The Iolaire: What Lies Beneath

What an emotional launch last Thursday for the book about the Iolaire tragedy. 

It was quite an event at An Lanntair – much, much more than just a book launch and entirely fitting for the subject… the loss of HMY Iolaire on the Beasts of Holm in the early hours of January 1, 1919 and the deaths of 201 men.  

The fact she was within sight of the lights of Stornoway made it all so cruel and it’s left a mark on the collective psyche in Lewis and Harris today, as well as on the many families who remember their loved ones. I’ve lost track of the number of people I have spoken to recently who had someone on the Iolaire – a great-uncle, a great-grandfather, a grandfather… some were ‘lucky’ enough to survive but most did not.

This New Year will mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster and the programme of events to commemorate it is now officially underway in Stornoway, having been launched by the performance of Sàl by Iain Morrison with visual accompaniment by Dalziel + Scullion. 

There are many excellent things to say to about this brilliant composition and the accompanying visuals, which were very clever, conceptual and dramatic, but I have to admit I was troubled by the sequence featuring the faces of modern-day islanders – for the simple reason that, as far as I know, the people photographed did not have any connections to the Iolaire.

The sequence of these faces had followed a sequence of portraits of lost Iolaire sailors – and it struck me that, when you can’t move in Lewis for Iolaire descendants, it should have been quite easy and would have been more appropriate for Dalziel + Scullion to find people with a direct link to the disaster for that piece of the film. 

That thought was still churning round in my head on Thursday, the day of the official launch of The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy, so I very much appreciated the tone of that whole event by the publishers Acair. It was always ‘right’, from the beginning where the portraits of all the lost sailors were shared on the big screen, with beautiful piano accompaniment from Alex Tearse, to its close, where the portraits of all the survivors were screened – again to piano accompaniment. 

The decision to bookend the launch with the visual roll calls of all the islanders who were on the Iolaire highlighted the fact that these roll calls are at the heart of this incredible new book, for which demand is already extremely high.

Author Malcolm Macdonald is on the far right of this picture. Directly to his right is Eileen MacLeod, widow of his co-author Donald John MacLeod, and beside her is Donald John’s sister, Mary Ann. The main picture shows Donald ‘Ryno’ Morrison delivering the first reading, against an image of the wreck of the Iolaire. All contemporary pictures from the book launch are courtesy of Fiona Rennie.

I have written a series of press and blog pieces on it to help Acair promote it – this is the last of that series – and it was very moving to see this treasured book delivered safely into the hands of the island community on Thursday night.

At times, it wasn’t an easy event to sit through – the story is so desperately sad – and I doubt there was a dry eye in the house. Personally, I was biting my knuckles on more than one occasion to try to hold it together, but by the time Donald Martin gave the last of three moving readings – the others were by Donald ‘Ryno’ Morrison and Chrissie Cumming, with wonderful songs from Katie Graham and Coisir Sgir a’ Bhac – all hope was gone. 

It was without doubt an emotional night but it struck exactly the right tone. And there was a spirit of celebration and honour, too – for those on the Iolaire and also for the authors of the book – and there were also some laughs, especially when author Malcolm Macdonald confessed exactly how he felt about that one Iolaire survivor they had been unable to trace…

One of the remarkable facts about the book is that Malcolm and his co-author, the late Donald John MacLeod, investigated the life stories of all those who were on board and put them in the book, with the exception of the one they couldn’t find – another Malcolm Macdonald, ironically.

As he shared the stage with Catriona Murray – chair of the Gaelic Books Council who was chairing the book launch – author Malcolm confided that this man “drove me absolutely nuts because he changed names!” They knew he had emigrated but couldn’t find him after that and Malcolm said: “It’s still a thorn in my foot…”

It was really nice to see Malcolm looking so relaxed and comfortable as he answered Catriona’s questions during the author-in-conversation section of the evening and he made a few points about the tragedy that many in the audience clearly had not known, as there were audible gasps. 

Malcolm Macdonald in conversation with Catriona Murray

Some of these points were about the inquiries – the first, the ‘Naval Court of Inquiry’ (which the Admiralty held instead of a Court Martial, which would have been more rigorous, heard in public and would have had the power to hold people to account), and the subsequent Public Inquiry, which was granted in response to the outcry in Lewis over the inadequacies of the first inquiry.

It is clear from the book that the authors believe the island had good reason to feel let down by the investigations and extreme disappointment in what was termed “a whitewash”. 

In discussion on the An Lanntair stage on Thursday, Malcolm shared some of the facts that had contributed to the community feeling so aggrieved at the behaviour of the authorities.

He noted that the commander of the local naval base in Stornoway, one Vice Admiral Boyle, had not been called to testify at any point – although he was responsible for managing the emergency response from shore. Another potential witness who was not called, and who could have shed some light on why the naval shore response was so poor, was the manager of the Imperial Hotel, which stood at the time on the An Lanntair site.

He could have testified to the sobriety or otherwise of the officers on land that night, and whether they were capable of coming to the aid of the stricken men.

Malcolm also repeated the point made in the book that survivors were called to the naval base to give their accounts of what had happened just six days after the disaster – many badly injured and still in the initial throes of grief for lost friends and family members; in some cases even brothers.

Of those who gave that initial testimony, only 25 of them were invited to give evidence at the naval  inquiry. Another 50 were dismissed and no record has been kept about what they had said or why they were not chosen to give evidence. 

Malcolm’s theory is that their testimonies might not have been what the Admiralty wanted to hear and he personally believes the accident happened because the Iolaire overran her course up the Minch from Kyle, meaning she turned to port to head into Stornoway too late, so was too close to the coastline of Point.

Testimony from surviving sailors that they had heard breaking waves would bear this out – as does the fact the Iolaire hit the rocks inside the marker to the Beasts of Holm, meaning that she had approached the spot from a shallow angle. 

Malcolm also believes, personally, that drink did play a part – on the part of some of the crew, not the islanders who trusted that they were being carried safely home. This belief stems partly from evasive answers in the witness box from a surviving crew member and also because many crew members had not been seen on deck for some time during the journey – including Commander Mason, who was in charge of the Iolaire that night. 

Annie Delin, editor of The Darkest Dawn, beside husband Martin

Also of significance is the fact that, apart from the flares which were fired by Commander Mason’s deputy, there was absolutely no effort to save life made by any of the Iolaire’s crew members.

The book has recorded the local reaction of the time and quoted the words of a local fishing skipper, John ‘Jackie’ Morrison, who spoke bitterly about the Iolaire 60 years after the event.

He said: “It is obvious that the Admiralty Inquiry was a whitewash exercise to deflect blame from their Lordships and their officers. It is astonishing that the captain and officers of a ship that was wrecked with such appalling loss of life should have been found blameless. Yet that was in fact the conclusion of the Admiralty inquiry… The loss of the Iolaire and the deaths of over 200 men was the fault of the Captain and his officers.”

In their own conclusion, the authors acknowledged that many factors contributed to the tragic final outcome. But it was clear who was responsible.

“The ultimate blame for the Iolaire disaster and for the deaths that resulted must, though, be laid at the door of the Admiralty… 

“When the vessel struck, orders to save lives were not given. It was, literally, every man for himself – only island bonds brought men to each other’s aid in their final hour…

“The haste with which the Inquiries were held, the secrecy with which the process was shrouded and other obvious lacks in transparency left the islanders feeling that they had been cheated, not only of their men but of answers as to why they had lost them.”

Hero… John Finlay Macleod

‘Only island bonds brought men to each other’s aid in their final hour…’

The Iolaire’s lifeboats were launched and though this would prove futile – they were not big enough for the numbers of men and so were swamped – it was the islanders themselves who had launched them. It was also islanders from a nearby whaler who were daring enough to take a small open boat out on the rough waters to the Iolaire at dawn, after spotting ‘the man on the mast’ – Donald ‘Am Patch’ Morrison – although they got no credit for that rescue later on.

And of course, no account of the Iolaire would be complete without John Finlay Macleod – quite possibly the greatest hero Lewis has ever known. This man, a 30-year-old carpenter from Port of Ness, swam ashore with a rope from the Iolaire and saved the lives of 40 men.

His son later recounted his father’s courageous actions in an interview with the Stornoway Gazette in 1969. “A flare went up and he identified the area. Having decided on his course of action, he gave the end of a heaving line to a fellow beside him, and told him that he must not let it go. 

John Finlay Macleod receiving the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal

“My father didn’t put the rope round his middle, but two times round his left hand and locked the end of the rope with his thumb. Then he dropped into the water. At the first attempt, the surge carried him away from the shore. With extraordinary presence of mind, he then took stock of the situation. Local knowledge again told him that the ‘fath’ of seven smaller waves was followed by the ‘cliath’, three bigger ones. He reckoned that if he could let himself go on the third high wave, with luck he would be carried over the rocks and land on the slope.

“After four had come ashore on the heaving live, he realised it would not hold and the hawser line was sent across. In all 40 lives were saved on the rope and John Finlay Macleod was at the end of it until finally there was nobody else coming ashore.”

In a Radio nan Gaidheal interview with Fred Macaulay in 1961, John Finlay himself recalled: “The first man who came ashore on that line, it was a man called Iain Murray who lives in Back, a man they call ‘An Help’. I remember very well when he came ashore first, he put two hands around my neck as I was sitting down.”

John Finlay Macleod, left, and John ‘An Help’ Murray pictured at the Iolaire monument in the 1960s, soon after its unveiling

John Finlay received the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal for an act of gallant bravery, as well as other honours. But as Malcolm and Donald John have so documented, many were the acts of bravery that night. And in bringing it all together in such a fine book, superbly edited by Annie Delin, they have played their own gallant parts in ensuring the story of the Iolaire can continue to be told – as far as it can ever be known – down the generations. 

In the spirit of An Iolaire, the poem by Norman Macleod from Harris… 

“Those alive today must tell the young who come after them what happened to those heroes who were on board the Iolaire.”

The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy (ISBN: 978-178907-024-8)  is available now from, priced £25. The book was sponsored by a donation of £10,000 from community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust.


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