Issued on behalf of Sandwick Community Council, Stornoway Historical Society, Point Community Council and Point Historical Society
Sandwick Hall Iolaire Exhibition opens Tuesday 3 December 2018
The final preparations are underway for the Sandwick Iolaire Exhibition, which opens Tuesday 3 December 2018 in the community most immediately affected by the tragedy.
The exhibition is being held in the Sandwick Hall (upstairs rooms) and will be open every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during December, January and February, with the exception of the week beginning December 24.
It will be open on January 1 – the exact 100th anniversary of the tragedy.
The exhibition will be open from 2pm to 5pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays and from 2pm to 8pm on Thursdays, although it will close to the public at 5pm this Thursday (December 6) for a private formal opening at 6pm.
The formal opening has not been opened out to the public due to the small space in the two upstairs rooms, where the exhibition has been arranged. Instead, a small number of invitations have gone out, mainly to representatives from the community councils and historical societies which helped pull together the material for the exhibition.
A joint project between Sandwick Community Council, Stornoway Historical Society, Point Community Council and Comann Eachdraidh an Rubha, the exhibition has been held in Sandwick because these are the villages closest to the site where the Iolaire was lost.
Sandwick Community Hall is less than a mile from the Beasts of Holm, where HMY Iolaire hit the rocks in the early hours of January 1, 1919, with the loss of 201 lives.
The idea from the exhibition came from Sandwick Community Council, who had begun planning their own commemoration programme for the Iolaire back in 2013. Their wish list included a new path to the memorial, research into local links to the Iolaire disaster and a local exhibition.
The idea for the exhibition was taken up by Stornoway Historical Society, with support from Point Community Council and Point Historical Society, and was organised largely by the women of the Historical Society. It aims to “tell the story of the Iolaire disaster with specific reference to the local area from Point through Sandwick to Stornoway”.
The content will include written history and local stories, photographs, artefacts associated with the Iolaire and film, both historical and new.
Councillor Angus McCormack, Chair of the exhibition working group and a Sandwick resident, and Malcolm Macdonald, Chair of Stornoway Historical Society, are both delighted to see how it is finally coming together.
Malcolm Macdonald stressed the material that will be featured in the exhibition is not duplicated from his book on the Iolaire tragedy, The Darkest Dawn, published recently to great acclaim.
Although there will be photographs of some of the lost, and roll calls of those who died and survived, there will also be a lot of original material – some of it not even known to Malcolm until the display boards had started to go up.
This included the story of Flora Boyd, who had been engaged to John Macaskill of 12 Lower Sandwick. His was one of the saddest stories of all, as his body was washed up on Sandwick beach, virtually on his own doorstep.
Since publication of the book, it emerged he had a fiancee. Malcolm said: “They put it on the wall, and I went, ‘oh my goodness – I didn’t know that!’”
Many of the stories in the exhibition have been passed down the generations, like letters and photographs.
One letter in the exhibition was loaned by Marion Macleod in Parkend and had been written by her aunt, about her father’s experience. Her father, Donald Macleod, swam ashore from the Iolaire and walked barefoot all the way home to Lower Bayble.
The letter describes all her aunt’s feelings of the time and her memories of the preparations they had been making for his homecoming.
Another memory shared in the exhibition is Mary McCormack’s recollection of being taken down to the Iolaire site as a young girl by her father.
The story she and her sisters learned was that her father and his younger brother had gone from their home in Holm to Stornoway that night to await the arrival of their next-door neighbour. They waited and waited and eventually went home, to be woken later by frantic, loud knocking.
It was the father of their neighbour, with the news that a boat had gone on the rocks at the Beasts. They dressed quickly and ran to the site.
“My father described it as a scene from a black hell.” Some survivors were walking past, barefoot and in silence. As the hours passed and the sky grew lighter, the boys waited and became convinced that the man on the mast’ was their friend and neighbour John Macdonald, instead of Donald ‘Am Patch’ Morrison, and kept shouting at him to encourage him to hold on.
Some hours later, the boys walked home in utter silence.
Mary wrote: “The silence of the survivors, I believe, was one thing my dad could not forget about the tragedy. It seems to me this silence was the precursor of the blanket of silence which fell on the islanders for many years in regard to the Iolaire tragedy.”
Malcolm Macdonald said this exhibition would have “more of a personal touch” than the Iolaire Commemoration Exhibition in Museum nan Eilean.
It is, of course, about the men from Point, Sandwick and Stornoway who were on board the Iolaire and about the personal memories of people from the district, but it will also feature a number of treasured artefacts.
These include pieces from the yacht, including a bit of handrail and part of the Iolaire’s ensign that was lifted from the wreck when it was being dragged for bodies. There is also a saucer from the Iolaire, found on the sea bed by diver Chris Murray, some pieces of timber and shells from the yacht’s guns.
Other items are smaller, such as the Iolaire pin flags, and of course photos.
Malcolm said: “I think it’s very, very good. I’m very pleased with it, considering it was done at a moment’s notice. We just decided to go for it.”
There is no entrance charge as such for the exhibition but donations are invited and will go to the local branch of the RNLI.
The exhibition will be formally opened on Thursday by Sandy Matheson, Honorary President of Stornoway Historical Society, and the evening will be chaired by Angus McCormack.
Angus said: “I want to praise the people who have worked on the exhibition. It’s been wonderful, the amount of effort they have put into it and it’s going to be an excellent exhibition. I think it will be very busy.”
Angus said school groups would also be welcome to visit the exhibition. If interested, contact him directly – on 07748700128 or by email at email@example.com – to arrange a suitable time.
Angus added: “Stornoway Historical Society have been absolutely excellent and very, very committed. I’m really very, very pleased indeed that it’s come together in time – because we have felt, in the community, that it’s important that the community in which this dreadful tragedy took place should in some way commemorate it and this is an excellent way of doing it.”
Picture: The Beasts of Holm by Chris Murray