather of the author, was lost in the disaster. Photograph: Reproduced with kind permission from Acair and with grateful thanks to all sources as detailed in The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod.

Malcolm Macdonald’s grandfather, who bore the same name, perished that night and he had, in 1917, survived the explosions and tsunami which devastated Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The crossing of the Minch was largely uneventful in spite of worsening weather and soon the lights of Stornoway beckoned men up on deck. But joy was to be short-lived as a navigational error drove the Iolaire on to the treacherous Beasts of Holm, which many of those on board knew well as fishermen before the war.

Utter confusion resulted among the crew and desperate men chose to take their chances by jumping off the now doomed yacht which was a mere 20 yards from the rocks. With no lights and the heavy sea running, they stood little chance of making land.

One hero of the disaster was John Finlay Macleod from Port of Ness who swam ashore with a rope using his local knowledge that the third wave in a sequence was his best hope of making land, thereby saving at least half of those who survived the disaster. The only man to be rescued and landed on Stornoway Pier was Donald Morrison, known as Am Patch, who had climbed the mast and clung on all through the stormy night till rescued in the morning.

The Darkest Dawn.

The Darkest Dawn is not only the definitive account of the disaster, it is also one of the best books produced on any aspect of the Great War.

The Iolaire disaster is still little known outwith the Highlands and Islands and this book should do much to rectify that situation. The authors deal with all aspects – such as the blame attributed to the officers by the official enquiry – in a calm and dignified manner, but the major strength of the work is in the way in which it sets the tragedy in its social and historical context.

Pen portraits are provided of all those who drowned and the survivors, and these make heart-rending reading in their stories of children orphaned and the later privations which the Iolaire disaster wrought on Lewis and Harris.

Acairbooks has also recently republished A Family in Skye 1908-1916, by Isobel Macdonald, which deals with the impacts of the war on a neighbouring island.

The Beasts of Holm seen from the shore in stormy weather. Photograph: Reproduced with kind permission from Acair and with grateful thanks to all sources as detailed in The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod.

When the Iolaire was wrecked at Holm, 174 Lewismen, seven from Harris, 18 crewmen and two men returning to the base from leave died, a total of 201 souls. The little pony and traps that had come into Stornoway to carry men home soon turned into funeral biers.

The disaster was little spoken about for decades and many widows never again wore anything but black clothes. Several  poets have tried to capture the essence and impact of the tragedy, among them John Macleod whose father perished and who was later minister of Oban Old Parish Church. He wrote:

I sat on a stone beside her

A round bonnet on my head,

My father’s bonnet.

The blue suit in strips

As they tore it from his body

When they found him

Cold, drowned on the shore,

Folded by hands of love

And a broken heart

Like a loyal dress for a wedding.

The tragedy is now the subject of exhibitions of artefacts and paintings, musical tributes, with a national commemorative event was held on Tuesday (January 1) in Stornoway, as islanders feel more able to discuss it.

The Darkest Dawn will be a major contributor to that process of re-evaluation for an island people who suffered unimaginable loss and grief that New Year’s morning.

Eric M. Macintyre – December 2018

captions must include

“All images are reproduced with kind permission from Acair and with grateful thanks to all sources as detailed in The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod.”

No. 1    Book cover

No. 2    HMY Iolaire

No. 3   The Beasts of Holm seen from the shore in stormy weather

No. 4    Small boats attempt hopeless rescues on New Year’s morning

No. 5    Donald Morrison (Am Patch) and John Finlay Macleod in the 1970s

No.6     Malcolm Macdonald, grandfather of the author, was lost in the disaster

No. 7    Watch found in the pocket of casualty Malcolm Macleod

No. 8    How the Stornoway Gazette covered the enquiry verdict

No. 9    The graves of Iolaire victims in Sandwick cemetery