Siol nan Gaidheal
the sinking of the Iolaire
1st january 1919

New Year's Day, 1919, should have been an occasion of real celebration on the Hebridean island of Lewis. The dawn of a new year, hopes for the future raised following the end, six short weeks before, of the 4 years of slaughter in France, and the return of many of the servicemen from the island who had contributed so valiantly to yet another British war. The population of Lewis at this time was approximately 30,000 - 6,200 of whom served in some capacity during the Great War. One in five of the island's population - and more than 1,000 of these volunteers were killed during their service. One in six of these brave volunteers would never return home, a ratio unsurpassed by any other area of Scotland, itself grossly over-represented proportionally when compared to the rest of Britain...

So it was small wonder that those left behind on Lewis looked forward to a proper home-coming and festive celebration with their loved ones. But for so many, the anticipation of joy turned that day to mourning. The story of the sinking of the Iolaire is, needless to say, little known outside the Hebrides, and it is long gone time to help to rectify this situation. The Stornoway Gazette at the time was moved to describe the effect of the tragedy as 'grief unutterable', and who knows now how much this hidden grief contributed to the mass emigrations from the island which were to follow shortly thereafter. Of the estimated 284 servicemen and crew on board the Iolaire (no proper passenger manifest had been made), a mere 79 were to survive.

The Iolaire, originally the Amalthaea, was a luxury sailing yacht built in 1881. Commandeered by the Admiralty in 1915, she became the Navy's base ship at Stornoway, being in fact renamed after the naval base present there. Fitted out for patrol work and anti-submarine warfare, she spent the war years in and around the Western Isles. She possessed sufficient lifeboats for 100 men, and lifejackets for a mere 80. This would be a contributory factor in the carnage to come.

The Scots contingent of returning servicemen had been wending their weary way home for some days. The English navy men preferred their traditional Christmas celebrations, so many Scots had manned their stations until the Englishmen returned, and then were released to spend New Year on their home soil. The regular MacBrayne's ferry from the railhead at Kyle of Lochalsh, the Sheila, was grossly oversubscribed, and it was realised that another ship would have to be drafted in to provide sufficient passenger capacity. It was decided to ship the army servicemen and civilians on the Sheila, and the huge contingent of Royal Naval Reserve personnel would have to be provided for by the Iolaire.

As a result, the mail steamer Sheila was boarded by civilians and most of the former soldiers, while the Iolaire embarked some 260 former naval and RNR personnel. Despite the serious lack of life-saving equipment for such a number, the master, Commander Mason, agreed with Commander Walsh, officer in charge of movements at the Kyle, that he could carry the men safely. It will never be known whether this was under pressure, or simply a desire to assist the men in their homeward journey. Two trains had arrived with well over 300 men from Lewis and Harris by this time. The Harris men were told they would be transported the following day, 60 more of the Lewis men were put on board the Sheila, and the remainder boarded the Iolaire. She set sail from Kyle at 9:30pm on the 31st December 1918, with the Sheila departing some 30 minutes later.

At around half an hour into the New Year, the Iolaire still had some 12 miles to run into Stornoway Harbour. The wind was rising, and rain was falling as the light at Arnish Point was seen. A local fishing boat reported later that the Iolaire had not changed course at the usual place to head safely into harbour, and was headed towards Holm cliffs. Many on board must have noticed this also, as they would have been very familiar with their home waters. Sleet showers were affecting visibility by now, but since there were so few survivors the full truth of this navigational error will never now be known. At five minutes to two on that New Year's morn, HMS Iolaire struck the rocks known as the Beasts of Holm, taking an immediate heavy list to starboard as the waves started to crash over her decks. Just after 2am, the officer on watch at Battery Point reported sighting the first distress flare from the stricken vessel..

Events unfolded fairly rapidly following this. The two lifeboats launched, packed with men, were swamped and all on board drowned. Over 50 men tried to swim the few short yards to shore, but were dashed against the rocks in the heavy swell, and also succumbed. One man, John F. MacLeod, a boat-builder from Ness, did make it ashore hauling a line with him, and another five men managed to use this to drag themselves to safety. This heaving-line was then used to pull a hawser ashore, and another 35 men were saved by scrambling along it. John MacLeod was awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal and Certificate in 1921 for his efforts that dark night - "in recognition of heroic endeavour to save human life". Three men climbed the masts, but only one, Donald Morrison, survived as the ship started to break up in the stormy seas. The Iolaire's back broke sometime after 3am, before the Coastguard contingent arrived to render aid. They were met by a scene out of hell itself - bodies and wreckage were strewn all along the coast round the area. All told, only 79 men survived out of the complement of 284.

Two investigations were subsequently held regarding the tragic loss of the Iolaire. The official Naval investigation was downgraded immediately from a Court Martial to a Court of Inquiry, due to the Navy's fear that the findings of a Court Martial might imply blame was being accepted by them. The Naval Inquiry was held in private, on 8th January 1919 - and the findings not released into the public domain until 1970 They had apparently ruled that due to the non-survival of any of the officers on board the Iolaire "no opinion can be given as to whether blame is attributable to anyone in the matter." File #693: The Iolaire Inquiry gathered dust in the Admiralty vaults for over 50 years.

A Public Inquiry was held in Stornoway commencing 10th February 1919, and the local community provided seven men for the jury. This was the only opportunity that the people of Stornoway were given to ask the questions so many had, and they were represented by a local solicitor, Mr J.N. Anderson. When the jury reached their verdict, at least this one was made available to the public, unlike the Naval Inquiry. Despite rumours to the contrary, drink was not held to have been a factor in the sinking at any point. The conclusions were that "the officers in charge did not exercise sufficient prudence in approaching the harbour; that the boat did not slow down, and that no look-out was on duty; and that the number of lifebelts, boats and rafts was insufficient for the number of people carried." They recommended that the last point should be particularly noted by the Navy and the Government, and also that "the Government should in future provide adequate and safe travelling facilities for Naval ratings and soldiers", which must have been scant consolation to the 58 widows and 209 father-less children bereft by the sinking. Mr Pitan, one of those representing the Navy at the Public Inquiry, reported back to his masters that the island's population as a body held the Navy wholly responsible for the tragedy.

The word tragedy is today bandied about totally inappropriately, in relation to rubbish like television soap operas. It is in danger of losing its real meaning due to over-use in situations where it does not apply even remotely. But a tragedy occurred that dark Hogmanay off the Isle of Lewis. These words from the 10th January 1919 edition of the Stornoway Gazette sum it up most appropriately.

"No-one who is now alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of the bravest and the best perished on the very threshold of their homes under the most tragic circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm has plunged every home and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable."


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