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The Iolaire Disaster

Iolaire survivors, John F MacLeod, Port of Ness, and John (‘Iain Help’) Murray, 6 South Dell, share a contemplative moment beside the memorial at Holm which was erected in honour of the men who perished during the disaster.


On New Year’s morning, 1919, the Admiralty yacht, HMS Iolaire, with nearly 300 men aboard, foundered yards from shore and within a mile of the safety of Stornoway Harbour.  Over 200 young Lewismen and crew perished in the tragedy - many of them were from Ness and the West Side. 

Of the thirty-six men from the Ness and West Side districts of Lewis, eleven would survive the ordeal.  Included in their number would be: John F MacLeod, who managed to scramble ashore with a rope and who was instrumental in saving many lives, and Donald ‘Patch’ Morrison who, unbeknown to the shocked rescuers on shore, spent the night clinging perilously atop the Iolaire’s remaining mast.



HMS Iolaire


Many Lewis families would have been celebrating the dawning of a New Year in the early hours of 1 January 1919.  The celebrations would have been particularly sweet as the families were also awaiting the imminent arrival home on leave of their men folk, following the ending of hostilities.  No one could have predicted that so many veterans - having survived the brutality of the Great War - would have their lives tragically plucked from them within a stone’s throw of their island home.  The Iolaire Disaster, as it has become known, remains one of the worst peace-time catastrophes in British maritime history.  Its consequences would be felt in every Lewis parish, as the flower of Island youth was torn from many an Island family.

The total population of Lewis, between 1914-18, approximated 30,000.  Incredibly, from these numbers, Lewis contributed about 6,200 servicemen (including returning emigrants) to the war effort.  Consequently, about 20% of the entire Lewis population was on active service in some capacity during WWI - with approximately half of them serving in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR).

In 1915, the luxury sailing yacht Amalthaea was commandeered by the Admiralty to help with the war effort.  The vessel’s owner was a Mr Duff-Assheton Smith (later, Sir Michael Duff), who had earlier purchased her from the Duke of Westminster.  The yacht was quickly converted and armed for anti-submarine warfare and patrol work.  Many examples of her pre-war luxury remained intact, although much of her luxurious polished panelling had been boarded up for protection.  Since being built in 1881, the vessel had undergone a succession of name changes.  The latest occurred when she became the Navy’s base ship in its northern frontier port of Stornoway; and the vessel was given the name of the Naval Base there -  Iolaire.

The Amalthaea photographed in 1908.  

Later, the vessel would be renamed HMS Iolaire.

Unlike their island comrades, the English Navymen preferred their leave to fall at Christmas time - rather than New Year.  Therefore, when the English naval personnel returned to their respective bases following Christmas in 1918, large numbers of Scots were released on leave for the New Year festivities.  The Lewismen would journey up from the South of England to Inverness and then onwards to the the railhead at Kyle of Lochalsh for onward shipment to the Hebrides.  In Stornoway, the Naval authorities soon realised that, due to the huge influx of RNR men seeking passage, the regular MacBrayne’s mailboat, SS Sheila, would not have sufficient capacity to carry the extra numbers of passengers expected at Kyle.  It was to collect some of these RNR personnel that Rear Admiral R.F. Boyle, the officer in charge at Stornoway, despatched HMS Iolaire to the embarkation point at Kyle of Lochalsh.

The Iolaire, under the command of Richard G W Mason, RNR,  arrived in Kyle at 4pm in the afternoon of 31 December, 1918.  The Sheila was already in harbour and berthed on the other side of the pier.  Commander C.H. Walsh, the Navy’s officer in charge of Movements, at Kyle, was experiencing major logistical problems.  The Sheila was already nearly full with civilian passengers returning home for New Year when Walsh learned that chartered trains, with several hundred servicemen aboard, were running two hours late.  With the Sheila’s inability to carry too many additional service personnel, and their being no prospect of another MacBrayne’s vessel being diverted, he asked Commander Mason, the Master of the Iolaire, if he could carry 300 men.  Although the Iolaire only possessed sufficient lifeboats for 100 men and lifejackets for 80, Mason apparently replied, “easily.”  Whether Mason, in accepting such numbers without adequate life-saving equipment, was being reckless or acting as a result of pressure from his superiors, or merely being over-eager to help, we shall never fully know.  However, this decision to carry so many men, in such an ill-equipped vessel would certainly contribute to the heavy loss of life to follow.

