New book tells story of Iolaire disaster 100 years on

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A generation of men were lost on the Isle of Lewis when the Iolaire, carrying sailors home from war, hit rocks and sank less than a mile from Stornoway on New Year’s Day in 1919.

Some 201 were lost in the tragedy that cut so deeply it was not publicly discussed by islanders for decades.

A new book published a century on – the result of almost 20 years’ research – brings together the stories of every victim and survivor for the first time.

The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy includes accounts such as that of Donald Macleod of North Tolsta, who managed to swim ashore but on finding that his younger brother Malcolm had not made it, turned back to the sea to look for him. Both perished.

Another account tells of Donald Macaskill of Shulishader, a strong swimmer who opted to give his older brother Duncan the life jacket he had secured, only to be swept away himself.

The Beasts of Holm off the Isle of Lewis
The Iolaire struck rocks known as the Beasts of Holm (Acair Books/PA)

“There’s a bay there where most of the bodies were washed up. Young John Macaskill’s body was washed up by the cemetery wall there.

“On the other side of the cemetery is his house. So, after four years of conflict, he was washed up literally on his own doorstep.”

HMY Iolaire set off from Kyle of Lochalsh in poor weather and it is believed a navigational error contributed to the disaster which saw the boat hit rocks at the Beasts of Holm at 1.55am on January 1.

She sank 90 minutes later, within sight of the lights of Stornoway.

There were 280 men on board, including 254 sailors returning home from service in the Great War. The remainder were passengers and crew.

Katie Watt was six years old when she saw bodies washed ashore the following day – having ignored her mother’s instructions to stay away.

She is quoted in the book: “My goodness, that sight, it never went out of my memory. From the shore at the Battery all the way over to Sandwick was black with bodies, and the waves that were coming in, they were throwing the bodies up onto the shore on top of all of these bodies…”

Front cover of The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy
The new publication is the result of 20 years’ research (Acair Books/PA)

Indeed, the tragedy was not openly discussed by the community for around 40 years, until the first memorial was erected at Holm in 1960.

Mr Macdonald said: “Apparently there was a huge silence that descended over the island after all the funerals had been held – nobody wanted to talk about it.

“It wasn’t until around 1958 that it was first muted that a memorial be erected opposite the site of the sinking. It was only then that BBC radio started interviewing survivors and a little booklet was issued by the Stornoway Gazette newspaper.

“From then on people talked a lot more about it. It was then I found out that my own grandfather hadn’t just been lost in the First World War, he had been drowned on his own shore.”

The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy is available from priced £25.

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