by Kenny Maclean, RSGS Collections Team
“Chum gloir Dhe agus mar chuimhneachan air muinntir Leodhas am thig an bhatha anns a Chogaidh Mhor. 1914-1919.”
“To the glory of God and in memory of the Lewismen who gave their lives in the Great War. 1914-1919.”
These words adorn the Lewis War Memorial, unveiled in 1924. Like the comparable monument at Tarbert in Harris, the war dates displayed are 1914 to 1919. The 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 marked a cease-fire, not the official end of the war. The choice of 1919 as the terminal date acknowledged the tragic impact of the Iolaire disaster on Lewis and Harris. In the early hours of 1st January 1919, 201 of the ship’s complement of 285 drowned when His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire was shipwrecked, some 20 yards short of the shore, less than a mile from the lights, safety and shelter of Stornoway harbour and its welcoming parties. Of the dead, 174 were Lewis men, seven from Harris; yet more sad statistics to add to the already disproportionately large number of over a thousand from these islands who had died – a sixth of all those who had enlisted in the armed services and merchant navy.
From Kyle to Stornoway: the fatal voyage
Almost all the victims were members of the Royal Naval Reserve. They had travelled by rail on cramped troop-trains from Devonport and Portsmouth, via Inverness, to the steamer-pier at Kyle of Lochalsh, the ferry terminal for Stornoway. For some, it was the first homecoming in four years; for all, it was the first chance to celebrate jointly the Armistice and New Year with families and friends in Stornoway and the scattered crofting townships of the Long Island. It was a profoundly uncomfortable, overcrowded voyage for the sailors, cramped in the passenger saloon, the galley and the chart room, others on the open deck. It was a pitch-black night, interspersed only by the flashes from distant lighthouses, to cross the waters of the notoriously fickle Minch; and with the weather and visibility steadily deteriorating, it was a voyage that would have challenged the most experienced of navigators and ships’ masters, never mind a crew unacquainted with those waters.
The Admiralty Chart of Stornoway Harbour, engraved in 1904, shows the rocky reef – the Beasts of Holm or Biastan Thiulm – on which the Iolaire foundered. As the yacht collided with the reef, it was holed, suddenly stopped, then slowly listed to starboard. Most passengers were thrown over by the impact or washed overboard; but even for those who had ever learned to swim, not only did they have to contend with the strength of the waves, but were hampered by their heavy boots and weighty full uniforms.
Saving some lives
In the absence of any clear orders from the bridge, it was mainly thanks to the experienced reservists that some lives were saved. Thirty-two year old John Finlay Macleod from Port of Ness discarded his boots and swam towards the shore with a heaving-line. Defying the pull of the backwash, and in spite of cuts and extensive bruising, he managed to scramble up the steep, rocky shore. With the help of others, a hawser was eventually made fast, allowing 39 men to hand-haul themselves to safety. As expressed by writer John Macleod in When I Heard the Bell, “It took all the might of the drenched, chilled but wonderfully determined men on the Holm shore to keep the warp as rigid as possible; and then there was the raging sea – vast waves crashing in, slamming at men, at boys going hand-over-hand, or crawling upside down, doing whatever was necessary to cross these precious yards. Time and again, in a gurgling cry and the briefest flail of limbs, a man was ripped away within feet of the shore, never to be seen again.”
The loss of the Iolaire was the worst maritime disaster involving a British vessel since the Titanic in 1912, a tragedy made worse by the scale of its impact upon the island communities. Prolonging the trauma was the washing up of bodies for weeks afterwards; while their suffering was made worse as the Spanish influenza pandemic left its fatal mark on both young and old.
Effectively, a generation of young men was wiped out; men who would neither carry out the heavy tasks on the traditional family crofts nor see their families grow up. Such was the anguish, many of the survivors and their families could not talk of the tragedy till many years later. Arguably, the disaster, the pall it cast and then possibly survivor guilt contributed to out-migration from the island. In spite of the promises, there were no ‘homes fit for heroes’; the grandiose schemes of Lord Leverhulme (who had purchased Lewis in 1917) were rejected by the Leosachs, but nor was there any radical redistribution of land for the ex-serviceman. For over 300 emigrants, including some survivors from the Iolaire, a passage to Canada on the steamship Metagama in 1923 was the solution; a chance to find new employment: the car industry in Detroit, the steamers on the Great Lakes, new hydro-schemes and on the prairie farms. Many would return to the Long Island; many would not.
Editorial comment on the Iolaire tragedy from the Stornoway Gazette, 10th January 1919
“No one alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st of January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of our bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their homes under the most tragic circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm on New Year’s morning has plunged every home and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable. Language cannot express the anguish, the desolation, the despair which this awful catastrophe has inflicted. One thinks of the wide circle of blood relations affected by the loss of even one of the gallant lads, and imagination sees these circles multiplied by the number of the dead, overlapping and overlapping each other till the whole island – every hearth and home in it – is shrouded in deepest gloom. All the island’s war losses of the past four years – although these number fully four times the death roll of New Year’s Day morning – are not comparable to this unspeakable calamity. The bleak tragedy has not a redeeming feature. The surrounding circumstances but add to the horror of it.”
When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John Macleod (Birlinn, 2010)
The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod (Acair, 2018)
See digital.nls.uk/learning/iolaire for a special online resource from the National Library of Scotland.