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 Iolaire was carrying sailors who had fought in the First World War back to the Scottish island of Lewis. She left the port of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland late on the evening of the 31 December 1918. But, at 2:30am on New Year's Day, as the ship approached the port of Stornoway, a few yards offshore and a mile away from the safety of Stornoway Harbour, she hit the infamous rocks "The Beasts of Holm", and eventually sank. The final death toll was officially put at 205, of whom 181 were islanders, but as the ship was badly overcrowded and there was a lack of proper records the death toll could have been slightly higher. John. F. Macleod from Ness, Isle of Lewis saved 40 lives, swimming ashore with a heaving line, along which many of the survivors made their way to safety. Only 75 of the 280 (officially known) passengers survived the disaster, 73% perished in the incident.

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.

See also


  • Sea sorrow : the story of the 'Iolaire' disaster. Stornoway : Stornoway Gazette, [1972]. 39p.
  • Norman Macdonald: Call na h-Iolaire / Tormod Dòmhnallach. Stornoway : Acair, 1978. 124 p. ISBN 0-861520-00-9 (In Gaelic, with a resume in English).

External links

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