The first of the two trains arrived in Kyle at 6.15pm.  The 190 Lewismen who had travelled up from England on the train were soon ushered aboard the Iolaire.  The arriving Harrismen were ordered to await passage on Thursday (although 7 Harrismen would subsequently number amongst the dead), with the Skyemen awaiting imminent passage aboard HM Drifter, Jennie Campbell.  The second train finally arrived at 7pm, with an additional 130 Lewismen.  As they stood in two rows of 65 (130 men) to await orders to board the Iolaire, news arrived that the Sheila could take an additional 60 men.  The sixty men making up the 30 files arranged on the right were promptly despatched to the waiting SS Sheila - leaving the remaining 70 men to their fate aboard the Iolaire.

At 9.30pm on  31 December 1918 the Iolaire left Kyle for its homeward journey to Lewis.  The Sheila would cast-off 30 minutes later.  With the expectations of a new year and the armistice which followed four years of war, the young servicemen aboard HMS Iolaire would have undoubtedly been full of merriment and Gaelic song as they looked forward to being reunited with their families and loved ones back on Lewis.  Although dark, the night was initially clear with a ‘fresh’ southerly wind.  However, shortly after 12.30am (when the vessel would have been a few miles South East of Milaid Light, and about 12 miles from Stornoway harbour ) the wind began to rise, with an accompanying heavy drizzle.

At about 1am Commander Mason left the bridge, leaving the Iolaire  under the command of her First Officer, Lieutenant Cotter.  The crew of the fishing boat, Spider, would subsequently testify to a Public Inquiry that, on their return to Stornoway, they were overtaken by the Iolaire whilst still several miles from harbour.  As the fishing boat neared the Arnish Light, its crew became concerned as the vessel ahead of them failed to alter course at the appropriate time - and appeared to be on a collision course with the cliffs at Holm.  Many of the RNR passengers aboard the Iolaire were themselves experienced local fishermen and consequently, some would probably have been aware that the yacht was not following the prescribed course for Stornoway Harbour.  Shortly afterwards, the fears of the Spider’s crew would be realised as they began hearing cries of distress in the darkness on their starboard side. 

At 1.55am, less than two hours into the New Year, HMS Iolaire suddenly shuddered to a halt as it struck the rocks at Holm.  The boat listed heavily to starboard as a large wave crashed into her and lifted the stricken vessel further onto the rocks.  As she began to sink, waves swept over the deck as between 50 and 60 men immediately opted to jump overboard and swim the 20 or 30 yards to shore.  Unfortunately, this decision proved to be disastrous as none of them would succeed in this initial attempt at escape.  Apart from hostile sea conditions, the night was as black as the tragedy itself.  Some distress flares were fired into the night skies and a number of passengers suddenly realised that the vessel’s stem was within a few yards of a rocky ledge which extended to the shore.  Some of those on board attempted to use this potential escape route but, unfortunately, many were drowned or perished as they were dashed onto the rocks by the uncompromising waves.  Shortly after 2am, Lieut. Robert Ainsdale, the Officer of the Watch at Battery Point, reported to Admiral Boyle the initial sighting of a red distress flare from the direction of Holm.

As the disaster unfolded, the Spider and HM Drifter Budding Rose (the pilot boat which had been assigned to guide the Iolaire into port) were unable to render assistance.  The heavy seas and frenzied waters betrayed the presence of submerged rocks which prevented them from effecting a rescue from the sea. 

Many of those who survived would owe their lives to the courage and determination of John F. Macleod - a Ness boat-builder returning home from active service in the RNR.  Having tied a heaving-line around his body, MacLeod would eventually  manage to scramble and swim his way to the shore.  Four or five men managed to drag themselves ashore by means of this line.  Later, a hawser was attached to the line and hauled ashore.   This then enabled a further 35 men to escape the carnage.  In 1921, Seaman MacLeod would receive the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal and Certificate  “in recognition of heroic endeavour to save human life”. 

