An exhibition to commemorate the loss of HMY lolaire, as we get ready to mark the centenary of the disaster at the end of the year, opened at Museum nan Eilean Lews Castle in Stornoway this week.
For many islanders the story of the Iolaire is well known, perhaps because they lost a family member in the disaster, but for others the tale also strikes a deeply tragic note, as we think of the young men finally returning home after surviving the horrors of the Great War, only to lose their lives on the shores of Lewis.
Two-hundred and one souls out of 280 men on board the Iolaire were lost when she foundered on the rocks close to her Stornoway harbour destination.
Within seconds of the impact the boat rolled onto its side meaning that many men were almost immediately thrown into the frigid water - with dangerous rocks, darkness and high seas they stood little chance of making it to shore.
On board there were only life preservers for 80 men and lifeboats could only take 100 people, but even then, launching these lifeboats proved impossible.
Of those lost 64 men were never found, making the wreck in effect, their grave marker.
One of the eye-opening facts you will discover at the new exhibition is the wreck was sold for salvage only one month after the disaster in 1919, work on the wreck was halted after questions were raised in Parliament, but salvage operations secretly resumed in the 1920s, a surprising lack of respect for those lost.
Today there is a plan to ensure better protection for the Iolaire with moves to designate the wreck a ‘military maritime grave’.
The exhibition, which is expected to be a popular draw at the museum will be open until May, allowing not only islanders to visit, but also many visitors to learn about this dark period in the Islands’ history.
Items for the exhibition have been drawn together from many sources.
Talking of the work to bring the exhibition together and its aims Nick Smith, Heritage Manager for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, explains: “Museum nan Eilean has worked with people here and further afield to bring together an exhibition which tells the story of the Iolaire.
“We hope that the exhibition will highlight a disaster which is little known outside the islands and that residents will also discover more about a period in the history of the Outer Hebrides that continues to have a deep impact on lives to this day.”
Exhibits displayed include items from the ship including a life preserver belonging to the youngest survivor, Donald Maciver of North Tolsta.
The medals awarded to John Finlay Macleod of Ness whose bravery in carrying a heaving line ashore saved dozens of lives, along with a picture of him on Lews Castle Green, receiving those awards for bravery from the Provost of Stornoway, with Lord and Lady Leverhulme present.
There is also a magnificent panel depicting the Iolaire’s story borrowed from the Great Tapestry of Scotland project.
But perhaps it is the smaller, documentary exhibits which will be of greater interest to visitors.
These items reveal the human cost to the families left behind following the tragedy and the social cost to the Islands.
The Iolaire disaster helped to knock the life from the Islands, with the loss of so many lives in one incident after the end WWI, which had also exacted a terrible toll, there was a far-reaching impact.
The war and Iolaire created a vacuum in society, with fewer men to work crofts and boats many families struggled and crop failure brought them close to starvation.
A disaster fund had been set up to try and help widows and the families left behind but it was unable to completely shield them from hardship.
Faced with these challenges many decided to make a new life abroad and in April 1923 the Metagama sailed to Canada with more than 300 people from Lewis on board - their average age was just 22.
As well as the exhibition opening this week Lews Castle will also be hosting an event in memory of the Iolaire on October 19th when author of ‘When I Heard the Bell’, John MacLeod, will give a talk on the Iolaire’s story.
The event, which starts at 7.30pm is free, but booking is required, to find out more call 822746.