Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Iolaire Tragedy

On a cliff across the bay around two miles from Stornoway in the Western Isles stands a simple and poignant memorial. The memorial was erected by islanders in remembrance of one of the most appalling and heart-rending tragedies in peace-time maritime history.

Just below this cliff, jagged reefs, aptly called the Beasts of Holm, peer, with malice, out of the sea a few feet from the shore.

On the 31st January, 1919, the armistice having been signed months earlier, servicemen who had been fighting the "war to end wars" were looking forward to returning to their loved ones in Lewis, and to a lesser extent, to the neighbouring island of Harris.

As more and more servicemen gathered in Kyle of Lochalsh to be ferried across to Lewis their relief at having survived a brutal war was palpable and heartfelt.

The all-encompassing mood was joyful and celebratory as they greeted old friends and acquaintances. They were understandably excited as they anticipated being reunited with their families who had spent years hoping and praying for their safe return.

On Stornoway, itself, the mood was equally bouyant and joyous as the approaching new year was being greeted in the usual fashion but this year was to be greeted with added exhileration and relief at the prospect of welcoming loved ones who many had thought they would never see again.

Amid this gaiety no one could have anticipated that before the night was over that their lives would be devastated and that grief and despair would, from that night on, be their constant and bleak companions.

The yacht "Iolaire" had been commissioned to supplement the usual ferry in view of the vast number of servicemen who were returning to their homes. Although the "Iolaire" was inadequately equipped with life-saving equipment it was decided to ignore safety rules in order to take as many as possible on board. The speed with which the tragedy took place would have rendered this equipment useless in any event.

The approach to Stornoway harbour is quite problematic but there must have been many on board who were familiar with the entrance. A local fishing boat was following the yacht into the harbour and the crew were horrified to note that the yacht, instead of approaching the entrance, was heading at full speed towards nearby cliffs. With no way of contacting the yacht they watched powerless as the tragedy unfolded.

With the bright lights of the town in full sight the ship hit the reefs at full power and immediately tilted on its side, throwing passengers overboard and being swamped with huge waves. Lifeboats were launched but immediately floundered in enormous seas and all aboard were drowned. Although the shore was a mere twenty feet away attempts to swim ashore were mainly in vain.

On passenger, John Finlay Macleod, heroically, managed to swim to shore with a rope round his waist and managed to aid 25 of his comrades to the shore. Another survivor, Donald "Patch" Morrison, clung to the top of the mast all night until being rescued in the morning light.

As the news of the tragedy spread the celebrations in the town turned to despair and mourning and the streets were packed with anxious relatives and friends, powerless to do anything other than pray.

By morning light searchers were greeted with the intensely moving nd poignant sight of the drowned being washed ashore along with toys, dolls and presents intended for loved ones.

All morning, villagers from all round the island, tear-stained and grief-torn, came to the shore to identify, in the most harrowing of circumstances, those who were laid out in a make-shift mortuary.

There were hardly any families on the island who were not affected, one way or another, by the loss of the 205 lives on that dreadful night and those who lived through the experience would ever be the same again.

On these bleak and barren reefs, winter winds still blow, completely uninterested in their effects on human life and waves, all powerful and uncaring, still relentessly wait to pounce, with callous indifference, on unsuspecting victims.

In their vicinity, it is not difficult to imagine that the restless ghosts of those young heroes and those who mourn for them still roam and will forever more.

How incongruous and paradoxical that the cruel hand of fate won such a grotesque victory where the guns of war had failed.


  1. Thank you brownlie. During a short stay in Stornoway many years ago I didn't hear about this.

  2. brownlie what a sad and horrific story, to think they went all through the war fighting in the worse imaginable conditions and survived only to have the life snuffed out of them moments before stepping onto home soil.

    The loss of 205 people even for a city like Edinburgh would be horrific but for the small communities of Lewis and Harris to loose so many loved ones and in such tragic circumstances, words cant even begin to describe it.

    Some communities may have lost a full generation of young men and possibly never recovered, how would any community recover ?

    When it comes to seafaring tragedies in Scotland, the Gaels have many a storey to tell. I always remember my Grandpa telling me about the Cathrine which sank in the upper Clyde with scores of Gaels drowning when embarking for a new life in North America.

    Like subrosa, i did not know about this tragedy but i do hope the many lives that perished are remembered, for far to often our heroes are forgotten.

    Well at least the HMS Politician brought a smile and a song or 2 to the Islanders brownlie..

  3. Spooks,

    When I was a wee boy in Harris and my dad's pals would come round they'd switch of the TV and tell stories of the sea which was the first I'd heard of the Iolaire.

    Talking of the Polly, a guy from the Hebrides was taken prisoner by the Germans just after D-day. Himself and a pal escaped, stole a boat in France and made it back to England. He served in the army for the rest of the war and was decorated for bravery. Shortly after being demobbed he was found with a bottle of the Polly Whisky. He was arrested and imprisoned in Inverness. Typical of the gratitude with which the Government rewards you for fighting for your country. Some things never change.

  4. My stepfather lost his entire extended family in the Clydeside Blitz. Only he and his brother survived out of thirteen people, ironically because they were on active service.

    C'est la vie en temps du guerre.

  5. Conan,

    I was reading a school magazine at Christmas time when I was in the Hebrides and kids had been asked what they'd do if they had £1 million. Most kids said they'd buy a big house, car etc except for one kid who said "I'd buy a big bomb and drop it over Germany"!! - I think your step-dad would have approved.

  6. brownlie, That is so typical, serve your country and have a wee nip from a washed up bottle of whisky and get imprisoned for it.

    Is it true a pub on Benbecula still serves up some of the Whisky from the Poly ?

  7. AMW

    I could not comment on that as it would be illegal but I understand that, elsewhere, wealthy tourists, usually Americans, buy expensive drams of the "real" Polly whisky cunningly disguised as a Johnny Walker bottle.!!

  8. Dear Mr Browneyes,

    A tragic tale, well told; until the last three paras where you got carried away with typical jock melancholy.

    The Wiki, incidentally, that cornucopia of totally reliable lies and unreliable libel, has it that John Macleod rescued 40 souls, and was thus even more the hero.

  9. ex-apprentice

    Sadly, us Jocks do not have the monopoly on melancholy after the loss of loved ones.

    I was trying to capture the mood of the islands at that time and if you stand on the cliff and look down it is difficult to suppress a feeling of melancholy.

    The number of people saved and, indeed, the number of people lost is still in dispute as there may have been individuals on board who had no connection with the islands. As in any incident of this nature, different individuals tell different stories.

    There are stories of individuals who had lost their families in the blitz on the mainland who were coming up with servicemen friends to celebrate the New year so the death toll may have been considerably higher.

  10. Dear Mr Brownlie,

    As you say. My apologies, for the rant at M&M's. You caught me at the wrong time.

  11. ex-apprentice

    No problem to me, mate, I'm well aware that the "rant" is, in no way, typical of the English attitude to us "Jocks". Some of my best friends... etc etc.