The Iolaire Disaster: Kenneth Macphail’s Story

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Kenneth Macphail’s grave in Bragar cemetery, Isle of Lewis

. . . future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island . . . 
(Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-1918, 1920, 311)

It was the final day of 1918. After four traumatic years the Great War was over and servicemen were returning to their homes. Some had been demobilised, others were on holiday leave, but all could now look forward to rejoining their families and resuming a normal civilian life.

Amongst them was Kenneth Macphail, a young naval reserve from the village of Arnol on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. On the evening of Wednesday 31 December 1918 he disembarked, with hundreds of other sailors and soldiers, from the Inverness train at Kyle of Lochalsh – only to find that the regular ferry to Stornoway (the principal harbour on the east coast of Lewis), the mail steamer SS Sheila, was already full.

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Kenneth Macphail c.1915 with ‘HMS Prince of Wales‘ on his cap. According to his service record he was 5ft 8½ins tall, with a fresh complexion and blue eyes.

Kenneth was directed onto the HMY Iolaire. This was a private yacht, the Amalthaea owned by the executors of Charles Assheton Smith (d.1914), which had been requisitioned by the Admiralty and was deployed as a patrol vessel at Stornoway Royal Naval Reserve Battery (where she adopted the name of the base, Iolaire [Eagle]). Although she was not a passenger boat, and half of her crew were on leave, the Iolaire had been summoned from Stornoway to cope with the unprecedented demand. Around 9.30pm, in the charge of Commander Richard G. W. Mason, she left Kyle with around 283 men on board: 260 naval ratings plus the crew.

The yacht was undoubtedly overcrowded. Men were crammed into the saloon or the chart room, and many had to remain on deck. Nevertheless, the mood must have been joyous, and the arrival of New Year in the middle of The Minch would have been celebrated in an appropriate manner.

Around 1.50am the lights of Stornoway harbour were sighted and men began to collect their kit bags, expecting to disembark shortly at the pier where a welcoming crowd was gathered. But the Iolaire – officially as a result of navigational error, though most islanders persisted in believing that the officers were inebriated – took a course across the harbour mouth and, at 1.55am, crashed into rocks known as the ‘Beasts of Holm’. A terrible tragedy was about to unfold.

Kenneth Macphail had been born on 26 February 1891 to Malcolm and Catherine (Kate) Macphail, of 24 Arnol. As an infant, in the late 1840s, Malcolm had been carried in a creel on his mother’s back, and from that moment he was nicknamed Maois (Moses). Thus Kenneth was known to all friends and acquaintances as Coinneach Maois (Kenneth, son of Maois).

Today the village of Arnol is best known for The Blackhouse, a traditional longhouse with dry-stone walls and a thatched roof, run as a tourist attraction by Historic Environment Scotland. The Macphails’ blackhouse stood at the top of the shore road, on the left-hand side as one faces the crofts and the ocean. Its stout, turf-covered walls survived into the 21st century, but only just. Around 2000 they were cleared so that the stone could be reused in the construction of a new house elsewhere – a casualty of a new fashion for exposed dry-stone (or seemingly dry-stone) walling. The crumbling remains of several other blackhouses can still be seen throughout Arnol which, perhaps surprisingly, is not a Conservation Area. Traces of the pre-19th-century village are visible at the seaward end of the crofts.

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The ruins of the Macphail blackhouse at 24 Arnol, where Kenneth grew up. Two of his nieces are in this photograph taken in 1999.

Kenneth’s father and his older brother, Angus (Aonghas Maois), made a living by combining crofting with fishing. In fact, Angus was part-owner of a fishing boat and made a decent living in pre-war years; as a result, he was one of the first villagers to build a ‘white house’, next door to his father’s blackhouse, at 26 Arnol. Kenneth also took up fishing, and enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve in February 1911 (service number 3320/A), spending three months training at the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham and on the HMS Irresistible. For the next three years he worked on various Stornoway and Fraserburgh fishing boats, plying the coastal waters around Scotland. As a naval reserve, he received a retainer of 30s. per quarter. When war broke out in autumn 1914 he was a strong young man of 23. His brother Angus (fortunately, for he had pacifist tendencies) was exempt from service.

It was remarkable that Kenneth survived to see the Armistice. Like many of his comrades on the Iolaire, he had an adventurous war. At Gallipoli in 1915 he took part in the bombardment of the Dardanelles and landed troops at Anzac. After service on HMS Victory (1914 and 1915), HMS Excellent (1915), HMS Prince of Wales (1915 and 1916) and HMS Pembroke (1917), in autumn 1917 he was the leading gunner on board the SS Cambric, a merchant ship from Hull which was sailing from La Goulette (Tunis) to Gibraltar laden with a cargo of iron ore. On board were 29 men, mostly from Hull but including some other nationalities.

When it was roughly 14 miles off Cherchell, Algeria, around 12.30am on 31 October 1917, the Cambric was torpedoed without warning by German U-boat 35, captained by the Prussian aristocrat Luthar von Arnault de la Periere, who managed to sink 194 ships during his career. Under its various captains, U-35 sank 224 ships. Kenneth at once called his gun crew, but could not see the enemy submarine. He remained at his gun until he was washed overboard.

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Kenneth Macphail with a messenger at Cherchell Mission Station, November 1917. (from Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-1918)

Kenneth was now alone in the Mediterranean. He was a strong swimmer and was wearing a lifebelt. Moreover, he found some wreckage that helped him to stay afloat. Although a patrol boat passed near by, it did not hear him call. He remained in the water for 34 hours before reaching land near Cherchell at 10am on Thursday, 1 November. Utterly exhausted, suffering from exposure, and assuming (as, indeed, did the British authorities) that all of his companions aboard the Cambric had perished, he was found on the shore by a group of men.

Since Kenneth was unable to walk, his rescuers carried him to a house in the village of Gouraya. From there he was driven by motor car to a military hospital at Cherchell, where he was tended by French doctors and English ladies from the local Missionary Station. On 29 November he was transferred to the British Cottage Hospital in Mustafa, Algiers, and permitted six months of recuperation. He may have returned to Arnol at this time. Certainly he told his brother and sister-in-law that he felt riddled with guilt, insisting that he ‘should have gone down with the boys’.

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Part of an account of his shipwreck in 1917, written by Kenneth Macphail.

In summer 1918 Kenneth resumed his wartime service, returning to HMS President and HMS Pembroke. He never learned that four of his fellow crewmen on the Cambric had survived: they had been captured by the Germans and taken to Brandenberg as prisoners of war. Albin Mietonen (45) was from Finland, while Jose Kogis (23), George Pelimbris (34) and P. Selfavos (21) were Greek, but all four lived in Hull. Those who died on the Cambric are commemorated on Lutyens’s Mercantile Marine Memorial on Tower Hill in London.

When the Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm on 1 January 1919 the sea was wild and sleet was falling. It was chaos and confusion as men struggled to save themselves in the freezing darkness. The Iolaire’s two lifeboats were launched, but quickly capsized, killing all on board. Others died when the yacht’s boiler exploded. Many men who attempted to swim froze to death in the turbulent, icy water, or were dashed onto rocks by powerful waves. John Finlay Macleod was the hero of the hour, managing to secure a rope from the wreck to the cliffs, which were just 20ft away, thus rescuing 15 men – a number inflated to 40 in several unofficial accounts. By 3am the ship had sunk, leaving one man clinging to a mast until morning. In total, around 79 survived and 204 drowned.

As New Year’s Day dawned news of the tragedy filtered through the town and the island. Preparations for homecomings (fresh baking and pans of mutton broth) were abandoned as relatives headed for Stornoway to discover the fate of their kinsmen and claim their dead. Kenneth’s body was not one of those washed up by the tide, and so Angus Macphail spent several days working from a rowing boat over the wreck, using grappling irons in a desperate search for the bodies of his brother and two other relatives (Arnol, with a population of 335, lost four men). A photograph of the scene taken on 1 January 1919 includes two small boats of the type that Angus would have used. On that day, eight rowing boats were deployed on the water to recover bodies, which were then laid out on the grass above the shore.

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The spot where the Iolaire went down (photographed at high tide).

While he was engaged in his search, Angus lodged with his sister-in-law Margaret Morrison (née Murray) at Cobden House on Cromwell Street in Stornoway (the drapery of George Morrison, who later served on the Public Inquiry of 10 and 11 February 1919). In later years she recalled him returning, night after night, ashen-faced and exhausted. Eventually Angus recovered Kenneth’s corpse and was astonished to find that his hands were stuffed firmly into his pockets. Angus believed that, after the trauma of the Cambric, Kenneth made no attempt to save himself from the wreck of the Iolaire, but simply resigned himself to his fate.

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Kenneth Macphail (right) with Angus Maciver from Arnol: both were lost on the Iolaire.

Kenneth’s body, like all the others, would have been taken to a temporary mortuary at the naval barracks in Stornoway and laid in a coffin before being released. The town ran out of coffins and had to send for more to the Mainland. The authorities had been impressed by Angus’s hard work with the grappling irons (whilst most relatives could only wait at the shore or at the mortuary for news) and granted him a motor vehicle to take the remains of his three relations over to the West Side (that is, back to the west coast of the island). When this lorry broke down beyond Laxdale, a passing Shawbost man emptied his own cart – leaving the contents, destined for a village shop, by the roadside – and transported the three coffins the rest of the way. It was a good deed never forgotten.

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HMY Iolaire graves, Sandwick Cemetery.

Because there was no passenger list, it is uncertain exactly how many men were lost on the Iolaire. Some bodies were never recovered. Today a memorial (erected in 1958) stands on land, close to the point where the survivors came ashore. The wreck was dived in 1971, and the bell and a plaque retrieved. The yacht, which had been sold for salvage, was found to have dispersed, though some fragments could still be seen on the sea bed in 2009. The last survivor died in 1992.

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Cairn and memorial at the site of the Iolaire Disaster.

The Iolaire Disaster cast a long shadow in Lewis. In the 1970s I was walking along Cromwell Street in Stornoway with my mother, who was born almost exactly a year after her Uncle Kenneth’s death, and named Kenina in his honour. An elderly woman from the West Side approached, hugged my mother and wept with grief for Kenneth, who had died 55 years before. I assumed that she had been his sweetheart, but no: it was expected that he would marry her sister.

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The inscription on the Iolaire memorial.

From the very beginning, published accounts of the Iolaire Disaster have singled out Kenneth Macphail’s story. Angus was on the scene for several days: he undoubtedly talked to journalists and gave them photographs. The Scotsman, relating Kenneth’s experience off Algeria, referred to him as ‘a man of exceptionally fine physique’ (The Scotsman 6 January 1919, 4). The Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914 -1918 devoted an entire page to him, commenting: ‘Pathetic in the extreme it is to think that this powerful seaman, after so miraculous an escape in the Mediterranean, perished within a few feet of his native land’.

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Principal Sources: Oral account from Kenina Morrison (née Macphail); Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-18 (published by the Stornoway Gazette, 1920); Kenneth Macphail’s Service Record (3320/A, TNA BT/377/7); family papers and letters; British Newspaper Archive.
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