An evening of thoughts, prayers, poetry and music marked the formal opening of the Sandwick Hall Iolaire Exhibition, on Thursday, December 6th.
The Rev William Heenan, of St Columba’s Old Parish Church, and Sandy Matheson, Honorary President of Stornoway Historical Society, were the main speakers at the event – and both spoke about how the island community has inherited the grief of the Iolaire and how these memorial events will enable a process of healing.
The exhibition in the upstairs rooms of the Sandwick Hall – the public space nearest to the Beasts of Holm where the yacht was lost on January 1, 1919, along with 201 lives – is open until February.
The idea for the exhibition came from Sandwick Community Council and was taken up by Stornoway Historical Society, with support from Point Community Council and Comann Eachdraidh an Rubha.
Rev Heenan began by commending those who had the vision in 2013 “for this special exhibition here in the heart of the community in which the Iolaire tragedy occurred” and thanked all those who had “worked together to bring the vision to fruition”.
Then he said: “As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the Iolaire disaster, the memories of the inconsolable loss of life still evokes deep emotions in our island population – emotions that have been inherited from previous generations who lived through that fateful Hogmanay night and who had personally experienced the ‘darkest dawn’ of New Year’s Day 1919.
“The cloud of silence which then enveloped this island and her people and which has pervaded this community in every generation since, is only now beginning to lift to some extent.
“These last four years of rolling commemorations for the First World War and the various major battles fought during it, have in some respect helped to prepare us, for this the hardest and final of these commemorations – the loss of the Iolaire.
“However, the silent grief, borne by the people of Lewis and Harris; the excruciating pain of the sorrow which has permeated every fibre in the warp and weft of the fabric of this society; and the lack of both information and answers as to why and how the disaster occurred; have to a large extent inhibited the island from processing and working through their loss, and coming to terms with their heartache.
“Time has helped to heal some of the wounds inflicted by the events of that terrible night, enabling people to at last begin to speak about it and to process its harrowing legacy, but the scars of the tragedy still remain. They are indelibly ingrained on the psyche of islanders and their diaspora, just as the peat-banks and lazy-beds now no longer worked still mark and scar the landscape of our island topography.”
However, the work being done by this exhibition, by new book The Darkest Dawn, and by all the other Iolaire events, together with coverage in the media, have at last brought the Iolaire story to national and global attention.
All this has meant the community has finally been facilitated “with a means and a safe forum in which to deal with a subject that has until now been too painful to broach”.
Rev Heenan added: “The closest we in our generation have to equate with the Iolaire catastrophe and the suffering of past generations, is the loss of the Pan Am flight 30 years ago, over Lockerbie on 21st December 1988 with the loss of 270 souls.
“I trust that this exhibition and all events related to this 100 year anniversary, which are enabling people to now speak of this tragic event, will prove to be therapeutic for our community in its prolonged and continuing recovery from the dreadful loss inflicted by the Iolaire going onto the Beasts of Holm.”
Sandy Matheson thanked Angus and Mary McCormack of Sandwick Community Council for being instrumental in organising “this most poignant and informative exhibition”.
His reflections began with a quotation from Song of Solomon: “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away” – which he felt summarised the loss of the Iolaire and its consequences.
“The Iolaire disaster cast a deep and long-lasting shadow over our community – it was the unspoken grief in the home and in the community. It was followed in short sequence by the failure of Leverhulme’s plans, by the mass emigration of young men and women on the Metagama and the Marloch, by the effects of the world depression of 1929, by the government-caused collapse of our vital herring industry and then by the new carnage of the Second World War…
“It seemed as if we had a devastatingly pessimistic future but our people hung on.”
There came “a healing of sorts” and, 50 years later, came the first of the memorials. Recently, the four years of the commemoration of the First World War had, he said, “opened a treasure chest of work” and he mentioned three “splendid” books on the Iolaire – When I Heard The Bell by John Macleod, As the Women Lay Dreaming by Donald S Murray and, of course, The Darkest Dawn by Malcolm Macdonald, Chair of Stornoway Historical Society, and the late Donald John Macleod.
He also thanked Rev Professor Norman Drummond and Maggie Cunningham of the Scottish Commemoration Committee, the Working Group led locally by Convener Norman MacDonald and Lord Lieutenant Donald Martin for “the long overdue national and international recognition of the Iolaire disaster”. He said: “We honour their efforts to remind ourselves that despite tragedy, trauma and everlasting grief the values of grace, peace and unity have and will prevail.”
Performances of music and poetry followed.
Anna Murray read a poem by Ian Stephen, ‘The Beaufort Scale’, and Nicolson Institute Head Boy John Alasdair Bain, 18, read a poem written by 14-year-old Luke Macleod from Gress, from the perspective of an 18-year-old on board the Iolaire.
Alyth McCormack performed a song she had written about the Iolaire, entitled So Close To Home, with musical accompaniment by Neil Johnstone and Karen Maciver. Karen, from Glasgow, is a pianist with Scottish Ballet and a friend of Alyth’s. She also recently discovered her own poignant connection to her friend’s island – for Karen’s grandfather was on board the Iolaire.
And, thanks to the exhibition in the Sandwick Hall, she now knows how he managed to survive.
After their performance, Alyth directed her friend to one of the display boards which told the story of crewman James Maclean. He had managed to get ashore via a waterlogged whaler which was out to the full extent of its rope and about three yards from the shore.
“Men were already ashore, and though he shouted to those back on the boat, no one else, apart from Norman Maciver, followed him to safety that way.”
The Sandwick Hall Iolaire Exhibition will be open every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during December, January and February, with the exception of the week beginning December 24.
It will be open on January 1 – the exact 100th anniversary of the tragedy.
The exhibition will be open 2pm-5pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays and 2pm-8pm on Thursdays.