The Iolaire was a boat carrying sailors who had fought in the First World War back to the Scottish Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The men had arrived into the Kyle of Lochalsh by train before transferring onto the boat which left the port in the evening of 31st Dec 1918.

In rapidly deteriorating weather, the ship approached the port of Stornoway at around 2am on New Year's Day 1919. With the lights of the town already in sight, and only yards from land, the ship crashed into the infamous 'Beasts of Holm' rocks and began to sink. Those aboard were wearing their thick uniforms and heavy boots which made swimming from the wreck difficult. Despite the darkness and freezing water, a man on board called John F. Macleod from Ness on the Isle of Lewis managed to fight against ferocious waves and reach the shore carrying a line which others used to make their way to safety. It believed he saved around 40 lives that night. The last survivor, Donald Morrison, saved himself by clinging to the ship's mast - which was only part above the water - all night until he was rescued in the morning. The death toll was officially put at 205, with 79 survivors.

Iolaire Memorial, Isle of Lewis
Iolaire Memorial, Isle of Lewis

It was never established what exactly caused the ship to crash. Theories included the crew being drunk and caught up in the merriment of arriving home, however drunkenness among the crew was discounted at an Admiralty enquiry. It had been noted that the entrance to Stornoway harbour can be tricky to navigate and, with bad weather causing poor visibility, the ship may have veered off course. This view was supported by the crew of a fishing vessel who stated that the Iolaire was not navigating the correct course for entering the harbour. The inconclusive findings generated much ill feeling and anger amongst the Island's population who were suspicious of a 'whitewash'.

Almost an entire generation of young men perished that night and, with every family directly or indirectly affected, the loss was felt deeply amongst the whole community of islanders. Grief was seldom talked about in the open and, for many years, locals were reluctant to discuss the tragedy.. It's hard to imagine the heartbreak the families must have felt - expecting to hug their boys and men after such a long time apart, but instead watching as their bodies were retrieved from the shore. In recent times, the Iolaire Disaster has received more attention and has been the subject of various poems and songs. 

Skippinish tell the heartbreaking story perfectly in their song, 'The Iolaire'.