Campbeltown fisherman commemorated in Stornoway

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By Mark Davey and Malcolm Speed

The grandsons of a Campbeltown fisherman who survived the sinking of Her Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire, will remember him on Monday.

The three brothers and a great-grandson will pay tribute to the memory of the late James McLean on behalf of their wider family at centennial services in Stornoway on Hogmanay and New Year’s Day, alongside Prince Charles and the First Minister.

The 100 year-old tragedy became the worst peacetime loss of life at sea inside British waters of the 20th century.

The brothers, all of whom were born in Campbeltown, will remember the 201 servicemen, including many of the crew, who drowned, as well as the 79 survivors who were aboard HMY Iolaire -Eagle in Gaelic.

The yacht was taking servicemen to Stornoway and their homes mostly on the Isle of Lewis for the first Hogmanay and New Year after four years of WW1.

However the yacht struck feared rocks known as The Beasts of Holm –Biastin Thuilm in Gaelic- near the entrance to Stornoway Harbour in Force 10 winds with mountainous seas.

She piled on to the rocks at 1.55 am on Wednesday, January 1, 1919 and slipped below the waves around at 3.25 am 20 yards from shore and leaving only masts showing above the waves.

It was the worst peacetime disaster at sea of the 20th Century, inside British Territorial waters, and devastated communities, on Lewis especially, for generations.

As the junior reporter on the Courier Malcolm Speed interviewed Mr McLean, who was then 79, on January 12, 1959 – the 40th anniversary of the tragedy- at his home in Davaar Avenue.

Mr McLean recalled the events of the Iolaire’s last trip across the Minch which led to him being a key witness at two inquiries.

Mr McLean who was 39 at the time of the tragedy told the Courier, in a steady voice, about the fight for survival in a howling wind with 30 ft waves and added: ‘There was no panic and we did our jobs.’

Mr McLean served on the armed yacht from 1916 when she was HMY Amalthea.

The Iolaire tragedy unfolded when unexpected train-loads of servicemen on leave arrived at Kyle of Lochalsh, hoping to board the Stornoway bound MacBrayne service steamer Sheila.

It was soon packed with men, with  others on the quay and more arriving.

An appeal was made to the senior officer at Stornoway HQ and  the recently name-changed  HM Yacht Iolaire was sent to help get the men home

The Iolaire, which normally had a crew of 40, arrived short-handed with  reduced crew of 24.

The armed yacht was soon packed, with a total of 280 all-ranks, including crew.

On the Minch crossing Mr McLean, who was acting quartermaster was at the wheel with the captain, Lt Commander Richard Mason on the bridge between midnight and 1 a.m.

At 12.30a.m. there was a change of course which is still at the centre of  debate. The captain left the bridge and  the navigating officer took while the coxswain relieved Mr McLean.

The bridge was above the wheelhouse and communication was by speaking tube. The helmsman steered using a compass.

Mr McLean became a key witness as the other three men drowned.

Leaving the wheel he was ordered to alert the docking party.

The passengers below and on the decks were also told to be ready to enter harbour and was it was with anticipation that the servicemen waited to see Stornoway .

There was immediate alarm, however, when the Iolaire did not cut her speed and  it has never been totally clear why the Iolaire sailed past the entrance and past a fishing boat whose crewmen watched her approach the rocks..

The local servicemen on board knew immediately that something was wrong and beyond the harbour she piled on to the Beasts of Holm and took a severe list.

Life boats which were launched were dashed on rocks or the yacht in the raging sea.

It was 1.55am men were thrown off the decks into the sea and were lost, while few of those below decks survived.

Stornoway lifeboat was not launched because a crew could not be mustered.

After some delay the breeches buoy life saving apparatus team was ready but the two horses needed to pull the ton-weight cart were missing.

Men took up the harness and pulled the cart in pitch darkness. They were unable to reach the shore.

On board the Iolaire, men in heavy service uniforms could see the shore between squalls and some tried to swim to safety and drowned.

One serviceman, John Finlay McLeod did make it to shore with a hawser (heavy rope) tied around him.

He swam through raging seas to secure the rope and this was the way to safety for around 40 men. He became a legend in the Hebrides and especially Lewis.

An officer ordered Mr McLean to find out if a ship’s boat at the end of a rope attached to the yacht was afloat.

The dinghy was at the full extent of its securing rope and was a significant distance from the yacht.

Mr McLean told the Courier: ‘I found a painter, a light rope, which was attached to the ship’s dinghy which, I thought, was either water-logged or trapped on rocks.

‘I wanted a young reservist who was with me to go first because I did not think the Iolaire would last long.

‘He asked me to go first, so I went over the side and went along the rope hand-over-hand with the young fellow following me.

‘We made it to the rocks where we found that the dinghy was trapped and could not be moved.

‘At that time the yacht had begun to break up.

‘We made our way across rocks helping another sailor from the Iolaire, then swam through heavy seas a few yards to  the shore. From there we made our to a nearby farmhouse.

‘We could not believe what had happened.’

This whole operation, from ship to shore took around an hour.

Mr McLean became a key witness in a Royal Navy Inquiry later in January and there was outrage when the court findings were sealed for 50 years.

Mr McLean revealed that he still had the watch that he had worn on Ne’erday 1919.

Mr McLean pointed to a sideboard and revealed that in a drawer was the watch that he wore that night.

His family said later that he never forgot his fight for survival in the howling gale and raging sea.

The ill-fated Iolaire was originally launched as the privately owned Almathaea in 1881 and taken into WW1 Royal Navy Service. She was known as HM Yacht Amalthea.

This spelling is shown on the football on a rare group photograph of the football team in their strips and also shows other crewmen and officers in uniform.

At the end of WW2 Mr McLean’s son Neil, a well- known Campbeltown fisherman, decided he wanted a fishing boat and the family decided there was only one name she could have. She was named Amalthea and was CN 143.

Mr McLean’s, grandson, Duncan McArthur, a fishing boat skipper, told Angus Martin, Campbeltown historian and author of his grandfather’s first return to Stornoway aboard the Amalthea while fishing in the Minch.

Angus Martin’s book,The North Fishing. Ring Netting in the Minches tells that on his return to Stornoway in 1948 Mr McLean did not go ashore.

He was unsure as to how locals would react to him, even after the time which had elapsed, being an Iolaire survivor and a crewman of the yacht on which so many others had died.

Mr McLean was cheered up to no end when a local man turned up at the quayside and insisted that he accompany him into town.

Duncan always believed that the man was also a survivor.

The family of the late James McLean, who is buried in Kilkerran Cemetery will always remember him, as having done his duty under the worst circumstances.

Mr McLean’s statement to the Courier in January, 1959, ‘We did our jobs,’ could be a fitting epitaph.

James McLean December 18, 1879- April 23, 1961. NO_c52HMYIolaire01_James_McLean

The Amalthea football team.NO_c52Amalthea02_Football_James_McLean

HMY Iolaire. NO_c52HMYIolaire03_HMYIolaire

Special thanks to Fiona McCallum, Mr McLean’s granddaughter for photographs of Mr McLean in his Royal Naval Reserve uniform and the photograph of the Amalthea’s football team and  to the McLean family.