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Iolaire disaster: Stornoway sea tragedy to be remembered

More than 200 passengers died when their ship went down on New Year's Day 1919.

Sea sorrow: More than 200 passengers lost their lives travelling home from the war.
Sea sorrow: More than 200 passengers lost their lives travelling home from the war. STV / cropped

In the early hours of New Year's Day 1919, passengers aboard the HMY Iolaire began to see the flickering lights of Stornoway.

After spending years away from their families, wives and children, more than 200 naval men had boarded the yacht at Kyle of Lochalsh, determined to start the year afresh following the end of the conflict of WWI.

Yet, just a mile from the safety of the Isle of Lewis' port, the ship suddenly hit The Beasts of Holm, a rocky outcrop near the shore.

Men leapt overboard as the ship fell victim to the unforgiving seas, one man swimming ashore with a heaving line to guide passengers to safety, saving dozens of lives in the process.

Others recounted stories in which they heard men shouting in Gaelic for their wives whom they would never see again.

The Beasts of Holm, where the yacht crashed in 1919.
The Beasts of Holm, where the yacht crashed in 1919. Creative Commons 2.0 by Dave Conner / cropped

Of the 280 men registered on the vessel, 205 perished that night, 181 of them islanders. It is thought there could have been more victims as the ship may have been overcrowded.

It was the worst peacetime marine disaster involving a British ship since the Titanic in 1912.

Now, almost 100 years later, islanders have not forgotten the tragedy and are determined the disaster will be remembered when it reaches its centenary in 2019.

"It's tremendously important, a lot of people on the island still feel the sadness," explains Malcolm MacDonald, chairman of the Stornoway historical society.

"People still know the children of the men who were lost, even the survivors they felt it tremendously. At least ten or 11 emigrated, they couldn't face being in the villages or on the streets where they saw mothers and wives and children running about."

Malcolm MacDonald's grandfather, also Malcolm, perished in the tradgey.
Malcolm MacDonald's grandfather, also Malcolm, perished in the tradgey. STV

Malcolm, whose own grandfather perished on board the Iolaire, explains that the tragedy impacted islanders for decades afterwards, many refusing to speak about it

"It brings great emotions to me. I used to go with my father fishing beside the cone that's on the main beast rock [where the ship sank].

"He never mentioned anything to me, he felt like he couldn't speak about it. I was ten years old before I found out my grandfather was lost on the yacht on that terrible night on the 1st of January 1919.

"I am not the only one who felt that about my father, countless people have told me that their uncles their grandfathers, their fathers didn't speak about it either. Other people in the villages were told 'don't speak about it you'll just upset them'.

"So there was a great silence before the memorial went up in 1958."

It was at that time that islanders began to open up about their experiences, about who they had lost or what they saw on that fateful night.

A gaelic radio programme in the 1950s gave islanders a voice and later Grampian Television interviewed victims and their families for Iolaire, Home At Last.

A monument to the victims was erected in 1958.
A monument to the victims was erected in 1958. Creative Commons 2.0 by windy_ / cropped

In 1958 a monument dedicated to the passengers of the HMY Iolaire was erected at Holm and ahead of the disaster's 100-year anniversary, plans are being made for a commemorative sculpture.

Roddy Murray, head of visual arts and literature at arts hub An Lanntair in Stornoway, explains: "We think it would be appropriate if there was something at the site of Holm at the wreck, and possibly at Stornoway - a twin site - which would encourage reflection and be a legacy for the community."

The arts hub is calling on local families to unearth papers and artifacts to help commemorate the tragedy for an exhibition, while Malcolm is delving into the 280 passengers in a book he is co-writing alongside Donald John McLeod.

He explains: "The book is going to try to have as many photographs of the men as possible. There's also a Who's Who in one of the chapters which covers every single individual on board, including the survivors."

For the people of Lewis, the Iolaire will never be forgotten. It is hoped plans for the centenary of the disaster in two years time will prove a fitting tribute to the men who survived the horrors of conflict only to lose their lives so cruelly, so close to home.

Additional reporting: Louise Hosie

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