Hundreds of people, some from as far afield as Canada, have gathered at the Iolaire Memorial in Stornoway for a poignant national ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the country’s worst maritime disasters.
Descendents of those who died when the HMY Iolaire hit the rocks just yards from the Lewis shoreline on January 1, 1919 were among those who attended the service along with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and HRH Prince Charles, Lord of the Isles, who read a passage from the bible.
More than 200 men from Lewis, Harris and Berneray drowned after the naval yacht sunk at the Beasts of Holm when the captain inexplicably veered off course.
The majority of those onboard were servicemen returning home to the safety of the islands following the perils of World War One.
Ms Sturgeon, said: “As we welcome in the New Year, today in Stornoway we rightly look back 100 years and remember those lost on the Iolaire - a tragedy that involved so many, so close to shore and, for most of the men, so close to home.
“We reflect on those who perished and how survivors, family, friends and the wider communities on Lewis, Harris and Berneray must have felt.
“It may have been a century ago but the legacy of the Iolaire will never be forgotten. I was honoured to be part of the commemorations and meet descendants.”
Descendants who attended the service included Anne Frater, whose great grandfather was among those on board, and Malcolm Macdonald whose grandfather died in the disaster.
Mr Macdonald has co-written a book about the tragedy ‘The Darkest Dawn’ which tracks the stories of all those on board. HRH The Lord of the Isles wrote the Foreword for the book.
Meanwhile, one of the wreath bearers, Lt Alison Ross of the Royal Navy, is the great great niece of John Finlay Macleod, a hero of the hour who grabbed a rope, swam ashore and led around 40 of the 79 survivors to safety.
It is this rope that is depicted in the new Iolaire sculpture, which has been placed next to existing memorial at Holm, which was unveiled today by the Lord of the Isles.
Meanwhile, Stornoway-based Constable Shona Macdonald, whose Great Grandfather from Inner Coll lost his life on the Iolaire, laid a wreath on behalf of Police Scotland.
Volunteer Coast Guard Robert McKinnon laid a wreath on behalf of the Stornoway Coast Guard. Mr McKinnon’s grandfather, after whom he is named, made it to shore and helped secure the rope that John Finlay Macleod had brought ashore.
He walked home to Harris, a distance of nearly 50 miles, soaked but safe.
The Iolaire tragedy is viewed as having fundamentally altered the population of the island, which sustained heavy losses during the conflict, by pushing waves of migration in the early part of the 20th Century.
Such was the despair around events that people did not talk about the tragedy for decades with the subject a taboo on the islands.
The 100th anniversary has led to a number of ceremonial and artistic responses to the disaster.
As the service took place on land today, a similar event, led by Rev James Maciver of the Stornoway Free Church, was held on board Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV Loch Seaforth ferry near where the Iolaire hit the rocks.
Over 500 people were on board, including schoolchildren from the Western Isles who threw 201 red carnations into the sea.
Professor Norman Drummond, chair of WW100 Scotland and the Scottish Commemorations Panel, commented: “Today was a very poignant and fitting WW100 Scotland Commemoration of the Iolaire tragedy as we remember the events of 100 years ago.
“Trying to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families on their return and the sorrow that was to follow is beyond comprehension for many of us.
“The Iolaire remains one of the worst UK maritime disasters of the 20th Century.”
Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Chairman of the Iolaire Working Group, Norman A Macdonald, said:
“This was a very poignant service that chimes very much with the events that have already taken place and will continue to take place into the future, throughout the communities from the Butt to Barra, in memory of the men who lost their lives so close to shore. The events of that terrible night in January 1919 impacted on communities throughout the Western Isles and remain a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our young men in the service of their country. It is the worst tragedy to befall our Islands and its effect reverberates to this day.”
In the early hours of this morning, the convener led a small vigil at the Memorial to the minute the Iolaire hit the rocks.
The Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison delivered a short service followed by a two minute silence at 1.55am.
At the end of the silence a Lone Piper played “Lament for the Iolaire” while the Stornoway Lifeboat illuminated the rocks from the sea.
Earlier, a torchlit parade wound its way through Stornoway with 201 flames representing each man who died with a special anniversary event of music, psalms and poetry broadcast live from the town.
THe Iolaire set sail from Lewis from the Kyle of Lochalsh on Hogmanay 1918 around 3pm with a service held at Kyle Railway Station yesterday at 3pm to remember the men who left on their final journey.
Sharon Smith is the great niece of Malcolm Thomson who was lost on the Iolaire at the age of 27.
Ms Smith said: “My great uncle Malcolm had already been in the Royal Navy Reserves for two years when World War One broke out, and he spent the whole of the war at sea.
“As far as I am aware, he never suffered any injury or illness during this time.
“At the end of the war, he was one of hundreds of sailors waiting at Kyle of Lochalsh for the boats to take them back home to Lewis.
“There were two boats allocated, the Shelia and the Iolaire. I have been told that Uncle Malcolm was due to board the Sheila but he unexpectedly met two brothers who were close childhood friends from the same village.
“They hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of the war and had much to talk about so Malcolm boarded the Iolaire with them instead. Sadly a few hours later, all three had drowned on that tragic New Year’s morning.
“My dad spoke about the deep grief and sorrow his grandmother endured for the rest of her life, and he would take us to the memorial site at Holm to remind us of the tragedy and not to forget. It will always affect our island, and it is important that the future generations continue to remember the lost.”
Ruairidh Moir from North Tolsta in Lewis is a great-great nephew of Kenneth Campbell, who was lost on the Iolaire. His family still live on the croft where Kenneth and his brothers grew up.
Mr Moir said: “Tolsta was hit hard by the disaster, it seems many of the villagers may have grouped together on board.
“One of those lost was my great-great uncle, Kenneth ‘Pedair’ Campbell, who was one of seven brothers sent to war.
“There were apparently few families in the country who had so many serving at one time, and the king wrote to their mother Isabella Campbell with the offer of allowing one of her sons to come home. She could not make the choice and all seven remained in the war. Two, Donald and Angus, died on active service during the war, with Kenneth losing his life on the Iolaire.”
Meanwhile, the communities of Point and Sandwick have remembered their sailors lost in the disaster by projecting pictures of them onto a wall of the Old Knock School.
The community’s wind turbines will also be lit up red again, as they were for Remembrance Day.