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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

The men of Lewis

jay dubaya

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I shall have a tot of Scotch in memory of the men of Lewis who never got
back to their families in the New Year of 1919

The Isle of Lewis had a hard war. Some 6,200 men joined up and nearly
1,000 had died. Every family on the island had lost fathers, sons,
brothers or uncles. So, the night of 31 December 1918 was tense with
expectation. The war was finally over, the world was at peace and
after four long years the men who had served king and country were on
their way home.
The Kyle of Lochalsh was alive. Hundreds of laughing, boisterous
servicemen were crowded onto the quay. The regular steam ferry, the SS
Sheila, was soon packed so the Royal Navy ordered the Iolaire across
the Minch from her berth in Stornoway to carry the extra men left
The Iolaire had been a luxury yacht before the war, sailing under the
name of the Amalthaea. She was used by the navy in anti−submarine and
patrol work when she was renamed the Iolaire Gaelic for "Sea Eagle".
When she arrived in Kyle there was some discussion between the Master,
Commander Mason and Commander Walsh, in charge at Kyle. Commander
Mason was worried about the paucity of lifesaving equipment onboard.
She was kitted out with only two lifeboats and lifejackets for 80.
Even more worrying she had never sailed into Stornoway harbour at
night, a tricky manoeuvre in daylight.
Discussions were brought up short when two more trains arrived at the
quay spilling out more demobbed men. The master ordered the 284
servicemen, predominately navy reserves, up the gangplank and onto the
She left at 9:30pm, sailing out of the darkness of the new year. But
12 miles out of Stornoway Harbour the weather turned. As a gale took
hold the crew of a local fishing boat watched in confusion as the
Iolaire failed to change course to make harbour. Instead she carried
on full steam ahead into the pitch black night.
Biastan Thuilm − the Beasts of Holm − is a rocky outcrop just short of
the harbour entrance. A small light attached to the rock warns
mariners of the approaching danger. When the Iolaire failed to turn,
the flickering light was useless. The momentum of the ship kept
pushing her forward.
Visibility was poor. Sleet was falling and the seas were wild. When
the ship collided with the "Beasts" she went over almost immediately.
Nobody on board knew where they were. The boat was lying only about 20
feet from land, but between the ship and the rocks was a boiling,
raging sea. Fifty men jumped into the water and made for shore. They
all drowned in the freezing water. The two lifeboats were launched,
but were swamped immediately as too many men battled for too few
At three o’clock in the morning the ship’s back broke and she went
As the men onboard slowly drowned one man, John Macleod, swam for his
life hauling a rope behind him. When he reached shore he set up
another stronger rope, and 25 men escaped along this safety line. John
Macleod was awarded the highest peacetime aware for heroism for his
incredible courage and strength.
Donald Morrison climbed the mast as the ship went down and clung on as
she submerged. He was picked up alive the next morning at 10 oclock,
having spent eight hours in the water.
His brother was not so lucky. He drowned alongside 205 men who had
seen off enemy fire only to die within shouting distance of their own
The Lewis Roll of Honour records the poignant loss of Kenneth Macphail
whose death epitomises the tragedy: "He was the sole survivor of a
ship torpedoed in the Mediterranean in October 1917. He had a terrible
experience before he was rescued having been nearly 36 hours in the
sea until washed ashore in Algeria. Pathetic in the extreme it is to
think that this powerful seaman after so miraculous an escape in the
Mediterranean, perished within a few feet of his native soil. He was found
with his hands still in his pockets, no swimming this time.

As New Years Day broke across the islands, families waiting for the
arrival of their loved ones heard rumours of a terrible disaster. Men walked
miles from villages to Stornoway searching for news. What they
found was devastating. The Scotsman of 6 January reported the tragedy,
soberly noting: "The villages of Lewis are like places of the dead.
The homes of the island are full of lamentation, grief that cannot be
Comforted“. Scarcely a family has escaped the loss of a near blood
relative. Many have had sorrow heaped upon sorrow."
Days went by and still all the men were not recovered. Boats left the
harbour in search of bodies to return as night fell to a silent crowd
waiting at the harbour. In 1959 Donald Macphail, speaking on Gaelic
radio, recalled the moment his friend found the body of his son.
‘The mans son was there, and I remember he was so handsome that I
could have said he was not dead at all. His father went on his knees
beside him and began to take letters from his sons pockets. And the
tears were splashing on the body of his son. And I think it is the
most heart rending sight I have ever seen’
Two investigations were ordered. With the crew dead no conclusion was
reached, other than to rule out drink as being the cause. A public
enquiry held later found that the deciding factor in the tragedy was
the lack of lifebelts and life craft in the vessel.

Snaking through the whole story, like a spectral ribbon are tales of
supernatural occurrences. John Macleod later told his son that he saw
his mother standing before him as he jumped into the sea. Deer,
portents of death, were seen in a number of villages that night.
Strangest of all was the story of a man from Breascleit who was
tormented with visions of a body floating in the sea. He walked to
Stornoway and directed the recovery boats to the area he had seen in
his dream. Sure enough a body was recovered in exactly the place he
had described. It was no surprise
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I new of this tragedy before but not of the details. What a terrible thing it must have been.

