Skip to main content

HMY Iolaire

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2018

[Mr Graham Stringer in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 100th anniversary of the HMY Iolaire disaster.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I am grateful to the House authorities for this opportunity to speak about the Iolaire and to pay our respects to the many men who lost their lives while they were returning to their home island of Lewis and Harris on Hogmanay 1918. Tragically, in the early hours of 1919, they lost their lives just a stone’s throw from their native island. I am also grateful to Poppyscotland for the creation of a badge that a number of us are wearing in Westminster Hall today: it has a poppy to mark the war and a bell to mark the Iolaire.

The Iolaire was the worst peacetime disaster at sea for the UK since the sinking of the Titanic and the worst peacetime loss in Scottish or British waters in all the 20th century; only the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and the Piper Alpha oilrig disaster a year later come close in scale to what happened with the Iolaire. What compounded the tragedy was that the appalling loss of life fell almost exclusively on the one small, defined population of Lewis and Harris, as John MacLeod noted in his excellent book, “When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire”, which was published in 2009.

About 284 men sailed on the Iolaire and it now seems that 201 of them were lost, following research for the excellent book by Malcolm Macdonald, “The Darkest Dawn”, which was published this year; the public inquiry of February 1919 had recorded 205 deaths. Regardless of the actual number, about 70% of the passengers and crew lost their lives that night, 20 yards from shore. Many bodies were never recovered and only 79 men survived.

Of course, what adds to the feelings of injustice, grief, annoyance and poignancy, in the mix of emotions that the Iolaire still conjures to this day, was that many of the men on board had already been through the grimmest of years in the grimmest of global conflicts. Indeed, only a year earlier one man on the Iolaire had survived the Halifax bay explosion in Nova Scotia. He came out of the war, only to lose his life at the doorstep of his own island. The 201 men who lost their lives had been fortunate to escape the horror of world war one, but tragically they lost their lives as they arrived home.

Lewis and Harris had already suffered badly in the war, losing many of its sons, fathers and husbands. Of a population of 29,000, 6,172 were in the service of the Crown: 3,500 were in the Royal Navy; and, interestingly, about 560 men from Lewis were serving the Crown in the forces of Canada.

The loyal Lewis roll of honour described the catastrophe as the crowning sorrow for Lewis from world war one. Reprinted on that roll of honour is the following:

“At 1.55am on 1st January 1919, a naval yacht carrying sailors home on leave ran aground on rocks near the village of Holm, a mere 20 yards from the shore of the Isle of Lewis and less than a mile from the safe harbour of Stornoway. HMY Iolaire was crowded with 280 men, mostly naval reservists returning to the safety and comfort of their homes after the horrors of the Great War. On this dark night of winter, a force ten gale was blowing from the south, hard onto the shore, and there was a heavy sea running. Men drowned as they jumped or slid into the sea from the pitching decks, were flung back into the angry foam from lifeboats awash and overloaded, were dashed against jagged rocks, or managed to swim and crawl ashore, only to die before they could reach shelter or aid. By the time the first New Year’s Day of peacetime dawned, 201 men had lost their lives, 181 of them on the very shores of the island they called home.

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, for on it 200 of our bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their home under the most tragic of circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm on New Years morning has plunged every home and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable.”

I will come on to that unutterableness later. The roll continues:

“Language cannot express the desolation, the despair which this awful catastrophe has inflicted. One thinks of the wide circle of blood relations affected by the loss of even one of these gallant lads, and imagination sees these circles multiplied by the number of the dead, overlapping and overlapping each other till the whole island—every hearth and home in it—is shrouded in deepest gloom. All the island’s war losses in the past four cruel years—although these number fully four times the death roll of New Year’s Day morning—are not comparable to this unspeakable calamity. The black tragedy has not a redeeming feature.”

That was written by William Grant, the founder of the Stornoway Gazette, in January 1919, when the memory was of course very alive to the tragedy and its magnitude.

The Iolaire had come over specially from Stornoway to Kyle of Lochalsh to take men home for New Year. The admiralty had given English and Welsh servicemen a break for Christmas, and the Scots the new year, as was the developed custom and, indeed, the want at the time. The admiralty had known that there would be a bottleneck problem at Kyle to get the men across the Minch to Stornoway. The merchant seaman, Captain Colin Cameron, master of the MacBrayne mailboat, Sheila, knew that it could not accommodate all the extra naval reservists along with soldiers and passengers safely across the Minch, and he pressed, quite correctly, for a way to relieve the pressure of sheer numbers on the Sheila, and hence the Admiralty sent the Iolaire to Kyle. It was not a great start. When she arrived in Kyle at 4 pm, a miscalculation between the bridge and the engine room meant she hit the pier and sustained damage to 10 feet of her gunnel. That was a very inauspicious start.

For those who were to board that night, the journey to Kyle of Lochalsh involved crowded and slow railway journeys from Glasgow, first north to Inverness and then west through Dingwall to Kyle, with stoppages. The Glasgow to Kyle journey took about 13 and a half hours, arriving at Kyle at 6.15 pm on Hogmanay 1918. Many of those on board the Iolaire that night had travelled up from the south of England and had come through London before they went up to Glasgow and onwards with their cousins, neighbours, comrades and fellow islanders.

The second part of the train that had taken 13 and a half hours arrived at 7 o’clock, 45 minutes later, and the Iolaire set sail at 7.30 pm, with naval personnel from Lewis. Soldiers from Lewis who wanted to get on the Iolaire had been ordered off. They wanted to get on because friends, cousins and neighbours had been on it. It is worth pointing out, on the circle of overlap mentioned in the 1919 writing, that those who were the friends, cousins and neighbours could be the same person, such is the nice interlinked happenstance that islands tend to have. That is true to this day and it was certainly true in 1919.

As I have noted, at 1.55 am on New Year’s Day 1919, the Iolaire ran aground on the rocks at Holm—the Beasts of Holm. The weather had been blowing force eight to 10 on the shore, when she struck the rocks and listed to starboard at a 35° angle. Many of those on board thought she had hit a mine and about 50 to 60 jumped off or slid into the sea. From then on, she was hit by waves, strongly and regularly. Concern about the Iolaire’s course had been spotted by a nearby fishing boat that was sailing the route as well, the Spider. Given the time of year, alcohol was of course suspected, and disputed. What is not in dispute is the loss of life. There is so much to say and it is impossible to do it justice, other than to remember, be aware and think well of those people who lost their lives 100 years ago.

We are all delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate. Another thing that is not disputed is that John Macleod, who was my great-grand-uncle, swam ashore with a rope and probably managed to save 40 people’s lives. The real sadness is that so many people who got ashore never managed to get to a home, because nobody was expecting the ship to arrive. The misery for the families the next day—finding dead bodies on the beach—was just so total.

I am grateful for that intervention. I was just going to come on to John Finlay Macleod; I had not realised he was the great-grand-uncle of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I thank him for pointing that out.

Those who lost their lives might be people we may meet ourselves someday, depending on what happens after this life. Of the 79 who survived, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, 40 owe their lives to fellow crewman and passenger, experienced seaman and Royal Naval reservist, John Finlay MacLeod, from Port of Ness, who swam ashore with a rope after a couple of attempts. He was swept out at one point. Four followed behind him on the small rope he swam with, the heaving line, but they had the presence of mind to use that line to pull a six-inch hawser, and a further 35 were able to follow. The actions of the hon. Gentleman’s great-grand-uncle saved 40 of the 79 who survived. It was quite a remarkable achievement, although it is sad to note that some were swept off the rope or sucked off the rope by the swell, and lost their lives.

John Finlay MacLeod was said to be a very daring man and, for the lives he saved, many were glad he was. There were many other heroes that night, and it is impossible in the time available to do them any measure of justice. It is worth pondering the effects of the Iolaire on the island of Lewis and Harris, the third largest of the British Isles after the island of Britain and the island of Ireland. The excellent book by Malcolm Macdonald breaks it down into areas of Lewis, because it is a big island. In the parish of Barvas, Ness lost 23 men. It is striking as we look through the names that there are still people—friends of mine—who have much the same names, from those areas: John MacDonald, Murdo Campbell, John MacLeod, Angus MacDonald, Angus Morrison, Donald Morrison, Donald MacLeod, John Murray and Roderick Morrison. These names are as familiar today as they were then in that area.

The parish of Barvas—Borve to Shawbost—lost 28 men. Uig parish in the east lost nine men; in Uig parish in the west, 14 were lost. In Stornoway parish, North Tolsta, 11 men were lost; in Stornoway parish, Back to Tong, nine men were lost. In Lochs parish, North Lochs, 21 men were lost; in Lochs parish, Kinloch, four men were lost; in Lochs parish, Pairc, eight men were lost. In Stornoway parish, Point, 39 men were lost. In Stornoway borough and district, eight men were lost. On the Isle of Harris, four men were lost; and on the Isle of Scalpay, one man was lost—Finlay Morrison, Fionnlagh Dhomhnaill Fhionnlaigh. One of the things that should be noted in the excellent book is the patronymics of these people, which help people reading it today to know who their relations were. Finally, in the rest of the United Kingdom, 18 men were lost; they were the crew of the Iolaire, who perished.

It is important that we remember those who were lost. Although the numbers do not seem huge, my hon. Friend will know from living in those islands that the numbers he has read out are almost an entire generation of young men. The devastation of those left behind is hard for us to comprehend. Being from a military family myself, I know the excitement that the families would have when sailors were returning from sea. To have those hopes dashed—the families left behind must have suffered a double blow, following the horrors of the first world war.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The numbers are a huge percentage of the able-bodied men in the area, and of the able-bodied men who had survived a global catastrophe. That made it doubly difficult.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech about the unspeakable tragedy that happened to Lewis and Harris. I say it is unspeakable, but he is speaking very powerfully about this terrible tragedy. Perhaps it is hopeful that at the centenary we are able to speak and to teach the nation about the impact it had on that island community. It is the duty of this Parliament to safeguard the special cultural and historical interest of those island communities in our country, and to make sure that they are at the heart of our nation’s interests and are protected in the future.

I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that aspect. We have to remember the culture and the background that these guys came from: they were raised in difficult circumstances, in peat-smoke-filled rooms in small, dark houses. There were no amenities such as running water and electricity. They were a generation that had worked hard, and their parents had to work hard to raise them.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the memory of those who lost their lives in the Iolaire disaster, and to the islanders themselves, who secured a memorial at Holm in 1958, 39 years after the tragedy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would explain to those gathered here how those islands recovered from the loss of a generation of young men, who gave so much during the first world war only to lose their lives a mile from the safety of their own homes.

Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be short and to the point. They are tending to become a little lengthy, and I intend to call the Minister in a minute.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

To resume where we left off, I was asked a question by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) about how people recovered. From the Iolaire, 67 women were left widowed and 209 children had lost fathers. A women I met in her mid-90s who was known as Mòr Bhrù—her name was Marion MacLeod, née Smith—was asked by the author John MacLeod what her mother had said of that night years after it had happened. He wrote:

“‘We never spoke of it,’ says Mòr calmly. ‘I never once asked her.’”

That indicates the silence of which the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) spoke. The tragedy of the Iolaire in many ways is the pain and the silence, and people not wanting to relive that awful moment.

In finishing, I want to highlight a couple of things. This Friday, I will be in Stornoway in the Nicolson Institute for a dìleab event. It is a memory in song and poetry to the loss of the Iolaire and the men who were on it. It is worth highlighting that in Sheshader and Point, a former principal teacher of English—he was in the Nicolson Institute when I was there; he was also a principal teacher of rugby, incidentally—and local resident Mike Shailes are making a point of marking the Iolaire by going round and putting stones and marks in the 10 houses. There were 10 men from Sheshader on the Iolaire and all 10 drowned that day. The village had already lost 10 in world war one. There were 300 people living in Sheshader and Point. There are now 120. Incidentally, six were lost in world war two. The two people I mentioned have gone around and marked the ruins and houses where people lived. That is a commendable effort of memory.

Finally, I asked in my office yesterday whether anyone had a relative involved in the Iolaire. One of my staff, Cathy Macinnes, said that her uncle Malcolm MacLeod—Calum Mhurachaidh Phadraig Choinnich—was 18 when he was lost. Thinking back, I knew Cathy’s father quite well. He was active in the Scottish National party when I was not and was working for the BBC. It is notable that because of Malcolm’s young age, his family, like those of every other young servicemen who died, did not receive any war gratuity or compensation from the Ministry of Defence at the time. Times were hard and people were lost, but sometimes things were compounded further.

We do remember them. We think of them, and we think of the long shadow they have cast over Lewis in particular and Harris. All of us who have come into contact with or lived in Lewis have known about the Iolaire and what it caused. We cannot do it justice here, but we can remember them and think well of their lives and of them.

It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—I hope I pronounced that right. It is a poignant reminder, given what else is happening around the Palace today, of the extraordinary events that took place 100 years ago and how we should reflect on them.

In the past month or so, I think we all paused to pay gratitude to what a nation did 100 years ago. An entire nation stepped forward to defend our values and our way of life beyond our shores. It began and confirmed a trend for our nation to step forward in defence of the international standard of liberty and to make our mark and help influence the world around us as a force for good. In reflecting on what happened 100 years ago, we can get lost in the sheer scale of the event. The third battle of Ypres took place on what is now the location of Tyne Cot cemetery. In a period of just 100 days, there were 500,000 casualties—so many individuals, each of them with a name and a family. Many of them did not return.

