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Western Isles MSP calls for protection over Iolaire resting place

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The MSP for the Western Isles has called for the Ministry of Defence to protect the final resting place of HMY Iolaire, under a parliamentary act designed to protect the wreckage of military vehicles and vessels.

The Iolaire sank on New Year’s Day in 1919, approximately two miles from Stornoway.

The vessel was returning with sailors who served in the First World War after departing from Kyle of Lochalsh.

The yacht was within sight of the Hebridean isle as family and friends gathered to welcome the brave sailors home. In total 201 servicemen were lost in the tragedy, with only 82 surviving. Around one third of those lost were never recovered, with the yachts final resting place also belonging to the fallen sailors.

Under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, military aircrafts are automatically protected; however, vessels require specific designation, prompting the move from Alasdair Allan MSP.

Mr Allan said: “The sinking of HMY Iolaire off Lewis on the Beasts of Holm has left an indelible impression on the islands of Lewis and Harris.

“There was barely a family on the island that didn’t lose a relative in the Iolaire disaster and even now it is still very raw in people’s minds. As we approach the centenary of the sinking, it is important that the site is designated as a military maritime grave to both protect the site and commemorate the immeasurable sacrifice of those who served their country in a time of war and lost their lives so tragically close to home.

“I hope the Ministry of Defence will react positively to this request.”

The move to protect the site of the Iolaire comes as minds are focused to the disaster as the 100th anniversary approaches at the beginning of next year.

Protection under the act would see the sight of the Iolaire become a recognised war grave, making it an offence for any individual to carry out excavation or salvage diving of the vessel and its location.

A Royal Navy spokeswoman said: “We are in the process of identifying potential vessels to be designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. The status of HMY Iolaire is being reviewed as part of this process.

“We expect a decision to be made by the end of this year.”

The move to recognise HMY Iolaire under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 has been supported by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Norman A MacDonald, convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “The tragedy subdued the islands of Lewis and Harris for two generations and it seems to be only now in the third generation that we are witnessing the start of the healing process.

“As we approach the 100th Anniversary of the tragedy, I have asked the Ministry of Defence to consider a designation of the site as a war grave on the basis that all these men served their country and were on their way home having done their part to secure the freedom of the nation. Their loss so close to shore only adds to the poignancy of the event.

“There is considerable concern that as public awareness of the event increases, the area could become an attraction for divers, and there has already been some interest.  Relatives of those lost, but particularly relatives of those whose bodies were never recovered become distressed whenever new images of the underwater site appear in the media and especially on social media.  The designation of the area as a war grave would go some way towards mitigating that interest, and to allow those who perished to rest in peace.”

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