Monday, 31 December 2018

Iolaire Tragedy

Today our thoughts are with the people of the Island of Lewis over in the Western Isles who lost so many family and friends on the night of the 31st December 1918/1st January 1919. Tragedy struck when the HM Yacht Iolaire was wrecked off the harbour of Stornoway and many servicemen on their way home for leave lost their lives.

Here is how it was reported in The Orcadian newspaper on Thursday 9th January 1919:


In the early hours of Wednesday morning last week just outside the harbour of Stornoway and within a few yards of their native shore, over 200 Lewismen lost their lives under most distressing circumstances. Some 500 soldiers and sailors were coming to the island on New Year leave. The numbers were beyond the capacity of the mail steamer Sheila, and some 200 naval ratings were being conveyed from Kyle of Lochalsh to Stornoway on board HM yacht Iolaire, which in addition carried a crew of 24. The ship which was in charge of Commander Mason, left Kyle about 8pm, an hour ahead of the Sheila. She had an excellent passage across the Minch with a fair wind from the south freshening as the voyage proceeded.
HM Yacht Iolaire
Between 1 and 2 o'clock am she was approaching Stornoway Harbour, the lights on Arnish Point and the beacon off the harbour entrance being quite visible. The passengers were in high spirits, eagerly anticipating their New Year holiday. For some reason quite inexplicable, the vessel, instead of turning into Stornoway Harbour, proceeded right across the harbour mouth and ran ashore at full speed near Holm head. By this time the wind had increased to the force of a moderate gale, and there was a high sea running on the leeshore, where the Iolaire had struck.

Some interesting narratives have been gleaned from survivors, who unfortunately are few.


A young naval reservist said -

"It was very dark there being no moon, but the atmosphere was clear, and lights were distinctly visible at a great distance. As we were approaching Arnish Lighthouse we commenced getting our kits together, expecting to be safely alongside Stornoway Pier in a few minutes. It was about ten minutes to two and I was in the saloon when there came a great crash, and the vessel heeled heavily to starboard. It was so dark that we could not see the land, which, as afterwards transpired, was only thirty yards distant from the point where we struck. I don't think it was a rock we struck, but just that we ran ashore.
When the ship listed the seas came breaking over, and I should say forty or fifty men jumped overboard. I think everyone of them was drowned. There was a great panic on board. Two life-boats were launched, and both were swamped. From the first one man scrambled back on board. With this exception I think all the men who went into the boats were drowned. When the Iolaire struck she was bow on to the land, but about ten minutes afterwards she lifted and drove a little seawards, afterwards coming in stern first and falling broadside to the shore. Rockets were fired, and by their light I could see that her stern was not more than seven yards from a ledge of rocks jutting out from the shore, and amidships she was within twenty yards of the only available place for landing. The seas were breaking over the stern, but many were tempted to try to reach the rocks, which were so near.
I don't think any of them succeeded, for there was a very strong current running between the ship's stern and the ledge of rocks, and I believe there were scores of men dashed to death against the rocks. When the second or third rocket went up I observed a line hanging into the sea from one of the davits amidships, and as the vessel being broadside on, was breaking the force of the sea on the shore at this part, I let myself down by the line, got hold of a bit of the wreckage, and tried to make the shore. However I got entangled in the ropes hanging from one of the boats that had been swamped. I managed to get clear, however, and finally reached the shore.
As far as I know, I was the first man to get to land. I went out on the ledge of rocks towards the stern of the ship to see if I could get a line passed to me from those on board, but the sea was breaking over the rocks. I was twice washed off the ledge. I then saw that another man had got ashore where I had landed, and he had a life-line with him by means of which we got a hawser ashore. All the men who were saved scrambled ashore by the aid of this rope. I cannot say how many there were. Ultimately the Iolaire fell off to port and the hawser snapped.
I was very exhausted and dazed, and was wandering about for an hour or two before I found the farmhouse where all of us who got ashore were hospitably entertained."

Another young Lewisman who had joined voluntarily since the war began said this was his third experience of being shipwrecked. He was on the auxiliary cruiser Avenger, which was torpedoed and lost out from Scapa Flow, and subsequently on the auxiliary cruiser Champagne, which was torpedoed and lost in the Irish Channel. He said he was in the saloon when the Iolaire struck. He got ashore by means of the rope. As the vessel was swinging out and in, the rope was by turns slack and taut, and several of the men who tried to save themselves by means of it failed to retain their grip and were shaken off and drowned when the rope with a snap became suddenly taut.
After the hull of the Iolaire disappeared, one plucky lad, Donald Morrison, of 7 Knockard, continued to hang onto the mast. It was impossible to render assistance from the sea owing to the position of the wreck. When the storm subsided Morrison was taken off in a very exhausted condition after being eight hours in his precarious perch.
HMY Iolaire Disaster Marker
It was ascertained at the local office of the Admiralty to-day that there are at least 75 survivors of the disaster which occurred on New Year's morning. The names of 67 of the men who were on leave and 5 of the crew of the Iolaire were supplied, and it was added that there were three other men who were known to have escaped, but who had not reported at the office, with the result that full particulars regarding them are lacking. There is, further, a possibility that one or two other survivors may turn up. A few men, immediately they reached safety, made for their homes on the island, and all the survivors are now scattered over the various hamlets to which they belong.
The number of the crew is now known definitely to have been 23, and the estimate of the strength of the contingent of leave men who were allotted to the yacht is today given authoritatively as 250, a total of 273 on board. The loss of life in the disaster may therefore be given as approximately 200 men.
A number of messages of sympathy were received yesterday in Stornoway including one from the King [George V]. It was as follows:-
"For the Rear-Admiral, officers and ratings, and relatives of those who lost their lives in HMY Iolaire.- His Majesty King and Queen were shocked to hear of the disaster which has overtaken the naval leave boat returning to Stornoway, and send their deepest sympathy to all the bereaved families."
The following reply was also despatched:-
"The Rear-Admiral, officers, ratings and relatives beg to thank their Majesties for their gracious message of sympathy, which will greatly assist those who are bereaved to bear their grief."
The work of recovering the bodies is still being carried out by Navy man with the assistances of some of the local fishermen. The weather has been possible to conduct dragging operations from small boats. Altogether 41 bodies were taken up to-day, bringing the total of the bodies recovered to 88. The bodies when found by the men in the small boats are taken to an Admiralty drifter, and thence conveyed to one of the harbour piers.

Commemorations are planned in the Western Isles today, see here for more information.


  1. Are you guys ok? Hope all's well over there.


    1. Hi Sue, Yes we're all fine here. Just typing up a new post from the Balfour Blogger. Look out for it soon. Hope you are ok too.

  2. Oh, good. Thanks for the reply--and I'll keep watching.

    We're ok--hubby had oral surgery Friday, so I have been busy running to and from the freezer, applying and removing ice packs, and haven't had time to reply till now.



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