At 3.20am, F. Boxall, the Coastguard’s Divisional Chief Officer, was roused from his bed on receipt of an emergency message from Admiral Boyle.  He immediately proceeded to the Battery, and arrived there about twenty minutes later.  There, he was advised by Chief Officer Barnes that he had only been able to muster 3 of the company’s men and that the horse and equipment had not, as yet, arrived.  Barnes’ company, reinforced by 19 Naval men, then proceeded by road to Holm Point.  Unfortunately, the Coastguard men and equipment would not arrive at Holm before the Iolaire finally broke her back, between 3am and 3.30am.  One can only speculate now that if the horse and a full complement of local Coastguard personnel had been available sooner, more lives might have been saved.

At about 2.45am, Admiral Boyle sent Sub-Lieutenant C.W. Murray to scramble the Lifeboat crew.  He immediately made his way to the Lifeboat  Secretary’s home, where he discovered the man to be unwell.  However, he was given appropriate keys and directions to the Coxswain’s home.  Having roused the Coxswain, he then rushed back to the Lifeboat shed to light the lamps and prepare the lifeboat for launch.  Twenty minutes later he was joined there by the Lifeboat Secretary, Coxswain, and 3 soldiers - a full complement to man the Lifeboat could not be obtained.  At 4.30am Murray then left the lifeboat shed in order to waken the Surgeon.  Shortly afterwards, at about 4.45am, Murray went in search of transport to carry the First Aid crew to Holm.  Knocking desperately at the door of a local car hirer’s house, he failed to gain any response.  Finally, at 6.30am (four and a half hours after the Iolaire struck), he finally managed to obtain the use of a car belonging to the Post Office.

Some of those who had survived the ordeal managed to make their way to Stoneyfield Farm and nearby houses.  There, they were comforted as the full extent of the tragedy was rapidly being revealed.  Other survivors opted to walk the short distance to the town of Stornoway where relatives - still unaware of the catastrophe which had occurred - would have been waiting expectantly at the quay for the yacht to dock.  When news of events finally reached Stornoway, many of those in the town that morning made their way to where the stricken Iolaire lay.  As rescuers approached the scene, they encountered bodies and wreckage along the foreshore.  The vessel itself was found semi-submerged between the shore and the appropriately named Beasts of Holm.  One of her masts had been broken in the melee.  The other rose defiantly out of the sea at about a 45 degree angle.  Unbeknown to the shocked witnesses on the shore, one of the survivors (Donald “Patch” Morrison, from Knockaird, Ness) was, at that time, clinging for his life up on the mast.  He would remain there until 10am - when Lieutenant Wenlock, of the Budding Rose, would finally manage to manoeuvre a small naval boat within reach of the stranded sailor. 

Donald ‘Patch’ Morrison and John F. MacLeod at the boat yard in Port.

The exact number of men who were aboard the Iolaire that morning is not known with certainty; a proper passenger list had not been recorded prior to her departure from Kyle.  However, subsequent evidence suggested that there were 284 servicemen and crew aboard.  Of these, 205 men were to lose their lives - with only 79 survivors being able to finally complete their long journey home from the ravages of war.

Admiral Boyle (the Naval officer in charge at Stornoway) possibly suspected some degree of negligence on the part of the officers and crew of the Iolaire.  On 3 January, he sent a telegram to the Admiralty in London, requesting instructions on whether he should instigate a Court Martial.  His superiors decided instead to opt for a Court of Inquiry (possibly, the Navy feared that a Court Martial might imply the acceptance of blame for the loss).  The first of two subsequent investigations was a private Naval Inquiry, held on January 8, 1919.  With the customary penchant for secrecy regarding issues of security, the findings of the Naval Court of Inquiry would not be released into the public domain until 1970.  The Inquiry had ruled that there was no evidence to properly explain the reasons for the accident - as none of the duty officers had survived the sinking.  Consequently, the Admiralty concluded that, “No opinion can be given as to whether blame is attributable to anyone in the matter.”

The MacBrayne's mailboat SS Sheila, which operated between Kyle and Stornoway.  Sixty of the RNR personnel waiting at Kyle were transferred to her shortly before they were due to board the Iolaire.

