The Iolaire Disaster Of 1919
By James Donahue
It was New Year’s Day, 1919, World War I had just come to an end and war-weary soldiers were
anxious to come home to their families and friends. Thus the yacht Iolaire, with a capacity to carry no more than 80 people,
was packed with 284 men, mostly crew and servicemen heading home in Stornoway on the Scottish Island of Lewis.
The Iolaire, with Commander Richard G. W. Mason at the helm, and a second ship, the SS Sheila, left
the port of Kyle of Lochalsh, late in the evening of December 31 bound for various ports on the island, both packed with soldiers,
many of them already celebrating the holiday and the end of the war.
As the steamer approached Stornoway harbor at around 2:30 a.m. it was caught in a winter gale the
hit The Beasts of Holm, an infamous rock formation just offshore, and sank. Of the 284 people believed to be aboard, only
75 men survived the disaster. Even though the lights of the town were in sight, the servicemen were wearing their full uniforms
including heavy boots, and few of them were able to swim against the storm to shore.
Men in lifeboats were caught in the gale and dashed on the rocks or were swamped in the storm. One
survivor, John Macleod got ashore and managed to secure a line with which most of the survivors found their way to shore.
The Iolaire was equipped with a radio, but when the batteries flooded, there was no power to use it.
Flares were fired, but perhaps because of holiday celebrations, the Stornoway Royal Navy did not get rescue boats to the scene
in time to save lives.
The following morning, one sailor, Donald Morrison was rescued still clinging to a mast protruding
from the water.
The wreck of the Iolaire was counted as the worst maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters in peacetime
since the wreck of the Norge in 1904, and the worst peacetime disaster involving a British ship since the Titanic in 1912.
A memorial…a stone pillar, was erected at the site of the wreck in 1958.
The Iolaire was built as a yacht in 1881. Its original name was Iolanthe. The name later was changed
to Mione, and later to Amalthaea. The ship got its final name in 1918. During the war it was fitted with guns and used as
a reserve patrol vessel.
In case you are wondering, the name Iolanthe is Gaelic, and in English in means "Eagle."