‘Iolaire’ Petition Selected for Display of Archive Treasures

A petition which is part of the Iolaire Disaster Fund archive held by Tasglann nan Eilean has been selected for a display of ‘Twenty Treasures from Scotland’s Archives' by the Scottish Council on Archives.

The document was one of twenty selected to mark the 20th anniversary of the SCA. As well as featuring in an online exhibition, the document will also be part of a small exhibition at the Scottish Parliament for the SCA’s anniversary reception on 23rd November and in a booklet produced for the occasion.

The petition was presented to the Trustees of the Iolaire Disaster Fund by Mrs Julia M. Fraser on behalf of the families and dependents of those lost in the disaster in July 1921 and illustrates the longer-lasting impacts of the disaster on the families of those lost. It is a rare example of a document which reflects the voices of the ordinary people affected.

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 men to a community dependent on crofting and fishing was deeply felt at a time when there was no welfare state. 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.

The document was found by Archivist Seonaid McDonald in 2017 in a Council store amongst various Stornoway Town Council documents and may have been put aside by the Fund Secretary Donald Mackay (who was also the Burgh Chamberlain) to prevent it being destroyed.

As part of the Scottish Council on Archives’ 20th anniversary celebration, SCA invited archive services and organisations from across Scotland to nominate a special item from their collections. From the many nominations received, a small panel chose twenty items which were of national or local significance with an interesting story to tell.

As well as the ‘Iolaire’ Petition, the ‘Twenty Treasures’ include an admission card for a young Jewish evacuee; a diary of a Jacobite officer who fought at Culloden; Scotland’s earliest surviving banknote; the first smallpox vaccination register from 200 ago; a brochure for the 1970 Commonwealth Games; and a short film showing Queen Victoria at Balmoral in 1896.

To find out more about the Petition, view all of the Twenty Treasures and listen to podcasts about each, visit Scottish Council on Archives Twenty Years (Opens in a new window or downloads a file) website.