Remembering the Iolaire

New year is often a time for reflection – this has been particularly true over the last few days on the Island of Lewis, where commemorations took place marking the loss of the naval yacht Iolaire in the early hours of the morning on the 1st January 1919.

On that fateful night, 205 men lost their life as they were returning home on leave from the First World War. Most of these men had been in the Royal Naval Reserve and many had served over the entire duration of the war, they had survived all the travails of the war only to lose their life within sight of the Island of Lewis.

The loss of the Iolaire had a devastating effect on Lewis and Harris. Of the 205 that perished that stormy night, 174 were Lewis men, and a further 7 were from Harris.

War had extracted a high price from the Island of Lewis. With a population of under 30,000 before the war, as many as 6,712 Lewismen served, out of which 1,150 gave up their life; a mortality rate of 17%, twice the national average.

The loss of such a number of economically active men was to have a crushing impact on the ability of the island to flourish, an ability that was clearly hindered by the grief and sorrow that hit the island with the tragedy of the Iolaire.

For so many to lose their life on returning home, having left Kyle of Lochalsh in such hope of returning to family and loved ones for new year, and yet for so many to see their future extinguished. The cruelest of blows for so many families in what should have been a time of renewal and looking forward.

New Year’s eve had seen hundreds of arriving servicemen gather at Kyle of Lochalsh having arrived by train from Inverness. There was a bustle about the place and a sense of excitement about turning home. Presents had been bought for loved ones and particularly toys for children that many of the men would be returning to see for the first time.

The loss of so many fathers, husbands, brothers and sons affected so many communities on Lewis.

When the Iolaire hit a reef north of Stornoway, the infamous Beasts of Holm, the vessel was only 20 yards from land. So near and yet so far for so many who perished that night.

There were amazing acts of bravery. John Finlay MacLeod had been able to battle against the storm and having carried a rope tied around his waste, was able to secure a line to the shore.

As many as half of the survivors were saved by using his and a further rope that was secured. Even then loyalty to family was to have a cruel twist. Two men who did reach safety, then returned to the water to find their brothers. All perished.

Many of the survivors either on the Iolaire or the Sheila could not settle and emigrated.

This new year, there was a poignant commemoration of the events of 100 years ago that so affected Lewis and Harris. For so long the hurt and sense of loss has meant that the tragic events of the night of Hogmanay were not amplified in public.

The people of Lewis are to be congratulated in making sure that the 100th anniversary was appropriately marked. BBC Alba should also be congratulated for airing a wide variety of programmes on the Iolaire over new year. We should never forget the sacrifice that so many paid.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Record.