It was the ultimate stroke of bad luck, or bad seamanship. Sailors who survived the dangers of life on the hostile ocean wave during World War I were about to be reunited with their loved ones, only to perish within a mile of home in one of Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disasters of modern times. They were all from the Isle of Lewis, the northern part of the biggest Western Isle, Lewis and Harris. It wasn’t a traditional Scottish Hogmanay celebration, but when the Admiralty yacht Iolaire (‘Eagle’ to the non Gaelicspeaking passengers) left Kyle of Lochalsh just before midnight on December 31 1918 all aboard were in high spirits at the prospect of being reunited with families and friends on Lewis.
The crossing wasn’t long, and at 02:30 Iolaire was approaching the safe haven of Stornaway Harbour when she struck fearsome rocks known as the Beasts of Holm, close to shore and the notoriously tricky approach to port. Pandemonium reigned and most of the sailors – as was common at the time – couldn’t swim. Even those who could were in uniform, complete with heavy boots, which made the short swim to shore in treacherous waters a dangerous proposition.
One brave islander did make the hazardous crossing.
John F Macleod swam ashore with a line, along which many survivors made their way to safety. But over 200 would perish after Iolaire finally foundered. In best official tradition, the Admiralty held an inconclusive enquiry that failed to apportion blame, especially to itself. This angered islanders, who felt possible drunkenness and inept navigation were to blame for the catastrophic loss of life. Gaelic songs that recall the despair of island women who found the bodies of their menfolk washed ashore after the disaster are sung on Lewis to this day.
When was the Iolaire Sinking disaster: January 1 1919
Where was the Iolaire Sinking disaster: North Minch Strait, off the isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
What was the Iolaire Sinking disaster death toll: Officially 205, though it may have been higher as it is thought that some extra passengers who didn’t appear on the manifest were on board.
You should know: The wreck site is marked by a granite pillar that rises from the water above the Beasts of Holm, it may be seen to the left as the ferry enters Stornaway Harbour, serving as a stark reminder of how close to safety lolaire actually came.