A Lifetime of Grieving

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the greatest tragedy to ever befall Lewis and Harris – the loss of HMY Iolaire, which went down on the Beasts of Holm, just outside Stornoway, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919 with the loss of 201 lives.

My reason for writing was that I had just read The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy – a new book written by Malcolm Macdonald and the late Donald John Macleod.

The book is the product of more than 20 years’ research and although it is not claiming to be any kind of definitive account of the tragedy, it does contain a wealth of information – a lot of which will be new, even to islanders, who have remembrance of the Iolaire coded into their DNA.

The book isn’t out yet. It is being officially launched at an event in An Lanntair on November 1, during the week of the Faclan, the Hebridean Book Festival.

The reason I was given an early sight of the manuscript is that I’ve been doing a series of feature-style press releases on it for Acair, the publishers. The book, which will be a lovely glossy hardback with fine quality paper and an elegant design, has not yet arrived from the printers so I was working from a bundle of loose A3 sheets, held together in chapters by paper clips. 

I finished my second press release – it’s more of a focus piece, really – earlier today and was very pleased indeed to take a call from a journalist at Press Association at tea time, asking if I could arrange an interview with author Malcolm as they intend to include the publication of this new book  in their round-up of events happening across the country at the Armistice.

That will be terrific publicity for the book… so Malcolm, you’re up! The PA lady wants to talk to you…!

While my first piece was focused on the tragedy in general and particularly on the tragic loss of so many brothers who were on board together, the focus of today’s piece was the women and children. The ones left behind, whose lives were changed forever when the Iolaire veered so catastrophically off course.

I’ll begin with one story you have probably never heard – that of herring girl Catherine Wares, who was among those waiting with such excitement on the pier in Stornoway on January 1.

Catherine, from Pulteneytown in Wick, had even more reason than most to be excited – for she was expecting a baby and due to be married that very day. 

But the father of her child, Herbert William Head, never made it back to her. 

He was one of those lost when the Iolaire hit the Beasts of Holm, less than a mile from Stornoway.

There were 280 men on board the Iolaire, including 254 sailors who were returning to their island homes after the horrors of the Great War. There were also 24 crew members and two passengers who were returning to the naval base in Stornoway from Christmas leave.

Both those passengers were lost – and Herbert Head was one of them.

And it’s a reminder that, while 181 of the 201 lost men came from Lewis and Harris, the impacts of the tragedy were felt throughout the country.


The story of Catherine Wares was told to the authors in personal correspondence from her granddaughter, Elizabeth Wood.

As a herring girl, Catherine would have travelled the country and she met Suffolk man Herbert Head, aged 37, who was serving as a private in the Royal Marine Light Infantry.

He served much of the war on battleship HMS Queen and would probably have spent most of his shore time in Portsmouth. Latterly, though, he had been posted to the naval base in Stornoway.

It was here that Catherine was waiting for him, on his return from leave. 

When the news came, Catherine believed that Herbert, being a strong swimmer, would have got ashore from the wreck but gone back to help others. His body was one of those never recovered.

Afterwards, Catherine returned to Pulteneytown and continued working as a herring gutter. She gave birth to a daughter – Elizabeth (Betty) Head – on 13 June, 1919.

Granddaughter Elizabeth Wood wrote to the authors: “Life was very hard for mother and daughter as they were not always made welcome in the community.

“My mother only found out about her father from others. We have no photographs or artefacts about this tragedy – only memories of two lives blighted by the tragic event. The Iolaire disaster affected not only those originating from Stornoway, but also families from elsewhere.”

Herring girl Catherine Wares, left, and Elizabeth Head as a baby

Every one of the lives lost was a tragedy but there is a particular poignancy around those who were on the threshold of getting married.

Finlay Morrison, aged 25, from Ardhanasaig, was due to be married to Catherine Morrison and, like a number of Harris sailors, had opted to cross the Minch on the Iolaire with the Lewis contingent, instead of waiting until the following day for a direct boat to Harris.

He knew Catherine had bought her trousseau and was in a hurry to get home to make preparations for their imminent wedding. Finlay had travelled up to Kyle with his brother, Donald, but Donald waited overnight in Kyle for the direct boat to Harris the next day. 

Meanwhile, Finlay boarded the Iolaire and it was a funeral that Catherine attended instead of a wedding, with Finlay being laid to rest at Luskentyre.


