The Wreck of the Iolaire

Survivor Recalls A Night of Terror

“From the lone sheiling of the Misty Island

Mountains divide us and waste of seas.

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland

And we in dreams behold the Hebrides


Originally published in Stornoway Gazette, 10 August 1956


Oh! How often have I on the lone Saskatchewan Prairies, far from the haunts of my childhood, dreamt the same dream as the anonymous bard of those touching and endearing lines. The Hebrides! The Hebrides! What surges of mixed emotions overcome me at the thought and sound of the word. Happy memories of childhood days when life seemed to be of the sweetest nectar. I played and frolicked amongst the purple heather, crags and glens. I was as free as the Atlantic breeze or the mountain deer. This tight little island of Lewis and Harris lies stolidly off the North West of Scotland, as if some mighty giant had taken a goodly slice of the mainland and in his wrath hurled it forty miles into the Atlantic Ocean. It is an island of crofters, sailors and fishermen, proud, loyal and patriotic. An island whose quote of manpower in both wars was second to none in the British Isles. To a stranger, a land of whisky, oatmeal and religion. A prescription of the first two is a cure for “what ails you”. A mixture of the last two is a good formula for “Life”. Its mantle of purple heather, its rugged scenery, its balmy, velvety Atlantic air make it a Mecca for tourists in summer time. The main seaport is Stornoway, a thriving fishing port. It also is the setting of my narrative. As my narrative unfolds, you can discern that circumstance and time make it one of the most poignant and unique catastrophes in the annals of the British Navy. Yes, the Fates and the Furies combined dealt the island a sad and staggering blow.


By Christmas 1918, the carnage in Europe was over. A new era was dawning. Peace and goodwill were replacing the murderous hatred in the minds of men. The process of demobilisation was in full swing, priority was given to older veterans. The young sailors were kept for mine-sweeping and generally clearing the shambles. I belonged to the latter group. Christmas 1918 found me aboard HMS Cyclops, parent boat for the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow, north of Scotland. Most of the English sailors were given Christmas leave, the Scotch ladies were to have their New Year. Some of my sailor chums had sailed the seven seas. There was John Campbell, wounded at Suvla Bay, Dardanelles, taken prisoner by the Turks. He escaped. He had a large shining scar on his right cheek. John says, “A piece of Turk was grafted and no whiskers will ever grow”. “Perhaps you’ll produce feathers” remarked Ian Campbell. Ian with his wounds dearly bougt at Zeebrugge Mole on the HMS Vindictive. Then my own dear friend Jack MacLeod, twenty-two looking like forty-two, torpedoed twice and anticipating his discharge before New Year. We were young and happy, happy to have survived the war. Round us in the bay were the big lumbering hulks of once proud Wilhelm’s navy, dirty and drab, each looking as dead as a peatbog. By this time, the British navy had greatly relaxed its martinet’s paw. We were allowed to pay our old arch enemy a visit. I used to take some articles to barter for souvenirs. My best bargain was my trip to a German Officer’s cabin. For four bars of soap, I was the proud possessor of a nice shining sword and a small compass. I managed to get them safely to my boat, unknown to any of my officers. I had been previously relieved of souvenirs, under pretext that such things were His Majesty’s property. I had no thought of piercing Sir Galahad’s glades. The sword was just to be hung in a Highland cottage.


Early in the morning of the 31st, Jack informed me that he had received his discharge and beamingly remarked: “It’s me too for the Road to the Isles.” By 10 a.m., I was on my first lap homeward, crossed the treacherous Pentland Firth on a Naval boat and landed in Scrabster terminus in the north of Scotland. I took the train immediately to Kyle of Lochalsh via Inverness and arrived in Kyle at about 6pm. Upon arriving in Kyle, I noticed that the sleepy little town was swarming with sailors, soldiers, civilians and munitions workers, carpenters and engineers from the Clyde, kilted soldiers from the Highland Regiments and sailors from various ports. I could hear broad Scotch and English, but mostly Gaelic, the last my Mother tongue which I loved so much. Their sad and bitter memories were now submerged anticipating meeting their beloved ones. The Isle was The Isle of the Blessed to them, a haven of peace and rest. Word went around that there were over two hundred passengers more than the mail boat could accommodate. Wireless was sent to Stornoway and it was decided that the mail boat would convey the soldiers and civilians and an Admiralty boat would convey the sailors. It was not a passenger boat nor did it resemble one. It was different from any we ever had the pleasure to sail on. It was a beautiful 900 ton steam yacht which belonged to a rich Clyde Ship owner. It was now commandeered by the Government for patrol and submarine scouting. Here it was with little alteration, with the exception of a coat of slate grey on hull and tall masts and an 18 pounder on a high stern platform surrounded by numerous depth charges. It was called the Iolaire. I felt rather honoured being conveyed on my last lap homeward on a millionaire’s yacht. Once aboard an Officer shouted “Make yourselves comfortable”. Some went into the fo’c’sle, a number to the saloon, most of them remained on deck. I with twelve others found a cosy spot in the Chart house. In half an hour we shoved off.


Soon the Inner Isles were fading behind, rugged rock Rona and misty Isle of Skye were vanishing on the port quarter. Now with a pitch and roll we were in the open sea. The night was cold and threatening with a stiff breeze from the southeast hurling us along as if conscious of the fact we wished to be on ‘Terra Firma’ to hear New Years chimes and foot our Hogmanay. Meantime I made myself comfortable, stretched out on the floor with my kit-bag for pillow; the kit-bag with my good sword inside, harmless and dormant, wrapped in a blanket. Sleep would not come my way. I got up, walked around and noted the wind stiffening to a gale. I heard no loud talk, no celebrations. Everything was serene. I again returned to my temporary shake-down, told an acquaintance to wake me when nearing the lighthouse a mile from the pier. I fell into a restless sleep. I had a horrid dream. I saw my father talking to me. I could feel his breath, his torpedo beard touching my cheek. “Don, be careful”, he said. With those words ringing in my ears, I woke up with a terrible foreboding.


