New book on Iolaire tragedy to mark centenary

The Iolaire
The Iolaire

A landmark new book on the Iolaire tragedy is to be published by Acair next year, to mark the centenary of the disaster, and will tell the full story of every single soul on board for the first time.

It is the most important book on Acair’s publishing schedule for 2018 and will be equal in stature to Dol Fodha na Grèine (The Going Down of the Sun), which told the story of the First World War as it affected the community in the north of Lewis.

Dol Fodha na Grèine was shortlisted for the Saltire History Book of the Year 2015 and the Iolaire will be similar — a hardback, with many photographs, pieces of writing and personal stories — thanks to a £10,000 special donation from Point and Sandwick Trust.

The community wind farm charity gave the money to Acair to help with the costs of producing such a special book.

It is being written by Malcolm Macdonald, chair of Stornoway Historical Society, and Donald John Macleod, who have been researching material for nearly 20 years.

HMY Iolaire was, of course, the ship that hit the Beasts of Holm in the early hours of January 1, 1919.

She was bringing Lewis and Harris servicemen home after the war but hit the rocks in a rising gale and sank within sight of the lights of Stornoway, with the loss of 201 lives. There were 80 survivors.

Point and Sandwick Trust chairman Angus McCormack said they were “delighted” to be involved in this new book — the result of “significant new research” by the authors.

“Anyone with links to the tragedy will wish to have one of these books,” said Angus, describing it as “a new chapter to the knowledge of the Iolaire and its aftermath”. He added the book would be “both scholarly and readable”.

Acair manager Agnes Rennie said it had been “a very big project”. Island historical societies, the Comunn Eachdraidh, have been involved in the research effort and a call for photographs earlier this year brought more than 50 responses.

Agnes explained the book would be “telling the story at this 100-year milestone”, picking up the story that others have already told and adding to it.

“We give an account of everybody on board the ship, passengers and crew, and including those who lost their lives and those who survived,” she said.

“It will include a selection of songs and poems that were written both at the time and since, just responding to the disaster and the effect that it had on the place.”

The book itself will be mostly in English although there will be some first-hand accounts and poetry in Gaelic, with English translations.

“It probably speaks to two kinds of audience,” said Agnes. “It speaks first of all to those who have family links. There are some who still have very close family links to those who were on board that night.

“It also speaks to a much wider readership who have heard about the disaster or are simply interested in the history of the First World War.”

She added: “The reason that Point and Sandwick responded to our request for assistance was because we said, ‘this book deserves to be something special — the kind of book that will pay tribute, both in its contents and its format, to those it tells the story of’.

“It’s hugely significant for Acair to be able to publish this book and to produce a book that is of the best possible quality, to be able to do justice to the account of that time. It’s hugely important for us to be able to be involved in that and to have the chance to work with Malcolm and Donald John on the making of the book is really very special.”

As a tragedy, the impact on the island community was beyond measure — and is still felt today. Agnes commented: “I think the impact of it was so enormous in its calamitous effect that the island was literally stunned and some people just never got over it.

“Some people left, as we know. In a way, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, in terms of loss of life — because so many had lost their lives before that in this war. It left a gloom over the community that I think, for us nowadays, it’s impossible to comprehend.

“I think we can try — we can try and put ourselves into the shoes of our own men and women who were there — but we can’t. It’s impossible.”

For writer Malcolm, the interest is also personal. “My grandfather was lost on The Iolaire. I was named after him. He was Malcolm Macdonald, 57 South Bragar.

“We were told nothing. It was only when the memorial was erected at Holm in 1960 that we found out my grandfather, my father’s father, had been lost on the Iolaire.

“We knew that he’d been killed in the war but we didn’t realise it was so close to home. What I thought was, ‘why didn’t they tell us?’ — but it’s only now I’m realising it was the same all over the island, in every village from Tolsta to Ness to Uig. They all reacted the same, throughout the island.”

After the memorial was erected, the BBC made a radio programme about it and the Stornoway Gazette published the booklet ‘Sea Sorrow’.

“Once that came out people started talking about it,” said Malcolm. “Not as much as they do today but they were at least talking about it. My mother lived in the Battery area of the town and she remembered the bodies coming ashore.”

Malcolm’s original intention had been to compile a list of all those who died as well as those who survived. But, “when I reached that stage, people started saying, ‘why don’t you do a book?’ I put it off and put it off.

Then he met Donald John Macleod who said, “I’ve compiled a lot of stuff about The Iolaire’… why don’t we do a book together?”

That was in 2004 but they called a halt when John Macleod brought out his book, until they realised that with its relative lack of photos, there was still the potential for them to produce something bigger in the long term.

“We are covering everybody who was aboard, including the crew,” said Malcolm.

They kept “gathering and adding” material and Acair came on board in 2014, with the suggestion that the book come out in the Iolaire’s centenary year.

“I’m delighted because it looks like it’s going to be over 400 pages,” said Malcolm.

“We’ve got a lot of photos of old Stornoway and the harbour area and we’ve got some modern photos of the actual Beasts of Holm.”

The book will tell many aspects of the tragedy, including the ironic fact that HMY Iolaire was the second yacht of this name that was serving the Stornoway base during the war.

The first Iolaire, decommissioned in October 1918, “was much faster”, according to Malcolm — and would probably have escaped the terrible fate of her successor.

“The combination of circumstances was awful,” he said. “The trains were late and if it had been the original Iolaire they would have got into Stornoway because she could do 18 knots and the replacement yacht could only do 10 knots.”

That boat would, in all likelihood, have outrun the deadly winds. When the new Iolaire, originally known as the Amalthaea, hit the rocks it was a Force Eight. By the time she sank and Donald Morrison was up the mast, it was a Force 10.

“People think, ‘how did they drown so close to shore?’ but if you go there in a gale you’ll understand.”

Of the 80 survivors, 13 or 14 emigrated afterwards. Malcolm and Donald John were able to track down these men and their subsequent lives, with the exception of one — ironically, another Malcolm Macdonald, this time from Ness. “He went to Canada and he never wrote home. We knew he was a fitter but we can’t find him after that.”

They have gathered personal histories and photos from all over the world — most went to Australia, New Zealand and Canada — including those of Alexander Mackenzie from Leurbost who became a harbour master in Australia and Donald Macdonald from Cromore, who had served in the RNR and was buried in Canada with an anchor on his grave.

The effect the tragedy had on survivors was extreme.

“People just went silent and there was a lot of survivor guilt,” said Malcolm.

“One woman said her uncle, Murdo Stewart, couldn’t wait to get away. He just felt guilty walking around the village. He felt, ‘why did we survive?’

“Quite a few of the survivors didn’t get married either, despite more than 1000 island men having been lost in the war overall. Their emotions were affected by the war, never mind the Iolaire. One man ended up in an asylum.”

The toll on families was enormous. Some children were orphaned. Siblings were split up, including Malcolm’s father and uncle — their mother having died of TB before the war.

And Harris men were caught up in it too, having been so desperate to get home, they had decided to walk from Stornoway, rather than wait in Kyle for a more direct boat.

“One of the Harris men was going to get married, while another man from Ness had an engagement ring in his pocket,” said Malcolm. “Toys were strewn on the shore…”

But it was Lower Sandwick that had “the saddest casualty of all”, said Malcolm — a John Macaskill. “He was washed up against the cemetery wall. His house was on the other side of the street. He was washed up almost on his own doorstep, in the words of the bard, Murdo Macfarlane, after going through a whole war.

“He could have been washed up on any shore in the Mediterranean. To me, that’s the saddest of the lot. It’s so close.”

Malcolm added: “A third of the bodies were never recovered. My own grandfather’s body was never found. I think that affected my father greatly.”

How did Malcolm feel, learning all this?

“It was moving at times,” he admitted, adding: “When I see it coming off the press I’ll be relieved. It’s like climbing a mountain. It’s Everest and you’re at 27,000 feet… you want to finish the job rather than go back down!

“I think it’s going to be a lasting reminder. It’s dedicated to the men and their families and the island itself which suffered so much and is still talking about it today.”

The Iolaire book, published by Acair, is scheduled for release in November 2018.