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Iolaire: Tragedy still haunts isles 100 years on

Tuesday marks 100 years since the ship went down off the coast of Lewis.

HMY Iolaire: More than 200 men perished in the disaster.
HMY Iolaire: More than 200 men perished in the disaster. STV / cropped

For 100 years it has been one of Scotland's biggest forgotten tragedies.

Some 201 men drowned just yards from shore when the Royal Navy patrol boat, HMY Iolaire, crashed onto rocks outside Stornoway harbour on a stormy black night.

Only 80 survived in what is Britain's worst maritime peacetime disaster since the Titanic.

Tuesday marks the centenary of the sinking. A series of events are taking place, including a special commemoration attended by Prince Charles and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Heralded as a bright new dawn of peace after the horrific conflict of the First World War, New Year's Day 1919 was scarcely two hours old when the Iolaire (gaelic for eagle) rammed into the Beasts of Holm at full speed, resulting in the mass deaths.

Naval servicemen who survived torpedoed ships of the Great War perished on their own doorstep, just yards from safety.

Virtually every village on Lewis lost men in the tragedy.

Five victims belonged to Harris and two teenagers hailed from the small island of Berneray.

After four years of being away at war, most men were still on active service and were overjoyed at being granted leave to return home for the New Year, an occasion then more hugely celebrated than Christmas.

Little thought had gone into getting them across the Minch to the various islands and the David MacBrayne mailboat, the Sheila, simply could not cope with the hundreds of sailors and soldiers arriving off trains at Kyle.

Admiralty yacht Iolaire was summoned from Stornoway to carry home the throng of naval Lewis men.

A blind eye was turned to the prospect of the ill-equipped and overcrowded iron hulled ship carrying so many people. There were no lifebelts for two thirds of passengers and insufficient lifeboats.

Men, anxious not to be left behind, crammed on to the vessel.

Eagar to see their families soonest, some covertly squeezed onboard rather than delay their journey by travelling on the Sheila or, for the Harris men, waiting another day for a vessel to Harris.

https://stv.tv/news/highlands-islands/1433833-iolaire-tragedy-100-years-on-feature/ | default

At 7.30pm, the Iolaire slipped her ropes and sailed from Kyle, pushed along by a rising south easterly wind.

On the northbound voyage, the weather worsened to a force eight gale.

Visibility was poor and her officers had never navigated into Stornoway in the dark.

Catastrophically, first officer Lieutenant Edward Cotter, in charge on the bridge, overshot the change of course into Stornoway harbour.

Making a turn to port too late, propelled the vessel into the dangerous, narrow, gap between the Beasts of Holm and shore cliffs.

Crashing onto the jagged rocks badly holed the Iolaire and she listed heavily to port in wild seas.

The sharp jolt woke men who were slumbering, many were trapped inside, others jumped over the railings into the bitterly cold water only to be swept to their deaths or smashed against the cliffs.

Distance to shore was only 20 yards but high winds whipped up the sea into a cauldron, sucking the man to their deaths.

Rescue from land failed to materialise came as brightly coloured distress flares fired high into the night sky were tragically mistaken as fireworks to celebrate the homecoming.

Hero of the night was John Finlay Macleod, 32, of Ness who grabbed a heaving line and timed the rolling swell to jump on the largest wave which threw him ashore. A rope was hauled ashore, and some men edged, hand-over-hand, their precarious way to safety.

Many lost their grip and were washed away as the rope suddenly tightened and slackened by the ship surging on the rocks but some 40 men managed to scamble ashore at Holm Point, dangling over the foaming surf.

Just over an hour after hitting the reef, the Iolaire broke her back by the relentless pounding sea and slid under the waves. Only her two masts pierced the surface and atop of them were a handful of poor souls clinging on for dear life.

By dawn, all bar one had gone. Only Donald Morrison, 20, of Knockaird, Ness, held on to dawn until help arrived. His brother, Angus, perished.

Bodies washed up on nearby Sandwick beach, one or two with engagement rings tucked in their pockets. Presents for children and gifts for loved ones scattered the shoreline.

Horse-drawn carts would trundle through Stornoway carrying the dead in coffins to their home village. A third of the bodies were never recovered.

https://stv.tv/news/highlands-islands/1434222-descendants-speak-of-the-impact-of-iolaire-disaster/ | default

One casualty was Angus Mackinnon of Lewis who served with the Royal Naval Reserve on HMS Arrogant in the First World War.

He and his wife Ethel May lived in Portsmouth.

Mackinnon had no need to be on the Iolaire but he headed to the island to see his parents and was lost in the sinking. His wife was pregnant and their daughter was born shortly afterwards. She was named Nellie Iolaire May Mackinnon.

Eleven men from North Tolsta drowned on the Iolaire, probably the highest percentage per population of any other community.

The Campbells of 54 North Tolsta hold a record in that seven members - all brothers - of their family served during WW1.

Their mother was given the choice of keeping one of her sons at home but she could not choose between them - and so all seven went to war.

Kenneth was lost on the Iolaire.

John Morrison of 10 Coll, a seaman in the RNR, left his wife Catherine and eight children.

Islanders dismiss the rapidly convened naval inquiry as a whitewash.

Important witness were not called and the court's opinion was no negligence could be attributed to any officer.

Public anger demanded a public inquiry by jury which was held on February 10, returning an unanimous verdict - Iolaire officers failed to exercise sufficient prudence; the ship did not reduce speed; no lookout was on duty; the number of lifeboats and lifebelts was insufficient; and no orders were given with a view to saving life.

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