Feature - Iolaire


HRH The Prince Charles, Lord of the Isles and the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon will be present at a commemoration to remember the tragic sinking of HMY Iolaire, which 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 by WW100 Scotland in conjunction with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), the National Commemorative Service will take place at the Iolaire Memorial in Stornoway on New Year’s Day, 100 years to the day of the tragedy.  It will be attended by hundreds of local people including: Iolaire descendants; 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 (Western Isles Council), Norman A Macdonald, each of whom will lay a wreath.

The Service will be conducted by The Very Revd Dr Angus Morrison.  At the end of the Service HRH The Lord of the Isles will unveil a new sculpture to commemorate the Iolaire.   Commissioned by An Lanntair, Stornoway’s arts hub, the sculpture will feature 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 will bear the names of those lost and the communities they came from as well as a bronze wreath composed of maritime insignia.


While the Service on land is taking place, a similar event, led by Rev James Maciver of the Stornoway Free Church, will be held on board Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV Loch Seaforth ferry which will be situated near where the Iolaire hit the rocks just off Holm in view of the Iolaire Memorial.  Over 500 people will be on board, including schoolchildren from the Western Isles.  Schoolchildren will throw 201 red carnations into the sea, one for each of the men that perished, as the Service draws to a close.

Professor Norman Drummond, Chair of the Scottish Commemorations Panel, said: “It is beyond our comprehension that over 200 men perished so close to home after surviving the War in what remains one of the worst UK maritime disasters of the 20th Century.  When you look out from the Iolaire Memorial to where HMY Iolaire hit the rocks of ‘The Beasts of Holm’ you are struck by just how close they were to shore.  It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families on their return and then the sorrow that was to follow.

“It is right and fitting that we hold a WW100 Scotland Commemoration in their memory and reflect on the lasting impact this tragic incident had on future generations on the Western Isles and far beyond.”


Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Chairman of the Iolaire Working Group, Norman A Macdonald, commented: “The Comhairle along with our partners on The Iolaire Working Group has been working to ensure that the 100th anniversary of the Iolaire tragedy is marked in an appropriate way throughout our community, including the “A Community Remembers” event in the Lewis Sports Centre on 31st December.

“This commemoration is of major significance for our Islands. 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.”

At 3.00pm on December 31, a special commemoration will be held by Legion Scotland at Kyle Railway Station where the sailors disembarked before heading for the Iolaire one hundred years ago.  The Lord-Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty and Skye and Lochalsh, Mrs Janet Bowen CVO will unveil a plaque and both she and Sir Alistair Irwin, President of the Royal British Legion Scotland will lay wreaths.

Historian Malcolm Macdonald whose grandfather was killed in the disaster and has co-written a book about the tragedy ‘The Darkest Dawn’ which tracked the stories of all those on board HMY Iolaire and which will be presented to HRH The Lord of the Isles, said:

“Two ships left that night bound for Stornoway, one HMY Iolaire, the other SS Sheila which left later.  There are many sad tales of those that swapped places to ensure that friends could get home to their families earlier.

“I had no inkling of my family’s own connection to the disaster until the memorial was erected at Holm in 1960.  I knew my grandfather had died in the war but I had no idea that it was so close to home as it was never talked about, a story that is true across the island.”

Iain Maciver, whose grandfather was lost on the Iolaire
Iain Maciver, whose grandfather was lost on the Iolaire

The grandfather of Iain Maciver, Port Manager for CalMac Ferries in Stornoway, also perished on the Iolaire.  His remains were never found. Iain said: “My father was very young when he lost his father on the Iolaire and, like so many others here, his mother never talked about it.

“It is particularly poignant that our vessels pass the site at the entrance to the harbour daily, highlighting how close they were to home.”

Anne Frater’s great grandfather, was lost in the tragedy.  John Macleod, who was serving in the Royal Navy Reserves, was coming back for the baptism of the youngest of his five children, a daughter whom he would never see.

Anne Frater, whose great-grandfather perished in the Iolaire tragedy
Anne Frater, whose great-grandfather perished in the Iolaire tragedy

“My Granny, at 10, was the oldest child and she was helping her mother get ready for her father’s return.  What struck me about her story was how her father was even taken out of her identity.  Until then, she had been known as Màiri Iain Mhurch’ Chaluim (Mary, daughter of John, son of Murdo, son of Malcolm), but after the Iolaire, people started calling her Màiri bheag Catrìona (Catherine’s wee Mary).

“Only recently did I find out that another great grandfather may have been one of the survivors.  If he was, it wasn’t ever spoken about.”

Volunteer Coast Guard Robert McKinnon’s grandfather, after whom he is named, survived the disaster.

“My grandfather 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.”