John Macdonald, age 31, from 25a Lower Shader, was another on board with marriage in mind.

John – the great-uncle of Acair manager Agnes Rennie – was returning to his widowed mother and an unnamed girlfriend when he was lost. When his body was recovered, an engagement ring was found in his pocket. It is said the girl never married.

But of course many of the men on board were already married, and fathers, and the authors were able to establish that the disaster left 255 children without a father. 

Some Iolaire widows were left with large families to look after. Three Lewis widows were left with eight children and three were left with seven. Many widows were left with three, four, five or six children. Among the Iolaire crew, Ernest Leggett left eight children orphaned and three of them ended up in an orphanage. 

For some of the women, the loss was simply too much.

Finlay Morrison, left, and John Macdonald  – both lost on the Iolaire

The Rev John Macleod was a year old when his father, Norman Macleod of 13 Arnol, was lost on the Iolaire. John’s mother, Christina, was said to have been driven mad by grief. 

Every year, she would wash her husband’s clothes and put them out to dry, traumatising her children, and she died in Craig Dunain asylum in Inverness in 1933, aged 49.

Her son, who became a bard as well as a minister, wrote a poem – Bantrach Cogaidh / War Widow – about her experience, which was set to music in 2014 by Erik Spence. It premiered at the Royal National Mod in Inverness as part of the Great War centenary events. 

Others struggled, too. 

Marion Macdonald of Aird, widow of Alasdair – ‘Am Boicean’ – was unable to speak for several weeks after losing her husband and was reported to lose the power of speech every year at New Year for a short time.

For the children old enough to remember, life as they knew it was shattered. 

There is a whole chapter of recollections – ‘In Their Own Words’ – in the book, and it features first-hand accounts from survivors and memories from people who were on shore.


The testimony from Mòr MacLeod, née Smith, is one of the most powerful. 

Mòr had just turned four when her father, Kenneth Smith from Earshader, was drowned. 

In an interview with Radio nan Gaidheal from 1999, transcribed in the book, Mòr said: “I have no memory of the ones who came with the news at all. But I remember a neighbour coming into the house and the clothes that my mother had laid out for my father, that he would put on as soon as he arrived, she gathered them all up and put them up into another room. 

“I realised that something awful had happened but I didn’t understand what. And I can say, from that day on, thoughts that would have been natural for a four-year-old to think – they went. And in their place was worry, a feeling of burden.

“My grandfather who used to spend so much time with me, he was just sitting with the tears rolling down his cheeks, it was as though he didn’t notice me – I missed that more than anything.”

Mòr Macleod, pictured by Leila Angus

Katie Watt, née Macleod, was six years old and living at the Battery in Stornoway at the time. 

Her father had come home that night on the Sheila and she remembered the sight of the bodies on the shore the following day – having ignored her mother’s instructions to stay away.

“My goodness, that sight, it never went out of my memory. From the shore at the Battery all the way over to Sandwick was black with bodies, and the waves that were coming in, they were throwing the bodies up onto the shore on top of all of these bodies… 

“My brother – he was only three years old at the time and I was looking after him – he started ‘Mammy! Mammy! Mammy!’ And then we started screaming, and we went home.”

Another youngster who saw the bodies on the shores was Murdo Macfarlane, who would grow up to become the Melbost Bard. 

He was profoundly affected by the sight of bodies – among them, 23-year-old John Macaskill of 12 Lower Sandwick, who was washed up virtually on his own doorstep on Sandwick beach. 


Murdo Macfarlane went on to write the famous poem, Raoir Reubadh an Iolaire, about the event and it is included in the book, as is Bantrach Cogaidh by the Rev John Macleod.

Both poems are featured in the chapter dedicated to the poetry, verse and song of the time. Many of the pieces were written originally in Gaelic and they are in the book in their original Gaelic with accompanying English translations. 

A hardback of nearly 500 pages, The Darkest Dawn is similar in quality to Acair’s previous publication on the Great War, Dol Fodha na Grèine (The Going Down of the Sun). 

Its final word goes to the islanders of today. 

At the very end of the ‘thanks and acknowledgments’…

“The authors would like to thank the people of Lewis and Harris, and the wider community connected with the islands, for their support in the creation of this tribute.”


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