Sometimes in writing the shortest blog the title is the hardest part. Take this one, The Scottish Horse Islanders, Then I had to change it to reflex the new information I had found. This the sea of Tranquillity, the Eagle has landed was a working title, so was The day Shulishader died. The weird thing was the blog was going to be about something completely different. I was looking to see on the Roll of Honour for Lewis when it struck me just how many had drowned on the Iolair. But as it is about the Iolair The Scottish Horse will wait.
I have walked many battlefields all around the globe, and as a kid, I used to imagine what it was like to die in battle. I just can not begin to imagine what it was like for the Iolair. What did it feel like when they were grabbed by the beasts, Did their lives flash before them? Did the cauld sea chill them to sleep? Did they die screaming at the night, reaching for their hames and the lights they could see?
When men going into battle they know they may not survive. When our sons, dads, husbands go to fight we know they may not return, but not this. I have stood where the Devonshires held and still hold their trench. It can be explained, rationalised, tears still flow. They are part of the tragedy of the Great War. But not the loss of the men of the Iolair. For the dead of the Iolair it is grief beyond tears. Shulishader died, and Shulisharder was not the only village on Lewis that died that night. The Iolair really should not have been part of the tragedy. It was part of the rejoicing the celebration the war was over, they were coming home. These man had fought at the Falklands, Jutland, Zeebrugge, made sure supplies had crossed the Atlantic.they had brought soldiers safely back from the Western Front, Mesopotamia, the edge of Empire. Now it was their turn. They also knew the waters around Lewis like the back of their hands. Sadly the crew of the Iolair did not.
Over 200 Royal navy reservists had been squeezed on board His Majesty’s Yought Iolair at Kyle of Lochaish on the evening of the 31st December 1918. They were all going home. Most had had a little to drink, the could now converse in their native tongue. The Iolair was dangerously overcrowded. For reasons we do not know the Iolair was heading on a course to Stornoway harbour via the Beasts of Holm. Every Islander knew of the Beasts, the rocks near the entrance to Stornoway. Although it is thought they might not of been marked on the charts the crew of the Iolair was using. The crew were not local, they had no idea. In the dead of the night the very first hours of the new year, the Iolair crashed into them. Yards from the shore 175 Islanders along with 30 others had drowned. it was the greatest loss of life suffered by the Isle of Lewis on a single day in the Great War, a war that had ended 50 days earlier. And the UK’s worst loss of life in a peacetime shipping tragedy in the last hundred years.
For those interested in finding out more there is a book, “When I Heard the Bell” by John Macleod about the disaster