Review - New play about Iolaire tragedy

A scene from the play, depicting the rope rescue efforts of the people on land (right hand side actors) and the stranded sailors (left hand side) on the floundering ship.
A scene from the play, depicting the rope rescue efforts of the people on land (right hand side actors) and the stranded sailors (left hand side) on the floundering ship.

We were the first tourists to arrive Friday night (July 13th) at the Kilmuir Hall to see what we thought was going to be a professional Scottish ceilidh performed here in this coastal village on Skye.

At least that was what we had expected when we saw the flier in the local Co-op grocery store near our hotel in Portree, advertising the show.

This scene from the play shows the actors as students in a classroom learning about this relatively unknown part of Scottish history.

This scene from the play shows the actors as students in a classroom learning about this relatively unknown part of Scottish history.

Despite our misgivings, we bought our tickets and quickly received a cheery welcome from the energetic producer, Angus Macleod, who broke the news to us that the entire show would be presented in Gaelic.

It was, we discovered, the final night of a two-week long Gaelic Drama Summer School, where a dozen Scottish teenagers were learning to act, and at the same time, helping to preserve the traditional local language and culture.

I looked at my husband, who had commandeered a front row seat in the nearly empty stacking chairs, and wondered why we had driven for an hour, on single track roads, and on the “wrong side of the road” to boot, to join eager Scottish parents and friends of the youngsters.

It was going to be, I thought, just like the days when we ourselves had proudly attended our own children’s school plays and concerts in Ontario.

We were so wrong. After some Gaelic singing and Scottish dancing, the teenagers performed a new play entitled ‘Call na h-Iolaire’ (The Loss of the Iolaire).

It tells the story of the tragic sinking of the British ship HMY Isolaire in 1918, while carrying nearly 300 veterans of the Great War who were returning home to Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1918.

Some 200 men drowned just metres from their destination, when the yacht crashed into a set of rocks known as The Beasts of Holm just outside the harbour of Stornoway.

It is still considered the worst peacetime shipping disaster in British history after the sinking of the Titanic.

Elizabeth Myles and her family drove up for the show from Airdrie to watch great-niece Eva Byrne, 13. Eve acted in several roles, including as one of the war veterans who didn’t make it to safety before the Iolaire sank. Only 79 survived.

“The people who were saved were saved by people on shore in a human chain,” Myles explained, adding that while the story is not usually taught in Scottish schools on the mainland, it is well known in Skye, Lewis and Harris. The victims were “just arm’s length from shore.”

A subsequent naval inquiry into the sinking found there were insufficient lifejackets on board, among other irregularities.

Scottish actor Mairi Morrison, who originally comes from Lewis, wrote the play and served as the director here. She wanted to commemorate the 100 years since the Iolaire disaster, and to portray the impact which the loss of so many young men had on their home communities.

“I still find it hard to talk about it even though I had nothing to do with it,” Morrison said, urging the audience to “raise a glass wherever you are” on the actual 100th anniversary later this year.

The loss of so many men from Lewis and Harris came on top of the 1,000 other military personnel from the area who had died in action in WWl, and sparked the decline of the island’s communities. After the Iolare sinking, many surviving young men chose to emigrate and to look for work abroad, including in Canada.

The Iolaire centenary is also being marked officially this year throughout this part of Scotland with ceremonies, as well as in new books, and documentaries broadcast on local television.

Although we didn’t understand a word of the play, we certainly felt the emotions of the story as the young teenagers on stage played both the frantic soldiers trying to escape the floundering vessel, and the anguished wives and children who later picked up the soggy discarded clothing belonging to their missing loved ones, that had washed up on shore days later.

The evening was a truly moving experience and the play should be seen by others, as it tells an important part of Scottish and Canadian and world history.