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When I Heard the Bell [Hardcover]

John MacLeod
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Feb 2008
On 31 December 1918, hours from the first New Year of peace, hundreds of Royal Naval Reservists from the Isle of Lewis poured off successive trains onto the quayside at Kyle of Lochalsh. A chaotic Admiralty had made no adequate arrangements for their safe journey home. Corners were cut, an elderly and recently requisitioned steam-yacht was sent from Stornoway, and that evening HMY Iolaire sailed from Kyle of Lochalsh, grossly overloaded and with life-belts for less than a third of all on board. The Iolaire never made it. At two in the morning, in pitch-black and stormy conditions, she piled onto rocks only yards from the harbour entrance and just half a mile from Stornoway pier, where thronged friends and relatives eagerly awaited the return of their heroes.205 men drowned, 188 of them natives of Lewis and Harris - men who had come through all the alarms and dangers of the First World War only to die on their own doorstep, at the mouth of a harbour many could themselves have navigated with ease, on a day precious to Highlanders for family, celebration and togetherness. The loss of the Iolaire remains the worst peacetime British disaster at sea since the sinking of the Titanic. Yet, beyond the Western Isles, few have ever heard of what is not only one of the cruellest events in our history but an extraordinary maritime mystery - a tale not only of bureaucrats in a hurry, unfathomable Naval incompetence and abiding, official contempt for the lives of Highlanders, but of individual heroism, astonishing escapes, heart-rending anecdote and the resilience and faith of a remarkable people.In the first English account and on the ninetieth anniversary of the 'dark ship', John MacLeod tells the story of the Iolaire, the astonishing commitment of the people of Lewis to the war against the Kaiser, its sickening end, and the way of life the disaster effectively destroyed - a tipping-point, he argues, in the overthrow of an old human economy and which deprived the Isle of Lewis of an entire generation.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Birlinn Ltd; First Edition edition (2 Feb 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841587923
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841587929
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 15.4 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 886,477 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


The first English-language account of the Iolaire disaster,published to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the disaster. Essential reading for anyone interested in the Western Isles. 'Evocative and wholly magnificent'- Roger Hutchison, The Scotsman.

About the Author

John MacLeod was born in Lochaber in 1966. After graduating from Edinburgh University, he began his career at BBC Highland in Inverness and quickly established himself as a freelance writer. He won Scottish Journalist of the Year in 1991 and contributed regularly to The Scotsman and The Herald. He is presently a columnist with the Scottish Daily Mail and is the author of several books. He lives on a croft on the west side of Lewis with a small, elderly dog, two melodeons, a 4-oven Aga and far too many chickens. He is the author of Banner in the West, also published by Birlinn.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Long Awaited Work 8 Feb 2009
For the people of Lewis, this book is long overdue. It tells the story of an event that had a catastrophic effect on that Hebidean island and does this with great authority and style, writing of the sinking of the 'Iolaire' outside Stornoway harbour on 1st January 1919. The vessel was full of servicemen returning home after the First World War; over 200 being drowned a short distance from the island they called home. It was a toll of life all the more terrible after the sacrifice of the war that had gone before.

It was an incident, too, that had a cataclysmic effect on the people of the islands of Lewis and Harris, robbing many rural communities of the young men on whom their future depended.

The power of this book is the way it not only tells the story, but also the manner in which it places the tragedy in context, both local and 'international' and shows how it influenced the later history of these islands.

The author John Macleod deserves praise for the way he has mastered - what must have been - harrowing and gruelling information, and fashioned into a masterpiece of fluent and fascinating prose. As a native of that island, I am in his debt for the way he has done this. So, too, are many others who were brought up in a landscape scarred - even today - by this terrible event. At long last, he has removed the tight gap of both time and place and allowed its victims to speak.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When I Heard the Bell 11 May 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a very well written, very interesting and moving account of a tragic and, now, little known incident. The author paints a vivid and sympathetic picture of island life, of the chaos of the night of the incident and its aftermath. I thoroughly recommend it. David Stallard
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very well researched 26 Jun 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
My review is going to be short & sweet. This is the best book ive ever read. {In saying that Ive still got to read John`s other book "River of Fire"}

Although its a tragic story, the author keeps you interested and unable to put the book down. The hardships faced by the families before & after the disaster will long live with me. I bemoan the way people today endlessly complain about how hard they find their life, how little they know of hardship.

Buy the book, read & re read, then tell others to do the same.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars when i heard the bell 9 Mar 2009
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An account of a needless and tragic loss of life. 10 April 2013
By Bookie TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a detailed and often emotive account of the events during one fateful night when over 200 men lost their life in a tragic, but avoidable shipping disaster. Much of the poignancy of the tale lies in the fact that a majority were returning at the end of the First World War. Having given service to their country and survived, they were literally within yards of their homes and loved ones when they were snatched away. The amount of research to record the detail must have been phenomenal. It's an event which seems to be part of the psyche of the area, but typical of the stoicism of these islanders, has been kept within that area. This tragedy is not one that's widely known,but it deserves greater recognition. There were acts of amazing bravery that night.

I found the detail both compelling and fascinating. More so, having recently discovered close immediate family connections to a number of 'names' so in all probability, relatives were involved. That aside, it's a no holds barred account and a important social record and testament to all involved. Thank you Mr MacLeod.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Real drama 7 May 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A book full of terror and fright. After reading the three "Lewis" books it was difficult to read the true story of courage and terror this book showed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult 10 Mar 2013
By juneb
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A true story Difficult to write about and difficult to read of. The content is very upsetting, particularly for anyone connected with Scotland or the military/Navy. What is more surprising and upsetting is that is not better known of. Everyone has heard of the Titanic and the Herald of Free Enterprise so why has the Iolaire been omitted from our history?
Not the best written but should be standard text for all British schoolchildren.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Appalling loss
Terribly sad, yet intriguing true story of the sinking of a ferrying vessel seconded to get troops home to the Hebrides in time for the New Year following the end of World War 1. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Mr. C. R. Simmonds
5.0 out of 5 stars Sinking of Royal Naval vessel with many deaths
I had heard of the disastrous sinking of HMY Ioraire on the rocks outside the harbour of Stornoway on the Scottish Isle of Lewis and Harris and wanted to find out more. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Colin Williamson
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book
This has a powerful story to tell. It is very interesting history, which is not well known. Unfortunately thers is far too much detailed information to keep the interest up, and it... Read more
Published 16 months ago by william r bennett
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
John MacLeod has never been scared to show his emotional attachment to a given subject and the Iolaire is clearly in his DNA. Read more
Published 16 months ago by RLM
3.0 out of 5 stars Rather repetitive
Interesting and very tragic subject and one that rightly deserves to be remembered and the impact on the islands and islanders recognised, However it had a tendency to drag at... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars The loss of the Iolaire
When I heard the bell, "The loss of the Iolaire"
What can one say about this book other than excellent? Read more
Published 18 months ago by KLB Kid
4.0 out of 5 stars IOLAIR - Story of an avoidable disaster
The Iolair story is one which most people have never heard of, but which traumatised an island community. Read more
Published 23 months ago by J. Colin Moss
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