Minister opens exhibition of Iolaire art installation

John Swinney (centre) with artist Malcolm Maclean (left) and local MSP Alasdair Allan

DEPUTY First Minister John Swinney has opened an exhibition detailing the creation of a powerful art installation commemorating the Iolaire disaster.

‘Sheòl an Iolaire/The Iolaire Sailed’, was commissioned by Stornoway Port Authority and installed on the town’s South Beach ahead of the 2019 centenary of the tragedy.

The Port Authority has applied for planning permission to leave the installation in place as a permanent reminder of the incident, one of the worst maritime tragedies in United Kingdom waters.

During his visit, Mr Swinney also met businessman Stewart Graham who is driving plans to establish a world class Iolaire Visitor Centre on a site adjacent to the art installation.

The HMY Iolaire struck rocks outside Stornoway harbour on 1 January 1919 when it was taking Royal Navy WWI veterans back to the Isle of Lewis. At least 201 of the 280 men on board perished.

The 189-foot-long installation is an exact reproduction of the dimensions of the ship and located in the harbour where it was due to berth. It features 280 wooden posts – one for each of the men on board the fateful voyage – with 79 painted white to represent the survivors.

Each post is lit with a waterproof footlight and at night, and when covered by the tide, the outline of the ship can still be seen beneath the waves.

It was a central part of the Iolaire centenary commemorations last year and has become a hugely popular site for both residents and visitors, while online images have attracted thousands more to the Iolaire legacy. There has also been a tremendous artistic response, some of which has been curated into an exhibition in the Stornoway ferry terminal.

Sheòl an Iolaire has been recognised by the Stornoway Amenity Trust’s Community Public Service Award for the individual or the group which has done the most to promote the town in 2019. It has been registered as a war memorial by the Imperial War Museum and has been listed for a John Byrne award.

The sculpture, designed by Torcuil Crichton and Malcolm Maclean, was envisaged as a temporary installation, but in response to enormous public demand, the port authority has decided it should remain.

The exhibition in the ferry terminal comprises a series of photographs of the work of art, from its conception to its installation.

Murdo Murray, chairman of Stornoway Port Authority, said: “We are extremely grateful to Mr Swinney for opening the exhibition telling the story of Sheòl an Iolaire which is a poignant and innovative commemoration of an event that had a huge impact on our community.

“We feel it should now remain as a permanent memorial alongside the new visitor centre as a legacy of the centenary events. Together they will tell the powerful and moving story of this terrible tragedy which should never be forgotten.”

Torcuil Crichton paid tribute to fellow artist Malcolm Maclean, as well as Stornoway Port Authority and their engineers, Wallace Stone and Stornoway Trust, who quickly grasped the potential of the idea.

“That Sheòl an Iolaire is still standing, is testament to their skill and ability to turn a concept into a real construction”, he said.

He added: “Sheòl an Iolaire tells the whole story of the tragedy in the simplest way possible, we brought the ship home.

“But on such a sensitive subject people bring their own memories and emotions to the site which changes with every visit. The incredible artistic response, some of which is in the walls of the ferry terminal, is part of that. The public response has been amazing and shows what can happen when people are left to make up their own minds”.

The Port Authority and Mr Graham, as well as the Stornoway Trust; An Lanntair arts centre; Museum nan Eilean; local historical societies and others; are part of a working group that has proposed the visitor centre.

Stewart Graham, founder of the Gael Force Group, said: “The Iolaire Centre will mark the maritime disaster at Stornoway’s Number 1 pier as part of a revitalisation of the Stornoway town centre.

“Following consultation with the community in 2018, there was strong support for a visitor experience to commemorate the tragedy and its impact on the islands in the following period.  The vision for the centre is to create a space that tells, not only the Iolaire story, but that of the wider context of the island’s maritime history and war involvement.

“The centre will seek to tell the story sensitively and with due respect, over a century after the tragedy. It is expected that the centre would be both a lasting commemorative introspection and a world class visitor experience that supports a major, transformational, economic boost for the Islands.”

Music at the opening was provided by singers from the Dìleab project and Willie Campbell who sang ‘My Time Was Not At Hand’, one of the songs performed for Mr Swinney at Celtic Connections recently.

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