EVERY year until the day she died, she would take his uniform out of the wardrobe and clean it. It was a way for Christina MacLeod to keep the memory of her husband Norman alive ¬- a way for her to mourn a man who was killed in one of the worst maritime disasters in Scotland and the last great tragedy of the First World War.

The tragedy happened almost exactly 100 years ago off the coast of Stornoway on the 1st of January 1919. Around 300 men from Lewis and Harris were on their way home after surviving years of fighting and were just 20 yards from shore when the Iolaire hit rocks and sank. Over 200 men were killed. They had survived until Armistice Day but died within reach of home.

No one knows precisely why the disaster happened – an inquiry was inconclusive – but the Iolaire struck rocks known as The Beasts of Holm just short of the entrance to Stornoway harbour. One man on board, John Finlay Macleod, swam ashore with a rope and helped rescue 40 of the 79 men who survived, but in the terrible weather, most of those on board perished: 174 men from Lewis, seven from Harris, two civilian passengers and 18 crew.

Norman MacLeod was among those who died – almost within sight of his wife Christina who was waiting, with their two sons Norman and John, for him to return. The 36-year-old fisherman from Lewis had signed up at the start of the war and had served with the Royal Navy Reserves for four years.

One hundred years on, Norman MacLeod’s grand-daughter Kathreen Hunter will be among hundreds of other descendants, locals, and dignitaries taking part in a service in Stornoway on Tuesday to mark the centenary of the tragedy. Prince Charles will be in attendance and will unveil a new bronze sculpture depicting a rope that references the heroism of John Finlay Macleod on the day of the disaster

Mrs Hunter, a 62-year-old retired teacher from Inverness, says the commemoration is important to her because the sinking of the Iolaire has been such a big part of her family’s story. In the centenary year of the war, she also wants more people to know about the disaster, which many on Lewis, including her own family, did not talk about.

“It’s important that the story is out now and people are taking heed of it,” she says. “In Scotland, there are a lot of people I’ve spoken to who have never heard of it.”

Mrs Hunter says part of the reason for this is that many of the families did not talk about the Iolaire, including her own. “It was an island tradition that they just got on with things and the grief was kept very private,” she says. “You knew not to ask.”

However, there are a few details that Mrs Hunter has pieced together, including the fact that Christina kept her husband’s uniform and cleaned it every year. It is also thought that Christina’s death in 1933 may have been caused by her grief.

“We always thought she died of a brain tumour but the family story is that she died of grief,” says Mrs Hunter. “She didn’t get over it. She was in an asylum in Inverness for four days which could fit in with a brain tumour or it could be that she had a total breakdown.”

Christina was obviously not alone in suffering the effects of the disaster on Lewis. The island had already lost many men in the war and in a small community the effects would have been felt intensely. “The First World War had a disproportionate effect on islands,” says Mrs Hunter, “because in those days the men were very much working the land or fishing and the women would’ve had to take that over and bring up their families – it was very hard for them.”

Mrs Hunter also believes that the fact the islanders lost their men so close to home would have been particularly hard to take. “They were so close to home,” she says. “The first time I went there, I was horrified because I felt that you could have paddled out to the site of the reef the boat floundered on. I felt quite angry about it.

“Most of the men who were on that boat could have taken it into harbour themselves, but the Royal Navy were on the bridge. It could have been that they were not familiar with the reef. Another problem was that there weren’t enough lifeboats. They were also disorientated because of the weather and the waves – it is a very exposed place even though it was close to home.”

Professor Norman Drummond, the chair of the commemoration body WW100 Scotland which has organised Tuesday’s centenary event, said the tragedy was beyond comprehension. “When you look out to where the Iolaire hit the rocks,” he said, “you are struck by just how close they were to shore. It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement of the men and their families and then the sorrow that was to follow.”

Norman A Macdonald, the convenor of Western Isles Council, has similar feelings. “This commemoration is of major significance for our islands,” he said. “The events of that terrible night in January 1919 impacted on communities throughout the Western Isles and remain a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our young men in the service of their country. It is the worst tragedy to befall our islands and its effect reverberates to this day.”

One link to the tragedy which Mrs Hunter still has is a poem written by her father John, who was only one year old when his father Norman was killed. The poem imagines the terrible moment Christina found Norman’s body and refers to the uniform she kept for the rest of her life. “She spread his clothes on a dyke,” it says, “They found him cold drowned on the beach, folded with loving hands and broken heart.”