Isle of Lewis prepares mass commemoration for people of Iolaire

A panel from the Great Tapestry of Scotland that depicts the Iolaire disaster has gone on show at Museun nan Eilean in Stornoway as part of a new exhibition that examines the impact of the tragedy on the island. PIC: Alex Hewitt.
A panel from the Great Tapestry of Scotland that depicts the Iolaire disaster has gone on show at Museun nan Eilean in Stornoway as part of a new exhibition that examines the impact of the tragedy on the island. PIC: Alex Hewitt.
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There will be no fireworks in Stornoway on Lewis this Hogmanay with the celebration of the new year to be more muted this time round.

But this quieter version of New Year’s Eve has been a long time coming for an island that is preparing to mark one of the UK’s worst maritime disasters that hit Lewis 100 years ago.

A letter  from an Iolaire widow to the disaster fund describes the impact of the tragedy on her family. PIC:  Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean.

A letter from an Iolaire widow to the disaster fund describes the impact of the tragedy on her family. PIC: Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean.

December 31, 2018 will mark the centenary of the Iolaire disaster which killed at least 201 sailors returning home the Outer Hebrides following the end of the war.

Having survived the conflict, the men were just 20 yards from the shoreline of home when the HMY Iolaire went off course and crashed on the rocks in a winter gale at the Beasts of Holm just before 2am on January 1. Their families waited for them at the harbour side, unaware of the tragedy unfolding so near.

As the centenary of the disaster dawns, a series of remembrances will honour those who died as well as those who survived the tragedy and lived through Lewis’ darkest days.

READ MORE: The emigrant islanders who took the Hebrides to Detroit

HMY Iolaire was approaching Stornoway harbour when she struck a  a submerged reef known as the Beasts of Holm. The wreck remains in the water today. PIC: TSPL.

HMY Iolaire was approaching Stornoway harbour when she struck a a submerged reef known as the Beasts of Holm. The wreck remains in the water today. PIC: TSPL.

The commemorations will also recognise how the tragedy shaped an island stripped of so many young men so quickly and offer a very public expression of the private pain endured over the decades.

Several artistic responses to the tragedy have taken shape on Lewis over recent weeks. A new memorial has been designed for Beasts of Holm, new artwork is being built in the sea to replicate the scale of the boat and its losses and a special composition has been performed by musicians Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm .

On Hogmanay, a concert will be held during the hours the men approached home in 1918. Shortly before 2am on January 1, a small delegation of dignitaries and families will head to Holm for a short vigil close to the spot where dozens tried to scramble to shore in the chaos of the night.

READ MORE: Island looks to 100th anniversary of Iolaire disaster

Wreaths will be thrown in the water where the wreck of the Iolaire still remains.

Nick Smith, heritage manager at Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle, Stornoway, said: “People obviously recognise that it is an extremely important and very sad event but it is one that has to be marked. It is recognition of the huge impact the disaster had at the time and the lasting affect it had on Lewis and Harris.”

Mr Smith said some might draw a link between the Iolaire and the mass emigration from the island on board the Metagama in 1923, when 300 young Lewis emigrants - all but 20 of them young men with an average age of 22 - set sail for Canada.

He added: “Certainly, there is a local feeling that was another large number of young people lost to the island. It could be seen as another consequence of the disaster.

“Now, people recognise that there is an opportunity to commemorate the disaster and remember those who lost their lives but also those who survived - those who had to carry on with their lives.”

An exhibition at Museum nan Eilean remembers the Iolaire from the starting point of island’s contribution to the war effort to long aftermath of the disaster. The worldwide response to the disaster and the funds sent by islanders scattered across the world, from United States and Canada to Argentina, Siam (now Thailand) and South Africa is touched upon, as is the struggling of those forced to cope amid the loss of their husbands, brothers and sons.

A letter from Mrs John Morrison, of Back, describes the impact of losing her husband on the family croft.

Mrs Morrison, who was bed bound by illness, said: “We have a small croft but owing to our having to pay for the ploughing and other heavy work done on it, it is a great expense. In the same way our peat-cutting costs a considerable amount owing to their being no man at home to look after it.”

Mr Smith added: “The commemoration is about remembering in the community but also making sure that other people in the country and around the world know about the Iolaire and it’s impact. It is one of the very worst peacetime disasters in the UK but still so many people do not know about it.”

Artist Malcolm Maclean, of Uig, Lewis, has created a sea-based installation that replicates the Iolaire to scale by using 280 posts - each one marking a servicemen who was on board the boat at the time of the disaster.

Each post is due to be individually illuminated with 79 painted white to represent the survivors.

Mr Maclean has been working with journalist Torcuil Crichton, who is originally from Lewis, on the memorial.

He said: “We felt is was extremely significant that everyone on board the ship was incorporated into the piece.”

Among the survivors of the Iolaire was John Maclennan from Uig, who escaped the Iolaire in his bare feet, walked to Stornoway and managed to catch a lift to the then Calanais ferry before walking into his mother’s home at Kneep.

He made it home before news of the disaster had fully filtered through. Maclennan was unable to leave his house for a long time given he was unable to face the families of those who drowned.

Mr Maclean also told of a serviceman who walked - shocked, frozen and with no shoes - back to his family home in Harris.

He added: “We wanted to show all those involved and the numbers of those who survived and those who did not.

“Those who survived very rarely talked about. What we wanted to do was create a visual expression to all that private pain that wasn’t expressed in the past.”