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.

Monday 24 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advert Calender #24

Happy Christmas to you all dear readers! May your days be merry and bright!

Read below for a description of Christmas Eve in Kirkwall exactly 100 years ago taken from the Orkney Herald dated 1st January 1919:

The Orkney Library and Archive shall be closed to the public

from 5pm on Saturday 22nd of December until

9.15am on Saturday the 5th of January.

Sunday 23 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calander #23

Yet another reminder that many soldiers were yet to be demobilised by the end of December 1918.  "A Christmas Greeting frae the Front", from Herbert Sinclair, 1918.


Saturday 22 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advert Calendar #22

Orkney Archive Reference D51/3/8 - Click to enlarge

One of the more visually satisfying archives is the collection of weather observation charts compiled between 1890 and 1938. Systematic weather observations were begun in Orkney in 1827, by Rev Charles Clouston, minister in Sandwick.

 Although reputedly the second oldest complete set of weather records in Scotland, the records held by the Archives begin in 1890. The first recorder of these was Magnus Spence F.E.I.S. in Stenness. When he moved to Deerness he continued the records there, and was succeeded about 1919 by William Delday. William J Moar took over about 1927.

The chart above shows the weather for December 1918. It tells us that one hundred years ago today it was 'cloudy, overcast & dull, with rain.' and on Christmas day 1918 it was misty and cloudy with rain, but warm.

Click to enlarge.

Friday 21 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calender #21

The sketch above was drawn in December 1918 by Lieutenant Jowsey, a colleague of Rev. Dr. T. Crouther Gordon, author of Early Flying In Orkney - Seaplanes in World War 1.

Dr T. Crouther Gordon, who served as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force in the First World War from 1917-1919, recalled vividly his experiences as pilot of aeroplanes, seaplanes and flying-boats, hunting the German U-boats that harried Britain's sea-routes. He escorted from the air the surrendered German High Seas Fleet into Scapa Flow in November 1918.

Dr Crouther Gordon received the Distinguished Flying Cross from King George V in July 1919.

The book is based on Crouther Gordon's diary and pilot log. His entries for December 1918 read:

9th December: At 10.40a.m. in F.3 4237, took four ratings to view the German Fleet from the air.

10th December: In Short 2652 with Flight-Sergeant Ford flew round the German Fleet.

On 15th December half of the personnel were sent on leave on S.S. Vienna.

Time now passed with hockey matches against teams from H.M.S. Revenge and H.M.S. Orion, football between officers and men. After Christmas dinner Major Mills presented me with a special cup as a memento of the occasion.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #20

After years of food restriction, drills and danger, the crews aboard the Grand Fleet enjoyed a magnificent Christmas meal and exchanged yet more hearty good wishes.


Wednesday 19 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #19

A similar post to last Monday - Stromness Town Cuncil had a meeting 100 years ago today. Among the topics discussed were: the continued insistence of the admiralty upon permits in December 1918, the lifting of war-time postal restrictions and a request for some captured German guns with which to decorate a proposed war memorial.

Orkney Archive Reference S1/5

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #18

Some letters received by Highland Park, whisky distillers today. Most of the folder we looked through contained orders from businesses and offices, 'Please send 3 casks of whisky', 'please send whisky at your earliest convenience', 'we have run out of Scotch and are in great need of more.'

Two letters stood out, however. The first one, from a paint and decorating supplies company declaring that, since the signing of the armistice they were now able to return to providing non-military customers...

Orkney Archive Reference D4/20/6 - click to enlarge
...and the second letter which follows on from Wednesday's blog and is an apology from a printing and stationers explaining that there is a delay in service due to the large number of staff suffering from influenza:

Orkney Archive Reference D4/20/6 - click to enlarge

Monday 17 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calender #17

100 years ago today, Orkney County Council held their AGM. Towards the end of the meeting, they discussed the need to petition the admiralty to lift war-time restrictions on the waters surrounding Kirkwall. This would affect postal boats and civilian access to the island amongst other things.

Orkney Archive Reference CO3/5 - click to enlarge

Sunday 16 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #16

100 years ago today, Orcadian poet and marine naturalist Robert Rendall received the letter below from Mrs Alexander McKenzie of Stornoway, Lewis. She addresses him as Bro., presumably short for brother, but I think this is because they were both members of the Christian Brethren

Click to enlarge

Orkney Archive Reference D27/7/6

Rendall served in Scapa Flow aboard HMS Imperieuse and wrote the poem below :

Orkney After The War

Now from the pool the tide of war recedes
And upon the water's surface filtered falls
The old tranquillity. Wave the green sea-weeds
Fanning their fronds fearless of sudden squalls.
Ols patient limpets scythe the meads aquatic
And rosy crinoids radiate starry twinkles
While hermit crabs with scuttlings acrobatic
Dispute the tenancy of vacant periwinkles.
Merchant anenomes spread their hungry tentacles
And earnest cattie-buckies keep their social conventicles.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #15

Today's post continues with the German ships interned in Scapa Flow from the end of 1918. The Orkney Archive holds a typewritten memoir written by John J L Tulloch who was born in 1909. The account was written when Mr Tulloch was an older man and describes what life was like living on a farm on a small island in Scapa Flow during World War 1, the British Fleet, the Hampshire, the Churchill barriers, the Royal Oak.

He describes the arrival of the defeated Germans:

So on a dull November day the German High Sea Fleet with Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter in command steamed into Scapa Flow through Hoxa Sound with the dull winter sunshine glinting on their grey hulls. Line ahead they came escorted by British warships, those mighty leviathans of battle that had only ventured out once in full force at the Battle of Jutland from their snug havens in Germany.

The German ships ceased to become a novelty to the young lad:

My home stood near the shore on the West side therefore the battleships...became an everyday scene to me as the months went past, in fact some of them were so near to my home that on a calm day we could hear the sailors talking or singing quite clearly. On a Sunday a brass band on the S.M.S. Frederick derr Grosse used to play their German military tunes when the weather was good, so those great ships became a part of my childhood days...

John also remembers hearing the men at Christmas 1918:

Orkney Archive Reference D1/1100

Friday 14 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #14

Although the armistice had been signed and hostilities were officially over, Orcadians would experience an even closer proximity to their former enemies at the end of 1918.

The terms of the Armistice demanded that 74 German battleships be interned in a neutral port. After failing to find a neutral country interested in this job, the allies settled for Scapa Flow. In late November, the British Grand Fleet left the Flow and gradually, the 74 German ships were led in to be interned until their scuttling in June 1919.

After the ships had arrived, many of their crew members were repatriated to Germany yet, by the end of the year, 5000 men still remained. The German ships, unlike their British counterparts, were not designed to be lived on for extended periods. The living quarters were grim, food very poor and mail and German newspapers arrived late and heavily censored. The crews were miserable.

In December 1918, The Daily Mail carried a large feature on the fleet which described 'ragged, dirty crews fishing from the side and through portholes... the main impression from the collection of German soldiers who fished was, first, their variegated, ragged and dirty clothing and, secondly, their extremely youthful appearance.'

The crew had begun to ignore their superiors and were amazed to see their British equivalents still parading on board their ships, One remarked in his diary 'We did not do that in time of peace,'
SMS Frederick Der Grosse - first ship to be scuttled in June 1919. Raised in 1937 and broken up for scrap on site.

SMS Dresden - one of the successfully scuttled ships, she remains unsalvaged.

SMS Kaiser - scuttled and raised between 1929 - 1937 to be broken up at Rosyth.

SMS Karlsruhe - scuttled and still remains on her starboard side in the water. Postcards from this ship were rescued in 2003, underwent conservation and are now in the Orkney Archive collection.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #13

We mentioned patient, betinselled Stanley Cursiter in our last post and today we look at his end-of -war experiences. Stanley Cursiter was one of Orkney's best loved painters and served as both Director of the National Gallery of Scotland and the Queen's Painter and Limner for Scotland. He received both an OBE and a CBE.

Orkney Library and Archive Photographic Collection

Cursiter fought at the Somme with the 1st Scottish Rifles and, after being invalided out, used his artistic skills to produce maps for the Survey Unit. Of the time immediately after the end of the war he wrote:

Life in Cologne with the Army of Occupation was very pleasant after years in the area of hostilities... The German mark had gone down to eight-a-penny, so we lived in luxury at a very modest cost. For instance, we shared a box at the Opera with the Army Commander, but as he was not an operatic enthusiast we were able to attend fairly regularly - at a cost of four pence! We indulged in the most expensive Rheinland and Moselle wines at twopence and threepence a bottle.

Perhaps the most extraordinary of a number of coincidences was that the house we occupied as our Battalion Mess had been designed by an architectural firm in Munich - the firm with which Rennie Mackintosh was associated after he left Glasgow. All through the house the influence of Mackintosh was evident; in the dining room, there was a large sideboard with silver panels in repousse, signed 'M.M.M.', the work of Mackintosh's wife.

One day I went to get my hair cut. After the barber had tucked the sheet round my neck, he leaned over my shoulder and said 'What is it like these days on Princes Street, Sir?' He had cut my hair in pre-war days in Tensfeldt's shop in the Caledonian Hotel.

Road in the Battle Area, 1916. (Private Collection)

Watercolour painted by Cursiter whilst in France, 1916. (Private Collection.)

Taken From 'Looking Back - a Book of Reminiscences' by Stanley Cursiter. 1974.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #12

Today's archive nods to the 'Spanish' 'Flu pandemic which swept the world during the last years of World War 1. It had reached Orkney by the end of 1918 as this extract from the Stromness Public School Log Book shows:

Click to enlarge and read.
This is perhaps not the most Christmassy of posts, we admit, so here are the betinselled heads of our beloved Orkney Room dwellers:

Gentle George

Elegant Edwin

Surprised Stanley

And angry, angry Eric.

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Peace On Earth - An Archive Advent Calendar #11

Following on from yesterday's post about Orcadian nurse Lily Gunn, today we have some Christmas cards sent to Lily for Christmas 1918. We heartily approve of the phrases 'hearty good wishes' and 'heartiest greetings' - very jolly.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

All items taken from Orkney Archive Reference D1/984/2

Monday 10 December 2018

Peace On Earth - An Archive Advent Calender #10

Today's archive is a souvenir/ autograph book containing drawings, poems and messages from patients of the British Farmers Hospital and the Number 2 Anglo-Belgian hospital, Calais, France from 1916 to 1918. It was handed in by the descendants of the nurse who compiled the book - Orcadian Lily Gunn.

Lily Gunn (left) and colleague at the front of the former Balfour hospital, now West End Hotel.

Click to enlarge

Orkney Archive Reference D1/983

A post card sent to Lily from Southampton.

Sunday 9 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #9

Another reminder that, although peace reigned in December 1918, war-time deprivations still applied. The Orkney Herald of the 4th of December 1918 carried the notice below urging people to stock up on woollens as 'pure woollen goods are practically unprocurable...owing to the great scarcity of wool for civilian purposes.'

I wonder why it was in such short supply?

Saturday 8 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #8

Impressively, a couple of months after the Armistice, the author of this poem makes a plea for feelings of civility towards the German nation whilst celebrating the coming of peace.

Orkney Herald - 1st January 1919.

Friday 7 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #7

See below for the 11th (and last) edition of The Concentrator: A Journal of the Land Defences, Scapa Flow. Published by and for the various servicemen and women stationed at various batteries around the flow, the (roughly) monthly journal contained articles both humorous and serious. There were news reports from the various batteries, correspondence, spoof adverts and poetry. The editors often struggled to obtain supplies of paper but, for the last year of the war, The Concentrator helped to rally spirits and spread news between colleagues.

Shelf reference 050Y in The Orkney Room

Click to enlarge.

Thursday 6 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #6

On this HIDEOUSLY dark and rainy winter's morning, let us think of the attendees of the social dance held at the No. 20 Balloon base at Caldale on Christmas day 1918. They planned to sing, dance, waltz and gallop the night away...

They ended their evening with a rousing rendition of God Save The King as I am sure you all plan to do on your Christmas nights out. The Orkney and Library Archive Christmas party both begins and ends with God Save the Queen but we also sing O' Flower of Scotland for balance, and then Dennis Waterson's I Could Be So Good For You because he makes us.

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Orkney Archive reference D1/88/3

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Peace On Earth 1918 - An Archive Advent Calendar #5

Todays blog is a collection of local adverts in the run-up to Christmas 1918. We are delighted by the mentions of cosy slippers and 'dainty, serviceable novelties' but deeply saddened (yet intrigued) at the thought of tea and coffee made with tablets.

Click to enlarge