1st January 1919

The loss of His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919 is undoubtedly the most tragic single occurrence to befall the combined island of Lewis and Harris.


In all 174 Lewismen and seven Harrismen were drowned at the Beasts of Holm in sight of the Stornoway harbour lights with many bodies not recovered.


Thanks to the bravery of John F. Macleod from the Port of Ness most of the survivors got ashore from the line he secured to the rocks. Despite the proximity of the shore a gale had blown up as the yacht approached Stornoway and the location of the wreck was an exposed one leaving the sea a cauldron that experienced swimmers could not survive in. Men were dashed on rocks and the lifeboats, which were launched, were quickly swamped in the darkness of the night.

Although there was a radio aboard, the Telegraphist could not generate power to transmit due to water in the batteries and the rockets fired, although spotted by the Stornoway Royal Navy base named Iolaire, did not generate the speedy rescue that was necessary before all was lost. When the yacht’s lights failed those left aboard must have felt a shiver as they clung perilously to the railings, with the roar of the waves crashing on the rocks and the rending of the hull on the Beasts piercing their very souls.

Out of the crew of 27 there were seven survivors who joined the rescued islanders on the road to Anderson Young’s farm for shelter once it was realised nothing could be done after the vessel heeled over leaving nothing but her masts exposed.

As dawn rose, one sailor, Donald Morrison from 7 Knockaird, was rescued from a mast, shortly after another mast held onto by three others had been broken by the storm.

The Iolaire sank…bringing home from the war 200 men to be drowned on their own doorsteps, a tragedy that breaks the mind… *

Bodies were washed up on Sandwick shore and as news of the tragedy spread from Stornoway to the various districts, the relatives of those lost came to the shore and to the mortuary at the RNR base to identify their loved ones. Many carts returned empty, as the sea had held onto a third of the casualties, another crushing blow to the families of the island sailors that had once sailed so proudly under Admirals such as Jellicoe, Beatty and Sturdee.

The Stornoway lads that were found were practically washed up to where they were interred on various dates at Sandwick Cemetery along with six unidentified colleagues who were interred on 14 January 1919 and also have Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones, all neatly aligned and inscribed at the bases, “Known Unto God.”

The Armistice had been declared six weeks earlier and the railhead at Kyle of Lochalsh on New Year’s Eve had become crowded with khaki and navy uniformed figures that came off troop trains hoping to be home to celebrate the end of the war and a fresh new dawn as 1919 began. Many servicemen were demobbed and ready to resume their peacetime occupations while others were receiving a well-earned leave after the strife of 1918. All had presents for their loved ones and were longing to see each their families after the deprivations of war.

Lewis had lost a thousand war dead from a generation in their prime before that fatal night and so this unexpected blow struck a dagger in the backbone of the island, as scarcely a house was not affected in one way or another. Harris had lost 121 men before five more were added to the roll on the war memorial later erected at Tarbert and the Isle of Berneray (Harris) lost two more to add to the sixteen who had succumbed earlier.

All of the officers of the yacht were drowned and so the rumours spread but Commander Richard Mason and his navigating officer, Lieutenant Edmund Cotter were considered proficient seamen by colleagues. That they made a mistake cannot be denied, especially as they were new to the route from Kyle of Lochalsh, but to suggest that they acted negligently cannot be proven as all witnesses at the enquiry swore to their sobriety.

Malcolm Macdonald

* Iain Crichton Smith: Between sea and moor.