A Sad, Sad Story

I am warning you all now: you will need your Kleenex. I really mean it. Have a read of this.

I took a wander up to our local War Memorial this morning. 

It was built only a few years ago to honour the memory of the boys from Ness, who died during the First World War, and the Second World War.

Along with the two World Wars, there are men's names from the Iolaire Disaster.

Take a look at this. These names are all from only one village: the village I grew up in.

Try and imagine a district made up of one village after another. Every house is built right next door to its neighbour. Their crofts run parallel to each other. The wives of the village have known each other almost all of their lives; the children have all grown up together; the men were boys playing together until only recently. There is nobody in the village who is not connected, either by blood or by friendship, with every other person in the village.

When a family lost a member, the whole village mourned.

And so, try and imagine what the years 1914 to 1918 were like for these families.

Every mother must have waited every day for news. How they must have dreaded an official envelope.

We regret to inform you....

Oh, the agony of these words. When they came, every household would join in grief. They would 'mourn with those who mourned'. None would be unaffected.

And then the 11th day of November, 1918 arrives.


Many mothers would mingle tears of sadness for a son they had lost in the war with tears of joy that their second son was on his way home. Those who had lost none would praise God and await their loved ones' arrival.

Four long years: sons who had left as boys would return as men. Most of them would never speak of what they experienced. 

And so mothers prepared food. Their boys were returning on New Year's Day, 1919.

Remember, Christmas was nothing to us islanders, but New Year was a major time of family get-togethers, of giving thanks to God, and of celebration.

Never was there more cause for celebration than this New Year's Day. Long lost sons, brothers and fathers would sit at their family table, sharing their meal for the first time in nearly four years with those whom they loved. What anticipation.

And so our boys boarded the ship that would take them to Stornoway. 

What excitement. Maybe a great deal of chattering hid the mixed emotions they themselves were battling. But nothing mattered compared with this: they were almost home.

Almost 300 Lewismen boarded the Iolaire. 

While mothers kept food warm, and looked expectantly for the moment their sons would walk in the door, there was disaster.

The Iolaire was less than a mile - picture it: less than one mile - from Stornoway Harbour when she hit rocks and began to sink.

Almost three hundred had boarded the ship. There were only 79 survivors.

Fathers who had travelled to Stornoway to meet their sons were to spend the night combing the shoreline looking for the bodies of loved ones. 

Most families, who had begun that day with such eagerness and anticipation, ended it with unspeakable sorrow.

That is why, on the plaque (above), showing those who were lost during the Great War from Swainbost, there are five - yes, five - who were lost on 1:1:19.

Weeks after peace had been declared. Within yards of their home shore. They were lost. Five - just from this village.

Did you notice number 13? Not one, but two brothers, lost that night.

They'd come through the hardship and dangers of the Great War, and yet never made it home.

I have no idea how these mothers bore this tragedy. My heart aches every time I read of it, write of it, or speak of it. I think there can be few sadder stories in all of history. 


  1. I've always had a tear for this tragedy, ever since I learnt of it at school. It doesn't even bear thinking about what it must have been like for their families.

  2. I have to harden my heart as I read this. I don't want to think about the pain, the absolute feeling of hollowness in the bones and hearts of the mothers - the empty bed, the empty seat at the table, the empty living room chair where the child grew up in the conversation and hearts of the family members...
    I can't think about it. It is too tragic.
    Only God can understand these things. And we never will on this side of heaven.

  3. If it truly could be absorbed, I think I would go mad.

  4. Woah, what a horrible tragedy! I'd have to second Leah's sentiments.

    Thank you for sharing this, Anne. Makes me long for heaven.

  5. Wow. What an incredibly heartbreaking tragedy. Military history fascinates me (my oldest is a real history buff too) but we often just get the American perspective so I really appreciate you sharing this story!!

  6. Beautiful posts, both this one and yesterday's. As long as our two countries never forget and remain true friends, there will always be hope for peace. God Bless America, and God bless the whole of Great Britain!

  7. Thank you all for your comments. There are so many stories I could relate in connection with our losses, as an island, during the war, but - as Leah suggests - it's too hard. I am not kidding when I say this: I was emotionally exhausted by Friday evening, having been to the local memorial, having told the girls this awful story, and having thought of so many families (known to me, though a generation back) who grieved.
    I may be able to tell some 'war stories' from our district in the months ahead, but for now.... it is enough.
    Thank you all again for reading.
    Love, Anne x


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