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HMY Iolaire — [Mr Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:06 pm on 12th December 2018.

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Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee 4:06 pm, 12th December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the 100th anniversary of the HMY Iolaire disaster.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I am grateful to the House authorities for this opportunity to speak about the Iolaire and to pay our respects to the many men who lost their lives while they were returning to their home island of Lewis and Harris on Hogmanay 1918. Tragically, in the early hours of 1919, they lost their lives just a stone’s throw from their native island. I am also grateful to Poppyscotland for the creation of a badge that a number of us are wearing in Westminster Hall today: it has a poppy to mark the war and a bell to mark the Iolaire.

The Iolaire was the worst peacetime disaster at sea for the UK since the sinking of the Titanic and the worst peacetime loss in Scottish or British waters in all the 20th century; only the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and the Piper Alpha oilrig disaster a year later come close in scale to what happened with the Iolaire. What compounded the tragedy was that the appalling loss of life fell almost exclusively on the one small, defined population of Lewis and Harris, as John MacLeod noted in his excellent book, “When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire”, which was published in 2009.

About 284 men sailed on the Iolaire and it now seems that 201 of them were lost, following research for the excellent book by Malcolm Macdonald, “The Darkest Dawn”, which was published this year; the public inquiry of February 1919 had recorded 205 deaths. Regardless of the actual number, about 70% of the passengers and crew lost their lives that night, 20 yards from shore. Many bodies were never recovered and only 79 men survived.

Of course, what adds to the feelings of injustice, grief, annoyance and poignancy, in the mix of emotions that the Iolaire still conjures to this day, was that many of the men on board had already been through the grimmest of years in the grimmest of global conflicts. Indeed, only a year earlier one man on the Iolaire had survived the Halifax bay explosion in Nova Scotia. He came out of the war, only to lose his life at the doorstep of his own island. The 201 men who lost their lives had been fortunate to escape the horror of world war one, but tragically they lost their lives as they arrived home.

Lewis and Harris had already suffered badly in the war, losing many of its sons, fathers and husbands. Of a population of 29,000, 6,172 were in the service of the Crown: 3,500 were in the Royal Navy; and, interestingly, about 560 men from Lewis were serving the Crown in the forces of Canada.

The loyal Lewis roll of honour described the catastrophe as the crowning sorrow for Lewis from world war one. Reprinted on that roll of honour is the following:

“At 1.55am on 1st January 1919, a naval yacht carrying sailors home on leave ran aground on rocks near the village of Holm, a mere 20 yards from the shore of the Isle of Lewis and less than a mile from the safe harbour of Stornoway. HMY Iolaire was crowded with 280 men, mostly naval reservists returning to the safety and comfort of their homes after the horrors of the Great War. On this dark night of winter, a force ten gale was blowing from the south, hard onto the shore, and there was a heavy sea running. Men drowned as they jumped or slid into the sea from the pitching decks, were flung back into the angry foam from lifeboats awash and overloaded, were dashed against jagged rocks, or managed to swim and crawl ashore, only to die before they could reach shelter or aid. By the time the first New Year’s Day of peacetime dawned, 201 men had lost their lives, 181 of them on the very shores of the island they called home.

No one now alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st of January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of our bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their home under the most tragic of circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm on New Years morning has plunged every home and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable.”

I will come on to that unutterableness later. The roll continues:

“Language cannot express the desolation, the despair which this awful catastrophe has inflicted. One thinks of the wide circle of blood relations affected by the loss of even one of these gallant lads, and imagination sees these circles multiplied by the number of the dead, overlapping and overlapping each other till the whole island—every hearth and home in it—is shrouded in deepest gloom. All the island’s war losses in the past four cruel years—although these number fully four times the death roll of New Year’s Day morning—are not comparable to this unspeakable calamity. The black tragedy has not a redeeming feature.”

That was written by William Grant, the founder of the Stornoway Gazette, in January 1919, when the memory was of course very alive to the tragedy and its magnitude.

The Iolaire had come over specially from Stornoway to Kyle of Lochalsh to take men home for New Year. The admiralty had given English and Welsh servicemen a break for Christmas, and the Scots the new year, as was the developed custom and, indeed, the want at the time. The admiralty had known that there would be a bottleneck problem at Kyle to get the men across the Minch to Stornoway. The merchant seaman, Captain Colin Cameron, master of the MacBrayne mailboat, Sheila, knew that it could not accommodate all the extra naval reservists along with soldiers and passengers safely across the Minch, and he pressed, quite correctly, for a way to relieve the pressure of sheer numbers on the Sheila, and hence the Admiralty sent the Iolaire to Kyle. It was not a great start. When she arrived in Kyle at 4 pm, a miscalculation between the bridge and the engine room meant she hit the pier and sustained damage to 10 feet of her gunnel. That was a very inauspicious start.

For those who were to board that night, the journey to Kyle of Lochalsh involved crowded and slow railway journeys from Glasgow, first north to Inverness and then west through Dingwall to Kyle, with stoppages. The Glasgow to Kyle journey took about 13 and a half hours, arriving at Kyle at 6.15 pm on Hogmanay 1918. Many of those on board the Iolaire that night had travelled up from the south of England and had come through London before they went up to Glasgow and onwards with their cousins, neighbours, comrades and fellow islanders.

The second part of the train that had taken 13 and a half hours arrived at 7 o’clock, 45 minutes later, and the Iolaire set sail at 7.30 pm, with naval personnel from Lewis. Soldiers from Lewis who wanted to get on the Iolaire had been ordered off. They wanted to get on because friends, cousins and neighbours had been on it. It is worth pointing out, on the circle of overlap mentioned in the 1919 writing, that those who were the friends, cousins and neighbours could be the same person, such is the nice interlinked happenstance that islands tend to have. That is true to this day and it was certainly true in 1919.

As I have noted, at 1.55 am on New Year’s Day 1919, the Iolaire ran aground on the rocks at Holm—the Beasts of Holm. The weather had been blowing force eight to 10 on the shore, when she stuck the rocks and listed to starboard at a 35° angle. Many of those on board thought she had hit a mine and about 50 to 60 jumped off or slid into the sea. From then on, she was hit by waves, strongly and regularly. Concern about the Iolaire’s course had been spotted by a nearby fishing boat that was sailing the route as well, the Spider. Given the time of year, alcohol was of course suspected, and disputed. What is not in dispute is the loss of life. There is so much to say and it is impossible to do it justice, other than to remember, be aware and think well of those people who lost their lives 100 years ago.