“See and don’t come home without Murdo now!” – it was an excited mother’s joke, waving cheerio to her daughter who was heading into Stornoway to meet her brother off the Iolaire.

Murdo Maclean, aged 31, from Leurbost, was due home on January 1, 1919 – but, like 200 other souls on board alongside him, he never made it.

For HMY Iolaire, hit the rocks at the Beasts of Holm at 1.55am on the blackest of nights, in a rising gale. She sank 90 minutes later, at 3.25am.

Herring girl Catherine Wares was among those waiting with great excitement for HMY Iolaire to arrive in Stornoway in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1919.

Catherine, from Pulteneytown in Wick, had even more reason than most to be excited – for she was expecting a baby (pictured above) and due to be married that very day.

But the father of her child, Herbert William Head, never made it back to her.

He was one of the 201 men lost when the Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm and sank, less than a mile from Stornoway, on that fateful night.

There were 280 men on board the Iolaire, including 254 sailors who were returning to their island homes after the horrors of the Great War. There were also 24 crew members and two passengers who were returning to the naval base in Stornoway from Christmas leave.

Both passengers were lost – and Herbert Head was one of them.

His is just one of the personal stories told in The Darkest Dawn: The Story of the Iolaire Tragedy – the new book on the tragedy which has been written by Malcolm Macdonald, chair of Stornoway Historical Society, and the late Donald John MacLeod.

Ealasaid Chaimbeul (Elizabeth Campbell) was born in Barra in 1913 and completed her autobiography shortly before her death in 1981.

First published by Acair in Gaelic in 1982 it has now been republished in the original Gaelic and with a supporting English version by Mary Flora Galbraith.


A hedgehog loses her blanket, and needs a helping hand from her friends to find it again.

£4.99 ISBN: 9780861523795