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Descendants speak of lasting impact of Iolaire disaster 

Over 200 men died when a yacht crashed onto rocks near the Isle of Lewis on January 1, 1919

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

Descendants of men who died on board a capsized ship have spoken of the lasting impact it has had on their communities.

HMY Iolaire was carrying soldiers returning from World War One when it smashed into rocks near the Isle of Lewis during the early hours of January 1, 1919.

Only 82 of the 283 passengers are believed to have survived the disaster, with around half of them saved by John Macleod, who swam out with a heaving line.

A service is to be held on Tuesday, attended by Prince Charles and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, to commemorate 100 years since the disaster.

Sharon Smith's great-uncle Malcolm Thomson died in the disaster aged 27, but he was never supposed to be on the doomed ship.

The able seaman was due to head back on an earlier sailing, but had bumped into two friends from the island's small community of Swainbost.

Having not seen each other for four years, he decided to return home with them on the HMY Iolaire.

Ms Smith said: "They were coming home at the end of the First World War, they were coming home in time for New Year celebrations, there was so much joy and happiness among that.

"For them to lose their lives so close to home, in such tragic circumstances, had a tremendous affect on the island.

"It was almost like a blanket of grief had covered the island."

But the 44-year-old nurse of Stornoway believes the community has been able to build something positive out of the tragedy.

She continued: "It's brought people closer together, made us appreciate our family and look into our family history.

"I feel closer to him now, he's part of my family."

"I never met him, I don't know him personally. But on the other hand I feel so close to him now."

"200 men out of a fragile island community - if they had made it, what would the island have been now?"
Ruairidh Moir

Ruairidh Moir, 29, is the same age his great-great uncle Kenneth Campbell was when he perished at sea.

He was one of seven brothers who fought in the war, in which two died, and fought from 1914 to 1918.

Mr Moir said his great-great grandmother received a letter from the king saying she could pick one of her children to be removed from duty to go back home to Tolsta, Lewis.

However, she decided not to make that decision and they remained in the fight.

He said: "It's just beyond comprehension, that's why it's important - for their sake and our sake - that we don't let it go unnoticed.

"200 men out of a fragile island community - if they had made it, what would the island have been now?"

Kathreen Hunter's grandfather Norman MacLeod died in the disaster aged 36.

The former fisherman of Arnol, Lewis, left behind his wife and two young sons.

Mrs Hunter's father John MacLeod would never talk about losing his parent before his first birthday, often shrugging questions off by saying he could not remember.

But he did pen a poem in Gaelic - The War Widow - describing how his mother would every year wash the uniform his father was dressed in when he was found on the shore.

The 62-year-old retired teacher of Inverness said: "It was just so raw and too sore for him to speak about.

"The hardship they went through, the very little support - no counselling."

HMY Iolaire had been carrying sailors who fought in the First World War back to the island which most of them called home. She left the port of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland late on the evening of December 31 1918.

At around 2.30am on New Year's Day she crashed into rocks known as The Beasts of Holm, a few yards offshore and a mile from Stornoway harbour.

The commemorative service will involve wreaths being laid at a memorial dedicated to the disaster.

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