Media transcripts


On 31 December 1918, the Iolaire was on her way to Stornoway taking home nearly 300 veterans of the First World War.

At two in the morning she ran aground within sight of the shore and tragically over 200 men drowned in what is still the largest peacetime disaster at sea since the Titanic.

This website presents a variety of historic sources as well as voices both young and old to ensure their story is never forgotten.

Back to top

The last Iolaire orphan

Transcript of interview with John Macleod, author of ‘When I heard the Bell’

Who was the last Iolaire orphan?

That was Mòr MacLeod. She was a wonderful old lady. She was born in 1914 in the village of Earshader in Uig on Lewis, and served in the Second World War as the district-nurse of Barvas and Brue and died in 2012. She was then 97 years old and was the very last orphan of the Iolaire disaster.

Mòr was a remarkable woman, a great tradition-bearer with beautiful Gaelic, very poised and educated; articulate. Widely interviewed in her last years - she did all kinds of things, folk medicine, traditional song, local history and so on - but she also spoke very powerfully and vividly about the Iolaire. She never forgot that night when she lost her father, even though she was then still only four years-old.

Mòr's mother, incidentally, was the last Iolaire widow and she died in 1980, November 1980, at the age of 92. And Mòr was a great help when I was writing my book and I asked her one afternoon what her mother had remembered of the disaster that night. And to my astonishment, Mòr replied quite calmly, 'We never spoke about it, I never asked her about it. My husband and I never mentioned it in front of her and our children knew it was never to be brought up when she was in the room.'

That's quite extraordinary when you think about it. A woman widowed by the Iolaire disaster, her daughter orphaned by it. The widow living so long that the daughter was 66 years old when she died - and they never once discussed it.

And I think that, more than anything else, brings home the horror of the Iolaire disaster in the Lewis community.

Back to top


Transcript of interview with author John Macleod

Why did you decide to write a book about the Iolaire?

It was something that had tormented me all my life. I learned of it when I was 10 years old when my father first told me of my grandparents who could never talk about it without great distress. My grandfather for instance who was a boy of eight at the time never forgot standing outside his door on the family home on Cross, the village of Cross and seeing the carts coming over the brae with coffins. Carts passing the house. Carts with one coffin, carts with two coffins, carts with four coffins. Coffins after coffins. In fact one detail I learned much later, the disaster was of such a scale the isle of Lewis actually ran out of coffins and a load had to be sent for from Kyle on the island steamer.

It was a colossal event and I found had never been properly written about. There’d been one small pamphlet about it in 1972, which was a re-hash of newspaper material of 1919 and there’s a very worthwhile book by Domhnall MacDonald [written] in 1978 almost entirely in Gaelic. And I felt it was time to have a serious English treatment of the disaster. I felt it was very important to do it then in 2008 while there were still some orphans alive, quite a number of people alive that could remember it. Almost nine years later and the disaster is utterly out of living memory. The last person alive that could remember it died in April 2015.

Out of all the heroism and tragedy of that dark day, what stands out for you the most?

The sheer waste of life. Two hundred and five men drowned, 189 of them natives of the island in an eminently avoidable accident. These men did not die heroically in war. They were killed by colossal carelessness and human error. A ship ran aground in not really bad weather conditions on a notorious reef well off the main shipping line by utterly incompetent officers.

My dominant emotion even today is just anger, anger at how it happened. And anger that it was never properly explained and the authorities never apologised for it. In just one astonishingly crass move they put this wreck up for sale, for salvage, for scrap when dozens of bodies still hadn’t been recovered.

Back to top

Young Lewis voices

Andrew MacKinnon, 23, Stornoway

Interviewer: I’m here with Andrew Mackinnon. Andrew, where are you from and how old are you?
Andrew Mackinnon: I’m from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and I’m 23 years old.

I: When and where did you first hear about the Iolaire?
AM: Growing up, I often heard about the Iolaire because we had a family connection, so we always talked about it. I remember when I was younger we used to go out to Holm, Isle of Lewis where the incident took place, and I saw just how close it really was. But I don’t know specifically when I first heard about it because it’s something I’ve always heard discussed around me.

