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Iolaire: Remembering men who perished on Stornoway rocks

Steamer yacht crashed as it brought men home from the First World War.

Donald Morrison, one of the survivors of the Iolaire tragedy, heard the cries of one of those who perished ringing out over the crashing waves.

Just before two o'clock in the early hours of New Year's Day 1919, the steamer yacht carrying almost 300 men home from World War One was dashed on rocks at the entrance to Stornoway Harbour.

Known as 'Am Patch', Donald died in 1990 aged 91. His nephew Donald Maclean is now 80.

"He said that the eight hours he clung to the mast, he felt it just as long as the rest of his life," Donald says.

"Did he think about it all the time? He said, 'There is not a day that I don't think about that'."

HMS Iolaire crashed on New Year's Day 1919.
HMS Iolaire crashed on New Year's Day 1919. STV / cropped

It was Britain's second worst maritime disaster since the sinking of the Titanic.

A total of 201 souls lost; men drowned just yards from the islands they called home.

They would have been able to see the shore lights burning to welcome them back after four years of fighting.

For many, the tragedy of HMY Iolaire remains largely unknown, but it scarred the Isle of Lewis so deeply that only now are people openly discussing what happened.

Many people grew up unaware they had lost uncles, grandparents or cousins to the savage Beasts of Holm, the rocky reef upon which the yacht foundered with such terrible consequences.

Memorial on the Isle of Lewis.
Memorial on the Isle of Lewis. STV

Ten men were on the Iolaire from the village of Sheshader. None of them survived.

To mark the centenary, plaques have been erected outside the homes of all those men, their names and ages writ bold for all to see.

There is a marker for Mairi Macleod's grandfather Murdo Mackenzie. She never knew him but still feels a deep connection. He was 45-years-old and left a wife and four children.

"The only mention I ever heard growing up was my Aunty Nancy, who was six at the time," Mairi says.

"She remembers her grandfather coming to tell her mum about the accident and that was the last day she saw her mother dressed in anything other than black."

As the date of the centenary now approaches, this silence has swung the other way.

https://stv.tv/news/highlands-islands/1433704-first-minister-to-attend-centenary-of-iolaire-disaster/ | default

Travelling around the Isle of Lewis, the Iolaire is everywhere you look.

Parties of schoolchildren walking respectfully to the site of the memorial; sombre and moving musical performances by Scottish stars Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm; beach-front works of art laying out the exact scale of the size of the steamer yacht with 281 fence posts.

A stark reminder of the small size of the vessel carrying so many men.

Margaret Fergusson has painted 100 haunting portraits of those who died.

Their eyes are everywhere you look in her home. People have remarked to her that "it's like living with ghosts". Her great-uncle Alexander Mackenzie was one of those who died.

She says: "Men were found with toys, scattered about the beach, some with gifts. I know of at least one boy who was found with an engagement ring in his pocket."

It should have been a time full of reunion and rejoicing. Instead, the Iolaire cut a deep swathe through the islands. The overnight obliteration of a generation of young men plunged family after family into poverty.

No strong arms to help with the crops on the Croft, a collapse in the herring sector and delays in payouts from a disaster fund that was meant to help stricken families saw many people emigrate to America, Canada or Australia.

The island diaspora have embraced the Iolaire - commemorative pin badges marking the centenary have been sent across the globe.

And on New Year's Day many people will stop at 1.55am to remember the men of the Iolaire and the families they never saw again.

Prince Charles and Nicola Sturgeon will be among those attending a number of services to mark 100 years since the disaster.

And today's children of the Western Isles will grow up speaking the names of those who perished, and knowing their stories; the light finally shining on the Hebrides darkest days.

In the village of Tolsta, the primary school's 22 pupils know all about those who died, and where they had lived, this year's lessons imparting them with the deep roots of their heritage.

Teacher Emma Hall says: 'Not enough people know about it. For a small community to be welcoming home those men, to lost them... it is so important that the children know, and respect, and remember."

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