The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy

Today’s blog is, in the main, a book review – but I can’t conceive of any book that would come out of Lewis which could mean quite so much to this island.

The book is ‘The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy’ and I’ve been commissioned by Acair to write three press releases about it, ahead of its official launch on November 1.

Because I think the book will be of interest to so many, I thought I’d put it on the blog, too, so I’ll be sharing all three pieces here, as a wee mini-series, if you like. Each of the three stories will focus on a different aspect of the tragedy. For this first one, I was particularly struck by the stories of brothers, on board together.

Pull up a chair…

“See and don’t come home without Murdo now!” – it was an excited mother’s joke, waving cheerio to her daughter who was heading into Stornoway to meet her brother off the Iolaire.

Murdo Maclean, aged 31, from Leurbost, was due home on January 1, 1919 – but, like 200 other souls on board alongside him, he never made it. 

For HMY Iolaire, hit the rocks at the Beasts of Holm at 1.55am on the blackest of nights, in a rising gale. She sank 90 minutes later, at 3.25am. 

It’s a story all too well known to the Isle of Lewis and Harris – although there had been a complete silence around it for 40 years, until the first memorial was erected and Sea Sorrow was published. The BBC also ran a groundbreaking radio documentary programme around the same time.

There had been 254 sailors on the Iolaire, many of them Royal Naval Reservists with a lot of experience of the sea as fishermen, and a further 24 crew members. Every single one of the 201 men lost was a tragedy but the impact on the survivors too was huge. 

Now, on the cusp of the centenary and 100 years after the Armistice, a new book is coming out which will tell the stories of each and every one of these men for the first time. 

The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy, is being launched by Acair Books at an evening event in An Lanntair on November 1, during the Faclan Hebridean Book Festival.

It has been written by Malcolm Macdonald, chair of the Stornoway Historical Society, and the late Donald John MacLeod, who passed away earlier this year.

And although it is not billing itself as the last word or ‘definitive account’ of the tragedy, the book is the result of 20 years’ research and an amazing joint effort which brought in information, photos, memorabilia and personal stories from all over the world. 

The Comann Eachdraidh historical societies across the island worked with the authors, who tracked the life stories of all those who survived the Iolaire, even those who later emigrated – all except one – and pored over the many files about the disaster in the Admiralty’s archive. 

At nearly 500 pages, it is an impressive piece of work and a lot of the detail will be new to island readers, familiar as they might be with the tragedy itself. 

The hardback is similar in quality to Acair’s previous publication on the Great War, Dol Fodha na Grèine (The Going Down of the Sun), and community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust donated £10,000 to Acair towards the costs of producing such a special book.

With so many island families having lost grandparents and greatgrandparents on the Iolaire, demand for the book is expected to be high. It is full of information, including the navigational theories on what might have gone wrong, but it is arguably the personal stories that will hit home the most. 

Stories like those of Murdo Maclean, of No.39 Leurbost – and of so many others from his village.

Murdo Maclean, No.39 Leurbost

As well as carrying roll calls of all those who were perished, and all those who survived, the authors also created lists by village and parish, and lists of those who were sailing with brothers and those who were left fatherless by the tragedy. These run to many pages. 

The island had already paid a heavy price in the Great War. 

Around 2,340 Lewismen had responded when the call went out for Royal Naval Reservists in 1919 – around one fifth of the British RNR quota of seamen and deckhands – “a proud record”, as the book says, for an island with a population of 29,603 in 1911.

There were 6,172 men from Isle of Lewis serving altogether in the armed services… and losses were heavy.

From the 51 houses in the village of Leurbost alone, 32 men had been killed or badly wounded in the Great War and 11 more would be lost on the Iolaire, which went down less than one mile from safe harbour. 

Murdo MacLeod, a youngster at the time, had shared his memories of the event in an interview with the Stornoway Gazette in 1969. This personal story, and others like it, is included in the book, which was ably edited by Annie Delin.

In chapter five, the eponymous title of the book, we read how Murdo and some friends, out celebrating New Year, had taken shelter from the rain in a house which had a light still burning. It was number 39, where widow Mòr Maclean was looking forward to the arrival of her daughter back from Stornoway with oldest son Murdo, off the Iolaire.

Next morning none of the sailors had come home but no one was unduly worried as travel then was not dependable. Murdo MacLeod recalled meeting Mòr later at the village well. She was scanning the sea for a boat and remarked: “Goodness knows when they will arrive”.

As the book tells it: “They noticed a car a short distance away on the road and a number of people round it. A car was a rarity in those days and as soon as he got rid of the buckets, Murdo made for the crowd. He then heard crying, weeping and wailing and, before he reached the car, Mòr herself was crying and people were trying to comfort her.

“It was people from Stornoway who belonged to Leurbost who were in the car and, though their news was not complete, the substance of their story was that the Iolaire had gone down at the Beasts of Holm and that eleven from the village had been lost.

“Peggy Macdonald from No.36 went to Mòr and said, ‘Oh! Mòr, my own son’s body is also on the sand!’…

“The body of Roderick, son of Murdo and Peggy Macdonald, was found on a sandy beach, just as his mother said.

Roderick Macdonald, No.36 Leurbost

“He was a strong, handsome lad, 27 years of age, who used to the play the bagpipes and was very popular with the lads. The boys who had been his friends stood outside Peggy’s house at dusk, wondering if they should enter.

“Peggy heard them outside and called them in: ‘Come in boys. Many a night you came to be in his company and tonight you shall see him for the last time.’