I: And since you had a family connection, would anyone in your family talk to you directly about the incident?
AM: Yes, the family connection wasn’t distant, it was an uncle of my father’s who was lost and because of that we’d often hear about it. We had a coin, which every family who lost someone on the Iolaire received. So we had that, and we’d often look at it. When I was younger I used to play with it and ask about it and why we had it. So with all that we’d talk about it from time to time.

I: So do you think young people today know enough about the Iolaire?
AM: That’s hard to say, because I did know about it, and I think a lot of my generation did. But I think it’s different now, maybe especially for people that don’t have Gaelic. They might not be so aware of what happened. But I hope that the fact we’re commemorating 100 years soon will raise awareness of this horrendous tragedy and that more people will talk about it as a result.

Kathleen Corbett, 18, South Galson

I: I’m here with Kathleen Corbett. Kathleen, how old are you and where are you from?
Kathleen Corbett: I’m 18 years old and I’m from South Galson on the Isle of Lewis.

I: When and where did you first hear about the Iolaire?
KC: We did a project about the Iolaire when I was on primary five, but we didn’t do anything else in school until I was on fifth year in secondary school. We studied ‘Raoir Reubadh an Iolaire’, a poem by Murdo Macfarlane, and I found that really interesting as it is about island events.

I: Did you have a family connection to anyone on the Iolaire?
KC: Yes, my great-grandmother’s uncle was lost on the Iolaire.

I: So with this, did your family often talk about the Iolaire?
KC: There was a big impact on the Lewis community after the incident, and no one really spoke to me about it. I know it was very hard for families and sometimes people just didn’t want to ask.

I: Do you think young people on Lewis today have much knowledge of the incident?
KC: There’s opportunity to get knowledge, because there are lots of books available now where you can learn more, if people still don’t want to talk about it. I think it’s good to read poetry about the Iolaire in school too, because this opens the subject up and makes it easier to talk about.

Fiona Rennie, 24, South Galson

Interviewer: I’m here with Fiona Rennie. Fiona, where are you from and how old are you?
Fiona Rennie: I’m from South Galson on the Isle of Lewis and I’m 24 years old.

I: When and where did you first hear about the Iolaire?
FR: Like many people in this community, I’d say I first learned about it in school. People didn’t really talk about it at home at first when the incident took place, but now people do, as some stories are occasionally brought up from time to time. However, it’s also known about through songs and poetry, like those of Murdo MacFarlane.

I: Did you have a family connection to the Iolaire?
FR: Yes, two people were lost from the Iolaire in our family, one from my grandmother’s side and one from my grandfather’s side. Norman Martin from Shader, a distant connection but a relation nonetheless, and Angus Gillies from Dell was also lost.

I: As a result of this, did anyone in your family talk to you about the incident?
FR: The oldest generation didn’t talk about it, but my mother did, and other people her age. My mum is very interested in researching about her grandparents and great-grandparents, so she would talk about it. We would talk about it for school projects too. But the people that were affected by the tragedy, they would never speak about it.

I: Do you think that many young people today know a lot about the Iolaire?
FR: I don’t think that there’s enough information about the history of the Iolaire in this community, and in the whole community of the Isle of Lewis. They highlight it in Gaelic classes through poetry and song, but not really through a factual, historical standpoint. I think people could be studying and learning more about the history of their own area rather than completely focusing on foreign events.

Mairi Ross, 23

I: I’m here with Mairi Ross. Mairi, where are you from and how old are you?
MR: I’m 23 years old and I’m from the Isle of Lewis.

I: When and where did you first hear about the Iolaire?
MR: I first heard about the Iolaire in primary school from our teacher.

I: Did you have a family connection to the Iolaire?
MR: As far as I know, we had a distant connection to someone on the boat.

I: As a result of this, did anyone in your family talk about what happened?
MR: My grandfather was in the war, and as a result of that, we heard lots of stories about the war and about the Iolaire.

I: Do you think that young people today know a lot about the Iolaire?
MR: I’m not sure if people have enough knowledge about the Iolaire. Older people certainly know a lot, but I’m not sure about the younger generations.

Back to top