The HMY Iolaire disaster
How can tragedy be grasped and described in all its horror?
They lie in bed and dream: Tomorrow he will be back! Tomorrow he is back! Tomorrow, finally!
The men write telegrams from Kyle of Lochalsh. There they take the first ship they can get. They have survived the trenches and naval warfare, they cannot wait to see their home again. They have gifts, little things from far away countries, for the children, some of them do not even know their children, yet.
The port of Kyle is busier than ever, ships come and go. The men of Lewis (and 11 of Harris although they have clear orders not to take this ship), board the HMY Iolaire.
Commander Mason goes to bed shortly after midnight, Lieutenant Cotter is in command. The sea is rough and initially the conditions do not seem too bad, but the wind is gaining in strength, visibility is poor.
It’s the middle of the night, it’s winter. The pier is only a few hundred meters away, but where the Iolaire ran aground, she can’t be seen from the harbor. Nobody will come to help, because nobody knows of her plight.
Some jump into the water and try to swim ashore, but the rocks are high and inaccessible and the water is icy cold. One man ties a rope around his stomach and make it ashore. There he ties the rope, some get to safety along this rope. Others cling to the mast, some for hours, until the freezing cold and exhaustion forces them to let go. The lifeboats are not launched because no officer takes command. Many of the men can not swim. An emergency signal cannot be sent because the equipment has been damaged by the impact of the rocks.
The Sheila had just left the port of Kyle half an hour after the Iolaire and is now entering Stornoway. They hear something wrong with the Iolaire but can’t see anything. Commander Cameron decides not to risk the security of his own ship and leaves the men on the Iolaire to their fate.
Some make it completely exhausted and half frozen to the first houses. The flares now alerted the people ashore. But it is too late for the rescue of the Iolaire. The men drown or die of hypothermia, only a few meters away from the local harbour, after a long and terrible war; they are on their way home.
Over 200 men die, around 80 survive. The tragedy wipes out an entire generation of men on Lewis in minutes. Desperate women search for them, walk along the beach and along the rocks, where days after the tragedy, bodies are still washed ashore. 56 will never show up again. The life of the bereaved will never be the same again.
Their names are not forgotten. A memorial commemorates the tragedy and the people who lost their lives in it. There they are, the Beasts of Holm, those deadly rocks, and many thoughts wander to the lost generation of Lewis.
They were buried on the graveyards near their homes.
source and further reading:
John MacLeod: When I Heard The Bell. The Loss of the Iolaire. Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2009