bodies on the beach

Sandwick cemetery, Isle of Lewis

CWGC J A MacAskill

headstones focus gradientSignalman John Alex „Jack“ MacAskill died a few yards from home. He was only 19 years old. And he died a few yards from his grave in Sandwick cemetery.

His parents were Hugh and Christina MacAskill. The family lived in 75 Keith Street in Stornoway, a modest grey building, like so many on Lewis.

Jack had served on the HMS Vivid. Born in Liverpool in 1899, his life ended abruptly in the cold water around the Beasts of Holm, where the HMY Iolaire was wrecked in the early hours of 1st January 1919.

view from Sandwick cemetery towards Arnish

He, like many of the young men aboard, had had basic training in the South of England. Being only 19 years old, he was still not the youngest on board of the Yachts that was supposed to take them home. Signal boy David MacDonald was only 17.

Arnish lighthouse seen through gravestonesThe weather had deteriorated during the last stages of their journey towards Lewis. Commander Mason was not on the bridge as the vessel approached the harbor. He was asleep in his quarters. The lighthouse shed a silent warning through the murky night, but the Iolaire was approaching too far east, too close to the beats of Holm. The harbor entrance is only 700 yards across.

Arnish lighthouse marks the headland, so does Arnish beacon that sits on a reef. There was no light on the Bests of Holm then as the boat hit the rocks.

urn and Sandwick bayAnd in all the terror and pain they were alone. Nobody helped, nobody knew, some were crying for their mother, others died without a word. So many died, 205 men including the signaler John Alex „Jack“ MacAskill. Maybe the light of Arnish was the last thing he saw before the cold waves pulled him down.

“It was still dark as the first alarmed people hastened to the sward of Holm, the shores of Stornoway, On New Year morning, but already – all along the sweep of graveled beach by Goat Island and up by Sandwick and to Holm itself, the evidence of catastrophe was piling. Wreckage, baggage, pieces of smashed lifeboat, and empty lifebelts, assorted personal effects and – rolling in the wash or bobbing in the ominous, wrinkling shallows – bodies and bodies and bodies.” (MacLeod)

Right there, right behind the headstone of John Alex “Jack“ MacAskill and Deckhand John Macdonald who was only 18 years old and from Holm, the son of Alexander and Margaret MacDonald. 

Who mourns them looks out towards the sea and the very place they died. 

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source and further reading:

John MacLeod: When I Heard The Bell. The Loss of the Iolaire. Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2009

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