Impact on community

The Iolaire disaster had a profound effect on the communities of Lewis and Harris. Having survived the horrors of the First World War, the subsequent loss of men coming home at a time that should have been full of celebration and welcoming was a deep and shocking loss that many communities never recovered from.

In this section we hear from some of the people on Lewis today, all with links to the event, on their own thoughts about the Iolaire disaster.

Illustration of clock on a mantelpiece next to a plant.

Malcolm MacLeod, secretary of the Stornoway Historical Society and grandson of serviceman lost on the Iolaire

For days after the disaster the villages were under a dark cloud. Not a weaver's shuttle went into a loom: no work was performed except what was necessary. The villages were so quiet that even a cock crowing or a dog barking gave people a sudden start. Slowly normality returned with no public mourning. But the sadness and heartfelt grief carried on, and for them that had lost their loved ones, the gaps were never filled.

The loss of so many young men in the war left a voluminous void in the population of Lewis and Harris. The majority of these young men were single and, therefore, did not leave a generation of young children to follow in their footsteps. Many of the young women left behind ended up living out their days as spinsters. Like those that had died in the war, a number of those drowned on the ‘Iolaire’ were engaged to be married or were going to get engaged when they arrived home.

The interminable silence about the disaster lasted in all the villages and in Stornoway until Councillor Allan Cameron, ex-RNR, suggested nearly 40 years later that a memorial be erected at Holm.

This island-wide phenomenon had been a wall of silence that descended on the entire community after the tragedy with people not wanting to talk about it at all. There was strong opposition initially towards erecting the ‘Iolaire’ Memorial as it had stirred up painful memories for many.

The women wore black like those who had lost their men folk in the war and nobody dared to mention anything about it in croft houses or in public. It became a taboo subject. The reticence to talk openly was island wide. Nevertheless the innermost thoughts of those affected were in turmoil. The image of the empty horse-drawn cart was a painful memory for the families of all those whose loved one was not recovered from the sea. Visiting the local cemetery made others dread going as their loved ones were there.

In 1994, in an article in the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, Roddy Murray wrote about the silence:

That it was not widely spoken of, is in no doubt. Why, is a matter of conjecture. A silent consensus of respect for the dead and the next of kin. Or possibly that it was simply beyond mere words. Too serious and too sensitive for discussion and certainly not a topic for the dinner table.

It was only after the ‘Iolaire’ Memorial was erected, the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ booklet ‘Sea Sorrow’ was published and a BBC radio programme was broadcast in the late 1950s, that people born years later even heard of the disaster. Many did not know that a grandfather or granduncle had been lost in such tragic circumstances.

The hero with the rope, John Finlay MacLeod only spoke twice of that awful night to his son. Once at the outbreak of war in 1939 and again in 1965 when he and fellow survivor John Murray revisited the scene of the disaster for the first time.

My grandfather perished on the ‘Iolaire’ but both my sister and I were not told about the event until 1958. I was ten years-old at that time and my sister was 17. My father had been orphaned by the disaster and never spoke about it in any detail whatsoever.  He spoke briefly about his tragic early life to my sister when aged over 80. My grandfather's remains were not recovered and we assume that this traumatic occurrence badly affected him. I was named after my grandfather.

Illustration of a jug.

Freya MacLeod, great-grandaughter of Iolaire survivor John F MacLeod

I’m Freya, I’m 17 and I live in Stornoway (though my father’s family is from Port of Ness). I first heard about the ‘Iolaire’ when I was four or five years old. I think my parents first mentioned it and we also studied it as part of a project in primary school.

I have a close connection to John F. MacLeod. He was my great-grandfather (my dad’s grandfather). I didn’t know him but apparently he was very like my own grandfather. He was a boat-builder, spending most of his time building Ness boats and he was very knowledgeable about the sea. John F. saved more than sixty people when the Iolaire sank, with just a single rope.

My family doesn’t speak very often about what happened. However, from time to time the subject comes up on BBC ALBA, in school, or even just something like this and I ask my dad and grandfather questions about it. Every time, I find out something I wasn’t aware of before. John F. rarely spoke about his time on the Iolaire though. My dad says he was always very quiet and modest about what happened.

I think a lot of young people that go through Gaelic Medium Education know about it because it’s part of island culture. In primary school there were always people at the Mòd singing, reciting poetry or in plays about the Iolaire, and that’s why the subject is more well-known within young people in the Gaelic world.

Illustration of a picture on a living room wall.

Young Lewis voices

These recordings are in Gaelic but you can read the English transcripts here.

Andrew MacKinnon, 23, Stornoway

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Kathleen Corbett, 18, South Galson

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Fiona Rennie, 24, South Galson

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Mairi Ross, 23, Point

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The last Iolaire orphan [English only]

Marion MacLeod (née Smith), known by all as Mòr Bhrὺ, was born in 1914 in Earshader and was the daughter of Kenneth and Christine Smith. Kenneth served in the Royal Naval Reserve and was 45 at the time of the disaster. He is buried at Bosta on the Isle of Lewis.

In this video, ‘When I heard the bell’ author John Macleod recalls a poignant conversation with Mòr in the run up to her 94th birthday.

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Read a transcript of this video here