The devastating losses of the bereaved, compounded by the trauma of an event affecting the whole community, is summed up vividly by Mrs Marion MacLeod of Brue on Lewis (known as Mòr Bhrù) who recalls this from her childhood:
‘…it was the – the - most awful thing you can imagine. All those men. Men of your own age, younger, the working men, those who supported families. The breadwinners, we would say now. And all at once. It was at New Year, and the worst thing – those women, those wives and mothers, they had been worrying so long, all through the War, wondering if their men would be safe and would come home. And they had thought, now, their worries were over, because the War was finished, and then…’
From John MacLeod’s ‘When I heard the bell: the loss of the Iolaire’, page 207.
You can also hear the author talk about a memorable conversation he had with Mòr.
Two hundred and five men drowned in the Iolaire disaster, and only 75 survived. Bodies washed ashore for some time after the event, but sadly 56 were never recovered. The island ran out of coffins. Some Iolaire survivors felt guilt at surviving when so many of their family and friends had drowned, and found it difficult to talk to the bereaved. The trauma of the disaster added to the feeling of dislocation felt by some of the service-men who had survived the war but found it difficult to relate to those around them who had not experienced life in the trenches. The pain of the community ran so deep that the disaster was rarely spoken of. So many were left widowed and orphaned that it is hard for us nowadays to imagine the impact of this event on such a small, tight-knit community.
See the ‘Stornoway Gazette & West Coast Advertiser’ 10 January 1919.
Stornoway Gazette & West Coast Advertiser 10 January 1919, Page 2
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Demand for answers
However, the community demanded answers, and there were immediate calls for an inquiry. Questions abounded, such as what course the Iolaire had taken, or if there had been navigational errors, and there were rumours of intoxication amongst the crew.
A Naval Court of Inquiry took place immediately. Its proceedings were held in private and its findings reported to the Admiralty, but were not made publicly available until 1970. Its report was inconclusive:-
'There is no evidence to explain how the accident occurred as none of the officers on board, or the helmsman or lookouts who were on deck at the time are among the survivors. No opinion can be given as to whether blame is attributable to anyone in the matter.'
A Public Inquiry was held before a jury in Stornoway in February 1919. Its findings were published widely in the press. It found that insufficient care was taken in the approach to the harbour, that no orders were given by officers, that there was a delay in life-saving equipment reaching the scene, and that there were insufficient lifebelts, boats and rafts on board for the number of passengers. However it found no evidence of intoxication amongst the crew.
- Drastic improvements be made immediately for conveying the life-saving apparatus in the case of ships in distress
- That the Lighthouse Commissioners take into consideration the question of putting up a light on the Holm side of the harbour
- That the Government will in future provide adequate and safe travelling facilities for naval ratings and soldiers.
- That the bravery of Seaman J F MacLeod in swimming ashore with a line for a hawser be recognised by the Carnegie Trust and the Royal Humane Society
The provision of life-saving equipment for passengers had been addressed by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) after the 1912 Titanic Disaster, but had not been implemented due to the war. It was subsequently enforced in international law by the International Convention of the Safety of Life at Sea 1929, and in UK law by the Merchant Shipping (Safety and Load Line Conventions) 1929.
See the Public Inquiry Recommendations published in The Scotsman 12
Public Inquiry Recommendations published in The Scotsman 12 February 1919. Opens in new window.
An Iolaire Disaster Fund was established almost immediately, and raised a large sum of money, both by donation and from fund-raising events organised by the Highland Societies in Glasgow and elsewhere. There was no welfare state at this time, so its payments were a vital source of support to families which had lost their breadwinner. Its funds were distributed widely amongst dependents, including grand-parents. Its payments were larger than the money the government gave to War Widows, so may in themselves have been a source of tension.
See the newspaper accounts about the fund:
Stornoway Gazette & West Coast Advertiser 24 January 1919.
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Oban Times 25 January 1919.
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Like the rest of Britain, Lewis and Harris suffered from the effects of the post-war economic collapse and the impact of the Spanish flu epidemic which raged at the time. This was made worse by the decline of the herring fishing industry, a long-standing support to their economy, due to the loss of its East European markets. Many seamen had also served as Royal Naval Reservists, and the retainer they had received for this was another income lost to the grieving families. There is much evidence of real hardship and suffering, as well as many reports of how the community supported each other and shared what little they had.
The need for land distribution in the Highlands and Islands had long been an issue. This was first addressed by the Crofters Act 1886, which granted security of tenure to crofters. In 1911 the Small Landowners (Scotland) Act had promised a re-distribution of crofting and farm lands, and the Board of Agriculture for Scotland had been established to implement this. Its powers were extended by the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act 1919, which gave it the power to break-up sheep farms and sporting estates. Therefore returning servicemen had reasonable expectations of gaining their own crofts, but these were unfulfilled. This was partly because farms on Lewis, unlike other areas, were already so small that they couldn’t be broken up much further, and there were few sporting estates anyway. In addition, crofting was not supported by Lord Leverhulme, who owned Lewis and Harris at the time. He did not understand that crofting was a way of life as well as a means of income, so he did not give up his land for re-distribution. He did create work to provide income for the islanders, but the ultimate failure of these projects added to the overall poverty.
Depopulation and emigration
Faced with these traumas and disappointments, many chose to emigrate to the Scottish mainland and beyond. For example, in 1923, some 800 young Lewis men and women emigrated to Canada, many on board the Metagama, to take up new lives as farm labourers and domestic servants. The Empire Settlement Act 1922 enabled the government to provide financial assistance to emigrants if they were nominated by a British subject in Canada, and this was taken up. This continued a pattern of emigration which was already well established in the previous century, as a result of earlier clearances and poverty, but it exacerbated the economic hardship felt by those remaining on the island.
A memorial to the Iolaire Disaster was erected in 1960 and a memorial service was held on 1 January 1999.
The tragedy remains an overwhelming event in the history of Lewis and Harris, but as survivors and memories diminish, it is an event which is becoming more widely known. It has been recognised by the Scottish Commemorations Panel as the final Scottish event of WW1 and will be commemorated on its 100th anniversary in January 1919.
This photograph taken in 2016 shows the Iolaire memorial on the left, with the Beasts of Holm rocks on the right.