Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Iolaire - A Sore Visitation wrapped in Mystery

Much has been written on the tragedy of the Iolaire.  This article was written by Rev Nigel Anderson, Minister of Livingston Free Church particularly focusing on the churches response to the events of 1st Jan 2019.

On 1st January 1919 a tragedy occurred in Lewis that for generations has cast a dark cloud over the island. HMY Iolaire had left Kyle of Lochalsh late on December 31st to ferry troops back to their homes, their families, their loved ones. The ship never made it to Stornoway harbour. At  1.55am it struck the Beasts of Holm, the dangerous rocks near the shore and entrance of Stornoway harbour. 205 men out of the 283 on board (including 174 Lewis men and 7 Harris men) perished in sight of land, having survived the horrors of war only to lose their lives so close to home.

Much has been written in recent months on the tragedy: the centenary commemoration held in Lewis on 1st January 2019 has, in particular, brought to a wider national attention the tragic personal accounts of the lost and bereaved. Also, there has been a renewed understanding of the devastating social and economic impact on the island which the catastrophic loss of life contributed to. However, there has been little mentioned regarding the attitude of the churches at the time, as local clergy tried to bring comfort to the bereaved and bewildered as they sought to reconcile what had happened with the providence of God.

Indeed, the whole aspect of the mystery of divine providence in relation to the tragedy was, in many ways, highlighted in the response of the Free Church to the Iolaire disaster especially as many of those who lost their lives were from Free Church congregations. In his Sunday sermon, following the tragedy Rev. Kenneth Cameron, minister of Stornoway Free Church, preached from Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God. He spoke of the dark and mysterious happenings in the providence of God, mentioning the “sore visitation...wrapped in mystery” which brought a “heavy cup of unlooked for sorrow” but that “out of the darkness is heard the voice of Him whose way is in the sea.” Without denying the catastrophe of the events of 1st January 1919 he pleaded with his hearers to contemplate the majesty of God, to bow before his sovereignty, to believe in his righteousness and have recourse to his mercy.

One might have imagined that the deeply religious island would have turned away from faith in a sovereign God after the tragedy. Instead we find the opposite. Murdo Macleod from the village of Leurbost tells of the traditional New Year’s service held on the morning of 1st January when the villagers attended worship to give thanks for peace after four years of war. It was only later that day that the news was heard of the Iolaire sinking and the great loss of life. Later, that evening, the same villagers visited each of the homes of the bereaved and held services of worship.

The recorded response of the grief stricken people across the island who had lost family in the tragedy is that they “reconciled themselves to God.” Even the non-Christian poet Iain Crichton Smith wrote that “In some places such a tragedy would have destroyed the credibility of a loving God: in Lewis it only strengthened their faith in him.” 

In today’s secular society such a reaction is inexplicable, but to those who trust in a sovereign God whose purposes are beyond human understanding, it is an understandable response. Those who have experienced grievous loss have echoed the words of Job in response to his personal tragedy across the centuries: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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