A great tragedy befell the military community and the islanders of Lewis in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919. 

Hundreds of men, mostly Royal Navy reservists who had been serving in World War One, were travelling back to their families via train and ferry. The SS Sheila was packed, so the Royal Navy requested that the HMY Iolaire head to Kyle of Lochalsh to collect those left behind.

 At 7.30pm the Iolaire set sail into strong winds with almost 300 people on board. As well as troops returning home to the area, there were crew on board who were travelling to the Stornoway Naval Base.

 The weather got worse as the Iolaire approached Stornoway. A navigational error led her to hit the rocks known as the Beasts of Holm at around 2.30am, and the ship sank.

 Some men – 82 of them ­– survived the disaster, but around 200 lives were lost, most of them young men from the Islands.

 Those who managed to swim ashore found that their struggles with the stormy conditions were hampered by heavy uniforms and boots. John Finlay Macleod was one man who swam ashore, with a rope that others were then able to use to follow from the sinking vessel.

 The sinking of the Iolaire was a devastating blow for Lewis. The community had already lost almost 1,000 men serving in the war. It’s said that their grief was so severe, the islanders barely spoke about what had happened for decades afterwards.

 A memorial was erected at Holm, near Stornoway, in 1958. The centenary of the disaster was marked there two years ago, with both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and HRH Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay in attendance. A new memorial was also unveiled, depicting the rope that John Finlay Macleod used to save 40 lives.


Image credit:

Photo © John Lucas (cc-by-sa/2.0)