The tragedy of the HMY ‘Iolaire’ 1.1.1919

Whisper its name


Evelyn McKechnie

If you visit any of the small cemeteries scattered along the landscape Harris and Lewis, there is a date on many Commonwealth Grave headstones – 1st January 1919. That is how I found out about the sinking of the Iolaire, I had never known about it before. During my visit, there was also an exhibition on the tragedy in Stornoway. This kind of publicity would have been unheard of years ago, when no one could even speak the name ‘Iolaire’, it was that painful.

The story is one of heartache, sorry and loss on a scale that affected a small, tight-knit community for decades. Every second man on the island joined the services, which was just over 6,000. Every fifth soldier lost their lives either during the war or very soon after. More than 200 lost their lives in the sinking of the HMY Iolaire.

Stornoway Harbour – Photo © Stephen Branley (cc-by-sa/2.0)

In the very early hours of New Year’s Day 1919, the worst UK peacetime maritime disaster since the Titanic struck within sight of Stornoway Harbour, Isle of Lewis. When the HMY ‘Iolaire’, bringing servicemen home from the Great War, smashed against the rocks at the ‘Beasts of Holm’, 73% of those on board drowned within sight of their loved ones waiting at the quayside.

205 servicemen and crew perished of the 280 onboard but the exact figure will never be known as there was no passenger list. Only 75 survived, and 56 bodies were sadly lost to the sea forever. The ‘Iolaire’ was badly overcrowded and there was not enough life jackets or lifeboats, nor was there a lookout posted. 

HMY Iolaire

The Iolaire was Gaelic for ‘Eagle’ but she had many names before her final one. She was built as a luxury yacht in 1881, weighing 634 tons. During the Great War, she was used by the navy in patrol and anti-submarine work, seeing service from Shetland to Portsmouth.

The men were returning from four years of horror in the Great War, yet very few people are aware of the terrible disaster and when the population of Lewis could only ‘whisper’ the name ‘Iolaire’ for generations.

Beasts of Holm, lying close to entrance of Stornoway Harbour – Photo © JJM (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The servicemen were less than a mile from the safety of the harbour when the ship foundered against the rocks in a storm. They were only six or seven yards from the land but could not get across to the rocks and safety because of the heaving seas. Nearly everyone that went into a lifeboat or tried to swim ashore drowned as they were smashed against the rocks or swept out to sea on that pitch-black night. Some wore heavy army overcoats, protection against a bitterly cold night and their pockets stuffed full of presents. They sunk below the waterline once they hit the water.

The masts of the Iolaire showing how close it was to shore it was. The Beasts of Holm can be seen further out.

Their loved ones stood on the harbourside and saw the ship’s distress flares go up. The whole island went into mourning as bodies were washed ashore for days and weeks. The servicemen had survived four years of trench warfare or had fought in the Atlantic against the U-Boats, yet died within sight of home. It was a tragedy of an unimaginable scale or comprehension even to this day.

The cruelty of the bodies washed up on the shores with the toys they were taking home as belated Christmas presents, haunted those who found them. After the Armistice and the peace offered six weeks earlier, the tragedy was a blow too far for a God-fearing community, one that struggled to comprehend what had happened to them.

About 40 men were saved because of the actions of one man, John F MacLeod who managed to get to the rocks and got a rope tied up. The men on board hauled themselves across this line to the shore and safety. When this rope fell no more got across from the doomed ship.

Great coat similar to those worn by returning soldiers on the HMY Iolaire
National Library of Scotland License: CC BY 4.0

John received the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal and Certificate “in recognition of heroic endeavour to save human life”. He went on to become a boat builder on the island, even continuing to build boats when he became blind in later life.

Another survivor was Donald ‘Patch’ Morrison’ who had clung onto the mast of the ‘Iolaire’ until 10 am the next morning. Other men survived when the stern swung around and they clambered onto the rocks, many being injured in the attempts to escape the cauldron of death.

The youngest who died was crew member, Signal Boy David Macdonald from Aberdeen who was 17. The eldest was Angus Macleod, from Shawbost, aged 52. One sailor who also perished that night was William Wilson. He wanted to surprise his wife who did not know he was coming home. William left two daughters.

One family who knew the pain of loss before this disaster was to suffer even more tragedy. Donald and Christina MacLeod of Stornoway lost three sons in the Great War by the time the Armistice was signed. Every year of the war brought them more sorrow, losing Alexander in 1914, William in 1915, Angus in 1916 and then they saw one surviving son, Norman, drown within sight of his home and family. His body was one of those who have never been found and whose final resting place is the sea. 

One of the many bays on the Isle of Lewis

Some fathers never gave up looking for their sons. Angus Macdonald was found by his father two months after the tragic sinking. His father had a premonition and this led him to the very spot offshore where he found his son and brought him home to Lewis to bury.

Despite a population of just under 30,000, Lewis provided 6,172 servicemen, of about whom 1000 were killed during the fighting in the Great War and then lost a further 181 Lewis men in one night in the ‘Iolaire’ disaster. 71 women were widowed and 11 children orphaned in the tragedy alone. Not a family or village was left untouched.

There was no welfare state then and other families rallied round to help feed the children and look after the widows, everything was done solemnly – it is also heartbreaking to think about their loss. A disaster fund was set up to help and donations poured in, payments to dependents were larger than what was given by the Government to the War Widows.

Photo © M J Richardson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

A hastily convened private Naval inquiry was held only days later and found that ‘there was no evidence to properly explain the reasons for the accident – as none of the duty officers had survived the sinking. Consequently, the Admiralty concluded that “No opinion can be given as to whether blame is attributable to anyone in the matter.”

The Public Inquiry was unanimous that ‘the Iolaire’s officers did not exercise due caution on the approach to Stornoway; that the vessel did not reduce speed at the appropriate time; that the vessel was allowed to sail without adequate life-saving equipment; that no lookout had been posted; that once the vessel had struck, the officers did not give any orders which might have reduced the loss of life; and, that there was an unacceptable delay in deploying shore-based emergency services.

At the Beasts of Holm is a memorial to this Hebridean tragedy, and just a few yards offshore on a rock jutting out of the waves is a pillar signifying where the ‘Iolaire’ lies close by. 

“Erected by the people of Lewis and friends in grateful memory of the men of the Royal Navy who lost their lives in the ‘Iolaire’ disaster at the Beasts of Holm on the 1st January 1919. Of the 205 persons lost, 175 were natives of the island and for them and their comrades Lewis still mourns. With gratitude for their service and in sorrow for their loss.”

To find out much more about this tragedy, there is an excellent digital resource at the National Library of Scotland which I highly recommend for further reading.

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