Notes from a niseach

Tolling the bell: the loss of the Iolaire

In the issue of The Shetland Times dated 4th January 1919, there are a number of articles relating to the war that was – technically, at least – still going on*. Various headlines remind readers of its existence, telling of the “Lerwick soldiers seriously injured”, “Yell seaman drowned”, “Tuberculosis among Shetland naval ratings”. There are occasional nods elsewhere – at international politics, the peace treaty negotiations, the actions of the US President – and, by way of light relief, the “Christmas sports at Scalloway”.

Crammed at the foot of one page, there is, too, a quick and hurried glance at the troubles that been visited in the early hours of New Year’s Day on another Scottish island, the “Shipping disaster near Stornaway”.

Judging by the content of the article that lay below these words, it was news that arrived moments before printing. Not only is the town’s name misspelled and the date of the tragedy omitted but the entire article is ungrammatical. It tells of how:

“The naval yacht Iolaire struck the rocks outwith Stornaway harbour. Nearly 300 sailors on board on holiday leave, of which there were about 38 survivors and 200 drowned.”

It was the following week before The Shetland Times got round to both spelling the town’s name correctly and giving a more fulsome account of the tragedy. In the way one might expect one island community to show sympathy and solidarity to another, especially at a time when many of their best sailors must have been standing shoulder to shoulder on ships’ decks, the news is spread out over a few columns of its pages in its issue of 11th January. A great dark headline looms above the report, highlighting the words:


After this, the full story is told – the bodies of the men dashed against rocks yards from their island’s shores after four years of war, the survivors coming ashore by rope or even, as is the case with one individual, clinging to a mast till morning – in all its grim and terrible detail.

* * *

In some ways, the people of my native isle of Lewis have been even more reticent about the details of that incident than the journalists of The Shetland Times were in that first report. All around me, while I was growing up, there was evidence of the waste of an entire generation. It came in the form of the black-clad widows and spinsters who occupied so many of the houses of the village where I was raised – deprived, perhaps, of the chance to marry by the dark shadow of the Great War, island emigration and the Iolaire disaster.

Or even in the old man who lived in the thatched house next door to us. We called him “Hero” and most mornings, he journeyed down the road to the local post office, waving his stick and cursing the dark realities of his life, a spontaneous outburst of obscenities that must have horrified many of the church elders who lived nearby. Yet who – even among them – could blame him for it? Two of his brothers had been drowned in that conflict. Two of the ships on which he had crewed had been sunk – his friends and crewmates dying around him.

Yet I can rarely remember the events of these times ever being spoken about. The First and even Second World War were scarcely mentioned; the relatives who had sailed to Canada or the United States almost forgotten about; the loss of the Iolaire not a subject for much discussion. In fact, I can only recall the latter being referred to in any detail during the few occasions we travelled down to the village of Port at the far northern end of the island. There were two men there who were local celebrities: one was Donald Morrison, the one they called Am Patch, who had clung to the ship’s mast until the morning. The other was John Finlay Macleod, the individual who had been responsible for bringing many of the survivors to shore, swimming with a rope curled round his hand towards a ledge of rock.

Weaned on a diet of Commando comics and John Wayne movies, neither looked much like heroes to me. Am Patch did not swagger; he simply strolled down the road from his house in Knockaird to the village shop or harbour, wearing the customary cloth cap and denim jacket that was the uniform dress of the old men of our area. John Finlay was a slighter figure, working in the family boat-builder’s yard beside his home, a similar cloth-cap perched upon his grey head. I can recall a quiet and unassertive presence, lines wrinkling his face, some distance away from the muscular self-confidence of either Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas or any of the other movie-stars I was often thrilled to watch on screen.

Yet heroes they were. The hush in my father’s voice when he spoke of them convinced me of that; the slow, patient recounting of all that they had done on that cold, dark night in January. This was something which neither of the two men was much inclined to do, only speaking about the event on one or two occasions in their lives. In this, they were not unlike the society around them. In John Macleod’s extremely impressive new book about the tragedy, When I Heard The Bell – The Loss Of The Iolaire, he notes that: “for decades, most who had made it ashore alive . . . refused to discuss it at all. It was 1960 before a monument to the catastrophe was even erected; . . . 1st January 1999 . . . before a memorial service was even held.”

It was little wonder that this collective amnesia spread far before the shores of Lewis. In 1987, when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized leaving Zeebrugge, drowning 193 souls, it was said by many reporters to be Britain’s greatest maritime tragedy. The wave of sympathy that people in the Western Isles – both Lewis and Harris – felt for the victims was tinged with a little anger. The lost ones of the Iolaire had been overlooked once more.

Recent events have left us with no excuses for ever doing this again. A short time ago, to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the loss of the Iolaire, there was an excellent BBC documentary. Now, one month later, there is John Macleod’s book, a majestic work, one that gathers and brings together many of the testimonies of those involved. From its opening pages till its close, it holds, grips, moves and – sometimes – shocks and appals its reader.

It is the first time that the story of the Iolaire has ever been recorded in a detailed way in an English-language book. It gives us the context of the disaster and provides its audience with a multitude of moving stories about the way the tragedy affected the island for decades afterwards – and, perhaps, even does so today. If it is true, as has been claimed, that the Lewisman has a darker view of life than his Shetland counterpart, he provides the reason for this. If he has a more distrustful, questioning view of authority, read the account of the inquest that followed the sinking, the fictions and fabrications those responsible for the tragedy told to excuse their appalling failures, and understand why this might so. Macleod does all this in clear and magnificent prose, providing an excellent account of the effects that this calamity had on the island both then and later. He deserves both praise and gratitude for – what must have been at times – a gruelling and harrowing endeavour for anyone to write.

I would urge you all to read it. Do this and you’ll find cause to wonder. Read it, too, and find good cause to weep.

Donald S Murray

– – –

* It was 1919 before the Peace Treaty was signed, formally bringing an end to the conflict.

When I Heard The Bell – The Loss Of The Iolaire, John Macleod, Published by Birlinn at £16.99.

– – –

For the lost ones
by Donald S Murray

In my youth, I was surrounded by a multitude of Miss Havishams,
though, somewhat, in reverse – for they were garbed in funeral dress
since the day their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers
passed away, as if flesh was forced to take on black
to accompany their lost souls as they stepped into the dark.

Their clocks stopped too, preserving in grim perpetuity
their fidelity to lost ones who were gone
with their passing marked by donning of black skirt and cardigan,
uniforms of death that marked far more than any headstone
signs that those they loved and cared for were all they thought upon.


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