Herring girl Catherine Wares was among those waiting with great excitement for HMY Iolaire to arrive in Stornoway in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1919.

Catherine, from Pulteneytown in Wick, had even more reason than most to be excited – for she was expecting a baby (pictured above) and due to be married that very day.

But the father of her child, Herbert William Head, never made it back to her.

He was one of the 201 men lost when the Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm and sank, less than a mile from Stornoway, on that fateful night.

There were 280 men on board the Iolaire, including 254 sailors who were returning to their island homes after the horrors of the Great War. There were also 24 crew members and two passengers who were returning to the naval base in Stornoway from Christmas leave.

Both passengers were lost – and Herbert Head was one of them.

His is just one of the personal stories told in The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy – the new book on the tragedy which has been written by Malcolm Macdonald, chair of Stornoway Historical Society, and the late Donald John MacLeod.

And it is a reminder that, while 181 of the 201 lost men came from Lewis and Harris, the impacts of the tragedy were felt throughout the country.

The story of Catherine Wares was told to the authors in personal correspondence from her granddaughter, Elizabeth Wood.

As a herring girl, Catherine would have travelled the country and she met Suffolk man Herbert Head, aged 37, who was serving as a private in the Royal Marine Light Infantry.

He served much of the war on battleship HMS Queen and would probably have spent most of his shore time in Portsmouth. Latterly, though, he had been posted to the naval base in Stornoway.

It was here that Catherine was waiting for him, on his return from leave.

When the news came, Catherine believed that Herbert, being a strong swimmer, would have got ashore from the wreck but gone back to help others. His body was one of those never recovered.

Afterwards, Catherine returned to Pulteneytown and continued working as a herring gutter. She gave birth to a daughter – Elizabeth (Betty) Head – on 13 June, 1919.

Granddaughter Elizabeth Wood wrote to the authors: “Life was very hard for mother and daughter as they were not always made welcome in the community.

“My mother only found out about her father from others. We have no photographs or artefacts about this tragedy – only memories of two lives blighted by the tragic event. The Iolaire disaster affected not only those originating from Stornoway, but also families from elsewhere.”

The Darkest Dawn – being published by Acair Books and launched in An Lanntair during an evening event on November 1 – is the result of 20 years of research by the authors and contains many personal stories connected to the Iolaire, as well as information and theories on what could have gone wrong, in terms of navigation.

Every one of the lives lost was a tragedy but some of them had a particular poignancy, such as the ones who were on the threshold of getting married or were very recently married.

Finlay Morrison, aged 25, from Ardhanasaig, was due to be married to Catherine Morrison and, like a number of Harris sailors, had opted to cross the Minch on the Iolaire with the Lewis contingent, instead of waiting until the following day for a direct boat to Harris.

He knew Catherine had bought her trousseau and was in a hurry to get home to make preparations for their imminent wedding. Finlay had travelled up to Kyle with his brother, where he left him.

Finlay’s brother, Donald, got the boat safely to Harris the next day but Finlay was lost on the Iolaire and it was a burial that Catherine attended in Luskentyre, instead of a wedding.

John Macdonald, age 31, from 25a Lower Shader, was another one on the Iolaire with marriage in mind.

John was returning to his widowed mother and an unnamed girlfriend when he was lost. When his body was recovered, an engagement ring was found in his pocket. It is said the girl never married.

But of course many of the men on board were already married, and fathers, and the authors were able to establish that the disaster left 255 children without a father.

Some Iolaire widows were left with large families to look after. Three Lewis widows were left with eight children and three were left with seven. Many widows were left with three, four, five or six children. Among the Iolaire crew, Ernest Leggett left eight children orphaned and three of them ended up in an orphanage.

For some of them, the loss was simply too much.

The Rev John Macleod was a year old when his father, Norman Macleod of 13 Arnol, was lost on the Iolaire. John’s mother, Christina, was said to have been driven mad by grief.

Every year, she would wash her husband’s clothes and put them out to dry, traumatising her children, and she died in Craig Dunain asylum in Inverness in 1933, aged 49.

Her son, who became a bard as well as a minister, wrote a poem – Bantrach Cogaidh / War Widow – about her experience, which was set to music in 2014 by Erik Spence. It premiered at the Royal National Mod in Inverness as part of the Great War centenary events.

Others struggled, too.

Marion Macdonald of Aird, widow of Alasdair – ‘Am Boicean’ – was unable to speak for several weeks after losing her husband and was reported to lose the power of speech every year at New Year for a short time.

For the children old enough to remember, life as they knew it was shattered.

There is a whole chapter of recollections – ‘In Their Own Words’ – in the book, and it features first-hand accounts from survivors and memories from people who were on shore.

The testimony from Mòr MacLeod, née Smith, is one of the most powerful.

Mòr had just turned four when her father, Kenneth Smith from Earshader, was drowned.

In an interview with Radio nan Gaidheal from 1999, transcribed in the book, Mòr said: “I have no memory of the ones who came with the news at all. But I remember a neighbour coming into the house and the clothes that my mother had laid out for my father, that he would put on as soon as he arrived, she gathered them all up and put them up into another room.

“I realised that something awful had happened but I didn’t understand what. And I can say, from that day on, thoughts that would have been natural for a four-year-old to think – they went. And in their place was worry, a feeling of burden.

“My grandfather who used to spend so much time with me, he was just sitting with the tears rolling down his cheeks, it was as though he didn’t notice me – I missed that more than anything.”

Katie Watt, née Macleod, was six years old and living at the Battery in Stornoway at the time.

Her father had come home that night on the Sheila and she remembered the sight of the bodies on the shore the following day – having ignored her mother’s instructions to stay away.

“My goodness, that sight, it never went out of my memory. From the shore at the Battery all the way over to Sandwick was black with bodies, and the waves that were coming in, they were throwing the bodies up onto the shore on top of all of these bodies…

“My brother – he was only three years old at the time and I was looking after him – he started ‘Mammy! Mammy! Mammy!’ And then we started screaming, and we went home.”

Another youngster who saw the bodies on the shores was Murdo Macfarlane, who would grow up to become the Melbost Bard.

He was profoundly affected by the sight of bodies – among them, 23-year-old John Macaskill of 12 Lower Sandwick, who was washed up virtually on his own doorstep on Sandwick beach.

Murdo Macfarlane went on to write the famous poem, Raoir Reubadh an Iolaire, about the event and it is included in the book, as is Bantrach Cogaidh by the Rev John Macleod.

Both poems are featured in the chapter dedicated to the poetry, verse and song of the time. Many of the pieces were written originally in Gaelic and they are in the book in their original Gaelic with accompanying English translations.

As well as looking back at the outpouring of poetry and verse in the years closer to the Iolaire, the authors also considered the contemporary artistic response to the tragedy, including the centenary events not yet held, as they gave a full description of how the islands were remembering the Iolaire.

These include the musical commissions from Iain Morrison, Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm, and Willie Campbell with the Dileab project.

A hardback of nearly 500 pages, The Darkest Dawn is similar in quality to Acair’s previous publication on the Great War, Dol Fodha na Grèine (The Going Down of the Sun).

Its final word goes to the islanders of today.

At the very end of the ‘thanks and acknowledgments’…

“The authors would like to thank the people of Lewis and Harris, and the wider community connected with the islands, for their support in the creation of this tribute.”


The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy (ISBN: 978-178907-024-8) is available on pre-order now from www.acairbooks.com, priced £25.