Lewis Macdonald MSP



Iolaire Disaster

Speech in the Scottish Parliament


19 December 2018

Motion debated :

That the Parliament commemorates with great sadness the Iolaire disaster of 1 January 1919, when at least 201 men, mainly those returning home to the islands of Lewis and Harris after active service in the Royal Navy, lost their lives; remembers this terrible event, which took place when HMY Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm, a group of rocks only around three miles from where the men's families were waiting for them at Stornoway Harbour; notes the series of commemorations that will take place in the islands around the centenary, and commends the efforts that are being made in the community and nationally to give due recognition to a disaster that, for many decades afterwards, had a devastating impact on the people of the Western Isles.


I was a child in Stornoway in the 1960s, years after the Iolaire disaster.

Many women of the Iolaire generation were still alive when I was a boy.

I saw them simply as cailleachs—old women, dressed in black.

I did not know then how many had lost their husbands or fiancés on a single day, so many years before, and mourned them still.

The cailleachs dressed in black reflected the pain of the whole town—of the whole island. Many young men had perished in the great war; many younger women and men were to leave for North America in the hungry 1920s.

In between came this terrible, gut-wrenching, soul-searing loss of so many who had survived the war and had so nearly won home.

Fifty years later, the despair of that dark and stormy night still dominated the life of the island.

Yet, so painful was it then that people in Lewis hardly talked of it at all, as Alasdair Allan and others have said. As Alasdair Allan also said, the loss was not in Lewis alone.

My grandfather, Donald John Macdonald, was of the same generation.

When the great war ended, he was 28 years old and a member of the royal naval reserve—like most of those who drowned on the Iolaire—and he had served in the Mediterranean since 1915.

He had grown up on the Isle of Berneray: a little island of a few hundred souls, off Harris.

His own father had died at sea, and his widowed mother had raised her children in a cottage by the quay.

Home leave for Donald John involved a voyage to Stornoway from the mainland, then a 60 mile walk to Rodel or Obbe on Harris, or a run home on a fishing boat from wherever he could find one going in the right direction.

Mercifully, Donald John was not travelling home on leave that new year.

He was not on board the Iolaire.

He went on to sail the seven seas as a merchant seaman in the 1920s, to marry Mary Macdonald from North Uist, and together they would raise a family of their own. Other young men from Berneray were not so lucky.

Norman MacKillop was 19 years old and Donald Paterson was only 18 when they died on the Iolaire.

Those were boys my grandfather knew.

The loss of even two such young men was a heavy blow for a small place like Berneray.

It was a personal tragedy, too, for the families of those who crewed the Iolaire, who hailed from ports all round Britain.

David McDonald, from Virginia Street, by the harbour in Aberdeen, was a signal boy aged 17 and the youngest to die that day.

School students at Aberdeen grammar school have helped remember him this year, adding a granite stone in his name to the new commemorative cairn in Stornoway.

Even in Lewis, a hundred years on, the shadow has retreated, and a new generation of islanders are able to commemorate the Iolaire in a way that previous generations could not.

lain S MacDonald wrote many fine songs, and one of the finest is “The Iolaire”.

Like me and my sister Deirdre, whom he married, lain was a child in 1960s Stornoway, still in shadow and in silence, but to hear him sing his song of “The lolaire” was almost to hear the storm itself, so dark with rage and loss.

That song is his memorial, too, as he has died, too young, in this centenary year.

“To the families of Lewis the chilly winds moaned

Your sons they have perished and they’ll never come home ...

It seemed each pebble on the shore

It bore a sailor’s name”

Gu dearbh, cuimhnichidh sinn iad: We will indeed remember them.



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