As a Scotsman myself I will also raise a glass to them at the bells tonight.

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Lovely posting to a most, tragic, tragic story.

See: http://warmemscot.s4.bizhat.com/viewtopic....orum=warmemscot

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Having never heard of this tragic event I have shed tears over these poor men and their families.

Such a tragedy to happen and so very close to home - thank you for bring it to our attention.

They are all in my thoughts this evening.

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Guest KevinEndon


Rest in peace all 206 men who died so close to the arms of their loved ones, our thoughts are with them.

The story says 206 men perished, Geoff's search engine gives only 115 men losing their lives on that day, is there any reason for the difference in numbers


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On the link that Derek supplies, this question is brought up by the guy who was responsable in some way (rotton memory :-(

I think there was only 7 crew listed instead of the supposed 23

RIP to those poor chaps, after going through hell and then to die on their own doorsteps


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Thanks for posting this story, which even in Scotland is not well known. I first heard of it a few years ago when visiting Stornoway.



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God Bless them all may they rest in peace

Bliadhna Mhath ur to all who remember the men of the Iolaire.

It`s a great shame on Scotland that we are not taught our own History.


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Thank you for the post and also to others for the links.

It must have been a heart wrenching tragedy for the community of Lewis after all they bore during the previous four years.

I haven't come across this event before and will pass it on to my wife's family historian. They are MacLeods of Lewis.

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Many thanks for posting the link Malcolm, I'm sure that it was a very sombre but peaceful day on Lewis today. The tragedy has pulled my heart strings ever since I read Neil Oliver's 'Not Forgotten' last year and first learnt of the disaster.


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Have found this verse which was originally posted by forum member barrieduncan,

The Iolaire - Ian Crichton Smith

The green washed over them. I saw them when

the New Year brought them home. It was a day

that orbed the horizon with an enigma.

It seemed that there were masts. It seemed that men

buzzed in the water round them. It seemed that fire

shone in the water which was thin and white

unravelling towards the shore. It seemed that I

touched my fixed hat which seemed to float and then

the sun illuminated fish and naval caps,

names of the vanished ships. In sloppy waves,

in the fat of water, they came floating home

bruising against their island. It is true

a minor error can inflict this death

that star is not responsible. It shone

over the puffy blouse, the flapping blue

trousers, the black boots. The seagulls swam

bonded to the water. Why not man?

The lights were lit last night, the tables creaked

with hoarded food. They willed the ship to port

in the New Year which would erase the old,

its errant voices, its unpractised tones.

Have we done ill, I ask? My sober hat

floated in the water, my fixed body

a simulacrum of the transient waste,

for everything was mobile, planks that swayed,

the keeling ship exploding and the splayed

cold insect bodies. I have seen your church

solid. This is not. The water pours

into the parting timbers where ache

above the globular eyes. The lsack heads turn

ringing the horizon without a sound

with mortal bells, a strange exuberant flower

unknown to our dry churchyards. I look up.

The sky begins to brighten as before,

remorseless amber, and the bruised blue grows

at the erupting edges. I have known you, God,

not as the playful one but as the black

thunderer from the hills. I kneel

and touch this dumb blonde head. My hand is scorched.

Its human quality confuses me.

I have not felt such hair so dear before

not seen such real eyes. I kneel from you.

This water soaks me. I am running with

its tart sharp joy. I am floating here

In my black uniform, I am embraced

by these green ignorant waters. I am calm

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  • 2 weeks later...

A very good programme about The Iolair on BBC 2 Scotland on Thursday 8th ( in Gaelic with subtitle )

Interview with relatives of the lads who lost their lives,fascinating how some of the men suspected the ship was not on course but would not question the Captains authority on his own ship.

Very touching how the local people never talked of the disaster or loss of life, even the man who rescued men from the shore never told his son until much later in life.

Will give you heads up if repeated.


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  • 1 month later...

The book mentioned above is now published - I've just had a quick look and it looks a very interesting read, not only about the circumstances of the loss of the Iolaire, but also the aftermath. I'll post a review once I've read it, but for the moment, I found this comment -

"For the people of Lewis, this book is long overdue. It tells the story of an event that had a catastrophic effect on that Hebidean island and does this with great authority and style, writing of the sinking of the 'Iolaire' outside Stornoway harbour on 1st January 1919. The vessel was full of servicemen returning home after the First World War; over 200 being drowned a short distance from the island they called home. It was a toll of life all the more terrible after the sacrifice of the war that had gone before.

It was an incident, too, that had a cataclysmic effect on the people of the islands of Lewis and Harris, robbing many rural communities of the young men on whom their future depended.

The power of this book is the way it not only tells the story, but also the manner in which it places the tragedy in context, both local and 'international' and shows how it influenced the later history of these islands.

The author John Macleod deserves praise for the way he has mastered - what must have been - harrowing and gruelling information, and fashioned into a masterpiece of fluent and fascinating prose. As a native of that island, I am in his debt for the way he has done this. So, too, are many others who were brought up in a landscape scarred - even today - by this terrible event. At long last, he has removed the tight gap of both time and place and allowed its victims to speak."


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