NEW YEAR'S DAY 1919 / A private tragedy at Lewis

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The Independent Online
THERE were no services yesterday to mark the 75th anniversary of the worst peacetime disaster in British coastal waters this century. The loss of the Iolaire was remembered quietly, as it has been ever since, by the island community which it so grievously and disproportionately affected.

The circumstances of the Iolaire's loss, with 205 lives, could scarcely have been more traumatic. Seven weeks after the Armistice, it was carrying home to the Isle of Lewis naval volunteers, many of whom had not seen their loved ones since the war began.

With the new year scarcely an hour old, and Stornoway pier crowded with relatives waiting to greet the returning heroes, the ship struck rocks at the entrance to the harbour, scarcely 20 yards from shore. All but 79 of those on board perished.

Of those who died, nine- tenths were drawn from the island population of barely 30,000. It is this concentration of loss upon one community which distinguishes the Iolaire, and its impact, from better- known disasters.

Lewis, with its great seafaring tradition, had sent an astonishing 6,200 men to the war. Before the Iolaire struck, 800 of them had died - probably the highest proportion of casualties from any community in the country. But the tragedy which unfolded that stormy New Year's morning must have been infinitely more incomprehensible, and harder to bear.

The Iolaire had been built at Leith in 1881 as a rich man's yacht. Throughout the war, the Admiralty base ship in Stornoway had been named Iolaire and when this replacement vessel arrived two months earlier, she took on the established name.

There had been a big effort made to get Scottish servicemen home in time for the New Year. Special trains were run and on Hogmanay the pier at Kyle of Lochalsh was thronged with men waiting to make the final leg of their journey to the islands. According to one account, the little port was 'swarming with munition workers, carpenters and engineers from the Clyde, kilted soldiers from the Highland regiments and sailors from various parts. I could hear broad Scotch and English, but mostly Gaelic . . .' The Iolaire was sent across from Stornoway to take the surplus which the regular steamer, the Sheila, could not carry.

She left Kyle at 7.30pm, heavily overloaded. An Admiralty report later observed: 'In view of the fact that the ratings were looking forward to spending the New Year at home with such eagerness, it was natural for Commander Mason to take such a large number, although there were not sufficient boats or lifeboats to meet such an emergency.'

It later transpired that the commander, who was from Handsworth in Yorkshire, had never taken the Iolaire into Stornoway harbour in darkness. The error in the course which she pursued need not have been fatal if corrected earlier. But the angle at which the ship finally approached the mouth of the harbour carried her straight on to rocks known as the Beasts of Holm.

The Iolaire disaster has remained remarkably private to the Isle of Lewis. Considering the extraordinary pathos of the circumstances, and also the epic feats of courage which it threw up, it had the potential to become as legendary as the Titanic. Yet little has ever been written about it, and the one substantial book based on survivors' accounts is in Gaelic.

In Lewis, it has always been a difficult subject to talk about. The last survivors died only in 1991. It took 45 years before the time seemed right to awaken memories, by erecting a memorial looking out on the rocks where the Iolaire foundered.

The heroic figure of the tragedy was a man named John Finlay MacLeod, who swam ashore with a rope which helped to save 40 lives, and who was given every bravery award in the land for doing so. Yet his son heard him speak only twice about the Iolaire - once when war broke out in 1939 and a quarter-century later, when he finally returned with an old friend, who had been the first man ashore on the rope, to the scene of the disaster.

It was perhaps the last tragedy on this scale which happened outside the reach of a curious media and that, too, has contributed to its relative anonymity. There are no visual images of significance other than the strangely placid photograph (above) of the wreck's masts poking out of a calm sea: no pictures of bodies brought ashore, or grieving relatives or funerals.

The military displayed its capacity for insensitivity when, within a fortnight of the disaster and with 80 bodies still missing, the Navy tried to sell the wreck. The officer commanding in Stornoway telegrammed tersely to the Admiralty: 'It has come to my knowledge inhabitants of islands resent wreck being sold while the bodies remain still unrecovered.' The sale was abandoned.

A public inquiry, held in Stornoway with a local jury, blamed navigation error and advised that 'the government should in future provide adequate and safe travelling facilities for Naval ratings and soldiers'. They ruled out the popular supposition that drink had been a factor.

(Photographs and map omitted)