“The lid of the coffin was opened and Peggy sat beside the body of her dead son and started to comb the sand out of his golden blond hair. Later the lads heard that Roderick had tried to swim ashore and reach the land.

“He was a strong swimmer and the striving and effort he made to escape the sea was clearly to be seen on his body – his face was speckled black as a result of the waves smashing him against the rocks: his nails and the tips of his fingers were gone with the great exertion he had made to grasp a rock, fighting against the receding waves that were hauling him away from the shore…

“The next day, Saturday, the boys went to the cemetery. The sight of coffins with two brothers, John and Alexander Mackenzie from No.16, side by side in the one grave would never be forgotten.

“The father of those two boys, Donald, wearing a heavy overcoat, stood at the top of the grave and, when the earth took the coffins out of sight, turned to one side and covered his face with a spotted red handkerchief as he shed his painful, bitter tears.

“It was sorely memorable to see such a clever, energetic, reliable man hurt to the quick…

“Throughout the islands such scenes were replayed.”

Brothers Alexander Mackenzie, left, and John Mackenzie, No.16 Leurbost

The scale of the tragedy gradually became known, at the slow speed of human travel, radiating from the scene of the wreck itself to villages and districts throughout Lewis and Harris.

It was passed from mouth to ear. “The mother of 18-year-old Norman Mackenzie of Garrabost, who would never come home, was gripped by fear as daylight brought an eerie phenomenon.

“Mary Mackenzie went outside early and heard a strange noise in the distance, coming from the direction of Stornoway. The whole family stood outside in the still morning and listened fearfully as the noise grew louder.

“It was the sound of wailing, as the news of the disaster spread from the Braighe, eastwards down through the villages of Point.”

Point lost 39 sons of the district in the wreck of the Iolaire. 

A third of those who were lost on the Iolaire would never be recovered, including the grandfather of one of the authors, Malcolm Macdonald. Many of the bodies that were given up by the sea would be washed up on Sandwick shore – a sight that haunted those who saw it for the rest of their lives. 

Malcolm Macdonald, the author’s grandfather, as painted by Margaret Ferguson. This painting is one of the 100 portraits by Dr Ferguson for the Iolaire 100 exhibition, opening on 29 December as part of the Iolaire series of memorial events. It features in the chapter on artistic responses to the tragedy.

A temporary mortuary was set up by the naval base in the Battery shed near the shore, and there the bodies were laid out for identification. Contents of pockets and anything else that might help identify them were put into a brown paper bag, the bag was numbered and that same number was chalked on the boot soles of the body or on a tag attached to their clothing.

“Watching the relatives of missing men searching for their dead was the most harrowing experience of my life, especially when an identification was made.”

There is a vivid account by Donald Macphail, who saw his neighbour find the body of his son.

“There was a man from Shawbost who came over with us, he had a son there, and I remember that he was so beautiful that you could hardly say that he was dead at all; a smile on his face, I remember that, still so beautiful. And his father went on his knees and started to pull out letters from his pocket and money and he was looking at the letters inside his pocket and the tears falling down onto his son’s body.

“I think it’s one of the most moving and difficult scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and that was only one of many.”

That young man was Roderick Murray, aged 19, and the letters pulled from his pocket by his father were ones he had written to his son himself. They have been featured in the book, along with many other treasured relics, generously shared with the authors. 

“We are missing you very much but we hope that you will not be very long in coming home now anyway… I am Your loving father Donald Murray.”

HMY Iolaire

For some fathers, the agony was doubled – as no less than 25 men were travelling on the Iolaire with their own brothers. Many more were travelling with cousins, brothers-in-law, neighbours and friends, but the tales of the brothers who were on board together have a terrible poignancy. 

Donald ‘Am Patch’ Morrison of Knockaird famously survived by clinging on to the mast – he was the only sailor from the Iolaire to come ashore alive at Stornoway pier – but his brother, Angus, did not survive. The pair had met up in Kyle, the Iolaire’s departure point.

Five families lost two sons in the Iolaire. Of the 25 brothers on board, only one set – George and Murdo Macarthur of 10 Cromore – both survived.

There was one set of three brothers on board. Two of them, Angus and John Macphail of 13 Doune Carloway, survived but brother Norman did not. 

Most poignant were the stories of those who had tried in vain to save another, especially when it was a brother.

It is said that Donald Macleod, of 58 North Tolsta, had swum ashore but on finding that his younger brother, Malcolm, had not made it, he turned back to the sea to look for him. Both perished. 

Donald Macaskill of Shulishader was travelling with his older brother, Duncan, and was one of the few passengers who had managed to find a life jacket– there were only 80 lifebelts on board. 

Donald was a stronger swimmer than his older brother, so he gave the life jacket to him.

“The family recounted how Duncan swam to the shore with Donald hanging on to his back, but Donald was swept away and his body never recovered.”

With tragedy heaped upon tragedy, it is perhaps unsurprising the island shut down on the subject of the Iolaire for so long.

“It was only when the memorial was erected at Holm in 1960 that we found out my grandfather, my father’s father, had been lost on the Iolaire,” said Malcolm Macdonald. 

The book is dedicated to his grandfather – also Malcolm Macdonald, 1873 to 1919 – “and the 279 other men aboard His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire on the dark morning of New Year’s Day 1919”.

Words from William Grant, founder of the Stornoway Gazette, are on the first page. 

“No one now alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st of January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island…

“The black tragedy has not a redeeming feature.”

• The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy is available on pre-order now from, priced £25.


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