Tasglann nan Eilean (Hebridean Archives)

Petition presented to the Trustees of the Iolaire Disaster Fund by Mrs Julia M. Fraser, Schoolhouse, Sandwickhill on behalf of the signatories

This document shows the longer-lasting impacts of the Iolaire disaster on the families of those lost. It is a rare example of a document which reflects the voices of the ordinary people affected and shows their willingness to challenge authority. It also indicates the reasons for the mass emigration from the Outer Hebrides which occurred in the 1920s.

In the early hours of 1st January 1919 HMY Iolaire foundered on rocks near the entrance to Stornoway Harbour resulting in the loss of 201 of the 280 men on board. The yacht had been transporting RNR servicemen home for the first New Year of peace following the end of the war.

On top of the emotional trauma, the economic impact of the loss of so many young men to a community dependent on crofting and fishing was deeply felt. A Disaster Fund was set up in the aftermath of the tragedy to support the families.

The wider economic problems which hit the country in the post-War era made it virtually impossible for those affected by the disaster to find alternative sources of income. The closure of various schemes by Lord Leverhulme (who had owned Lewis since 1918) made matters even more desperate. The petition eloquently sums up the issues: the high cost of living, unemployment and the failure of the fishing industry, while the pages of signatures starkly illustrate the scale of the disaster.

It was not easy to collect signatures and the seven pages do not represent all areas affected. The signatures were collected at various times and pasted into the petition. (A further petition dated November 1921 was submitted to the Trustees from people in Ness, in the north of Lewis, as this area had been omitted from the July petition, possibly due to the distance involved.)

The petition was found in 2017 in a Council records store, in a box marked ‘Legal Deeds’, amongst various Stornoway Town Council documents. It was part of a bundle of 14 letters addressed to the Disaster Fund trustees.

Interestingly, the trustees’ minutes of June 1924 record that the Treasurer was instructed to destroy a ‘mass of old and useless correspondence’ which had accumulated. At the following meeting Donald Mackay, Burgh Chamberlain, was appointed Treasurer and Secretary. Perhaps he decided that these letters were too significant and should be retained for posterity? They were not kept with the other records of the Disaster Fund, suggesting that MacKay put them aside to prevent their destruction.

Julia Fraser, the petition’s presenter, was the first woman to enter local government in the Outer Hebrides having been elected to Lewis District Committee in 1919.

It is archivally noteworthy that when the Fund was wound up in 1938 (by which time all the orphans had reached adulthood) the Trustees decided to lodge the records in the Town Council Chambers ‘for preservation and access to them by any interested party’. It is for this reason that the Iolaire Disaster Fund records are now safely held by Tasglann nan Eilean.