Just then a scraping heaving of the boat rolled me across the floor. I got up, spruced myself, heaved my kit-bag on my shoulder shouting to Jack “We are alongside the pier”. The refrain was taken up by the remainder. I caught the doorknob on the wind, then came a louder scraping vibrating noise and a terrible impact – simultaneously the boat lurched at an awful angle, catapulting us mercilessly against the lee-side of the chart-house. This was certainly not the pier. The doors were closed. I could not see. Instinctively, we clambered to the door on the wind side. As we opened the door, the lighthouse flashed its blessed beam – on mountainous waves relentlessly lashing against over towering cliffs with narrow ledges and jagged crags. The waves descended in a mighty cataract into the boiling and spuming depths below. We were parallel to the cliffs and a stone’s throw from it. The scene was terrible to behold. We were used to mines, torpedoes and shell fire, but this struck fear in our hearts. We knew we were trapped, as no lifeboat could live in that maelstrom. The most powerful swimmer would be a toy. We would be dashed to pieces, quartered and torn asunder by the piercing knife-like crags. We struck a submerged reef, came to a standstill twenty yards from the cliff, a mile from the pier and our destination Stornoway. I spoke to Jack. “This is a wooden boat. No provisions made for passengers and not enough lifeboats or lifebelts. Minutes count. I am off for a lifebelt. Good-bye, Jack and God Bless you”. I threw my kit-bag down, threw my heavy overcoat away. With the aid of a flashlight I groped my way amidships. By now the lights were out. Rockets were fired from the bridge and the Captain shouted “Every man for himself”. In the rockets’ flare, I could see sailors everywhere, single and in groups. Pieces of the lifeboats on the wind side were being hurled over our heads. Some sailors were trying to get two boats out on the lee side. Some were climbing the tall masts, fearing being washed overboard. Most of them were on the gun platform aft. I managed to get to the lee side of the galley. While contemplating what to do I noticed a sailor with a big round cork lifebelt around his shoulders. As I jumped up to him I noticed he had a cork jacket as well. “Please give me one of those lifebelts”. He gazed at me. I put my arm under the lifebelt and pulled it over his head. He still gazed not uttering a word. Now I felt safer and descended to the bulwarks to jump into one of the boats. Thank goodness I missed it by seconds. I twas loaded. I watched it churning and whirling and in an instant down it went. I could see little black specks in the foaming froth. Something  deterred me from jumping into the second boat. I gazed at it as it shoved off, then a mighty back wash wave seemed to fill the boat. It seemed to glide up to their shoulders, their heads – and then no more. I could not see any survivors from either of the boats.


I managed to climb a davit, twisted a leg around it, the other leg resting on a cross-pin and my head under a narrow platform. This platform helped to break the walloping waves. I was hardly in this position when one of the boilers exploded. Large sheets of flames with forked fingers were bellowing  from the galley and tucking at my back. The aftermast snapped and bodies came plummeting down around me. Looking down into the boiling cauldron below me there were scores of bodies rolling, appearing, tumbling and disappearing. I prayed “Oh Mighty Sea, roll them Ashore, Roll them Ashore”. Now I thought I could hear far away voices from the shore. It turned out that a sailor with a heaving line jumped from the gun’s platform, was hurled by an incoming wave to a ledge. He pulled a hawser ashore. A number managed to make shore hand over hand on this rope. I felt that I should get at this rope, but it was impossible. The boat was awash. Fire, steam and lashing waves prevented me. Oh! What eerie noises and sounds – the swirling water, the pounding waves, roaring fires, screams of the burned and the dying and above all the chimes of the bridge bell as if tolling our knell. The yacht’s keel was by now well broken ujp. The boat was sliding backwards into deeper waters. Finally, I found myself opposite where the rope was tied ashore. There were sailors below me, trying to grasp the rope, wading to their shoulders.


My position was fearful in front and frightful behind. I must jump over the heads of those below me to grab the rope. I braced myself for a good long leap – a leap of death, I thought. Something caught me by the arm. I turned round and found another sailor had hooked his arm through my lifebelt. This was serious. My last deed was going to be a good one, so I took off my lifebelt and handed it to him, saying “Take it and good luck”.

I jumped and caught the rope. One, two heaves shoreward then my legs went round my head. I felt myself carried forward, I hit the crags. I was numb. I rolled like a football down the jagged rocks. The backwash hurled we outwards. Now I was dancing with the dead, seized one, spun around and lost him. Another to me. I’d hug him, make a few grotesque whirls and then lose my grasp. It happened that some of the sailors who had managed ashore on the rope had enough strength left to be able to run back and fro with the waves, hauling ashore the dead and the living. One of them hauled to a ledge.


Next morning, I woke up in Sick Bay in Stornoway, my father was sitting by my bedside. He informed me that over 200 perished below the cliff. Some sailors were washed ashore a few yards from their home cemetery as if to say “This is your final resting place”. Only three of the yacht’s crew were saved. The Captain was found mangled amongst the rocks. By noon, all that was left of HMS Iolaire was a fathom of the foremast, pointing like a long accusing finger at the cliff. Nobody could throw any light on this mysterious disaster, half a mile from the lighthouse at the harbour’s mouth.


Jack did not answer the roll call.

Somewhere, some place, someone blundered.