Monday, December 28, 2015

Tragedy at Stornoway

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1919. The Armistice has been signed and the “Great War” is finally over. Scotland had paid a high price. Almost 150,000 Scots lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. A generation was gone, the country’s brightest and ablest young men.

For an example, look at the Isle of Lewis. The Isle of Lewis is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides, the only settlement is Stornoway. The population was about 30,000 when the war began. More than 6,000 from the Isle and Lewis and Harris served in the war and more than a thousand died before the war ended.

Now the war is over and the warriors are returning home. In London, two trains headed north carrying troops. They were dressed in full uniforms, with heavy shoes and backpacks. Everyone was joyous and happy. There was singing and drinking because at last they were going home, back to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Waiting for them at the Kyle of Lochalsh was the Iolaire. (The Iolaire was an Admiralty yacht built in 1881.) The ship was not equipped for its next and final journey. There was a shortage of lifeboats and jackets and the ship would be overwhelmed with soldiers and sailors. The Captain hesitated to leave, but it was New Year’s Eve and the soldiers were anxious to get home. No adequate arrangements had been made for them to have a safe journey.

Back on the Islands, the celebrations had already begun as homes were decorated and bunting had been hung along the streets. It was going to be a joyous event. Some families had walked to the quay side in order to be there when the boat docked at Stornoway. The ship never arrived.

“Making its final approach into Stornoway Harbor on a dark night and in a strong gale, it changed course at the wrong point. With the lights of the harbor in sight, the ship struck the rocks at full speed and began to tilt. The reef was called the “Beasts of Holm.” It was 2:30 in the morning.

Out of a crew of 27 there were just 7 survivors. Among the dead 174 men from Lewis and 7 men from Harris. Only 75 of the 280 passengers survived. Families gathered to claim the bodies but more than a third were never found and six were never identified. One family that had already lost three sons in the war, lost a fourth on the Iolaire. It is said that women wore black for two generations. No one spoke of it, a “veil of silence” descended on the Islands. It was forty years before a memorial was built.

Not a family or village escaped. Lewis never recovered.

The Glasgow Herald on the 4th of January, 1919, wrote: "An old man sobbing into his handkerchief with a stalwart son in khaki sitting on the cart beside him, the remains of another son in the coffin behind --- that was one of the sights seen today as one of the funeral parties emerged from the barrack gate. Another, an elderly woman, well dressed, comes staggering down the roadway and bursts into a paralysis of grief as she tells the sympathizers at the gate that her boy is in the mortuary. Strong men weeping and women wailing or wandering around with blanched, tear stained faces are to be seen in almost every street and there are groups of them at the improvised mortuary”

Thirty-one men with the name MacLeod died. The mother of Donald Trump was Mary Anne MacLeod born on the Isle of Lewis in 1912. She would have been seven at the time. For more information about Mary Anne MacLeod, click here.

There was an official inquiry but they did not find a satisfactory explanation for the disaster. (The report was not made public for seventy years.) The last survivor died in 1992. Fifteen days after the tragedy, the Iolaire was put up for sale by the Admiralty even though eighty men were still missing. The ship’s bell was recovered from the bottom of the sea in 1971.

          “Two hundred more were plucked from us with home almost in reach.
          New Years dreams and Christmas presents washed up on the beach
          Now the winds will blow and the waves will break upon this lonely shore
          Where the ghosts of those young men that died must roam forevermore.”                                            
A memorial was dedicated in 1958 at Holm, just outside of Stornoway. A stone pillar sticks out of the water at the site of the wreck, which can be seen today on the right side as the car ferry approaches the harbor entrance.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Wayne. I was unaware of this tragedy. My brother-in-law lives in South Uist and his name is Alistair McLeod. I visited him 5 years ago and I will be sure to share this with him. Regards,Jim