National commemoration to mark centenary of HMY Iolaire sinking

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Prince Charles and the First Minister will join descendants of those killed in one of the UK’s worst maritime disasters to mark 100 years since the tragedy.

More than 200 people died when the HMY Iolaire, which was carrying sailors home from the First World War, hit rocks around 20 yards from shore and sank near Stornoway in Lewis on New Year’s Day in 1919.

A National Commemorative Service will take place on January 1, 2019, organised by WW100 Scotland in conjunction with Western Isles Council to mark the centenary of the tragedy.

Hundreds of people including Iolaire descendants, Scotland’s most senior Naval Officer Rear Admiral John Weale, Ms Sturgeon, Prince Charles and Norman A Macdonald, convener of Western Isles Council, will attend the event at the Iolaire Memorial in Stornoway.

Professor Norman Drummond, chairman of the Scottish Commemorations Panel, said: “It is beyond our comprehension that over 200 men perished so close to home after surviving the war in what remains one of the worst UK maritime disasters of the 20th century.

“When you look out from the Iolaire Memorial to where HMY Iolaire hit the rocks of The Beasts of Holm, you are struck by just how close they were to shore.

“It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families on their return and then the sorrow that was to follow.

“It is right and fitting that we hold a WW100 Scotland Commemoration in their memory and reflect on the lasting impact this tragic incident had on future generations on the Western Isles and far beyond.”

At the end of the service, to be conducted by the Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison, the prince will unveil a new sculpture to commemorate the tragedy, a bronze depiction of a coiled heaving line that references the heroism of John Finlay Macleod, who swam ashore with a rope to rescue 40 of the 79 men who were saved.

It was created by artists Will Maclean, Marian Leven and Arthur Watson, and will bear the names of those lost and the communities they came from as well as a bronze wreath composed of maritime insignia.

HMY Iolaire

More than 200 people died when the HMY Iolaire sank off Lewis (Lewis Museum Trust/PA)

While the service on land is taking place, a similar event, led by Rev James Maciver, of the Stornoway Free Church, will be held on board Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV Loch Seaforth ferry, which will be situated near where the Iolaire hit the rocks just off Holm in view of the Iolaire Memorial.

More than 500 people will be on board, including schoolchildren from the Western Isles who will throw 201 red carnations into the sea, one for each of the men that perished, as the service draws to a close.

At 3pm on December 31, a special commemoration will be held by Legion Scotland at Kyle Railway Station where the sailors disembarked before heading for the Iolaire 100 years ago.

Historian Malcolm Macdonald, who has co-written a book titled The Darkest Dawn about the tragedy, lost his grandfather in the disaster.

He said: “Two ships left that night bound for Stornoway, one HMY Iolaire, the other SS Sheila, which left later.

“There are many sad tales of those that swapped places to ensure that friends could get home to their families earlier.”

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