Still haunted by the Io­laire tragedy

The Oban Times - - Letters - AN­GUS MACPHAIL an­gus­macphail@ya­

EMO­TIONS trig­gered by his­tor­i­cal events far in the dis­tant past can af­fect us in a pow­er­ful way that tran­scends gen­er­a­tions, geog­ra­phy and ge­neal­ogy.

I have no fam­ily con­nec­tions with the Isle of Lewis, but last Fri­day af­ter­noon, as I was sit­ting in the cafe bar of Eden Court Theatre in In­ver­ness re­fresh­ing my mem­ory with the facts for the in­tro­duc­tion to our song The

Io­laire, I was re­duced to tears. It is tes­ti­mony to the strength of the Lewis peo­ple that they re­cov­ered from such cruel blow and pros­pered again.

The name Io­laire is syn­ony­mous with one of the worst dis­as­ters ever to be­fall a ship.

The tragedy is not marked for the num­ber of those drowned, but for the im­mensely cruel cir­cum­stances in which it hap­pened.

Late on the evening of De­cem­ber 31, 1918, the mo­tor yacht Io­laire left the pier at Kyle bound for Stornoway. On board were 280 men (num­bers recorded are sub­ject to pos­si­ble er­ror be­cause of the rushed cir­cum­stances of board­ing), mainly from Lewis, who were re­turn­ing home hav­ing sur­vived the hell of four years of the First World War.

The men were mostly Royal Navy re­serves, and al­though the ma­jor­ity of their time had been spent at sea, many had been drafted in to fight on land-based cam­paigns and many had ex­pe­ri­enced the bru­tal­ity of trench war­fare.

At that time the is­lands of Lewis and Har­ris had al­ready lost more men per head of pop­u­la­tion than any other ge­o­graphic area of the United King­dom. But these men had sur­vived and were soon to be step­ping again on to their na­tive Is­land of Lewis.

Wait­ing on the is­land in deep an­tic­i­pa­tion of their re­turn were their fam­i­lies – wives, par­ents, sons, daugh­ters broth­ers, sis­ters, girl­friends and a whole com­mu­nity joined by col­lec­tive re­lief that these men, who had sur­vived against the odds, were com­ing home.

The sense of cel­e­bra­tion was even more keenly felt, be­cause they would be re­turn­ing and would be re­united on the morn­ing of the New Year - a New Year of peace that meant heal­ing and new be­gin­nings.

Around 2.30am that night, with the lights of Stornoway Har­bour in sight and just yards from home, the Io­laire struck the rocks known as the Beasts of Holm. The sea, as it so of­ten does in poor con­di­tions, acted swiftly and cal­lously.

Of the 280 men on board, 205 were drowned. Of the 75 who lived, many were saved be­cause of the skill and brav­ery of John Ma­cLeod from Ness, who man­aged to swim ashore with a heav­ing line and then se­cure a heav­ier rope to the shore. This saved more than 40 men.

As news of the tragedy spread through the is­land, the ex­tent of the disas­ter be­came clear and, by the morn­ing, fam­i­lies were search­ing the shore­lines for the bod­ies of their loved ones.

One of the most cut­ting images told of that morn­ing was of count­less bod­ies washed up on the shore at Sand­wick Bay and, scat­tered among them, the toys that many of the men had brought back as Christ­mas presents for their chil­dren – chil­dren whom they had not seen for four years and these chil­dren were never now see their fathers again.

Nearly 100 years since that fate­ful night, the irony and cru­elty of the Io­laire disas­ter is hard to com­pre­hend.

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