The year we are just leaving has taught me more than I ever knew about the First World War. 2018 has gifted us documentaries and restored archive footage which have brought to life not just the horror and futility of war, but also the hardships of those left at home.
Worldwide, 16 million soldier and civilian deaths were caused by the First World War, and the Spanish Flu pandemic wiped out millions more. I struggle to get my brain around these losses; what impact would they have on a community? But adding to that death toll, this time a century ago, one of the biggest maritime disasters in UK waters was yet to come; the sinking of the Royal Navy yacht Iolaire at the mouth of Stornoway harbour on 1st January 1919.
One of the WW1 documentaries I watched this year helped me to realise that in spite of the Armistice having been declared on 11th November, this week 100 years ago soldiers were still making their way home. The logistics of returning thousands of men to the UK from outposts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East were challenging, and the lack of food and employment back home meant there was little incentive to get them all de-mobbed quickly; some were luckier than others.
Late in the evening of Hogmanay 1918 Admiralty yacht Iolaire left Kyle of Lochalsh for Lewis with at least 283 soldiers on board. The men were keen to reach their island homes before New Year; many had been at war for over four years. At 2.30am on New Year’s Day the ship struck rocks at the mouth of Stornoway harbour, and within sight of the town’s lights, began to sink. Only 82 survived, leaving at least 201 to perish in icy waters. The sinking, when combined with the loss of Lewis and Harris men on the battlefield, meant almost an entire generation of island men was wiped out. The tragedy struck so deep that it was barely mentioned for decades.
I first heard of the Iolaire in 2004 at a book festival event when Black Isle author Anne Macleod was reading from her novel The Dark Ship in Waterstones, Inverness. I was amazed that I’d never heard of the disaster, but perhaps it’s unsurprising. The impact of the sinking so numbed the families of those lost that they barely had the words to describe their feelings, and those who did make it ashore were crippled with survivor’s guilt.
An investigation into the causes of the wreck was inconclusive; had the crew been celebrating the new year early? Was it a navigational error that drove the ship onto the notorious Beasts of Holm? Or was the ship too overcrowded for the wild, wintry conditions? Lack of clarity didn’t help the bereaved islanders.
A stone pillar now sticks out of the rocks that the wreck struck; a warning to others as much as a commemoration of the lives lost. 40 years after the disaster a memorial was erected on Holm, bearing the names of those who perished. It’s a beautiful but bleak spot to look out over the water and imagine what happened.
This New Year, to mark the centenary of the tragedy, several events have been organised on the island, including exhibitions, discussions and musical performances. A series of 100 portraits of the men who lost their lives has been painted, commemorative books have been published, and musicians Duncan Chisholm and Julie Fowlis have created a work called ‘An Tres Suaile’ (‘The Third Wave’) which mixes traditional music, new songs and archive recordings; it will be performed in Eden Court in January.
100 years might seem a long time ago, but in the circumstances of the massive shadow the tragedy cast, I’m hardly surprised it has taken so long for family stories to surface and be shared.
I’m likely to still be up at 2.30am this New Year’s Day. If you are too, why not join me in raising a glass in memory of those on board the Iolaire 100 years ago.