Iolaire Disaster - End of the War - The Ship Sinks off coast of Isle of Lewis

Iolaire Monument
Iolaire Disaster - Western Isles History - The Isle of Lewis - 1919
The Iolaire disaster is one of the most tragic events in the history of the Western Isles. Two months after the end of the FIrst World War, 205 men died, 174 Lewis men and 7 Harris men, sailors who had survived the war - and were only yards from the shore, where families were watching to welcome them home.

The story of the shipwreck of the Iolaire, is the saddest most poignant tale that I have ever heard.

Built in 1881 - Weighed 634 Tons
Built in 1881 The yacht was built in 1881 and weighted 634 tons and had been built by Fergusons of Leith. The Iolaire was a luxury yacht before the war, and was used by the navy in anti submarine and patrol work.

She was fitted with guns during the first world war and saw services up in Shetland, also down South in Portsmouth and Yarmouth.

The Iolaire - Gaelic for Eagle - Many names previously
The ship the Iolaire was so named as the word in Gaelic means "Eagle". In fact she had had many names prior to being given this final name in 1918.

She had been called originally Iolanthe, then Mione, then Amalthaea before the final name the "Iolaire" - after the majestic bird of prey, the eagle.
1st January 1919 - The Iolaire Capsized - Shipping Disaster for The Isle of Lewis and Harris - 205 deaths
The loss of the Iolaire boat and the 205 men who perished along with it is to me one of the saddest things I have ever heard. The Islands of Lewis and Harris had already suffered too many losses throughout the war - losing already over one thousand men to the war. This was a significant number and quite a proportion of the islands population.

War Was Over & the last of the Lewis and Harris Men were en route home for grand New Year Celebrations
There was finally to be peace - the war had ended and although there was still some fighting going on in Northern Russia and the Baltic, leave was granted to many to return home. The surviving men were at last back on their way home to Lewis and Harris - actually on two boats. Many of the women and children, mothers and grandparents, had decorations up and bunting ready to welcome their loved ones home. Some even went to the quay side in order to be there when the boats docked at Stornoway.

It had been a long hard journey already for the men of Lewis and Harris and the last leg was here, they had reached the Highland Railway which took them to the railhead at Kyle of Lochalsh where they awaited the 2 ships, the MacBrayne Mail Steamer and the HM Yacht Iolaire, The Iolaire being bound for Stornoway, and the Mail Steamer set for Skye and Tarbert.

The Iolaire was Quite Overloaded - Ill Prepared to carry 284 men
Most of the men from Harris went on the steamer, however a few thought that for them, they could take the Iolaire and work their way home from Stornoway, and of course all the Lewis men boarded the Iolaire, happily looking forward to reunions with loved ones and New Year Celebrations. Actually the Iolaire was overloaded really, she had space aboard for 100 and only and only 80 life jackets, but there were 284 men on board.

There was some discussion before she set off as also the Iolaire had never docked in the Stornoway Harbour before and the captain wasn't happy with the amount of men he was expected to take on board, he only had two lifeboats as well.

The Iolaire was 12 miles way from Stornoway just after midnight

The Iolaire set off from Kyle at 7.30pm and by just past midnight was just twelve miles away from Stornoway, where the armed drifter Budding Rose awaited her presence and was to lead her into the harbour.

The Iolaire Failed to Change Course
At one am however The Iolaire wa sailing too far east - quite why has never really been established.. Biastan Thuilm - the Beasts of Holm - is a rocky outcrop just short of the harbour entrance. A small light attached to the rock warns mariners of the approaching danger. When the Iolaire failed to turn, the flickering light was useless. The momentum of the ship kept pushing her forward. It was typical Stornoway weather and as a gale took hold - and visibility wasn't all that good - a crew of a local fishing boat watched in confusion as the Iolaire failed to change course to make harbour. Instead she carried on full steam ahead into the pitch-black night. and she struck rocks at the entrance to Stornoway at 2am on the New Years morning, and floundered and sunk - only twenty yards from the shore!