The second investigation to be held was a Public Inquiry - convened in Stornoway on 10 February 1919 - which provided the local community with the only real opportunity to confront the Navy on the disaster.  This Inquiry was presided over by Sheriff Principal MacKintosh, with seven local men forming a jury.  Mr C.G. MacKenzie and Mr J.C. Fenton represented the Crown, with Mr J.C. Pitman and Mr W.A. Ross appearing on behalf of  the Admiralty.  A local Solicitor, Mr J.N. Anderson, was retained by some of the bereaved families to act on their behalf. 

Pitman advised that, due to the lack of available evidence, the Naval Inquiry had been unable to apportion blame for the accident to any individual or agency.  He argued that the evidence (or lack of it) before the Public Inquiry should compel the jury to arrive at similar conclusions.  Anderson, on the other hand, cited gross negligence and incompetence in the navigation of the vessel and within the vessel’s command structure once she had struck the rocks.  He also criticised the delay in getting the emergency services and equipment to Holm.  Later, in his Report to the Naval authorities concerning the Public Inquiry held in Stornoway, Pitman would tell the Admiralty that the Island’s population generally held the Royal Navy culpable for the tragedy.

When the Public Inquiry jury finally arrived at their verdict, it was unanimous and would prove to be less reticent than that of the private Naval Inquiry.  They concluded that: the Iolaire’s officers did not exercise due caution on the approach to Stornoway; that the vessel did not reduce speed at the appropriate time; that the vessel was allowed to sail without adequate life-saving equipment; that no lookout had been posted; that once the vessel had struck, the officers did not give any orders which might have reduced the loss of life; and, that there was an unacceptable delay in deploying shore-based emergency services.  Rumour within the Island had suggested that the officers and crew might have been unfit for duty through drink.  However, Captain Cameron, Master of the mail steamer, Sheila, had testified at the Public Enquiry that the Iolaire’s officers and men had appeared to be perfectly competent and sober when he saw them at Kyle.  The jury would subsequently accept that there had been no evidence of liquor being a contributory factor in the events leading up to the disaster. 

Few witnesses were able to offer much evidence regarding the actions of the vessel’s Captain and First Officer, once she had struck.  However, the Iolaire’s Radio Operator, L. Welch, said that Commander Mason had managed to make his way to the wireless cabin following the collision.  On arrival, Welch stated that Mason calmly gave him the ship’s position and issued him with instructions to send out distress signals.  Mason then left the cabin shortly before a bulkhead collapsed and the lights went out below decks.  Later, above decks, Welch also spoke briefly to the First Officer, Lieutenant Cotter, who had lashed himself to a rail up on the bridge.  Cotter shouted to him, “It’s abandon ship - carry on!”  When Welch enquired about the officer’s own intentions, Cotter apparently replied, “I’m staying here.”  Commander Mason, Lieut. Cotter and a number of the crew would subsequently number among the dead. 

There have been conflicting conclusions regarding the actual course followed by the Iolaire that morning.  Due to the complexities of maritime navigation and a reluctance to add further speculation to the disaster, this article will not attempt to try and explain why the Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm with such tragic consequences.  However, the charts illustrated here aim to provide some indication of the general route between Kyle and Stornoway (Chart A), and the conflicting courses proposed by some agencies concerned with the circumstances of the tragedy (Chart B).

Chart A

General course between Kyle and Stornoway

There were three main propositions regarding the route taken by the Iolaire [see Chart B]:  The first of these is Course X, proposed by the Admiralty, which suggested that the vessel had somehow inadvertently drifted half a mile too far to the east of Stornoway Harbour.  Course Y reflected the conclusions of the Public Inquiry and proposed that the Iolaire had been as much as five miles east of her proper course, before turning sharply in a generally westward direction towards Holm. (N.B.  In 1959, the BBC commissioned Captain John Smith - captain of the MacBrayne’s ferry, Loch Seaforth - to give his impression of the most likely course taken, based on the available evidence.  His conclusions would support that of the Public Inquiry, Course Y.  Course Z is based upon evidence given by James MacDonald (Engineer on board the fishing boat, Spider) and John MacInnes (a passenger aboard the Iolaire).  This advanced the theory that, whilst overtaking the Spider, Lieut. Cotter, of the Iolaire - who had relieved Commander Mason at 1am - had somehow exaggerated the manoeuvre.  This resulted in the officer miscalculating his true position and over-estimating the proximity of land during his approach to Holm. 

