HMY Iolaire

Last updated

As Amalthaea in 1908
Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Namesake: Eagle (in Scottish Gaelic)
Owner: Royal Navy
Launched: 1881
Fate: Wrecked, 1 January 1919
General characteristics
Class and type: Yacht

His Majesty's Yacht Iolaire [lower-alpha 1] (Scottish Gaelic  for " Eagle ") was an Admiralty yacht that sank with great loss of life at the entrance to Stornoway harbour on the Isle of Lewis on 1 January 1919. The sinking of the yacht, which was originally the Amalthaea but renamed in 1918, [lower-alpha 2] was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters during the 20th century. Although the Iolaire struck rocks just yards from shore, at least 201 men out of the 283 people on board perished — most of whom were Royal Navy Reservists returning home at the end of the First World War — because of the appalling weather and sea conditions. [1]

Eagle large carnivore bird

Eagle is the common name for many large birds of prey of the family Accipitridae. Eagles belong to several groups of genera, not all of which are closely related. Most of the 60 species of eagle are from Eurasia and Africa. Outside this area, just 14 species can be found—2 in North America, 9 in Central and South America, and 3 in Australia.

Admiralty British Government ministry responsible for the Royal Navy until 1964

The Admiralty, originally known as the Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs, was the government department responsible for the command of the Royal Navy first in the Kingdom of England, later in the Kingdom of Great Britain, and from 1801 to 1964, the United Kingdom and former British Empire. Originally exercised by a single person, the Lord High Admiral (1385–1628), the Admiralty was, from the early 18th century onwards, almost invariably put "in commission" and exercised by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who sat on the Board of Admiralty.

Stornoway town on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Stornoway is the main town of the Western Isles and the capital of Lewis and Harris in Scotland.



Iolaire was carrying sailors who had fought in the First World War back to the Scottish island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. She left the port of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland late on the evening of 31 December 1918. At 2:30 a.m. on New Year's Day, as the ship approached the port of Stornoway, a few yards offshore and a mile away from the safety of Stornoway Harbour, she hit the infamous rocks "The Beasts of Holm" and sank. Those on board would have been able to see the lights of Stornoway. The death toll was officially put at 205, of whom 181 men were islanders but as the ship was badly overcrowded and there was a lack of proper records, the toll could have been slightly higher. John F. Macleod from Ness, Isle of Lewis, saved 40 lives, swimming ashore with a heaving line, along which many of the survivors made their way to safety. Only 82 of the 283 (officially known) passengers survived the disaster; 71 percent of the people on the yacht perished in the incident. [1] The impact of the disaster was devastating to the Islands; 205 passengers were lost, representing almost an entire generation of young men from the Islands.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Isle of Lewis northern part of the Scottish island Lewis and Harris

Lewis is the northern part of Lewis and Harris, the largest island of the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides archipelago in Scotland. It is also known as the Isle of Lewis, as the two parts are frequently referred to as if they were separate islands. The total area of Lewis is 683 square miles (1,770 km2).

Outer Hebrides archipelago and council area off the west coast of mainland Scotland

The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, Innse Gall or the Long Isle or the Long Island, is an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland. The islands are geographically coextensive with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, one of the 32 unitary council areas of Scotland. They form part of the archipelago of the Hebrides, separated from the Scottish mainland and from the Inner Hebrides by the waters of the Minch, the Little Minch, and the Sea of the Hebrides. Scottish Gaelic is the predominant spoken language, although in a few areas English speakers form a majority.

Iolaire memorial Iolaire Memorial.jpg
Iolaire memorial

The sailors were wearing their uniforms including heavy boots, which made swimming from the wreck difficult — indeed many men of that time had never had the opportunity to learn. Many songs and poems, such as An Iolaire, describe the women of these men finding their men washed up on the shore the next day. The sinking is the worst maritime disaster (for loss of life) in United Kingdom waters in peacetime, since the wreck of the SS Norge off Rockall in 1904 and the worst peacetime disaster involving a British ship since Titanic on 15 April 1912.

SS <i>Norge</i> Danish passenger liner

SSNorge[ˈnɔrɡə] was a Danish passenger liner sailing from Copenhagen, Kristiania and Kristiansand to New York, mainly with emigrants, which sank off Rockall in 1904. It was the biggest civilian maritime disaster in the Atlantic Ocean until the sinking of Titanic eight years later, and is still the largest loss of life from a Danish merchant ship.

Rockall An uninhabited islet in the North Atlantic Ocean

Rockall is an uninhabitable granite islet located within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the United Kingdom, situated in the North Atlantic Ocean and is claimed by the United Kingdom as its territory.

RMS <i>Titanic</i> British transatlantic passenger liner, launched and foundered in 1912

RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of 15 April 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. There were an estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, and more than 1,500 died, making it one of modern history's deadliest commercial marine disasters during peacetime. RMS Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time she entered service and was the second of three Olympic-class ocean liners operated by the White Star Line. She was built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Thomas Andrews, chief naval architect of the shipyard at the time, died in the disaster.

An Admiralty enquiry found no satisfactory explanation for the disaster. Its inconclusive findings generated much ill feeling amongst the Lewis population, amidst accusations of a "whitewash". While drunkenness among the crew was discounted at the enquiry, the vessel was sailing at night, in poor visibility and in deteriorating weather. The entrance to Stornoway harbour is not the most straightforward of navigations and it is possible that navigational error was to blame. This hypothesis appears to be supported by the crew of a fishing vessel who noted that Iolaire was not navigating the correct course for entering the harbour.

A memorial was erected in 1958 at Holm, outside Stornoway. [2] A stone pillar sticks out of the water at the site of the wreck, which can be seen to starboard as the car ferry approaches the harbour entrance. A national commemorative service was held at the memorial on 1 January 2019 to mark the centenary of the disaster, attended by Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon. [3]

Holm, Lewis village in United Kingdom

Holm Village is a village in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, on the island of Lewis near Stornoway. The modern area of Holm can be split into two distinct areas - "Holm Village" and "Holm Road with Parkend". Holm is within the parish of Stornoway.

Charles, Prince of Wales Son of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

Charles, Prince of Wales is the heir apparent to the British throne as the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth II. He has been Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay since 1952, and is the oldest and longest-serving heir apparent in British history. He is also the longest-serving Prince of Wales, having held that title since 1958.

Nicola Sturgeon First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party

Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon is a Scottish politician serving as the fifth and current First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since November 2014. She is the first woman to hold either position. Sturgeon has been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 1999, first as an additional member for the Glasgow electoral region from 1999 to 2007 and as the member for Glasgow Southside since 2007.

See also


  1. Scottish Gaelic pronunciation:  [ˈjul̪ˠɪɾə] or [ˈjul̪ˠɪðə] , varying slightly according to the dialect; the English-speaking crew used a spelling pronunciation of /ˈ.əlɛər/ and this was also adopted by Gaelic speakers.
  2. Not to be confused with HMY Iolaire, built 1902, which exchanged names with Amalthaea in 1918.


  1. 1 2 "Sinking of HMY Iolaire - list of all on board at time of grounding". Across Two Seas. 17 December 2008. Retrieved 14 November 2017.
  2. "Iolaire Memorial". Gazetteer for Scotland . Retrieved 2009-07-26.
  3. "Commemorative service for Iolaire disaster". BBC News. 1 January 2019. Retrieved 1 January 2019.

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Coordinates: 58°11′16″N6°20′59″W / 58.18774°N 6.34971°W / 58.18774; -6.34971 (Wreck site of HMY Iolaire)