The Iolaire Disaster

At 1.55am on 1st January 1919, a naval yacht carrying sailors home on leave rang 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 ecks, 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 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 homes under the most tragic circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm on New Year’s morning has plunged every home and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable. 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 those 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 numbers 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.”

William Grant, founder of the Stornoway Gazette, January 1919.
Reprinted in the Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour, 1920.

Full excerpt taken from “The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy” by Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod.