Poetic Remembrance of the Fallen Soldiers of the Great War and the Tragedy of the Iolaire

In the early hours of New Year’s day 1919, HMY Iolaire sank just off the coast of Stornoway, the harbour lights could be seen from the deck. The boat was carrying soldiers returning from the war, some of whom had not been home or seen family and friends in years. 174 of the islanders on board perished in the icy sea.

In the morning many of the men were found, home at last, washed up on the shore.

Although this took place in peacetime and has been recorded as one of the most tragic British ship disasters since the Titanic sank in 1912, tributes have been made in poems and songs in remembrance of the men of Lewis and Harris that fought and survived the horrors of the First World War only to perish on the sea with home in sight.

The following poem, ‘Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn’, by Murdo MacFarlane, tells the heartbreaking Beneath Troubled Skiesstory of the island women getting ready: baking bread and lighting the home, peat fires longing to see their boys home again only to wake to hear the tragic news and to find them washed up on the shore.

This poems is taken from Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914–1918, published by The Scottish Poetry Library and Polygon.

Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn

The lassie sang sweetly
in Lewis last night,
baking her bread
with a heart full of light
and thoughts of her darling,
longing for the sight
of her true love
come safely home.

The war is now over,
won by the heroes
who come home tonight:
the Iolaire’s cargo.
Put peat on the fire
and tea from the jar; Oh,
I’ll not sleep, sweetheart,
’til morning comes.

They’ll tell their tales
and we’ll listen to them,
to the feats of the sea-faring
tartan-clad men;
of the brave ones who fell
and will not rise again,
so many fine lads
who were brought down.

Hear the wind moaning –
Oh, hear it blow,
hear the sea’s mocking cry
come from the depths below.
The poor lads who must battle
the sea and the foam!
Spread your wings, Iolaire,
haste with my love.

As the day breaks
our hope fades away,
the kettle on the chain
pipes a sorrowful lay;
she stops going to the door
with more peats for the flame;
hear the wind’s harsh whistle:
Ochone, Ochone.

The lassie wept sorely;
in the morning they found,
lying in the seaweed,
her love’s body, drowned,
without shoes on his feet
as they brought him aground;
she bent down and kissed
his lips so cold.

Last night the Iolaire was torn,
her brood drowned at the oars;
from Harris to Ness
our fair soldiers we mourn.
Since you won’t bring them live
bring them drowned to our shores;
to the sea’s hungry mouth
we’ll look no more.

Murdo MacFarlane
(translated from Gaelic by Niall O’Gallagher)

The Gaelic word ‘iolaire’ means ‘eagle’.

Beneath Troubled Skies is available online and in all good bookshops.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *