1st January 1919

Stornoway harbour shipwreck kills 200 soldiers

More than 200 men were killed when His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire sank in the mouth of Stornoway Harbour on new year’s day 1919. The ship had been holed below the waterline when it struck rocks known as the Beasts of Holm.

The dead and injured, from a total passenger manifest of almost 300, were local soldiers returning from the First World War. Thus, they represented a significant portion of the young men, from the Isle of Lewis and surrounding islands, with a whole generation more or less wiped out by a single tragic event.

Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

Iolaire overloaded

The steam-powered Iolaire had likely been overloaded at the time of the sinking, which contributed to the high death toll, as there were insufficient lifeboats to take everyone. Dock workers at Kyle of Lochalsh had apparently rushed to pack as many people aboard as they could before it set off, with Iolaire already taking the overflow from a previous sailing as the next batch of demobbed soldiers arrived.

The ship then sailed in bad weather, with the captain forced to navigate Stornoway Harbour’s difficult entrance in rough seas.

The tragedy must have been particularly hard on those who witnessed the disaster. As the BBC explained in 2019, on the 100th anniversary of the sinking, “Lewis had a hard war with almost 1,000 men dying during the conflict. [Local historian Catrona Dunn] says the islands had already lost a higher proportion of servicemen than most other areas of Britain…”

Memorial service

One of the heroes of the sinking was John Macleod who managed to save 40 men from the boat by swimming ashore with a rope and hauling them to safety.

A memorial service to the lost men was held on its 100th anniversary, attended by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and then Prince of Wales, Prince Charles.



Other events that occured in January

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