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Disasters

Disasters

Tragedy has never been far from Highland communities. Families of fishermen have suffered the loss of loved ones to the sea. Drowning accidents in swollen rivers or accidents on the hill have ever been present. But several incidents stand out as disasters that have rocked entire communities.

The Meikle Ferry disaster
Until 1812 the only means of crossing the Dornoch Firth was by ferry. On the night of 16 August 1809 over 100 Sutherland folk boarded on the Dornoch side with goods and stock for the market in Tain. The over-laden ferry set off and, though conditions were calm, the boat was dangerously low in the water. About halfway across the boat turned broadside to the tide and began to take in water. It sank almost immediately with the loss of some 99 lives, including the Sheriff of Dornoch, Hugh MacCulloch. Over £2,900 was raised for disaster relief, much of it from overseas, resulting in the construction of Bonar Bridge in 1812.

The Great Ness Drowning
In the 19th century many islanders made a living from the sea, including the men of Ness on the northern tip of Lewis. This dangerous occupation took its toll on the township on 18 December 1862, still remembered as the 'Day of the Great Drowning'. The entire crews of five local fishing boats, 31 men in all, were drowned in a fierce storm. Two other boats reached safety on the Sutherland coast. A similar tragedy, the Gloup fishing disaster of 1881, happened in Shetland, again with dire consequences for the local community.

The sinking of the Iolaire
Few incidents, left such a mark on any community as the sinking of the Iolaire. The Great War was over. Lewis had already lost nearly 1,000 of their young men during the conflict; many of the rest were returning home aboard the Iolaire on 31 December 1918. The regular Kyle‒Stornoway ferry could not take all the servicemen, so the luxury yacht Iolaire was used to transport the rest, 284 in total. As it neared Stornoway, wild weather and heavy seas grounded the ship on rocks known as the Beasts of Holm. On that cold and stormy night 181 perished. These survivors of the war, looking forward to celebrating New Year with their families, drowned within sight of their island home. The tragedy and its effects are recorded by Gaelic poets such as Murdoch MacFarlane, the Mealbost Bard.

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Images: 76Accidents
Images: 9Fires
Images: 3HMS Iolaire
Images: 66Floods

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