The Iolaire, Stornoway

Most entries for the Western Isles are about chambered cairns and other prehistoric remains but this one is about a very moving memorial to the Iolaire disaster, one of the saddest but least known tragedies from WW1.  As the memorial is in the form of a temporary artwork which will only last as long as tides and weather allow, I thought it deserved to be recorded here in a post.

The shape of the Iolaire, with the blue and green lights of the posts shining up from under the water.

100 years ago, on 1st January 1919 the Naval Yacht HMY Iolaire was bringing sailors back home to the islands after the war when it hit rocks and sank as it approached  Stornoway harbour. The young men, most of them naval reserves on leave after the war, would have seen the lights of Stornoway ahead of them and there would have been great excitement at seeing their families again and celebrating the New Year. Families were waiting at the pier to welcome them but in the darkness and gale force winds the ship hit rocks and sank, about a mile from its destination and only about 20 yards from the shore. Of the 280 crew and passengers on board, 201 were lost.

There wasn’t a district or family left untouched by the terrible loss of so many on the Iolaire. The islands had already lost a higher proportion of its young men to the war than other places and the loss was so great that it could barely be spoken about for generations.

A hundred years on, islanders have been commemorating the disaster.  Apart from events to mark the anniversary,  a special exhibition has been running at Stornoway Museum throughout the winter and this sculpture was commissioned by Stornoway Port Authority and erected on the shore by the ferry port. It was only intended to be a temporary installation for a few months but it has survived better than expected and hopefully will be in situ for a little while longer as it has been so popular with local and visitors.

The sculpture at night, and behind it, the Calmac ferry arriving from Ullapool

The life-size outline of the 189ft long ship is depicted by tall posts, one for every man on the ship. 201 have been left plain to represent the number lost and 79 are painted white to represent the survivors. At low tide the posts are revealed, rising starkly from the mud like the ribs of an old ship. As the tide comes in the posts disappear under the water, the white tips just visible under the surface. If it isn’t too sunny, you start to see spots of blue light appearing under the surface, like phosphorescence.  It is at night time that it looks most dramatic, when the tide is in and ethereal green and blue lights from the posts reveal the outline of the ship under the water.

Sheòl an Iolaire – The Iolaire Sailed  (Iolaire is Gaelic for eagle)

Along the top of the wall by the pavement is a long plaque with the names of the many districts in Lewis and Harris who lost men. After each place there is a number in black for the number lost from that area and a number in white for the survivors.

Across the harbour is Lews Castle which houses Stornoway Museum and around it are the Castle Grounds whose trees provided the posts for the sculpture.


North Uist : Baleshare

After a quiet few months it was the new year and time to get out and about again. The first event of the year was a Scottish Islands archaeology symposium on the Isle of North Uist and  among the fieldtrips were one to the beach at Baleshare  and another to look at Barpa Langass chambered cairn.


Barpa Langass is the best preserved chambered cairn in the Western Isles and I’ve written about it in a previous post.

It isn’t safe to go inside it nowadays but luckily I had been inside it many years ago. The only thing I would add to the previous post is that after listening to a talk by a local structural engineer about fractures in the capstones and shifting and movement of some of the large orthostats, including the capstones, I will definitely not be going inside again! Not unless money can be found some time in the future to consolidate the structure and make it safe.

A collapse in the passage wall that occurred a few years ago

BALESHARE (Baile Sear)

Baleshare is a long,  low-lying  island joined to the rest of North Uist by a causeway.

Taken from the cafe at Claddach Kirkibost, looking across to the northern tip of Baleshare (on the left) and to the southern tip of Kirkibost Island (on the right)

Running down the west side of Baleshare is one continuous 4 mile long sandy beach and at various places along this beach,  remains from the Iron-Age have been  revealed in the sandy cliffs. Severe erosion from tides and storms is constantly revealing more shell middens and sometimes the walls of wheelhouses, a form of Iron-Age roundhouse characterized by inner radial walls resembling the spokes of a wheel.

Above L – wheelhouse walls sticking out of the sand dunes and R – an excavated wheelhouse about 6 miles away on Grimsay

Iron-Age Wheelhouse, exposed by a surge tide

At the same time as new archaeology is being revealed, existing remains are often  being lost to the sea.

The shell middens are depicted by an obvious strata of shells in the cliff face and contain the discarded shells of shellfish as well as animal and fish bones,  pottery sherds and other material that had been discarded and put on the midden.

Pieces of pottery and tools made from bone, flint and stone can often be found in the sandy cliff.

Although this is a coastal environment nowadays, these are settlements that would originally have been some distance from the sea. Erosion has been so dramatic, over not only centuries, but millennia, that the coast here once stretched 14km out to sea and a land bridge connected North Uist to the Monach Isles, a chain of low lying sandy islands visible 9 miles to the west.

The flat machair land on Baleshare

The whole of the island is now called Baile Sear, which means eastern township and Baile Siar, the western township has long since disappeared under sand and tides.

The photos above are of the shell middens and stone remains at Ceardach Ruadh (translates as the red smiddy)  which is to the north of the parking area at the beach.  Another site to the south, Sloc Sabhaid, was revealed after a severe hurricane in 2005 and  rescue excavations found the remains of Iron-Age roundhouses there to0.

On the east side of Baleshare, a walk from the end of the road takes you to a Neolithic cairn and nearby are some abandoned croft houses.

Beach between Baleshare and Benbecula

Above & below – Baleshare is surrounded by shallow tidal waters

Duirsainean Chambered Cairn, Isle of Lewis


The last post was about a picturesque cairn in a garden on the Isle of Harris. As a contrast, this is another Neolithic cairn in the Western Isles but in a much bleaker moorland setting, further north, on the Isle of Lewis.
The islands of Lewis and Harris are not separate islands but one large landmass, with the larger, northern part being the Isle of Lewis and the southern part being the the Isle of Harris.

Duirsainean Cairn sits up on the moors above the village of Garrabost and has panoramic views across Lewis as well as to the distant hills of the Scottish mainland.

Garrabost Chambered Cairn (1)On the day we visited it there had been heavy rain all day and I was resigned to getting wet and having very poor light for taking any photos. However, after a rather damp walk the rain eased off and shafts of sunlight shone through onto the landscape.Garrabost Chambered Cairn (1)The cairn has been heavily robbed for its stone but the remaining orthostats and kerbstones, coupled with its location, make it worth a visit. An unusual feature is that the position of the kerbstones would indicate that this cairn was square shaped rather than round.
A tall orthostat marks the entrance to the passage which is on the east side and there is evidence to suggest that there might have been a forecourt.

Garrabost Chambered Cairn (2)

Garrabost is a village on the Eye Peninsula, east of Stornoway (An Rudha on the map and known locally as Point) and the cairn is on a waymarked walk from the village.