On the morning of Wednesday, 1st January, 1919, householders in the Hebridean island of Lewis were looking forward with eager anticipation to the imminent arrival home of many of their menfolk, who had been serving with Britain's armed forces overseas in the effort to win the First World War. The fighting was behind them now, and the men themselves looked forward to returning to their homes and crofts and catching up with family life. 283 sailors were travelling home to Stornoway on the Iolaire, and at around two in the morning, they were within a few hundred yards of their home port.
The Iolaire was a yacht launched thirty-seven years earlier. It was privately owned but had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and had been pressed into service on this occasion because there were not enough suitable vessels available to ferry home the latest band of troops returning to Scotland from active service. One man, 27-year-old Kenneth Macphail, had served throughout the war, including a stint at Gallipoli. In 1917, his ship had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean and he had survived by clinging to wreckage; he spent 34 hours in the water before being rescued, almost the only survivor. The experience was so traumatic that Kenneth, who had completed his recuperation only six months earlier, told his brother Angus that, were he ever in the same situation, he would prefer not to go through the ordeal again and would resign himself to his fate. That was why, when Kenneth's body was recovered from the sea a few days later, his hands were placed firmly in his pockets.
It is hard for most of us to imagine a person not wanting to save his or her own life, but such feelings were not uncommon among servicemen during the First World War. Kenneth Macphail was nevertheless unusual; when the Iolaire struck a rock, within sight of Stornaway harbour, and quickly sank, many of the passengers showed great heroism in trying to escape and help those around them. 201 men - more than two thirds of those aboard - died that night, but John Finlay Macleod, a 30-year-old seaman, had the knowledge of how to ride the crest of a wave to take himself safely onto the rocks, from where he set up a rescue line to bring others safely to dry land. Another survivor, Donald Morrison, actually went down with the ship but managed to climb a mast and cling to it until daylight came and he was rescued.
The causes of the Iolaire disaster were never officially stated, but there were many contributing factors: there were gale-force winds, the ship was not designed to carry so many men, and the crew had never sailed into Stornoway after dark before, and did not have adequate lookouts. The men aboard were weighed down by their uniforms and equipment. Rumours quickly spread that some of the crew had been drunk, which would not have been surprising given that it was Hogmanay and the troops were celebrating their return home. Local people held the Admiralty mainly to blame, but no one was ever disciplined for the failure to bring the men back safely.
Some called the Iolaire's sinking "the crowning sorrow of the war". Women who had been airing the civilian clothes of their husbands and sons in front of their fires found themselves bereaved and in many cases destitute. If Siegfried Sassoon thought that those at home could have no comprehension of what he and his comrades had suffered, he would have been anguished to see the impact on the small communities whose people came down to the shore to find the drowned bodies of their loved ones lined up for identification.
Afterwards, like many of those who had served at the Western Front, the people of Lewis made a point of not talking about the Iolaire disaster. They simply could not cope with the grief. In the recent BBC documentary on the subject, a psychologist pointed out that silence was the way of dealing with such emotions in those days; the islanders never had the benefit of treatment by someone like Dr William Rivers, who might have helped them talk through their thoughts and feelings in order to assuage their grief and stop them sinking into depression (the fate of some of the survivors as well as the bereaved).
Only a hundred years later, now that all those who remember it are dead and gone, has the local community felt free to acknowledge the impact of the events of 1st January 1919. On 1st January this year, Prince Charles - as Duke of Rothesay - and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attended a memorial service at the monument to those who lost their lives on that tragic night. As a more lasting tribute, local artist Margaret Ferguson painted portraits of a hundred of the sailors, while composer Iain Morrison, the great-grandson of one of the victims, was commissioned to write a piece in memory of the events. Morrison said that he struggled with the task because he found it difficult to create anything that did not carry a sense of reflection and a message of hope. You can see part of the documentary and hear an extract from the piece on Youtube by following this link: