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
This is an approximate translation of the transcript of the Gaelic taped recording, made in the 1980s of Donald Murray (37) Dòmhnall Brus, as he recalled his experiences on the Iolaire.
Dòmhnall recalled :-
"The war had ended and the English lads were getting Christmas leave before we got ‘demob' and when the English returned the Scots got New Year leave. That is why so many of us were returning to Stornoway at the same time. We came to Kyle of Lochalsh. John of No.8 Iain Choinnich Iain Moireasdain and I were together all the time in the Iolaire. We were together until ‘that' happened.
"When we came to Kyle that day many of the village lads were there; many who had not met since the start of the war. There was real fellowship. Now the Iolaire was entirely Navy. There were two or three soldiers, but they went onto the Sheila. Murchadh Aonghais Mhurchaidh Uilleim was in the Sheila. The Iolaire was full and a few navymen were put with the soldiers.
"At first the night was not at all bad, but it was bad in the ‘Kebboch Head' area and to the south – it was bad there, anyway we did not doubt that everything was fine, but I remember very well when we were opposite Loch Grimshader, saying to Dòmhnall Red , 'I am going to run up to see how far we have got,' and I went up to the deck and the light of the Stornoway lighthouse was flashing in my face, almost directly opposite Grimshader. You would think that nothing could go wrong, but now there was a strong breeze on the wind and it was behind us and when it struck the vessel the sea was fearsome, so I went down.
“ 'Well lads,' said I, 'She is almost at the lighthouse'. Each one of us had a kitbag and we hoisted them up and we were just going on deck as she came under the light. After coming on deck we were aware that she had altered course to the East of the entrance instead of going in …and… I do not understand!! [Donald gets quite emotional]
"But Heavens when she struck the rocks the seas were fearsome….. but we had not been concerned until she struck the rocks. The wind was dead astern. The seas were now going to the upper limits of the rocky shore – when it came out it swept everything out with it. I watched for a while.
"Now when she struck – a while after she struck – everyone was looking out for himself – and I went up to the boat deck alone. They were lowering a boat there. Now I never thought of studying that there was no possibility of a boat surviving. In a state of excitement I went into it. The intention was that the boys who were doing the lowering would go down on the falls – but, she had scarcely touched the water when the first succession of large breakers hit her and she broke into splinters.
"I was last to go down and when I felt the boat breaking up I went hand over hand up the falls. That's how I saved my life at that time. Somehow I got to the boat deck. It was just that my time had not come. Then it was a case of what do I do next? There was nothing for it except to go to the stern. There was no one around. I don't think anyone in that lifeboat survived although someone might have. I think one was saved on the after–fall, but no one else, I don't think. She went down so quickly. Claoid said he had survived there.
"When I reached the stern, I told myself that the Iolaire would go down under my feet before I would risk moving off her again. From the stern I could see the rapid succession of waves moving the stern backwards and forwards – tearing her. She was now holed and the sea was coming in. By the time I got down they had a rope out. A Ness man John Macleod, went ashore with a rope. (Others told me this. I had not come back from the boatdeck when the rope was brought ashore). There were teens of men - yes, fourteen men on the rope at one time all going towards the shore.
"Now, once you were on the rope, you were safe enough if the waves were going towards the shore, do you see? The tragedy was when the waves were coming out one after the other and that is when they were swept off the rope. The first men to go on hadn't studied this. I was watching for a long time, as I had vowed to myself not to leave the vessel.
"I began to think that if I did go on the rope and had a good grip while the waves were coming in I would be amongst the boulders when the waves ebbed again. The returning waves were sweeping the rope bare. You cannot comprehend the ferocity of that sea. I was still watching – the sea was coming in under the rail. Many had now lost heart and would not go on the rope as they watched what was happening. I thought I had to take my chance of life or death when the next sea would be going landwards.
"When I heard the waves hit the outerside of the vessel I took my chance and got onto the rope and moved as fast as I could with the incoming waves along the rope. When the wave returned outwards I took a death grip of the rope. I felt the sea receding and the rope curving with its force and I knew this was the point at which the men were being swept off the rope. The next I knew the waves had passed and I was among the boulders. Still clinging to the rope I moved as fast as I could through the boulders before the next sea would catch me. I was clear before the next wave came. It did not catch me. That's how I got away. My time had not yet come.
"I came down to Tolsta in Coinneach Ruadh's gig. It was up in Stornoway meeting Coinneach's son, Dòmhnall Red. Ciorstag, had gone up to meet her brother, but Dòmhnall was lost and she was returning without him. She brought home the boys that had been saved – there were five of us. I still remember that it was my sister Christina who brought me in from the road.
"I had seen Dòmhnall Red after the Iolaire struck, but I do not know what happened to him. I don't think he went on the rope, but then perhaps he did.
"Dòmhnall Ghabhsainn came ashore. They say he went looking for his brother Calum and when he did not find him ashore he went out into the sea again to look for him. That is what was said, but I cannot believe that anyone, who got ashore would return. No, not even for your wife. It would be futile. The two brothers were buried the same day.
* Dòmhnall and Iain were great friends and had been together throughout the war (Seanchas 50). They started their training together in Walworth Camp and were together in France in the trenches, at the fall of Antwerp, in the Mediterranean and they were still together on the Iolaire until she ran aground at the Beasts of Holm.
Dòmhnall survived but sadly Iain did not.