The Iolaire (Scottish Gaelic for Eagle) was an Admiralty yacht whose sinking on the 1 January 1919 in the Minch strait was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters during the 20th century. At least 205 men perished of the 280 aboard.
Note on the name: whilst the word "iolaire" in Lewis Gaelic is pronounced [ˈjoɫəz̟ə], varying slightly according to dialect, the English-speaking crew used a spelling pronunciation of [ˈaɪəˌlɛəɹ], and this was adopted by Gaelic-speakers as its name.
The sailors were wearing their full uniforms including heavy boots, so swimming from the wreck was difficult - indeed many men of that time had never had the opportunity to learn. Many songs and poems, such as An Iolaire, describe the women of these men finding their men washed up on the shore the next day.
This was, and is, the worst maritime disaster (for loss of life) in United Kingdom waters in peacetime since the wreck of the SS Norge off Rockall in 1904, and the worst peacetime disaster involving a British ship since the Titanic on April 15 1912.
An Admiralty enquiry shortly after did not find a satisfactory explanation for the disaster. The inconclusive findings of the Admiralty enquiry generated much ill feeling amongst the Lewis population amidst accusations of a "whitewash". While drunkenness among the crew was discounted at the enquiry, the vessel was sailing at night in poor visibility in deteriorating weather. To this day, the entrance to Stornoway harbour is not the most straightforward of navigations, so it is likely that navigational error was to blame. Indeed, this appears to be supported by a fishing vessel whose crew noted that the Iolaire was not navigating the correct course for entering the harbour.
A memorial was erected in 1960 at Holm, outside Stornoway. A stone pillar sticks out of the water at the site of the wreck, which can be seen to starboard as the car ferry approaches the harbour entrance.
Sunk by the Beasts; Disaster: In the Early Hours of New Year's Day, 1919, the Iolaire (above) Was Destroyed after Crashing into the Notorious Beasts of Holm Rocks (Left)
Jan 08, 2009; Byline: CHARLES LEGGE QUESTION While in Stornoway, I heard about a tragic homecoming of troops from the battlefields of World War...
LAST ORPHAN OF IOLAIRE; at New Year 1919, a Ship Bringing Stornoway's Servicemen Home Sank, Killing 201. Now the Last of the 209 Children Left without a Father Tells Her Story
Jun 03, 2006; Byline: JOHN MACLEOD LIKE many children late in 1918, Mor Smith hardly knew her father. She was four - and all her life he had...
When the Troopship Iolaire Sank 205 Islanders Died. Now 80 Years on, the Pall of Silence That Cloaked the Tragedy Has at Last Been Lifted
Jan 01, 1999; Byline: LAURA COLLINS FOR 80 years it was a tragedy that was privately remembered, but rarely mentioned in public. In the early...