An Lanntair & Gael Force Group & Stornoway Port Authority
Iolaire Memorial Public Art Sculpture
Community & social empowerment | Education & learning | Equality, diversity & inclusion | Older people | People with disabilities | Tourism | Young people
A poignant memorial for the people of Stornoway
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919, HMY Iolaire, a ship carrying servicemen returning from WW1, sank at the entrance to Stornoway Harbour with the loss of 201 lives. This was the worst peacetime shipping disaster in British coastal waters of the 20th century, yet remains relatively unknown outside the islands of Lewis and Harris.
The anniversary of the Iolaire disaster on 1st January 2019 was the final formal event in an official, national four-year programme commemorating the Centenary of The Great War. A significant memorial that would pay tribute to those lost, the survivors and the wider island community was proposed, to mark this anniversary and create a lasting legacy for the island and those visiting it. Three highly respected visual artists – Arthur Watson RSA, Marian Levan RSA and Will Maclean RSA – were commissioned to jointly create a bronze sculpture that would be positioned close to the site of the wreck. This was an ambitious challenge as the deadline was immoveable and it was a complex and sensitive project, requiring considerable investment and cooperation.
No communities were spared in the Iolaire disaster and it was felt appropriate that organisations and businesses with close links to both the sea and the islanders themselves should be approached for financial support. Two local companies stood out in both these respects. The Gael Force Group is a supplier of equipment, technology and services to the marine industry – from a one-man creel maker, it has grown into a thriving employer of over 220 people. With its connection to the wild Atlantic sea and its pride in skilful engineering, Gael Force Group was an ideal choice. The second commercial partner to be approached by An Lanntair was the Stornoway Port Authority, which oversees the conservancy, maintenance and daily operations of the harbour itself. Formed in 1865, but with its origins dating even further back, the organisation has steadfast historical and cultural roots in what is the main port on the Scottish west coast, north of Glasgow.
Together, these two companies provided funding that leveraged a matching contribution from CBFS, enabling the project to go ahead. The two partners, both of whom offered a good match in both corporate and financial terms, had more than a financial stake in the project. The human cost of the Iolaire disaster also had a personal resonance for Gael Force Group and the Port Authority, with direct family losses experienced in the preceding generations. Stornoway was the destination that the ship never reached on that fateful New Year’s Day, and most of the servicemen lost were fishermen in their civilian lives.
For Lewis and Harris, The Iolaire Memorial Public Art Sculpture was at the very heart of the WW1 Centenary and, as such, of huge significance to the community, involving representatives, individuals, partners (public and private) and descendants of those lost at sea. Ultimately recognised at the highest levels by the British State and the Scottish Government, with HRH Prince Charles, Lord of the Isles, and Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister, attending the dedication of the sculpture, it now stands as a permanent and moving reminder of the terrible tragedy that has never been adequately remembered beyond the shores of the islands.
Delivering a sensitive public art project of this scale, on budget and in time for the anniversary date, raised the profile of Stornoway-based arts centre, An Lanntair, considerably, both within the community and far beyond the islands, thanks to social and broadcast media and the press. The recognition of business partner support at Government level through CBFS matched funding energised and reassured all parties; Stornoway Port Authority went on to sponsor an art installation in the harbour later in the year.
Gael Force Group reaped significant reputational benefits from involvement with the project, with the memorial engendering a great sense of pride across the workforce and demonstrating, in a practical way, how their core business values relate to community endeavour and action. As a key stakeholder, the new-found collaboration with an arts organisation strengthened their local standing and reinforced their island roots which was beneficial for a company that now operates UK-wide.
The impact of the sculpture on the community has been profound, bringing a final sense of closure for the descendants of the disaster’s victims and survivors. Marking the anniversary of the loss of the Iolaire through this cornerstone project of the WW1 commemorative programme was of real significance to the people of the islands. Engagement throughout the project was high, from initial launch through to public exhibitions of design ideas and subsequent sharing of plans and development and today the history of the Iolaire will now form part of the school curriculum.