An Iolaire Survivor

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Translated from an interview with An Geal, John Maclennan, born 1896 at 15 Kneep and married at 4 Aird, Uig. The Admiralty ship the Iolaire taking servicemen home to Lewis grounded on the Beasts of Holm outside Stornoway, on the 1st of January 1919. More than two hundred men perished. Translated by Maggie Smith.

At the end of December 1918, on leave and travelling back to Lewis with other servicemen from Uig, we planned to arrive home on New Year’s day and surprise the families. Approaching Stornoway Harbour on the Iolaire the mistake was made when we changed course. All it required was less than half a point, it just needed to be slightly to the West. The lighthouse was visible, but the man at the wheel didn’t alter the course when he should have.

We never suspected a thing until she hit, it was so quiet and everything was so normal… Only two people escaped from that part of the ship I was in. One brave man swam ashore with a rope and secured it. When the ship grounded she swung round broadside. I remember moving the rope from the stern to the side, but today I don’t quite know how I managed it. A lot of those around me had lost their mind, particularly the younger men. There were no orders from the officers maybe if… If only the ship had grounded closer to the shore, most of those aboard would have been saved. But the rocks we hit were the furthest point from the shore. Although there had been a strong wind it was behind us. I was able to crawl to safety across that rope. The ship sunk eventually and one man was left clinging to the mast until he was rescued. Only seventy five people made it to the shore.

When I got ashore I was shoeless as I had been resting and had taken them off. A lot of the men had taken their shoes off and were lying down, wherever they could get space to rest their head. Reaching the shore I fell into a bog and lost my socks, then I headed for the nearest house, where a huddle of injured people had gathered. I was injured with cuts on my chest, but I never let on to anyone. It was a frosty night and I walked from Holm to Stornoway.

Seeing a sign for the Post Office I headed in that direction. I heard a woman crying. It was Maga (nighean Seonaid Chalum Tharmoid). Maga had met two Uig men who had been on the boat, Uilleam Dubh (William Maclennan 36 Cliff) and (Tuireag) Malcolm Macritchie 7 Aird. They had mentioned I was on the ship, and as they hadn’t seen me since coming ashore, they had come to the conclusion that I too, had been lost.

I got some ‘civvies’; they were clothes belonging to Peter, a brother of Maga. Then went down to the Admiralty building, where a row of us were sitting outside on the wall. Admiral Boyle came and asked me who I was, he didn’t know me in the ‘civvies’. Then he clapped me on the shoulder and said “Thank God you’re safe”. He said “come back here in quarter of an hour and I’ll have the car ready for you”.

I made it home on New Years Day. The car took Tuireag and me to Callanish and Duncan Macrae’s motor launch took us to Traigh Sheanais in Reef. Tuireag and I walked back to the Kneep and we met my sister Hannah at the top of the hill, she was so happy to see me. I never said anything.

I went into the house, my mother was in bed and I went to her bedside.

She said “Iain, what happened”.

“Nothing happened” I said.

“Something happened, I’ve known for a long time ago that something dreadful was going to happen”.

The telegram with the news of the loss of the Iolaire was not put up in the Post Office in Uig until the following day. Somehow word must have got back to Uig because Càdham and An Gobha came to the house and as I had not seen either of their sons since coming ashore, I feared the worst.

I went to hide at the other end of the house and wished I hadn’t come home so soon. Going to face those men knowing their sons were drowned, but I couldn’t tell them that.

I couldn’t leave till the island until my leave ended. I couldn’t attend the court of inquiry because of the injury to my legs and chest.

Some of the bodies of those lost on the Iolaire had not been recovered. Càdham had a premonition or a dream, because six weeks after the tragedy of that New Year’s morning, he set off for Stornoway telling the family he was going to collect his son’s body. On approaching the Admiralty Base he demanded a boat and they decided to humour a grieving father and take him to Glumaig Bay as he wished. In the bay there they found the body of his son Angus Matheson from Uigen, in the location where his father had seen his body in the dream or premonition.

I served as a seaman on the original Iolaire, the Naval flagship which had been based in Stornoway during the First World War. That original vessel was three times the size of the ship of the same name, which was lost on the Beasts of Holm.

When the larger ship left to go to Dundee, the replacement in the Minch adopted the Iolaire name. This was the boat which sailed out of Stornoway Harbour for three months, before the fateful night she was lost and almost two hundred men drowned

My shipmate from Shadar was also on the Iolaire that fated night. He was probably the best swimmer that was ever born on the Island of Lewis. Three times he tried to get to the shore and had to return each time, before eventually crossing on the rope to safety. When we met to travel to join the ship the Iolaire in Bowling, Glasgow we turned the ribbons on our caps so they just showed HMS on them. But people still knew who we were, even when we got to the headquarters in Glasgow.

The ship’s crew had to go to Portsmouth to be demobbed. One of the officers told me to stay behind until he travelled to Portsmouth with me. I spent a fortnight in Glasgow where he put a car driven by a W.R.E.N. at my disposal. When I got to Portsmouth I got my demob papers after only 4 days and the rest of the crew were still there waiting for theirs.

Uig Seamen Lost on the Iolaire:

Murdo Mackinnnon 18 Brenish (Murchadh Chaidhean)
George Morrison 20 Brenish (Seòras a Chèisean)
Murdo Nicolson (jnr)1 Crowlista (Murchadh Beag)
Angus Macdonald 6 Crowlista (Aonghas an Duibh)
Ewen Macdonald 13 Crowlista (Eoghainn)
Malcolm Mackay 14 b Crowlista (Calum Dhòmhnaill Nèill
John Macdonald 16 Crowlista (Iain Aonghais Mhoir)
Peter Buchanan 23 Crowlista (Padraig Dhòmhnaill Chaoil)
John Macleod 16 Uigen (Sheocan a Ghobha)
Angus Matheson 18 Uigen (Aonghas Chàdham)