Chart B

The three contentious courses allegedly taken by HMS Iolaire on New Year's morning, 1919.


Arguably, the best time for uncovering the true facts concerning events that morning would have been in the years immediately following the disaster whilst witness recollections were still fresh.  This opportunity was largely lost when File Number 693:The Iolaire Inquiry was quietly closed and hurriedly despatched to the dusty vaults of the Admiralty’s archives.  Whatever the reasons were for the Iolaire to founder astride the Beasts of Holm, those servicemen who lost their lives that day, and indeed those who were to survive, will always hold a special place in the thoughts of the people of Lewis.


The following  names are those of the servicemen from the Ness and the West Side districts of Lewis who perished during the Iolaire disaster of New Year’s Morning, 1919.





1. Angus Gillies 35 South Dell


2. Murdo MacDonald 13 Swainbost


3. Angus MacRitchie 37 Swainbost


4. Norman Morrison 17 Lionel


5. John Murray 36 Lionel


6. Roderick Morrison Back Street, Habost


7. Donald Murray 11 Habost


8. John Morrison 12 Knockaird


9. William MacKay 7 Fivepenny


10. Donald Morrison 11 Fivepenny


11. John MacDonald 10 Skigersta


12. Murdo Campbell 4 Eorodale


13. John Macleod 13 Eorodale


14. Malcolm Thomson 14 Swainbost


15. Malcolm MacLeod 28 Swainbost


16. Donald MacDonald 13 Swainbost


17. Angus Campbell 31 Lionel


18. Donald MacRitchie 34 Habost


19. Alex John Campbell 41 Habost


20. Angus Morrison 7 Knockaird


21. Angus MacDonald 3 Port


22. Angus Morrison 10 Eoropie


23. Donald MacLeod 5a Fivepenny


24. Murdo MacDonald 15 Borve


25. Angus MacLeay 34 Lower Shader


26. Norman Martin 8 Lower Shader


27. John MacDonald 25 Lower Shader


28. Angus Morrison 31 Upper Shader


29. Malcolm Matheson 10 Upper Shader




The remains of the first 14 men named above were buried in the ‘Old Cemetery’, Habost.  The body of Angus MacDonald, 3 Port, was eventually recovered in the Lochs district and was subsequently interred in the Crossbost Cemetery, Lochs.  Unfortunately, the remains of the other Ness victims named here were never recovered.  Of the Ness and West Side men who boarded the Iolaire at Kyle, only 11 were to survive.

They were:  Donald Morrison (am Patch), 7 Knockaird; John F MacLeod (Iain Mhurdo), Port of Ness; John Murray (Iain Help), 6 South Dell; Murdo Morrison (Murchadh Iain Bhig), 8 Skigersta (later, High St.); Murdo MacFarlane (Murchadh Chraig), 24 Cross; Norman MacKenzie (Tarmod Dhòmhnaill Iain Bhàin - ‘Làrag’), Post Office Side, Cross; Alexander Morrison (Alasdair Iain Mhic Alasdair - ‘an Tiger’), 4 Cross; John Graham, 8 Borve; Roderick Graham, 29 Borve; Angus Morrison, 41 Borve; and Donald Martin, 33 Lower Shader.

John Murray was possibly the second person to reach safety by means of the rope which John MacLeod had earlier managed to swim to shore with.

Norman MacKenzie swam ashore but was badly injured as he was repeatedly washed off the rocks.  His injuries left him confined to bed for a considerable period.

Alexander Morrison had earlier survived the sinking of HMS Hermes which had been lost on 31 October 1914.  His wife was a sister of fellow Iolaire survivor, Donald ‘Patch’ Morrison.

Malcolm Matheson, 10 Upper Shader, had been a gunner on board HMT Ireland which had been credited with bringing down two Zeppelins in the North Sea.