The sinking of the Iolaire


Contributed by Mrs Fiona Baird

At 1.50 a.m. on January 1st 1919, His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire ran aground on the rocks known as the ‘Beasts of Holm’ about a mile from the ship’s destination, the port of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.  She capsized with the loss of over 200 men, most of them Royal Naval Reservists returning from service in the Great War.   Only 83 souls were known to have survived the sinking, still reckoned as the worst peacetime disaster of the entire 20th century involving a British ship in British waters.

The majority of the servicemen on board were men from the islands of Lewis and Harris.  The loss of the Iolaire “widowed 67 women, orphaned as least 209 children, and drowned six pairs of brothers” (MacLeod 2010).  Some villages lost all of their men at the very moment when they were preparing to rejoice at their homecoming having been spared by the war.  More than a thousand men from the islands had been killed already in service, so this additional loss when peace had been secured was doubly devastating for these tight-knit communities.

The Iolaire (Gaelic for ‘Eagle’) had been built in 1881 and was a luxury yacht before the War.  She weighed 634 tons (without guns) and had been used in anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic, but on New Year’s Eve 1918 she was in the port of Kyle of Lochalsh as hundreds of men from Lewis and Harris emptied out of trains that had brought them north on their journey home.  The Iolaire could safely accommodate 100 people, but as no adequate provisions had been made to take them further, the result was a dangerously overcrowded yacht with two out of three passengers on board having no lifebelts and only two lifeboats.  A second ship, the Mail Steamer Sheila, was due to set sail after the Iolaire, so some men clambered aboard the latter in their eagerness to get home, a mistake many never lived to regret. 

Iolaire left Kyle at 7.30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and struck the rocks a little before 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day.  Most accounts indicate that she had veered off course in the high winds that night.  Bodies were being washed ashore for weeks after the event.  In the hurried Court of Inquiry held on January 8th, the first of several, the master of the Sheila, testified that he had seen the Iolaire leave Kyle in good order, a response to reports and rumours that drunkenness in command might have been a reason for the tragedy.  In subsequent investigations, many such testimonies confirmed that the officers and crew of the stricken ship were sober on that night, but it was accepted that the lack of life-saving equipment, confusion on board, and even a broken radio all contributed to the calamity that befell the Iolaire.  The eventual outcome was inconclusive, much to the dismay of the islanders.  A memorial to the dead and missing was eventually raised at Holm Point nearly 40 years later.

Beasts of Holm

Useful sources:

John MacLeod:  When I Heard The Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire (Birlinn, 2010)

Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John McLeod:  The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy (Acair, 2018)

Karen Clavelle: Iolaire (Turnstone Press, 2017)

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