"It was a catastrophe of almost incomprehensible and unimaginable loss. In the early hours of 1st January 1919, 280 servicemen made their final approach towards the safety of home and their loved ones, having survived the perils of the First World War. Carrying the gallant men towards Stornoway in heavy weather, was HMY Iolaire and just twenty yards from the shore and less than a mile away from the safety of Harbour she hit the infamous rocks “The Beasts of Holm” and sank. 201 out of the 280 men perished just yards from safety.
Among the tragedy, incredible heroism helped save the lives of 79 of the men aboard. The unimaginable grief that the island suffered as a consequence of the tragedy has had a profound and lasting, though largely unspoken of, impact on every aspect of our island life and culture, our population and our island economy."
In 2018, Gael Force was proud to announce its commitment to supporting and assisting in commemorative activities around the Iolaire tragedy in the lead up to its 100th anniversary on 1st January 2019.
As many know, our company's roots are deeply embedded in Stornoway and this tragedy touched many communities across the islands - it was the worst peacetime shipping disaster in British Coastal Waters of the 20th Century with over 200 lives of men returning from the Great War lost just at the entrance to Stornoway Harbour.
In February 2018, An Lanntair announced plans for the installation of a new Centenary Sculpture at Holm at the approach to Stornoway Harbour.
Gael Force Group were among a number of other contributors, including Stornoway Port Authority, Arts & Business Scotland's Culture & Business Fund Scotland, Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, Horshader Community Trust, Point & Sandwick Trust and Tolsta Community Development. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar was also a key partner and supporter.
On the 1st January 2019, HRH Prince Charles unveiled the new Iolaire sculpture to commemorate the centenary of the disaster at a special service. The sculpture was created by Royal Scottish Academicians Will Maclean, Marian Leven and Arthur Watson to depict a large coiled heaving-line.
This references the heroism of John Finlay Macleod who swam ashore with the rope by which some 40 of the 79 men were saved. It also serves as a metaphor for the Isles’ connection with the sea, and the timeless dialogue between ship and shore, the past and the present.
It also includes a bronze wreath composed of maritime insignia and bears the names of all those lost and the communities they came from.
In addition to the support being offered by Gael Force, Stewart Graham is leading a project to build a world-class visitor centre to commemorate the disaster, in the centre of the Stornoway Harbour where the returning servicemen should have disembarked. Gael Force has pledged a six-figure sum to the project over the four years which are anticipated to be the required lead time to project completion.
Following the commemoration events and the wide and initial overwhelming community support for progressing the build of the Iolaire Centre, the Iolaire Centre charity is now embarking on the fundraising required to move the project forward to build a world-class visitor experience in Stornoway in the Hebrides, which will tell the story of the Iolaire tragedy.
A Project Manager has been sought to progress the detail of a comprehensive project plan required which includes the vision, design, business plan, fundraising strategy and implementation plan for the Iolaire Centre.
The project aims to create a world-class visitor centre based on the Iolaire tragedy of 1st January 1919. The Iolaire Centre will recognise and commemorate those lost and those who survived and it will seek to look to the future, creating a visitor experience in the centre that is a dynamic cultural venue, attracting visitors from over the UK and the diaspora from the wider world. The centre will be an opportunity to attract visitors throughout the island and create a meaningful catalyst for Stornoway’s wider vision to regenerate the town and its waterfront, and be an integral part of the Harbour Development plan which will stimulate and sustain the island economy for the long term.
The vision for this world-class facility is to be one of Scotland’s top visitor attractions which will drive economic growth through telling the powerful story of the Iolaire tragedy. By sensitively telling that story, it will seek to look back and commemorate but also to look forward with positivity and shape the Islands future. The centre will seek to merge the promotion of Gaelic and Hebridean Culture, Maritime History and promote Hebridean Produce.
Keep up with the progress of the Iolaire Centre Working Group here: https://www.facebook.com/AnIolaire/.
For more information about the Iolaire Centre, visit iolaire.org.