The HMY Iolaire (meaning ‘Eagle’ in Gaelic), built in 1881, originally sailed as a luxury yacht under the name Iolanthe (and later Mione and Amalthaea). In 1915 she was commandeered by the Admiralty to help with the war effort and in 1918 was based in Stornoway, at this point the vessel was given the name of the Naval Base there – Iolaire. During 1914-18, Lewis contributed 6,200 servicemen to the war effort from a population of around 30,000 – 20% of the population. More than 1,000 of these servicemen had died during the war.
The disaster occurred in the early hours of 1 January 1919 when the Iolaire, carrying servicemen who had fought in the First World War back to Lewis, struck the rocks at Biastan Thuilm (the Beasts of Holm) – a rocky outcrop just short of the entrance to Stornoway harbour – and sunk within sight of the shore.
Although there had been some worries about the Iolaire’s lifesaving equipment – there were only two lifeboats and 80 lifejackets – the Iolaire left Kyle of Lochalsh at 9:30pm on 31 December 1918, carrying 284 servicemen, eager to return home after the end of the war. 12 miles out of Stornoway the weather turned and, in a typical Lewis gale, a local fishing crew watched as the Iolaire failed to make the required turn into the harbour, instead crashing into the rocks at full speed at 1:55am. The Iolaire eventually sank at 2:30am just 20 yards from the shore and 205 men perished, mostly drowned in the raging sea between the wreck and the shore, weighed down by their heavy uniforms; many of the bodies were never recovered. The two lifeboats were launched but soon capsized as too many men fought for the limited space and quickly overfilled them.
Many of the 80 men that did survive owe their life to John F Macleod from Ness – he had managed to make it to the shore pulling a rope behind him and around 40 men escaped to the shore along this rope. John Macleod was later awarded the Carnegie Parchment and the Royal Humane Society Medal for his bravery. One man, Donald Morrison, survived by clinging to the mast of the ship for over eight hours, he was eventually picked up at 10am the next morning. As news of the disaster spread, relatives came to the shore to search for their loved ones, and encountered bodies and wreckage along the foreshore.
A private naval inquiry made into the disaster ruled that there was no evidence to explain the reasons for the disaster and that no blame could be ascertained. However, a subsequent public inquiry concluded that: “the Iolaire’s officers did not exercise due caution on the approach to Stornoway; that the vessel did not reduce speed at the appropriate time; that the vessel was allowed to sail without adequate life-saving equipment; that no lookout had been posted; that once the vessel had struck, the officers did not give any orders which might have reduced the loss of life; and, that there was an unacceptable delay in deploying shore-based emergency services.” Despite rumours within the island to the contrary, the inquiry accepted that there was no evidence of liquor being a contributory factor in the disaster.
The Admiralty caused outrage in the islands by offering the wreck of the Iolaire for sale just 15 days after the disaster with 88 bodies still to be recovered. The plan was eventually dropped and the much of wreckage of the Iolaire remains off the Beasts of Holm today. 56 bodies were never recovered.
The loss of the servicemen so close to home, along with the 1000 already lost to World War I, had a profound effect on the island. The Scotsman newspaper of 6 January 1919 reported: “The villages of Lewis are like places of the dead. The homes of the island are full of lamentation – grief that cannot be comforted. Scarcely a family has escaped the loss of a near blood relative. Many have had sorrow heaped upon sorrow.”
The monument to the lives lost at the Iolaire disaster was erected in 1958 at Holm. After falling into disrepair it was restored in 2003. The inscription on the monument reads: “Erected by the people of Lewis and friends in grateful memory of the men of the Royal Navy who lost their lives in the “Iolaire” disaster at the Beasts of Holm on the 1st January 1919. Of the 205 persons lost, 175 were natives of the island and for them and their comrades Lewis still mourns. With gratitude for their service and in sorrow for their loss.”