The centenary of the Iolaire Disaster

'Through Mighty Waters...' Commemorating the Iolaire Disaster

2019 has been a momentous year for the people of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. It marks the centenary of the disaster when His Majesty's Yacht Iolaire sank with great loss of life at the entrance to Stornoway harbour.

HMY Iolaire

The Iolaire - 'Eagle' in Gaelic - was carrying Royal Navy Reservists returning home to Lewis at the end of the First World War. Having left the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland late on New Year's Eve, the ship was approaching Stornoway in the early hours of 1 January 1919 in appalling weather and sea conditions. Just yards offshore and a mile from the safety of Stornoway Harbour, she hit the infamous Beasts of Holm rocks and sank. 

The Iolaire Disaster claimed the lives of 205 men, 181 of whom were Lewis islanders. To this day, it remains one of the most catastrophic maritime disasters in UK waters. 

It is almost impossible to comprehend the impact of such an event which wiped out almost an entire generation of young men. To mark the centenary, a national commemoration service was held on 1 January 2019 and many Lewis communities have been holding local events throughout the year to mark the occasion.

The Iolaire Tragedy wall hanging

Cathie MacDonald, visiting us at the Festival of Quilts, shared images and recounted the story behind these two beautiful wall hangings, her contribution to the commemorations. They depict the loss suffered by her own community in the parish of Uig, as she explains:

The smaller land mass is the Isle of Lewis; the larger one represents the parish of Uig. There were twelve men from Uig on board the Iolaire, ten of whom lost their lives. The men are represented by stars: ten gold and two white, with their names and ages sewn in the same colours alongside the villages they belonged to.

The Iolaire disaster wall hanging

Also depicted are the Beasts of Holm - the rocks upon which the Iolaire foundered - and the Arnish Lighthouse, within sight of which the ship was wrecked. Finally, the faceless sailor wears the uniform of the Royal Navy Reserves. 

Both hangings are on display for visitors and locals to appreciate: the 'Iolaire Tragedy' (top) hangs in the Church of Scotland, whilst the 'Iolaire Disaster' is in the Uig Community Hall.

Your fabrics were ideal, says Cathie. The subtle shades were just right for recreating the land and seascape, and they shimmer beautifully when quilted. They sit so well against a border of our local Harris tweed.

Cathie MacDonald's wall hangings are moving depictions of an event which caused loss on a scale unimaginable for most of us. A century on, her work enshrines for future generations the story of the Iolaire Disaster and its impact on the small community of Uig.


1 comment

  • Marjorie Coles

    I was so interested to see the Iolaire wallhanging. We were visiting our daughter over the Christmas period on the Isle of Lewis, and at the very last minute were invited onto the Ferry taking part in the Iolaire commemorations . It was a most moving and thought provoking experience, and we felt very privileged to be there.

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