Over 200 lives were lost when HMY Iolaire collided with rocks at the Beasts of Holm on January 1, 1919, in a tragedy that cut so deeply it was not publicly discussed by islanders for decades.
Now a performance using documents, poetry and music relating to the survivors and men who perished is taking place at An Lanntair in Stornoway tonight and tomorrow.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary this New Year, musical duo Duncan Chisholm and Julie Fowlis have been extensively researching the lives of all on board the Iolaire on that tragic night and have compiled a 90-minute show to tell the story of the tragedy through the men who experienced it.
Miss Fowlis said: “When we started the research for this way back, one of the best pieces of advice we got was to let the men who survived tell the story rather than us.
“When you start to break down one individual story and then another individual story, you can start to feel the sense of loss and to a small community it is unthinkable that that could happen.”
A piano and string quartet will join the musicians in the show entitled An Treas Suaile, which translates from Gaelic as The Third Wave.
The title is a reference to the story of John F MacLeod, who waited for the third wave of a swell to carry him to shore to secure a rope from the vessel to dry land, which in turn saved the lives of many on board.
Mr Chisholm said: “Ultimately it is a tragic tale already, but made more so by the time of year and the proximity to home. It was on people’s doorsteps.
“If you were going to tell the story of the Iolaire properly you’d be telling 280 stories.”
The event has already sold out for both nights.
Mr Chisholm added: “The burden of responsibility of performing this in Stornoway has been massive. The responsibility has been something we are both really honoured to have on our shoulders and it has constantly, this project, has been the most important focus for us throughout the year that we have been putting it together.”
Further performances are to take place in the New Year in both Glasgow, as part of Celtic Connections, on January 24, and in Inverness on January 27.
Tales of the HMY Iolaire
During their research, the musical duo has uncovered numerous tales relating to men who were on board HMY Iolaire on the day tragedy struck.
One tale tells the story of Malcolm MacIver of Breasclete. Mr MacIver was the only man left at home in his family to tend to the family croft and bring in the peats. His brother was away fighting in The Great War in France with Mr MacIver left at home to look after his unwell 72-year-old mother and seriously ill sister.
Mr MacIver was called up to go and fight in the war but applied for an exemption due to being the sole carer of his mother and sister. His request was rejected.
As part of his appeal, a letter was presented to the decision board that had been signed by every crofter in the Breasclete community. Their request that Mr MacIver be spared his enlisting was not considered.
Mr MacIver spent two years on the battlefield before returning home on the Iolaire that fateful evening.
No record indicates the fate of Mr MacIver’s mother and sister.