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Issue 44 - Tragedy at sea

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


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Tragedy at sea

The sinking of the HM Iolaire in 1919 was the worst peacetime disaster in British history. James Irvine Robertson looks at what happened on that fateful day.

It was Hogmanay 1919, a few weeks after the armistice which ended the most terrible war in human history. Virtually every family in Britain had lost a son, a brother or a cousin. On the Isle of Lewis people were waiting for their men to come home.

Out of a population of 30,000, 6,200 young men had volunteered to fight for King and Country; many had been fishermen and joined the Royal Navy. More than a thousand of the sons of the Isle of Lewis and Harris had died during the four years of the conflict, a higher casualty rate than anywhere else in the country. And now those exhausting, tragic years were over and the islanders were ready to try to celebrate the first new year of peace.

Many of their menfolk were due to return to the island to join the festivities. Some, particularly sailors still busy clearing mines, had been granted leave; others were discharged from the Forces and returning for good. The mail steamer SS Shiela was docked at the railhead at Kyle of Lochalsh ready to ship them the 100 or so miles past the island of Skye and across the Minch to Stornoway, the main town and port of Lewis, where many of their relatives were gathered to welcome them.

It soon became clear that more men were waiting for passage than could be accommodated on the Shiela, and therefore HM Yacht Iolaire was ordered from Stornoway to Kyle to be pressed into service as a ferry. This was a wooden, 634-ton luxury steam yacht built in 1881 for the Duke of Westminster and requisitioned by the Admiralty for anti-submarine work and patrolling. The Gaelic name means ‘sea eagle.’ Some 500 soldiers and civilians boarded the Shiela; the sailors, about 285 men, were packed onto the Iolaire. Its captain, Commander Mason, seemed unconcerned although there was life-saving equipment for nomore than 80 souls.

The two ships left Kyle of Lochalsh to voyage to Lewis at about 9.30pm on the 31st December. There was a fresh breeze from the south and weather conditions deteriorated as the journey progressed. The Iolaire, scheduled to arrive first, was not the handiest of vessels, nor had its crew ever tried to run the 700 yard-wide passage into the port by night. Probably the result of a miscalculation of the strength of the southerly wind and confusion over the lights to guide vessels into the harbour entrance, the ship piled into the rocks at about 2am. Called the Beasts of Holm and awash at high tide, these rocks were just east of the safe channel. No more than 10 yards from the slick, rocky shoreline, the ship was hit by a wave, throwing it further onto the rocks and over onto its starboard side.

One of the survivors who had been travelling in the warmth of the chart room, forced open the door and later reported what he saw. ‘The lighthouse flashed its blessed beam – on mountainous waves relentlessly lashing against towering cliffs with narrow ledges and jagged crags. The waves descended in a mighty cataract into the boiling and spuming depths below.’ Fifty men jumped into the icy water and drowned immediately. Two lifeboats were filled and launched, but at once these were swamped and vanished. The ship broke its back. Aboiler exploded and the wreck began to slide backwards into deeper water.

One man, John F Macleod from Ness in the north of the island, grabbed a rope and managed to battle through the maelstrom and gain a footing on the rocks. He pulled a heavier line across, secured it to an outcrop and some 40 men were able to use this to haul themselves to safety. He was later awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal and Certificate ‘in recognition of heroic endeavour to save human life.’ Twenty year-old Donald Morrison climbed the mizzen mast towards the stern of the ship and clung on. Two other men clambered up the foremast. It snapped and they were swept away. Donald was found alive at 10am the following morning, still with his arms round the spar. No rescue was mounted in time to do any good. News of the disaster was brought to Stornoway by survivors who walked the three or four miles into the town.

No accurate figure was recorded of those who boarded the Iolaire at Kyle of Lochalsh, consequently no accurate figure of casualties was possible. The Captain and officers were killed, so the two inquiries were unable to establish a definitive cause of the tragedy.

Bodies were washed ashore for days afterwards; some found at the top of the beach lying against the wall of the burial ground where they would eventually be interred. Boats went out every morning to search for them, returning to face the silent crowds of friends and relatives who had walked to Stornoway from villages across the island to carry their dead home, but the bodies of a third of those lost were never recovered.

The best estimate of the dead was 205, only 79 survived. It was the worst peacetime disaster in British waters in maritime history.

In the close-knit communities of Lewis and Harris, the calamity personally affected every family. After the trauma of the island’s wartime losses, the effects of this final tragedy were devastating. The local newspaper used the phrase ‘grief unutterable,’ and thereafter the catastrophe was indeed scarcely ever spoken of. Its scars went too deep. It is considered one of the contributing causes of the mass emigrations that left the island in the years after the war.

Amemorial commemorating those lost on the Iolaire was raised in 1960. It stands on the outskirts of Stornoway at Holm Point, overlooking the innocuous-looking rocks that cost so many lives.