Loss of the Iolaire and a devastated a community remembered

It was the worst peacetime shipping disaster since the Titanic but now, almost 100 years after the event, new material on the loss of the Iolaire is being released to the public.

Photograph by: National Library of ScotlandIllustration from the Stornaway Gazette of 1919

Newly digitised material has been made available for the first time to tell the story of one of the worst ever tragedies in Scottish maritime history when 205 soldiers returning from WWI died within sight of Stornoway harbour.

A new website has been created by the National Library of Scotland to raise awareness of the events of New Year’s Day in 1919, which was described by the Stornoway Gazette as “the blackest day in the history of the island.”

The men were aboard the HMY Iolaire returning from the First World War. They were looking forward to being reunited with loved ones when the ship struck rocks called the Beasts of Holm, at the entrance to Stornoway Harbour.  There were only 79 survivors.

Scarcely a family was left untouched in the close-knit communities of Lewis and Harris.

“The homes of the island are full of lamentation – grief that cannot be comforted,” reported The Scotsman on January 6, 1919.

”Carts in little processions of twos and threes, each bearing its coffin from the mortuary, pass through the streets of Stornoway on their way to some rural village, and all heads are bared as they pass.”

Photograph by: National Library of ScotlandOban Times 1919

So many people died that the island ran out of coffins and they had to be brought in from elsewhere to bury the dead.

The dual language Gaelic/English website features reflections on the disaster from descendants of both survivors and those who perished, together with video interviews with John Macleod, author of ‘When I Heard the Bell – The Loss of the Iolaire’.

In his interview, John Macleod recalls the waste of it all. “These men did not die heroically in war. They were killed by colossal carelessness and human error. A ship ran aground in not really bad weather conditions on a notorious reef well off the main shipping line by utterly incompetent officers.”

The story is also told through historical newspapers, maps and documentary sources in both Gaelic and English. Some of these have been newly digitised and made widely available for the first time. The site includes artistic responses to the tragedy, including poetry and early 20th century Gaelic songs.

Alice Heywood, Learning Officer at the National library of Scotland who has worked on the development of the website said “The site aims to give visitors a starting point in looking at the impact the tragedy had on both the community of the time and what we can learn from it today. It includes contributions from the community on the Isle of Lewis and related items in the Library’s collection to provide an overview of events on that fateful day.”