The Iolaire disaster

The Iolaire disaster, which occurred on January 1, 1919, is one of the most tragic maritime accidents in British history. The HMY Iolaire, a British naval vessel, was carrying around 280 passengers, many of whom were Royal Navy Reservists returning home to the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, after the end of World War I.

The ship left the port of Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland, bound for Stornoway, the main town on the Isle of Lewis. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, the Iolaire approached Stornoway harbour, but due to a combination of factors, including poor visibility, strong winds, and navigational errors, it struck the Beasts of Holm, a group of rocks near the entrance to the harbour. The vessel quickly filled with water and sank.

Despite being only yards from the shore, many of the passengers and crew were unable to swim to safety due to the heavy seas and cold water. It is estimated that at least 201 people perished in the disaster, though the exact number is uncertain. The majority of the victims were from the Isle of Lewis, and the impact on the close-knit community was profound. The loss of so many young men who had survived the war had a devastating effect on the island’s population and economy.

In the years following the tragedy, a number of memorials were erected to commemorate the victims of the Iolaire disaster. The most prominent of these is a stone cairn on the shore near the site of the sinking, which bears the names of all those who lost their lives. The disaster continues to be remembered in the community through annual memorial services and other events.

John F McLeod

John F. MacLeod, a native of the Isle of Lewis, played a significant role in saving passengers during the Iolaire disaster. A seaman on board the HMY Iolaire, MacLeod was among those who managed to survive the initial sinking of the ship after it struck the Beasts of Holm rocks.

In the midst of the chaos, MacLeod managed to secure a heaving line—a lightweight rope often used in rescue operations—and swam with it through the treacherous waves to reach a nearby rock called “The Bunting Stone.” Once he had secured the line to the rock, it created a lifeline between the sinking ship and the shore.

Thanks to MacLeod’s courageous actions, a total of around 40 survivors were able to use the heaving line to pull themselves to safety through the freezing water and harsh conditions. His heroism played a crucial role in minimizing the number of casualties and saving the lives of many of his fellow passengers.

John F. MacLeod’s efforts have been recognized and honored in various ways, including in the local community and through historical accounts of the Iolaire disaster.

Further Reading