What happened 100 years ago on the other side of new year and its impact— particularly as it took place after the war itself—are so tragic. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the matter so that we can reflect on the bravery of those returning home from service in the armed forces.

As the hon. Gentleman has touched on, His Majesty’s Yacht the Iolaire was so close to getting home those who had served. I will go through, as he has, some of the tragic events that took place on 1 January 1919. Just seven weeks after the end of the first world war, hundreds of servicemen from the highlands and islands of Scotland arrived on trains at the Kyle of Lochalsh. They were going home for the first new year of peace. HMY Iolaire set off expecting to arrive. In the early hours of new year’s day, as she approached Stornoway harbour, she foundered on the infamous rocks, the Beasts of Holm, within half a mile of Stornoway pier, where relatives were eagerly waiting to welcome their loved ones home from the war.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the numbers have now been updated. In all, 201 of the 284 men—mostly maritime reservists—onboard the Iolaire were lost. I join him and others in paying tribute to all those who tragically lost their lives that night. Of them, 174 were men from the Isle of Lewis who tragically drowned literally within sight of their home. A further seven were from the Isle of Harris. A further 18 crew and two passengers were also lost. The loss widowed 67 women, and at least 209 children lost their fathers. The loss of the ship is considered to be Britain’s worst peacetime disaster at sea since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the worst peacetime loss in British waters in the 20th century. No comparable event has fallen exclusively on one small population.

While a third of the bodies of those lost were never recovered, others were washed up on the shoreline and found by their families. The village of Leurbost, for example, with 51 houses, lost 32 men in the war with a further 11 lost on the Iolaire. There were 25 sets of brothers on board, and only one set survived without a loss. Although the first world war affected all communities, this was a devastating blow to the island community. The sailors had come through a global conflict, only to be washed up dead on their own island shore. There are so many deeply personal tragedies and stories to tell that I cannot recount them all.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) for securing the debate—I am sorry that I missed the first couple of minutes of what was a powerful speech. I vividly remember first hearing about the Iolaire when I was 27 years old, which tells us something about the gaps in what we teach ourselves about the history of where we come from.

Does the Minister agree that, although the casualties of the Iolaire had survived the horrors of war, they and others who were killed in peacetime activities during a time of war deserve to be remembered in the same way as those who were killed in enemy action? In some cases, they died in the water 20 feet from shore. It was no comfort to their families to know that they died so close to home; the loss was just as great as it was for those who lost loved ones at Ypres, the Somme, or on other battlefields.

The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. It is difficult for any of us to place ourselves in the shoes of the families who lost someone in the first world war, or indeed in any conflict. It is extremely painful to have survived a horrific war such as world war one, to be returning home and then to die literally within eyesight of one’s final destination.

I was just touching on the make-up of those who were onboard the vessel itself. Not all the maritime reservists served at sea; some served in the trenches on the western front in the Royal Naval division. Two friends who evaded capture in Holland went on to serve in the Mediterranean together, travelling back home on the Iolaire, only for one of them to be tragically lost.

One story that was particularly pertinent was that of 23-year-old John Macaskill from North Sandwick. His body was washed up by the cemetery wall. His home was on the other side of the cemetery itself, so after four years of conflict—four years of being away—the sea literally brought him home. It is only fitting that, leading up to the centenary of this tragic loss, we are taking the opportunity to remember those who lost their lives within sight of their home, their families and their island communities.

It is important to remember that the loss of the Iolaire is not only a significant matter for the communities on the isles of Lewis and Harris. It is also appropriate that we take the opportunity to highlight this tragic story to the nation. I understand that events to commemorate the loss will be held at the Kyle of Lochalsh and in Stornoway at the Iolaire memorial overlooking the site of the disaster, and a service will be held at sea, near the Beasts of Holm.

The Ministry of Defence has agreed to a significant level of naval support for those events in the form of the attendance of the flag officer of Scotland and Northern Ireland, a guard of honour and the Royal Marine band contingent. That is commensurate with the support given to other first world war commemorations in recent years. The Royal Marines band service and a Royal Navy guard will formally attend the commemoration ceremonies. The naval personnel selected to deliver that support will represent the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, ensuring that we pay due respect to those sailors who did not return home.

I recognise the significance of the loss of the Iolaire to the island communities, and I thank all those involved in the considerable work that has been undertaken to raise awareness of this tragic loss, and to ensure that there is a fitting commemoration of this centenary event. I thank the Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel for supporting those commemorations over the Christmas and new year period. I also thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar for bringing this matter to the attention of the Palace of Westminster and the House of Commons, as we reflect not only on what happened 100 years ago, but on the devastation to his community.

Question put and agreed to.