The wind blew, the sun shone, clouds threatened but produced nothing…and the cold was bitter as hundreds of people gathered on the windswept, shelter-less coastline at Holm to commemorate the Iolaire tragedy today (January 1st 2019).

From before 10am, people were waiting expectantly in the car park of The Nicolson Institute, gradually filling the lines of buses aiming to transport all the spectators, participants, visitors and guests.

By 11.30am, there was serried order out by the Iolaire Memorials with spectators on the nearby hillsides; the Naval Guard lined up on the approach path; wreath-layers marshalled in one spot on the inland side of the monument, and the media corralled on the opposite side.

At sea the event was joined by the mv Loch Seaforth and veritable flotilla of small boats. And still below, the waves beat on the shore, a sotto voce echo of the sea’s power.

HRH The Prince Charles, Lord Of The Isles and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon laid the first wreaths at the Iolaire Memorial to remember those involved in the tragic sinking of HMY Iolaire early on New Year’s Day 1919, a few hours more than 100 years earlier. 

Scotland’s most senior Naval Officer Rear Admiral John Weale, and the Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Norman A Macdonald, also laid a wreath, followed by representatives of a host of local organisations – mostly related to the military or the emergency services.

Conducted by The Very Revd Dr Angus Morrison the service included a reading of Isaiah 43 1-7 by Prince Charles; The Iolaire Lament played by Stornoway Piper Finlay Macleod and The Iolaire Centenary Prayer which was composed and led by the Minister. 

The end of the two-minute silence was marked with the reveille by Royal Marine Bugler James Trowbridge.

A new sculpture to commemorate the Iolaire, adjacent to the earlier Memorial which has been restored and landscaped, was unveiled by Prince Charles.   Commissioned by An Lanntair arts centre, the sculpture features a bronze depiction of a coiled heaving line which references the heroism of John Finlay Macleod who swam ashore with a rope to rescue 40 of the 79 men who were saved. 

It was created by artists Will Maclean, Marian Leven and Arthur Watson and bears the names of those lost and the communities they came from as well as a bronze wreath composed of maritime insignia.

Both the prince and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon met Iolaire descendants and the 29-strong Royal Naval Guard.  Descendants included Anne Frater whose great grandfather perished and Malcolm Macdonald whose grandfather died in the disaster.  Malcolm is also co-author of ‘The Darkest Dawn’ which tracks the stories of all those on board.  Prince Charles wrote the Foreword for the book.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, said: “As we welcome in the New Year, today in Stornoway we rightly look back 100 years and remember those lost on the Iolaire – a tragedy that involved so many, so close to shore and, for most of the men, so close to home. 

“We reflect on those who perished and how survivors, family, friends and the wider communities on Lewis, Harris and Berneray must have felt.  It may have been a century ago but the legacy of the Iolaire will never be forgotten. I was honoured to be part of the commemorations and meet descendants.”

Professor Norman Drummond, chair of WW100 Scotland and the Scottish Commemorations Panel, commented: “Today was a very poignant and fitting WW100 Scotland Commemoration of the Iolaire tragedy as we remember the events of 100 years ago.  Trying to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families on their return and the sorrow that was to follow is beyond comprehension for many of us.

“The Iolaire remains one of the worst UK maritime disasters of the 20th Century.”

Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Chairman of the Iolaire Working Group, Norman A Macdonald, said: “This was a very poignant service that chimes very much with the events that have already taken place and will continue to take place into the future, throughout the communities from the Butt to Barra, in memory of the men who lost their lives so close to shore. 

“The events of that terrible night in January 1919 impacted on communities throughout the Western Isles and remain a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our young men in the service of their country.  It is the worst tragedy to befall our Islands and its effect reverberates to this day.”

The Flag Officer for Scotland & Northern Ireland, Rear Admiral John Weale, said: “Today’s commemoration was very appropriate and I am very happy that the Royal Navy was able to participate.

“The men who perished in the tragedy were sailors and it is absolutely fitting that the Royal Navy pays tribute to their sacrifice. It’s something we do, as a Naval Service, when we lose people on operations and we weren’t able to do that 100 years ago.  So today was particularly important to us, and I speak for all of the sailors and marines who were here today, when I say that we are privileged to have taken part, to be able to pay our respects to fallen comrades and to be able to meet their descendants.  I applaud the local community for their determination to keep the memory of those men and the disaster alive today and for tomorrow.”

For many taking part, the service had a particular poignancy.  One of the wreath bearers, Lt Alison Ross of the Royal Navy is the great-great niece of John Finlay Macleod who brought ashore the rope that is depicted in the new Iolaire sculpture.  

Stornoway-based Constable Shona Macdonald, whose great-grandfather from Coll lost his life on the Iolaire, laid a wreath on behalf of Police Scotland.  Laying the wreath on behalf of the Stornoway Coast Guard was volunteer Coast Guard Robert McKinnon.  Robert’s grandfather, after whom he is named, made it to shore and helped secure the rope that John Finlay Macleod had brought ashore.  He walked home to Harris, a distance of nearly 50 miles, soaked but safe.

In the early hours of the morning of January 1, Comhairle’s Convener led a small vigil at the Memorial to the minute the Iolaire hit the rocks. 

The Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison delivered a short service followed by a two-minute silence at 1.55am.  At the end of the silence a Lone Piper played “Lament for the Iolaire” while the Stornoway Lifeboat illuminated the rocks from the sea.