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New Year's Day Remembrance service for Iolaire tragedy

28 December 2018
Royal Navy sailors will join Prince Charles and relatives in Stornoway on New Year’s Day to mark the centenary of one of Scotland’s greatest maritime tragedies.

More than 200 sailors – returning home at the end of World War I – died on January 1 1919 when the Royal Navy yacht Iolaire struck rocks just off the entrance to Stornoway harbour.

One hundred years later, their descendants will gather for a formal ceremony in nearby Stornoway which the Duke of Rothesay – as Prince Charles is officially titled in Scotland – is due to attend.

The tragic sinking of HMY Iolaire off Stornoway hit the families of the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris hard – so much so many generations did not speak about what happened for decades.

There were 280 sailors on board the yacht, many of them Royal Naval Reservists, when it set off from the Kyle of Lochalsh on December 31, 1918. Disaster struck just short of the harbour entrance when the vessel hit rocks known as the Beasts of Holm, just before 2am.

My great aunt is the daughter of John Finlay MacLeod who was on HMY Iolaire. He managed to swim ashore with a heaving line which helped save 40 men.

Lieutenant Alison Ross

Families eagerly anticipating the return of the sailors were unaware of what was happening off-shore and it wasn’t until the next morning the true scale of the tragedy was realised.

Of the 201 sailors who died, 174 were from the Isle of Lewis and seven were from the Isle of Harris with the remainder of victims ship’s crew.

Lieutenant Alison Ross, who is part of the Capability Assurance Group working on aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, will be part of the ceremony on New Year’s Day. She spent her childhood on the Isle of Lewis and has a personal connection to the Iolaire disaster.

The 29-year-old said: “My great aunt is the daughter of John Finlay MacLeod who was on HMY Iolaire. He managed to swim ashore with a heaving line which helped save 40 men. My great aunt will be there for the service with her son so it will be nice to see her.”

Lt Ross will hand a wreath to Prince Charles, attending as the Lord of the Isles, at the service on Stornoway.

She added: “I am really honoured to be involved with the commemorations and to see the Royal Navy taking part too.

“It is really important for the community because I don’t think it was talked about at the time as much as it could have been.

“But for the centenary so many people are coming together and there are lots of services happening which I am pleased about.”

As well as the service, a ceremony will be held simultaneously on the Calmac ferry which will anchor less than a mile from where the Iolaire wreck is. Flowers will be thrown into the sea to represent the sailors who died.  

Able Seaman Laurie Connelly, 21, moved to the Isle of Lewis when he was seven. He will join Lt Ross in the New Year’s Day service and will hand a wreath to Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

He said: “Having lived on the island for most of my life I was keen to get involved. I am glad they are making a big deal out of it and that those who died are being remembered.

“It will be good for the community and I feel like they will appreciate the Royal Navy’s involvement.”

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