The Iolaire disaster

It has been described as the blackest day in the history of the Western Isles when more than 200 servicemen returning from the First World War died as their ship went down in sight of Stornoway harbour. Despite being Britain’s worst maritime disaster since the Titanic, the loss of the Iolaire remains little known beyond the isles.

On April 27, the Library will remember the terrible impact of such a huge loss of life on the area with an introductory talk on the disaster followed by a new play performed by pupils from Edinburgh’s Stenhouse Primary School and Tynecastle High School. The cast of the play visited the Library recently to look at items in our collections relating to the tragedy.  We had a fascinating journey investigating first-hand accounts in newspapers, and studying maps, poetry and later research on the event.

Oban Times

The disaster occurred at 1.55am on 1st January 1919, when 205 Lewis and Harris men drowned as the HMY Iolaire sank in heavy seas. They had survived the war and were returning home for the New Year celebrations when the ship struck the rocks at Holm, 20 yards from the shore.

A report in the Stornoway Gazette recorded the impact of the tragedy:

No one now alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of our bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their homes under the most tragic circumstances.  The terrible disaster at Holm on New Year’s morning has plunged every house and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable.  Language cannot express the anguish, the desolation, the despair which this awful catastrophe has inflicted.  One thinks of the wide circle of blood relations affected by the loss of even one of the gallant lads, and imagination sees those circles multiplied by the number of the dead, overlapping and overlapping each other till the whole island – every hearth and home it is shrouded in deepest gloom.

Messages of sympathy were received from far and wide, including from the King and Queen and from Lord Leverhulme, who had purchased the island of Lewis the previous year. He also led calls for a disaster fund to be set up and fund raising events were initiated.   The Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Associations of Edinburgh and Glasgow arranged to take collections in all picture houses under their control for a week. A fundraising concert was arranged in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on 14 February 1919, at which Scott Skinner, the acclaimed  fiddler and composer and many others performed.


[Scotsman, 6 January.]

Calls for an enquiry came quickly, amidst suggestions of negligence on the part of the crew.  A public inquiry was held in February 1919 and the jury found that insufficient care had been taken on the approach to Stornoway, as the vessel did not slow down or change course.  In addition, it was not carrying enough life-saving equipment and there had been delays in the emergency services reaching the scene. HMY Iolaire was equipped with lifeboats for 100 men but was sailing with more than 300. There followed various recommendations, including that the Lighthouse Commissioners consider putting up a light on the Holm side of the harbour, and that the Government should improve travelling facilities for naval ratings and soldiers. This is reported in The Scotsman, 12 February 1919, which can be viewed in the Library or via our website’s Licensed Digital Collections page with a reader’s ticket.

A naval inquiry held at the time was not made public until 1970. It had concluded that no blame could be attributed to anybody as the ship’s log had been lost and all of the officers had perished.

Admiralty chart

[Admiralty Chart 1910, showing the complicated approach to Stornoway Harbour, with the Biasten Holm, the rocks called the Beasts of Holm where the disaster struck at the bottom right hand corner.  See the original  The farms nearest the rocks, Stoneyfield Farm and Holm Field Farm, which were involved in rescue operations, are also shown].

Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords in 2001, on the Select Committee Report on the causes of the Chinook Helicopter crash in 1994,  Baroness Michie of Gallanach compared its findings to those of the Iolaire Disaster.  She commented that “only the ‘Titanic’ exceeds as Britain’s worst disaster at sea during the last century, yet beyond the Minch few have ever heard of the ‘Iolaire’”.  See Hansard, 5 November 2002:-

As the centenary of the disaster approaches in 2019, the story of the Iolaire is likely to become better known. Meanwhile, in the Western Isles, it has remained etched in the collective memory of families and communities for generations.