Iolaire disaster, where 200 men died yards from shore
Mon 24 Jan 2005
photo shows the mast of the
Iolaire just a few yards from shore.
Iolaire disaster, where 200 men died yards from shore
31 December 1918
ISLE of Lewis had a hard war. Some 6,200 men joined up and nearly
1,000 had died. Every family on the island had lost fathers, sons,
brothers or uncles. So, the night of 31 December 1918 was tense
with expectation. The war was finally over, the world was at peace
and after four long years the men who had served king and country
were on their way home.
Kyle of Lochalsh was alive. Hundreds of laughing, boisterous servicemen
were crowded onto the quay. The regular steam-ferry, the SS Sheila,
was soon packed so the Royal Navy ordered the Iolaire across the
Minch from her berth in Stornoway to carry the extra men left
Iolaire had been a luxury yacht before the war, sailing under
the name of the Amalthaea. She was used by the navy in anti-submarine
and patrol work when she was renamed the Iolaire – Gaelic
for "Sea Eagle".
she arrived in Kyle there was some discussion between the Master,
Commander Mason and Commander Walsh, in charge at Kyle. Commander
Mason was worried about the paucity of life-saving equipment onboard.
She was kitted out with only two lifeboats and lifejackets for
80. Even more worrying she had never sailed into Stornoway harbour
at night, a tricky manoeuvre in daylight.
were brought up short when two more trains arrived at the quay
spilling out more demobbed men. The master ordered the 284 servicemen,
predominately navy reserves, up the gangplank and onto the ship.
She left at 9:30pm, sailing out of the darkness of the new year.
But 12 miles out of Stornoway Harbour the weather turned. As a
gale took hold the crew of a local fishing boat watched in confusion
as the Iolaire failed to change course to make harbour. Instead
she carried on full steam ahead into the pitch-black night.
Thuilm - the Beasts of Holm - is a rocky outcrop just short of
the harbour entrance. A small light attached to the rock warns
mariners of the approaching danger. When the Iolaire failed to
turn, the flickering light was useless. The momentum of the ship
kept pushing her forward.
was poor. Sleet was falling and the seas were wild. When the ship
collided with the "Beasts" she went over almost immediately.
Nobody on board knew where they were. The boat was lying only
about 20 feet from land, but between the ship and the rocks was
a boiling, raging sea. Fifty men jumped into the water and made
for shore. They all drowned in the freezing water. The two lifeboats
were launched, but were swamped immediately as too many men battled
for too few seats.
three o’clock in the morning the ship’s back broke
and she went under.
the men onboard slowly drowned one man, John Macleod, swam for
his life hauling a rope behind him. When he reached shore he set
up another stronger rope, and 25 men escaped along this safety
line. John Macleod was awarded the highest peacetime aware for
heroism for his incredible courage and strength.
Morrison climbed the mast as the ship went down and clung on as
she submerged. He was picked up alive the next morning at 10 o’clock,
having spent eight hours in the water.
brother was not so lucky. He drowned alongside 205 men who had
seen off enemy fire only to die within shouting distance of their
Lewis Roll of Honour records the poignant loss of Kenneth Macphail
whose death epitomises the tragedy: "He was the sole survivor
of a ship torpedoed in the Mediterranean in October 1917. He had
a terrible experience before he was rescued having been nearly
36 hours in the sea until washed ashore in Algeria. Pathetic in
the extreme it is to think that this powerful seaman after so
miraculous an escape in the Mediterranean, perished within a few
feet of his native soil."
photograph of Stornoway
New Year’s Day broke across the islands, families waiting
for the arrival of their loved ones heard rumours of a terrible
disaster. Men walked miles from villages to Stornoway searching
for news. What they found was devastating. The Scotsman of 6 January
reported the tragedy, soberly noting: "The villages of Lewis
are like places of the dead. The homes of the island are full
of lamentation – grief that cannot be comforted. Scarcely
a family has escaped the loss of a near blood relative. Many have
had sorrow heaped upon sorrow."
went by and still all the men were not recovered. Boats left the
harbour in search of bodies to return as night fell to a silent
crowd waiting at the harbour. In 1959 Donald Macphail, speaking
on Gaelic radio, recalled the moment his friend found the body
of his son.
man’s son was there, and I remember he was so handsome that
I could have said he was not dead at all. His father went on his
knees beside him and began to take letters from his son’s
pockets. And the tears were splashing on the body of his son.
And I think it is the most heart-rending sight I have ever seen.’
investigations were ordered. With the crew dead no conclusion
was reached, other than to rule out drink as being the cause.
A public enquiry held later found that the deciding factor in
the tragedy was the lack of lifebelts and life craft in the vessel.
traumatically the Iolaire disaster affected the islands is unknown.
Roddy Murray director of An Lanntair museum in Stornoway thinks
that it cannot be underestimated. "We can speculate on its
contribution to the mass emigrations of the twenties, its effect
on the Lewis character, the rebirth of an inherent fatalism. Its
effect was like the Passover of the Old Testament."
through the whole story, like a spectral ribbon are tales of supernatural
occurrences. John Macleod later told his son that he saw his mother
standing before him as he jumped into the sea. Deer, portents
of death, were seen in a number of villages that night.
of all was the story of a man from Breascleit who was tormented
with visions of a body floating in the sea. He walked to Stornoway
and directed the recovery boats to the area he had seen in his
dream. Sure enough a body was recovered in exactly the place he
had described. It was no surprise to anyone when the body turned
out to be the old man’s son.