Lights on for the Iolaire art installation in Stornoway Harbour

The white poles represent those that survived the disaster the plain poles represent those who were lost.
The white poles represent those that survived the disaster the plain poles represent those who were lost.

A powerful commemoration of the Iolaire disaster has been completed on South Beach in Stornoway in time for the New Year centenary.

‘Sheòl an Iolaire/The Iolaire Sailed’ is Stornoway Port Authority’s dramatic, visual tribute to the Iolaire, whose sinking on 1 January 1919 in the Minch was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters.

The installation lit up at night, as the tide comes in to consume it.

The installation lit up at night, as the tide comes in to consume it.

At least 201 men perished of the 280 aboard the ship taking Royal Navy WWI veterans back to the Isle of Lewis when the Iolaire struck rocks outside Stornoway harbour.

‘Sheòl an Iolaire’, an arresting physical outline of the ship, symbolically brings the Iolaire back to port, completing the final mile of the voyage for the men who never made it home.

The installation on South Beach, between the town’s main piers, is a full-scale representation of the Iolaire’s hull, pinpointed in the sand with 280 wooden posts - one for each man aboard on the fateful night the Iolaire headed for its home port from Kyle of Lochalsh.

Of these markers 79 have been painted white to represent the number of known survivors and 201 have been left plain to represent the losses.

The sculpture is an actual-size blueprint, 189 feet from stem to stern, with a 27 foot beam. It will show the true size of the vessel and represent the number of crew and passengers on board as she sailed for Stornoway on 31 December 1918.

‘Sheòl an Iolaire’ will be covered and uncovered by tide and illuminated for the duration of the installation over December and January.

After installation work over the last three weeks the completed hull outline has now been lit allowing the sculpture to be seen in the dark and when covered by the incoming tide.

The installation will create a powerful image helping people visualise both the vessel and the circumstances of the disaster and will become a central focus of the Iolaire commemorations, complementing the many other events taking place.

The public will be able to safely view the ship outline from above, on Stornoway’s Number One and Number Two piers and from the adjoining South Beach sea wall which will be dressed with information boards numbering the losses and survivors from each district of Lewis and Harris.

A Facebook page ‘Sheòl an Iolaire’ and the Stornoway Port Authority’s website will provide images and timelapse pictures of the installation for the month of December. Members of the public, and particularly the Iolaire families, are being encouraged to visit South beach and leave their own comments and reactions online.

Stornoway Port Authority, which regulates the largest harbour in the Western Isles, commissioned and constructed the installation from a concept by Lewis journalist Torcuil Crichton and artist Malcolm MacLean.

The wooden posts, each representing an individual on the ship, were donated by Stornoway Trust and cut from trees felled in the Castle Grounds, providing a physical and symbolic link between the island and sea.

Murdo Murray, chairman of the Stornoway Port Authority, said: “This is an innovative and respectful commemoration of the loss of the HMY Iolaire.

“It is a poignant reminder of the 201 men who lost their lives and is a highly appropriate way to mark the centenary of a tragic event. Stornoway Port Authority commends the project for its sensitive and fitting approach. We are humbled to have been able to lend our support.”

Malcolm Maclean said: “The tragedy of the Iolaire disaster impacted on every family in Lewis at a time when the rest of the country was celebrating the end of the war.

“The darkness of the story and the scale of the loss was so traumatic that it was rarely spoken about on the island and little is known about it elsewhere.

“The centenary is an opportunity to tell the story in new ways that give public expression to that private pain. Torcuil and I wanted to create a public artwork that made the key facts visible and used the sea and the tides to tell the story.

“The installation changes from stark and raw at low tide to something ethereal and ghostly as the lights disappear into the sea at high tide. Stornoway Port Authority grasped the concept immediately and their staff and contractors have done great work on its construction.”

Torcuil Crichton said: “We thought of many ways to mark the Iolaire centenary but this is the simplest and most powerful way to tell the story. ‘Sheòl an Iolaire’ speaks very directly to people about the ship and those who were aboard that fateful night.

“The way the sculpture is covered and uncovered by the tide, the way that final mile to harbour is closed, is very moving. Even during the installation period we had many visitors to the site who have a direct connection to the Iolaire men. We’d like as many people as possible to come and share their experiences.”

‘Sheòl an Iolaire/The Iolaire Sailed’, the title of the installation, is a poignant sentence borrowed from the Norman Malcolm MacDonald book, ‘Call na h-ìolaire’ as he describes the ship leaving Kyle of Lochalsh.

The idea also owes thanks to author Malcolm MacDonald who has written the definitive book on the Iolaire men, ‘The Darkest Dawn’ and whose research supplied a blueprint of the vessel.

View a time-lapse video of the installation: HERE