This is the full story, as told on this blog in five parts between 6pm on December 31st and 9am on January 1st.
is Hogmanay 1918, and the war has been over for seven weeks.
Survivors from the Western Front and the war at sea are flocking home.
As are hundreds of sailors from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Three trains pull into the harbourside station at Kyle of Lochalsh,
and hundreds pour onto the platform and adjoining quayside to join a
ferry home. The Skye men can take the short hop to Kyleakin, or join
the steamer north to Portree. The sailors and soldiers from the Outer
Hebrides have a longer journey ahead of them.
The mailsteamer for Stornoway, the Sheila is
alongside at Kyle, but it very rapidly becomes clear that she has
nowhere near enough space to accommodate the hundreds that want to go
home to Lewis and Harris. So, a cable is sent to the naval base at
Stornoway, and Rear Admiral Boyle sends HMY Iolaire to Kyle to relieve the congestion. Iolaire, the former private steamyacht Amalthea arrives in the early evening, bumping into the pier as she docks.
A disorganised scramble occurs, where the throng of men divides between the Sheila and the Iolaire. No record is kept as to who goes on board which vessel. Some start off by boarding the Iolaire, then switch to the Sheila. Others do the reverse swap. Finally, at half past seven, Iolaire casts off and heads north. The Sheila follows suit in short order.
year 1918 is drawing to a close and Big Ben in London is about to
start striking the midnight hour. Six hundred miles to the north, HMY Iolaire is
ploughing her way north through the Minch, passing between Raasay,
Rona and the Scottish mainland. The weather, which had been reasonable
upon departure from Kyle, is turning increasingly windy. A heavy swell
is beginning to rise in response to the strong southerly wind. The
lighthouses, which serve as reference points for mariners in the Minch,
blink their messages to Iolaire. Milaid, on the rocky cliffs
near Kebock Head; Rona; Tiumpan Head on the eastern extremity of the
Point Peninsula; and Arnish, near the entrance to Stornoway Harbour.
In dozens of houses in Lewis, glasses are charged to the New Year. The last year of war is ending.
clothes are draped over beds, a stew is heating over the fire. In the
blackhouses in Ness, and the town houses of Stornoway. A kettle is at
the ready on the stove. A plate, cutlery and cups on the table. From
Eoropie to Brenish, from Lemreway to North Tolsta, and between Manor
Park and Newton, the same scene is repeated over and over. Only two
hours to go, the boat won't make Hogmanay. But it does not really
matter, the boys will be home soon.
The clock strikes midnight. It is 1919.
Conditions in the Minch are now poor, and all on board Iolaire are
glad that the journey is nearly over. The passengers, most of them
familiar with the passage to Stornoway, are snoozing their way, lulled
to slumber by the steady if roughish motion of the waves that Iolaire rides.
The captain goes down below to rest, his second-in-command takes over
on the bridge. A fishing boat is also on its way home to Stornoway,
and is running a broadly parallel course to Iolaire.
passengers can now see the lights of Stornoway ahead, as well as the
familiar signal of the Arnish Lighthouse and its secondary beacon. All
begin to stir and start to prepare for disembarkation, which is now
only about a quarter of or half an hour away. But all is not well. The
sound of waves striking shore becomes audible over the noise of wind
The next noise is a far greater one. Iolaire changes
course abruptly, as the crew realise they have overshot the harbour
entrance. But it is too late. At 1.55 am, the ship comes to a crashing
halt on the rocks of the Beasts of Holm.
mortally damaged by her grounding, and would eventually slip from the
rocks and sink into the depths beside the Beasts of Holm. Only her
mast would be left showing above the waves.
Flares were let off, which were spotted by the fishing boat and the Sheila, which were running into Stornoway behind Iolaire. Conditions,
however, were too severe for any direct help to be offered by any
vessel, as they would place themselves into severe danger. One intrepid
man managed to bring a hawser ashore, which was to become a literal
lifeline for nearly four dozen souls. Others attempted to use the
lifeboats, which were almost immediately swamped by the heavy swell, or
smashed on the rocks nearby. For Iolaire only grounded about 50
yards from shore. Those who jumped into the sea drowned almost at
once, or were smashed onto the rocks, left lifeless. A life-saving
apparatus, a breeches' buoy, which had been brought from Stornoway,
came way too late to be useful.
Some of those that survived made their way to Stoneyfield Farm, about half a mile from the scene of Iolaire's
sinking, and their terrible news was relayed to Stornoway. The flares
had been spotted from the town, but had been (mis)taken for
The houses waited. The stew over
the fire, the teapot on the stove. The clothes on the bed, and the
made up table. The families, friends and other islanders waited. Then
news filtered through into, and from Stornoway. The Iolaire was
lost. Several dozen had been saved. But so many more were not. A
night of terrifying uncertainty drew on. Would he be among the saved?
It is early January, and daylight is still many hours away.
is just after 9 o'clock, and the sun rises over the mountains of
mainland Scotland. Its light sweeps west, and shows up a ship's mast
protruding from the sea, only a few dozen yards from the shore of Holm
Point. The figure of a man can be made out, as he holds on for dear
life. As he has done for nigh upon seven hours. Others had been with
him, but their strength had given out, and had fallen into the sea
below. The man is saved from his precarious position. He had been one of
about three hundred on board Iolaire who had left Kyle the
evening before, expecting to arrive in Stornoway at 2 am. Instead, two
hundred would never return home, and some sixty would never be
A gruesome sight presented itself on the
shores, beaches and rocky outcrops of eastern Lewis, around the bay of
Stornoway. East to Knock, north to Sandwick and Stornoway, south to
Grimshader. One hundred and forty bobbed on the tide, lost in the Iolaire.
Those that could be retrieved were taken to the naval base at the
Battery in Stornoway, to be identified and collected by family.
who had not yet had news of the tragedy would soon receive it, as
elders of the church went round, the bearers of the news of loss. A
brother, a father. An uncle, a nephew. A son, a cousin. No village was
spared. No family who was not directly or indirectly affected. The
stories abound, but are not readily told.
A dawn has broken on a new year. In 2009, several hundred
gathered at the little memorial at Holm Point to remember. It was a
beautiful mild winter's day, with not a breath of wind. We looked
south, across the Minch, where the jagged humps of the Shiants, the
distant lines of Skye, and on a day of exceptional clarity, even the
hills behind Kyle can be made out, 75 miles away. In this day and age, a
short journey. In 1919, a journey that was never completed by two
hundred and five souls.
Rest in peace.
A full listing of names can be found here
exact cause for the foundering of HMY Iolaire has never been fully
cleared up, and theories abound. There are accusations of a cover-up by
the Royal Navy, drunkenness on the part of the crew, and speculation on
the factors played by the weather. It is not the object of this blog
to apportion blame, or determine the exact cause for the tragedy. This
is a tribute to the two hundred and five who perished at the Beasts of
Holm that New Year's night in 1919.