Still haunted by the Iolaire tragedy
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.