The Iolaire

The Maritime Disaster That Shook the Western Isles

The Iolaire

There are a lot of publications about the Iolaire disaster that devastated the population of the Isle of Lewis. I have lived on the island my whole life, and as far as I know my family goes back generations on this island. We are all taught the story in school, to make sure we are well versed in the tragic story that shook the island, and now I will share it with you.

The year was 1918 and after four years of war and over 41 million deaths the troops were coming home at last. Now all the troops aboard the Iolaire were sailors who had served in the war and were on there home from various places. But they all arrived at Kyle of Lochalsh (Caol Loch Aillse), where The Sheila and The Iolaire were waiting to take them home. The Iolaire, carrying 283 men left the port of Caol Loch Aillse on the 31st of December 1918 in the late evening and made for Stornoway. Meanwhile in Stornoway, islanders were stringing up bunting and preparing to welcome in the New Year with their loved ones return. That’s one of the factors that makes this event so tragic, these sailors were coming home from war, looking forward to well-earned peace and the opportunities the new year could bring them.

At 2:30 am on New Year’s Day 1919, The Iolaire approached Stornoway harbour. A few yards from the shore and only a mile away from the harbour, the Iolaire struck the ‘Beasts of Holm’ and sank. It’s difficult to believe that those on board would very likely have been able to see the lights of Stornoway. 201 men of the 283 on board, perished in the cold waters that night. Of those who died, 181 of them were islanders, to a island which has a population of less than 30,000 at the time, the loss of 181 men hit hard, especially after having already lost 1,151 men through active service of the 6,000 men who enlisted. The island had lost almost an entire generation of young men in one fell swoop.

One story from that night is of a man named John F. Macleod from Port of Ness, Isle of Lewis. John swam ashore with a rope and saved the lives of forty men aboard the Iolaire. Only 82 men survived the disaster. What we often forget is that 21% of the men onboard the ship were ages 20 or under. Loved ones arrived in the morning to claim the bodies that had washed ashore through the night. The New Year had been defiled by the horrific disaster. The survivors tended not to discuss the night or the disaster after that day, even within their own families. Even now the islanders still recognise this as the biggest loss the Island has suffered in recent history.

In 1958 a memorial was erected at Holm, just outside the main town of Stornoway. A stone pillar stands out in the sea as a sign of where the ship sank.

Many songs and poems have been written about The Iolaire including a new song written for the centenary by Skipinnish. I had begun writing this before seeing Skipinnish live, low and behold they sang this very song. It’s haunting melody and the crowd joining in was awe inspiring. I cried, knowing how special it was that 100 years later there was a new generation of Islanders remembering.