In the Chamber: Iolaire Disaster – 19th December 2018

Iolaire Disaster
Scottish Parliament
19 December 2018
Motion debated
That the Parliament commemorates with great sadness the Iolaire disaster of 1 January 1919, when at least 201 men, mainly those returning home to the islands of Lewis and Harris after active service in the Royal Navy, lost their lives; remembers this terrible event, which took place when HMY Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm, a group of rocks only around three miles from where the men’s families were waiting for them at Stornoway Harbour; notes the series of commemorations that will take place in the islands around the centenary, and commends the efforts that are being made in the community and nationally to give due recognition to a disaster that, for many decades afterwards, had a devastating impact on the people of the Western Isles.
Rhoda’s speech
I thank Alasdair Allan for securing the debate.
In a year that has marked the centenary of the end of world war 1, we are fast approaching the last commemoration of that conflict—the sinking of the Iolaire.
The islands had provided many men to fight in the services for the world war and had already suffered great losses.
We can only imagine the relief of families, hearing that their loved ones were on their way home, believing them to be safe and making preparations to welcome them.
There must have been an air of excitement, or maybe it was just relief.
For the men, their arrival at Kyle of Lochalsh must itself have been a sort of homecoming.
Those who had previously been fishermen would have been in familiar surroundings, because they would have often berthed or landed their catches in Kyle.
They knew the crossing well, because it was close to home, and they were seeing it for what was possibly the first time in years.
They would also have been meeting old friends and catching up on news. Home was within touching distance.
As more men arrived at Kyle, the boat that was supposed to take them—the Sheila—was already close to capacity, so the Iolaire was sent to fetch them home.
The Iolaire was not equipped with enough safety equipment for the number of men that were likely to sail on her.
However, it was hogmanay, and it would have been cold—too cold for people to stay outside for the night, and it was unlikely that there would have been enough accommodation in Kyle for all of the men.
It appears that there was some discussion about the issue, but with more and more men arriving in Kyle, the decision was made to sail, with devastating consequences.
As Angus MacDonald said, many people believe that the tragedy was the cause of mass emigration from the islands in the 1920s.
It certainly contributed to poverty, and the islands’ economy has yet to recover from the loss of those men.
As we near the centenary of the loss of the Iolaire, I have been surprised to hear that, as Alasdair Allan noted, many islanders say that they have only recently become aware of it because it was never spoken about in their homes or villages, so deep was the sense of loss.
I was very young when I first heard about the sinking of the Iolaire—so young that it feels that I have known about it all my life.
My grandfather fought in both world wars, as did his father.
My grandfather never spoke to me about his wartime experiences, but I knew of them because of his medals and because he had an old demob union flag that he flew every time there was a wedding in the village.
However, he did speak about the Iolaire.
He told us of the tragedy and of the loss that was experienced by the whole island of Lewis and Harris.
The communities have come together, and will continue to come together over the following weeks, to mark the centenary.
We must stand together and we must do so with them.
I hope that the site where the Iolaire sank will be recognised as a war grave, although I understand that there is very little left of the boat.
However, the Beasts of Holm will mark the spot where the men fell.
Chris Murray, whose work with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been recognised by the Queen’s gallantry medal, has offered to dive to lay a wreath at the site on new year’s day.
That will be another fitting tribute to those who were lost so close to home 100 years ago.
As people begin to speak more widely about the tragedy, we can see how the events impacted on so many lives.
My Gaelic tutor told me that his grandfather had been on the Iolaire but had, for some reason, transferred to the Sheila—a decision that saved his life.
I found out only recently that John Macleod, who bravely swam ashore with a rope and saved many lives, was the great-grand-uncle of Chris Bryant MP.
Thus, the personal stories come to life: we must preserve those stories and remember the lives that were lost.