205 Men Died - 40 Led ashore by a Brave Hawser - and a further 39 survived the freezing Waters 205 men perished.
The lifeboats were all too quickly well overfull and capsized. Forty men did get ashore - being led there by a man, who had dropped into the sea and managed to land on a slope, a foot lower and he would have been dashed against the rocks. He managed to crawl up higher and sat with a line around his back, where he pulled a couple of men ashore where a heavier rope was attached and looped around a rock and the men took it in turns to stabilized the rope - helping 40 men to safety. A further 39 men did survive the freezing waters

Worst UK Maritime Disaster since 1904 - the Worst Peacetime Disaster of a British Ship since the Titanic
This disaster was the largest loss of life in UK waters since 1904, which was when the SS Norge sank and indeed the worst disaster involving a British ship since the Titanic on 15 April 1912. Bodies were washed up on the Sandwick shore.

The Scotsman reported the tragedy on 6 January
"The villages of Lewis are like places of the dead. The homes of the island are full of lamentation – grief that cannot be comforted. Scarcely a family has escaped the loss of a near blood relative. Many have had sorrow heaped upon sorrow."

Official Navy Investigation Downgraded from Court Martial to Court of Inquiry
In fact there were 2 investigations held regarding the tragic loss of the Iolaire. The official Naval investigation was downgraded immediately from a Court Martial to a Court of Inquiry, due to the Navy's fear that the findings of a Court Martial might imply blame was being accepted by them.

Findings not Released into the Public Domain Until 1970
The Naval Inquiry was held in private, on 8th January 1919 - and the findings not released into the public domain until 1970… They had apparently ruled that due to the non-survival of any of the officers on board the Iolaire "no opinion can be given as to whether blame is attributable to anyone in the matter. and The Iolaire Inquiry gathered dust in the Admiralty vaults for over 50 years.

Public Inquiry
A Public Inquiry was held in Stornoway from the 10th February 1919, and the local community provided seven men for the jury. When the jury reached their verdict, at least this one was made available to the public, unlike the Naval Inquiry.

Inquest into the Reasons Why the Iolaire Sank
There were of course many who looked into why the disaster happened - unofficially and also of course the Official Inquiries, however the end result really was that no one can be certain what caused this disaster. The weather wasn't really all that bad and the conclusion, was that officers in charge didn't exercise the necessary prudence when coming into the harbour, that the boat didn't slow down and that no lookouts were on duty and that the lifeboats were insufficient. In fact after this disaster measures were put in place by the Government that better lifesaving equipment - i.e. lifeboats were to be mandatory, so that says it all!

Drink Not Held to Blame
The public inquiry said that despite rumours to the contrary, drink was not held to have been a factor in the sinking at any point.

The Navy were held responsible - but Admiralty Put the Wreck up for Sale Just 15 days after the disaster!

The Admiralty were so insensitive and actually put the wreck of the Iolaire up for sale only 15 days after the disaster. As you can imagine this action appalled the local community especially as there were still over 80 bodies unaccounted for and still missing

Six Weeks after the Disaster an elderly Man found his sons body! Six weeks after the disaster a gentleman from Breascleit, kept dreaming of a body floating in Glumaig Bay. At daybreak he made his way to the Naval Battery, where the search for bodies was still being organised. He told the Officer-in- Charge, and asked him to check the name on the uniform if they found a body. The body was recovered in exactly the spot he described, it held a torch in its death grip. It was the body of the old man's son.

Eagle Western Isles
Wartime Was Hard for The Isle of Lewis & Harris
A Fifth of the Population had been killed in the war. The Isle of Lewis, saw some very hard times during the first world war. More than 6000 men had served their country and already over a thousand of these had died. Already these numbers of men lost had impacted greatly on the Islands population, which at that time was around 30,000
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