Song of the day: IAIN MacDONALD – The Iolaire (1986)

In the late eighties, not long after I’d moved to Manchester, I was a semi-regular at the Tuesday night folk club at the Malt Shovels pub in Altrincham, which just happened to be around the corner from where I worked. A guy I knew, who used to play there occasionally, called me up one day and virtually implored me to come down and see this singer from Stornoway who had come down to play. I was curious, and by the end of the night I was converted. At the time, Iain MacDonald had just recorded his second LP, but the only one he had for sale was Beneath Still Waters, his debut. After all this time, it is still one of my favourite folk albums.

It was released by the Edinburgh Greentrax label (TRAX 003), but has been long out of print, and never made it to CD. It is probably fiendishly difficult to track down, but it is definitely worth the effort. MacDonald’s music comes from a similar place to his compatriot Dick Gaughan (who also produced and played on the album), although his voice is less rich. Nine of the ten songs are self-penned, the only cover being Jerry Dammers’ “Free Nelson Mandela”. Topics covered include the murder of Victor Jara by the Pinochet regime in Chile (“Santiago Stadium”) and apartheid as well as more local concerns. The pick of the lot, though, closes side one.

“The Iolaire” is a sombre, moving song about the worst disaster ever to befall the Western Isles – namely the sinking of the troop ship The Iolaire in a storm on New Year’s Day 1919 with the loss of more than 200 souls. The dreadful irony was that these were men who had survived the horrors of the Great War, only to lose their lives less than two months into peacetime. The full story can be found here. MacDonald writes in his sleevenotes that there is some credence to the story believed locally that the captain of the vessel ignored the warnings of those on board that he was off course. This has never been proved, but local knowledge would have suggested to the men that when the Arnish light at the harbour’s entrance couldn’t be seen, their course was wrong.

One New Year’s Eve 1918
The Iloaire she put to sea
For help was needed to bring hundreds home
They’d been to the war for years
Hobhan, hobhan-o

From Stornoway she sailed forth
Calm was the mich as she set her course
For Kyle of Lochalsh the captain did steer
There to be met by the sailors’ cheers
Hobhan, hobhan-o

From the townships of Ness, to the village of Bayble
Preparation was made and each table was laid
For hundreds of sailors were returning home
The seas did whisper and the winds did moan
Hobhan, hobhan-o

284 set sail that day
A thousand wild horses could not have made them stay
Sweet were the tears of joy they cried
As they sailed from kyle in the darkening night
Hobhan, hobhan-o

A New Year was born as midnight bells tolled
The winds whipped the waves to a raging storm
But the Arnish light filled their hearts with a glow
The storm was forgotten as they made ready for home
But in a moment the light from Arnish was gone
The men told the captain his course had gone wrong
No attention he paid to their warning cries
But picked up a gun and threatened their lives
From the bridge in terror the men they ran down
As the captain tried vainly the boat to swing round
On the deck they stood with baited breath
As up from the depths came the fingers of death

Well the seas still raged and the winds still roared
One mile from home lay Holm’s rocky shore
At 1:55 she struck rocks unseen
Black was the New Year of 1919
Hobhan, hobhan-o

No assistance was there easy to hand
Amd barely a sailor there was who made land
Caught between the wind and the sea
The Iolaire sank within sight of her lea
Hobhan, hobhan-o

little could be done had it been broad day light
Far less in the depths of a stormy black night
To the families of Lewis the chilly winds moaned
Your sons they have perished and they’ll never come home
Hobhan, hobhan-o

The Iolaire she went down
With the loss of over 200 men
It seemed each pebble on the shore
It bore a sailor’s name
It seemed each pebble on the shore
It bore a sailor’s name


MacDonald released a second LP called This Land Once Was Free, possibly even better than his debut (although with no song quite as moving as “The Iolaire”). It, too, is difficult to track down. The last I’d heard he was working as a roofer in Aberdeenshire, though that was more than fifteen years ago. I hope he’s still active because his was a rare and brilliant talent.


15 responses to “Song of the day: IAIN MacDONALD – The Iolaire (1986)

  1. Dez, thanks for posting information on Iain MacDonald. I played my copies of his two recordings last night, and rediscovered what great music he made. A web search today uncovered your old reviews. I was hoping to find some new recordings, but even your comment that he was last seen while hanging onto a roof top in Aberdeenshire was appreciated (kidding). Bill Knapp

  2. Bill,

    There was an Iain MacDonald who played at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival early this year. I was disappointed to find out that it was a Gaelic piper, and not our man.

    Does anyone have any more recent information about Iain’s whereabouts / activities?

  3. I remember seeing Iain and his brilliant band “The Howling Shed” at the Acoustic Music Centre in Edinburgh one Festival years and years ago. I remember him singing this song too.

    The last i heard he was keeping busy in Aberdeenshire (and i think had been deeply involved in the Gadie Folk Club) but was no longer involved in the music scene.

  4. this guy was what scottish music needed, someone who wrote songs about the situation the country was in. This land once was free is perhaps the greatest folk song of contemporary scotland. I have no idea why he doesn’t make more albulms.

  5. So glad I didn’t pitch my vinyl. Had a sudden urge to hear Iain MacDonald tonight and thought I’d check out what youtube might offer up….well, zilch. In fact, apart from the musings here, some dude offering up songs for $.15 apiece on rapid share, and someone selling a copy of beneath still waters on the German ebay, there’s basically no news to be had on this singer who moved me so much at the St. Andrews Folk Club back in 1987. It’s kind of amazing to me, actually, how somebody who has published music and performed can be virtually non-existent online. Anyway, I hope that wherever Iain is that he is well, because that is really my biggest concern, that something unfortunate happened, not that he chose to leave music for a quiet life!

  6. Ian Macdonald is back up and running. After a number of quiet years he is getting back into singing and writing music once more. Unfortunately due to bad weather the Fyvie gig had to be cancelled. However I am sure we shall be hearing far more of him over the next year and wouldn’t it be good if something like “The Howling Shed” returned.

  7. Wednesday 3rd March, 8pm Vale Hotel Fyvie, Aberdeenshire (AB53 8JP for Satnav-ers !)
    Junction of A947 and B9005 for map readers!
    Free admission (will pass around a hat and there will be the obligatory Folk Club raffle !)
    All welcome !

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