On 31 December 1918 at the end of World War One, hundreds of Scottish soldiers from the Western Isles boarded His Majesty’s Yacht Iolaire to go home for Hogmanay. In the early hours of 1 January 1919 during terrible weather, the boat lost track of its location as it approached Stornoway harbour. The Iolaire struck some rocks and began to sink, just metres from home.
Only 79 men survived, with 205 men losing their lives. The Iolaire disaster is the single greatest tragedy to befall the Western Isles.
One of these projects includes Sàl (Saltwater), a performance of music composed by Lewis-born musician, Iain Morrison, whose great-grandfather was among those who drowned, presented with pioneering Scottish artists, Dalziel + Scullion. Sàl will feature at An Lanntair on Saturday 27 December and Monday 29 December.
An Treas Suaile with Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm is another event being held to commemorate the Iolaire Centenrary on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 November. A deeply reflective audio-visual performance, The Third Wave is a suite in three movements featuring newly composed music, traditional material and archive recordings with onstage visuals and projection mapping. Both projects are co-commissioned by 1418 NOW.
Chatting with Zoe
An Lanntair worked with Lewis-born filmmaker, Zoe Macinnes, on three short films for the Iolaire Centenary. We spoke to Zoe, who is a recent graduate from the BA Honours Film programme at Edinburgh Napier University, about what it was like to work on the project.
Growing up as a young creative, Zoe says that An Lanntair was always “a place I could go to make or learn or see something. Since starting to make films, An Lanntair has always had an opportunity just round the corner that I’ve been eligible to apply for.”
When she saw the opportunity to work on films for the Iolaire Centenary, she applied right away. “It’s about such an important subject and is something I am genuinely interested in and amazed to be a part of.”
“I find everyone at An Lanntair really helpful. I put a lot of time and effort into my brief for this project and I feel like that was recognised. I had a lot of help from Kathryn Lamont Smith, who reached out to a lot of people for me and kept me updated throughout every process of the films, and Alex Macdonald who helped with interviews and helped me source the music.”
One of Zoe’s favourite things about working for An Lanntair is that not only do they provide excellent opportunities for young people, but also “genuinely trust them to do a good job… Everyone who runs and works at An Lanntair always shows they have the time for you. I am trusted to make what I set out to make, but I also have the help on hand if (and when!) I need it.”
The creative process
After watching the beautiful films Zoe created for the Iolaire Centenary, we asked her about the creative process behind them.
“I really wanted to do this topic justice,” she said, “it’s one of the most important pieces I have ever worked on and that in itself was quite scary! I am used to making documentary films, but I wanted these to be something different.”
“First of all, I split the main points of the brief into each topic that I would explore in each film – which gave me what facts to include and what questions to ask for each one. I then made a list of questions and a shot list of the important images that I thought should be included. For such short films, it had to be simplistic but recognisable. So, I started at the Iolaire memorial sight and filmed everything around me there.”
In the short films, Zoe has captured stunning imagery of the sea and landscape surrounding the Iolaire memorial sight.
“I focused a lot on the sea – because I think that’s the main thing that brings us together… it’s because of the sea this tragedy happened. It’s difficult because it’s something so beautiful and yet so dangerous, it’s what makes us an island and it’s also the source of a lot of pain and tragedy. That’s why I wanted to have the images of the water throughout the films, it’s important.”
It was challenging to find people to interview about the tragedy of the Iolaire disaster, Zoe said. “I think this was because of the seriousness of the topic, the interest was certainly there, but it wasn’t something someone could just nip off and be interviewed about at lunch time, it was something that should take a lot of thought and respect.”
Zoe was able to interview folk singer and musician, Julie Fowlis and musician and composer, Duncan Chisholm for the short films. “As soon as I started asking the questions it was clear that what they had to say would work perfectly for the films, because they understood and have worked on the topic for so long. It was also very cool to interview such incredible musicians, which I think added to the nerves!”
The Iolaire disaster is a tragedy that still affects many Islanders today. Zoe speaks of how she approached the project with this in consideration, conducting research and preparing to make the films. “I read a lot and I took notes on everything. I then narrowed it down to the notes I thought should be included in the film.”
“When I got home, I went out to the cemetery at Bosta beach in Bernera, where I live. I hadn’t realised just how many men from Bernera were on the Iolaire. I think that helped me recognise the scale of the tragedy, and also brought it back home so that it was something almost personal to me.
"It was quite stormy and cold that day, and I left the beach feeling quite sad. But it was really important not to just view this as a topic in history, but as a young islander who understands the sense of tragedy the island itself feels in a disaster. That’s what helped me decide to make the films something other than a mini documentary, it really had to involve that sense of place and unity we all feel as a community.”
The Iolaire Centenary is being commemorated with a series of events and exhibitions at An Lanntair. Find out more about the programme on the An Lanntair website.
The Iolaire films by Zoe Macinnes are available to watch now: