Last night I watched the BBC documentary commemorating 100 hundred years since the sinking of the shop the Iolaire, just outside Stornoway. I wrote about this several years ago for the publication Scottish Islands Explorer, in part because my grandfather, Malcolm Macleod, was one of the survivors, one of only 79. The casualties numbered 201.
These men had travelled long distances, having returned from serving in the First World War, and with New Year being the big celebration, as opposed to Christmas, on the island, they were keen to get home in time. I won’t recount all the details here, as I can not do it justice in the same way the documentary does, but needless to say the boat sank minutes from home. I don’t think there is anyone who would disagree how sad this is that these men fought for years, travelled for days to get back to loved ones and died in sight of home.
One thing that struck me is the aftermath of the disaster. The documentary also looked at how for many, many, years after it was not spoken about. I grew up on Lewis and lived there from 1974 to 1989. In all that time I don’t recall it ever being spoken about. At school we learned about local history. We visited blackhouses and other places of local significance, but never once did we visit the Iolaire memorial. It was never mentioned in school and my grandfather never mentioned it. I only found out from an aunt after he died. I think this shows firstly how much life has changed in the past one hundred years – we are now encouraged, and expect, to talk about our feelings and to work through our grief verbally. But secondly, it shows how much it affected the island. It was said that no village on the island was unaffected by the sinking of the Iolaire. Everybody knew someone who had lost someone in their family. Those who survived felt a sense of guilt; those who had lost someone felt that in order for them to carry on they had to not talk about it.
The years have passed and those of us who do speak of relatives from the Iolaire are speaking, for the most part, about great grandfathers, or for some grandfathers. The distance is there now, and it would be interesting to know how much this generation of island children are being taught about this tragedy.