Iolaire Disaster

The ‘Iolaire' Disaster 1 st January 1919 – The Island 's Saddest Day

In the early hours of Wednesday January 1 st 1919 the Admiralty Yacht HMS Iolaire (previously known as the Amalthaea) sank on the Beasts of Holm, outside Stornoway Harbour, plunging the island into unimaginable grief.

More than 200 of the island's bravest men perished, almost within sight of their homes, on that morning – men who, having survived the perils of war, were about to celebrate, with their families, their first peacetime New Year since 1914. It is impossible to put into words the poignancy of that disaster and the pain and anguish that followed. This tragedy tore the heart out of the island community and everyone, even those who suffered no personal loss, lived under the shadow of the Iolaire for many years.

There were 79 survivors, but for years they could not speak about their experiences. It was said that the relatives of the survivors and the survivors themselves, although grateful, almost felt guilty that they had survived. One of the survivors, Donald Morrison from Ness, Am Patch, speaking on the BBC in 1988 – almost 70 years after the event – said, “I can't forget it. I think of it every day of the week” and that is understandable. But why did the Iolaire go so badly off course?

A public enquiry suggested that the cause was a navigation error, but also identified neglect on the part of the crew.

Tolsta Suffered Severely

The population of the island at that time was approximately 30,000 – 6,200 of whom served in some capacity during the Great War i.e. one in five of the island's population. More than 1,000 of these volunteers were killed during service.

Duncan Macdonald, Schoolhouse, North Tolsta writing in the Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-18 states, “The population of Tolsta at the last Census was 853 (400 males and 453 females). The number of Tolsta men on active service was 231, equivalent to 27% of the total and 58% of the males. This record is hard to beat even in Loyal Lewis”.

Tolsta also held another record. The Campbell brothers of 54 North Tolsta held a record in that seven members of their family served during the war. Their mother was given the choice of keeping one of the brothers at home but she could not choose between them - and so all seven went to war. They were: Torcuil Mòr, Murdo (Crùbaidh), Kenneth (Peatair), John (Horrigan), Angus (Schlang), Donald (Sùill) and John (Dodds). Kenneth was lost in the Iolaire.

Duncan Macdonald finished his article with the words, “If Tolsta has responded nobly she has suffered severely. Of the sixteen Tolsta men on H.M.S. Iolaire on her ill-starred trip only five were saved.”

Eleven Tolsta seamen drowned. They were:-
John Macdonald of No. 1 Seonaidh Mhic Itheach age 42
Donald Macleod of No. 3 Dòmhnall Iain Saighdeir age 20
John Morrison of No.8 Iain Choinnich Iain Moireasdain age 25
John Maciver of No. 33 Iain,Mac Iain Mhic Aoghais Ruaidh , ‘Coblars' age 33
Donald Maciver of No. 38 Dòmhnall Red age 26
Donald Campbell of No. 44 Dòmhnall Eachainn age 46
Evander Murray of No. 45 Iomhair Iain Sheòrais age 45
Kenneth Campbell of No. 54 Coinneach Iain Iain Bhàin, Peatair age 29
Donald Macleod of No. 58 Dòmhnall Ghabhsainn age 31
Malcolm Macleod of No. 58 Calum Ghabhsainn age 24
John Maciver of No. 69 Iain Mhurchaidh Bhig age 48

The five Tolsta seamen who survived were :-
Murdo Macdonald of No. 1 Claoid Iain Uilleim
Roderick Macdonald of No. 23 Ruagan
Donald Murray of No. 37 Dòmhnall Brus
Donald Maciver who settled at 14 New Tolsta and later moved to Inverness Am Beicear
John Macinnes of 2 Hill Street , who later moved to Gress Iain a'Bhroga