Sheòl an Iolaire

STORNOWAY, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, HS1 2DU

Type:Monuments & Ruins

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Seol an Iolaire installation, Stornoway

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In the early morning, New Year’s Day, 1919 the Iolaire, carrying 280 Island servicemen back from the Great War struck a group of rocks – na Biastan Thuilm – a mile from safety in Stornoway Harbour and only a few yards offshore. 205 of the passengers perished of whom 181 were islanders.

It is hard to imagine the grief caused to the community after four years of war but the Scotsman newspaper came close in it report a few days later:

“The villages of Lewis are like places of the dead. The homes of the island are full of lamentation – grief that cannot be comforted. Scarcely a family has escaped the loss of a near blood relative. Many have had sorrow heaped upon sorrow.”

A subsequent Admiralty enquiry into the sinking was inconclusive, causing further distress to the Islands and accusations of a whitewash by the authorities. In 1958, a memorial to the dead was erected at Holm outside Stornoway and a pillar marking the wreck can be seen on the starboard of the approach to Stornoway Harbour.

On the centenary in 2019, the tradgedy was commemorated and ‘Sheòl an Iolaire/The Iolaire Sailed’ is Stornoway Port Authority’s dramatic, visual tribute to the Iolaire, whose sinking on 1 January 1919 in the Minch was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters. The sculpture is an actual-size blueprint, 189 feet from stem to stern, with a 27 foot beam. It  shows the true size of the vessel and represent the number of crew and passengers on board as she sailed for Stornoway on 31 December 1918.

Stornoway Port Authority commissioned and constructed the installation from a concept by Lewis journalist Torcuil Crichton and artist Malcolm MacLean.

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