HRH The Prince Charles, Lord Of The Isles and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon joined hundreds at the Iolaire Memorial in Stornoway today to remember those involved in the tragic sinking of HMY Iolaire on New Year’s Day 1919.
The ship hit ‘The Beasts of Holm’ rocks, around 20 yards from Stornoway’s coastline, as it brought men home from World War One. Of around 300 on board, over 200 men from Lewis and Harris perished along with the crew.
Organised in conjunction with Western Isles Council, the National Commemorative Service was attended by local people and Iolaire descendants, while HRH The Prince Charles, Lord of the Isles, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s most senior Naval Officer Rear Admiral John Weale, and the Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Norman A Macdonald, all laid a wreath.
Conducted by The Very Revd Dr Angus Morrison the service included a reading of Isaiah 43 1-7 by HRH The Lord of the Isles, The Iolaire Lament played by Stornoway Piper Finlay Macleod and The Iolaire Centenary Prayer which was composed and led by the Minister. The end of the two minute silence was marked with the reveille by Royal Marine Bugler James Trowbridge.
A new sculpture to commemorate the Iolaire, adjacent to the Memorial, was unveiled by HRH The Lord of the Isles. Commissioned by An Lanntair, Stornoway’s arts hub, the sculpture features a bronze depiction of a coiled heaving line which references the heroism of John Finlay Macleod who swam ashore with a rope to rescue 40 of the 79 men who were saved. It was created by artists Will Maclean, Marian Leven and Arthur Watson and bears the names of those lost and the communities they came from as well as a bronze wreath composed of maritime insignia.
HRH The Lord of the Isles and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon met Iolaire descendants and the 29-strong Royal Naval Guard. Descendants included Anne Frater whose great grandfather perished and Malcolm Macdonald whose grandfather died in the disaster. Malcolm has co-written a book about the tragedy ‘The Darkest Dawn’ which tracks the stories of all those on board. HRH The Lord of the Isles wrote the Foreword for the book.
As the Service took place on land, a similar event, led by Rev James Maciver of the Stornoway Free Church, was held on board Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV Loch Seaforth ferry near where the Iolaire hit the rocks. Over 500 people were on board, including schoolchildren from the Western Isles who threw 201 red carnations into the sea.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, said:
“As we welcome in the New Year, today in Stornoway we rightly look back 100 years and remember those lost on the Iolaire – a tragedy that involved so many, so close to shore and, for most of the men, so close to home. We reflect on those who perished and how survivors, family, friends and the wider communities on Lewis, Harris and Berneray must have felt. It may have been a century ago but the legacy of the Iolaire will never be forgotten. I was honoured to be part of the commemorations and meet descendants.”
Professor Norman Drummond, chair of WW100 Scotland and the Scottish Commemorations Panel, commented:
“Today was a very poignant and fitting WW100 Scotland Commemoration of the Iolaire tragedy as we remember the events of 100 years ago. Trying to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families on their return and the sorrow that was to follow is beyond comprehension for many of us.
“The Iolaire remains one of the worst UK maritime disasters of the 20th Century.”
Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Chairman of the Iolaire Working Group, Norman A Macdonald, said:
“This was a very poignant service that chimes very much with the events that have already taken place and will continue to take place into the future, throughout the communities from the Butt to Barra, in memory of the men who lost their lives so close to shore. The events of that terrible night in January 1919 impacted on communities throughout the Western Isles and remain a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our young men in the service of their country. It is the worst tragedy to befall our Islands and its effect reverberates to this day.”
The Flag Officer for Scotland & Northern Ireland, Rear Admiral John Weale, said:
“Today’s commemoration was very appropriate and I am very happy that the Royal Navy was able to participate.
“The men who perished in the tragedy were sailors and it is absolutely fitting that the Royal Navy pays tribute to their sacrifice. It’s something we do, as a Naval Service, when we lose people on operations and we weren’t able to do that 100 years ago. So today was particularly important to us, and I speak for all of the sailors and marines who were here today, when I say that we are privileged to have taken part, to be able to pay our respects to fallen comrades and to be able to meet their descendants. I applaud the local community for their determination to keep the memory of those men and the disaster alive today and for tomorrow.”
For many taking part, the service had a particular poignancy. One of the wreath bearers, Lt Alison Ross of the Royal Navy is the great great niece of John Finlay Macleod who brought ashore the rope that is depicted in the new Iolaire sculpture. Stornoway-based Constable Shona Macdonald, whose Great Grandfather from Inner Coll lost his life on the Iolaire, laid a wreath on behalf of Police Scotland. Laying the wreath on behalf of the Stornoway Coast Guard was volunteer Coast Guard Robert McKinnon. Robert’s grandfather, after whom he is named, made it to shore and helped secure the rope that John Finlay Macleod had brought ashore. He walked home to Harris, a distance of nearly 50 miles, soaked but safe.
In the early hours of the morning of January 1, Comhairle’s Convener led a small vigil at the Memorial to the minute the Iolaire hit the rocks. The Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison delivered a short service followed by a two minute silence at 1.55am. At the end of the silence a Lone Piper played “Lament for the Iolaire” while the Stornoway Lifeboat illuminated the rocks from the sea.
At 3.00pm on December 31, at Kyle Railway Station where the sailors disembarked before heading for the Iolaire 100 years ago, a special commemoration was held by Legion Scotland. The Lord-Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty and Skye and Lochalsh, Mrs Janet Bowen CVO, unveiled a plaque and both she and Sir Alistair Irwin, President of the Royal British Legion Scotland, laid wreaths.
Sharon Smith is the great niece of Malcolm Thomson who was lost on the Iolaire at the age of 27. “My great uncle Malcolm had already been in the Royal Navy Reserves for two years when World War One broke out, and he spent the whole of the war at sea. As far as I am aware, he never suffered any injury or illness during this time.
“At the end of the war, he was one of hundreds of sailors waiting at Kyle of Lochalsh for the boats to take them back home to Lewis. There were two boats allocated, the Shelia and the Iolaire. I have been told that Uncle Malcolm was due to board the Sheila but he unexpectedly met two brothers who were close childhood friends from the same village. They hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of the war and had much to talk about so Malcolm boarded the Iolaire with them instead. Sadly a few hours later, all three had drowned on that tragic New Year’s morning.
“My dad spoke about the deep grief and sorrow his grandmother endured for the rest of her life, and he would take us to the memorial site at Holm to remind us of the tragedy and not to forget. It will always affect our island, and it is important that the future generations continue to remember the lost.”
Ruairidh Moir from North Tolsta in Lewis is a great-great nephew of Kenneth Campbell, who was lost on the Iolaire. His family still live on the croft where Kenneth and his brothers grew up.
“Tolsta was hit hard by the disaster, it seems many of the villagers may have grouped together on board. One of those lost was my great-great uncle, Kenneth ‘Pedair’ Campbell, who was one of seven brothers sent to war. There were apparently few families in the country who had so many serving at one time, and the king wrote to their mother Isabella Campbell with the offer of allowing one of her sons to come home. She could not make the choice and all seven remained in the war. Two, Donald and Angus, died on active service during the war, with Kenneth losing his life on the Iolaire.”