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.
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 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.