Kintyre Lifeboats – in days of yore.
I wrote this around 15 years ago (2002 ish) and hope that I am not repeating myself!
'Every journey begins with one step,' I am told, and so it has been with this article. However, when I start something that at first sight appears simple and straightforward it more often than not just seems to grow and grow, as did my self-imposed task here!
During one of my recent and regular battery-recharging returns to Kintyre, land of my birth, I noticed that the old Lifeboat shed which stood at the top of the slipway at Dunaverty in Southend, near the Mull of Kintyre had almost disappeared, leaving just the four corner pillars. I decided to take a photograph of this ruin, as it would not - I reckoned - be long before all traces of it and of the old Lifeboat slip would disappear into the sea, and be forgotten. There is a magazine published by, and for, members of the Lifeboats Enthusiasts Society. They are always on the lookout for records of Lifeboat history and would, I reckoned, be the proper guardians of such a photograph.
When I went down to Dunaverty, armed with my camera it became obvious that not one, but two buildings were to be caught on film, because close by the remains of the slip there is an even older, stone-built house, whose design and construction cries out 'Lifeboat!' to the discerning eye. Indeed, I was assured by the young man who was then in the process of renovating the object of my interest, it had been the original Lifeboat House, and had been replaced by the slipway and boathouse when a larger boat - which this building could not contain - was deployed to Southend.
Photographs taken, my next step was to go to Machrihanish on the west coast of Kintyre, and use some more film on the disused Lifeboat buildings and slip which I knew were to be found there. What next after this, I thought. How about the building on the south shore of Campbeltown Loch, now used by the Sea Cadets, but originally built to house the Campbeltown Lifeboat? Ten miles later I was poised - camera in hand - outside this building, when I was hailed by Jim MacPhee, then Coxswain of the Campbeltown Lifeboat. When he found out what I was about, he suggested that I now add to my list the other, older building, at the head of the New Quay. John McWhirter, ex Honorary Secretary of the Campbeltown Lifeboat would, Jim told me, be able to fill me in on all the details.
This building, he continued, now served as a public toilet!
My original one building to photograph had now increased to five!
Off I went to visit John, not an onerous task as he has always been a great favourite of mine and was held up as a role-model of all that an Hon-Sec should be, while I was a serving member of the RNLI. John gave me a short appetite-whetting lecture on the history of Lifeboating around the shores of Kintyre, and then produced his collection of cuttings from local newspapers. These cuttings, and his wee lecture, fired my imagination, and I was determined that they, and his vast knowledge of events in the past, should not be lost. This article is not, however, meant to be any kind of official history of the Lifeboat services in Kintyre.
Campbeltown first got a Lifeboat in 1861. She was the named Lord Murray, and she served the Campbeltown crews until 1876, when she was replaced with the Princess Louise. The boathouse, which was built at the New Quay to house the first boat in 1861, cost £158. In 1888 the lifeboat named Mary Adelaide Harrison, which cost £396, took over until she was superseded by the James Stevens No. 2 in 1898. The new, larger boathouse, built on the south shores of the loch for this craft, cost £885.
The William McPherson, the first motor Lifeboat to serve the station, arrived to take over in 1912. I was amused to learn that shortly after her arrival in 1916, the sum of £10 was awarded by way of compensation to the owner of a bullock which had been strangled by having its neck caught up in the signal halliards of the lifeboat station!
The William McPherson was based in Campbeltown until the arrival, in 1929, of the City of Glasgow. Seven years later this boat rescued the crew of two, from a dinghy from the motor launch, Myrtle. They had been foolish enough to harpoon a large basking shark, which promptly towed them away! The pair, Anthony Watkins – who was later to build a shark processing factory just north of Carradale - and the owner of the launch, Dan Davies, had harpooned the creature off Lochranza and were towed from there to somewhere west of Sanda, a distance of around thirty miles that took over thirty hours to cover. The Myrtle had suffered an engine failure and had called for assistance on the dinghy’s behalf but when the lifeboat found the pair, they initially refused help. It took a little coaxing from the lifeboat coxswain, the redoubtable Duncan Newlands to convince them otherwise!
In 1953 the City Glasgow II of took over, and lasted until the arrival of the Arun class Lifeboat, Walter and Margaret Couper.
Southend's first Lifeboat was placed on station in 1869, 8 years after the Campbeltown station was opened, when one Robert Ker, of Hamilton, offered 'a generous sum' to endow a Lifeboat there in memory of his son, John Ronald Ker who had, a year or so before, been drowned at Clachan, a village on the west side of Kintyre. This lad's name is inscribed above the door of the old stone-built house, and is still plainly visible.
Until 1905, the boats at Southend were launched off the shore below this house, but as tides and weather conditions did not always permit launching by this method, a new slipway that incorporated a boathouse, was built. This is the building of which only the four corner pillars now remain.
The cost of the new boat, slipway and boathouse, was £4000.
This boat was launched only once 'in anger', as far as I can ascertain. Three boats in all were stationed there, all named after John Ronald Ker.
Originally, the boats were crewed by Southend men, but it soon became obvious that there was not the required pool of experienced seamen available in what was mainly a farming area, so from 1875 she was manned by fishermen who were, whenever necessary, transported as quickly as possible from Campbeltown, ten miles away. This radical decision on crewing was probably precipitated by an incident, which occurred on New Year's Day in 1875, when a gale of great severity blew up from the south east. This violent storm caused considerable damage to fishing boats in Campbeltown harbour; an English schooner was wrecked at Feochaig on the east side of Kintyre, about five miles south of Campbeltown, with the loss of one man; a Norwegian barque foundered in Machrie Bay, on Arran while on the Island of Sanda, just three miles from the Lifeboat station at Southend, the barque Perica was totally wrecked.
The Perica grounded at nine-thirty p.m., and was almost immediately dismasted. The crashing mast caused fatal injuries to the mate, and also wrecked the longboat. The sailmaker had earlier been mortally injured when he fell from a spar on to the deck below.
The grounding had been witnessed by the Sanda Lighthouse keepers, who alerted the men on the island, but in the darkness, heavy seas and storm-driven sleet, nothing could be done to assist the survivors on the stranded ship.
Lights were shone from Sanda in an attempt to encourage those still on the ship, and in the hope that they would be seen through the storm and visibility-restricting sleet, by someone at Southend.
Three men from the ship were lost when they tried to swim ashore, but three more were saved by Alexander Ritchie, a farmer on the island, who very bravely entered the water to help them.
When daylight came, the storm abated somewhat. A skiff was dragged more than one-and-a-half miles across the island with the help of a horse, and was successfully launched by the men of Sanda. Those rescued by the skiff included the captain, his wife and two children, the second mate, the steward, and the carpenter. The rescuers also recovered the bodies of the two men killed aboard the casualty earlier. They were later buried on the island.
The Board of Trade inquiry, which was later held in Glasgow, found the master of the Perica to be blameless but added the following and rather puzzling rider.
“That there was nothing in the state of the weather to prevent the launching of the Lifeboat stationed at Southend, four miles away, being at the scene of the disaster in sufficient time to save the lives of those men who were drowned”.
True, but the authors of this rider chose to ignore the fact that no one on the mainland knew anything of the incident, so why would they have launched the Lifeboat? Remember that this was before the days of telephones, let alone radios.
The Southend Lifeboat was later exonerated from all blame by the exhaustive inquiries of the Kintyre branch of the RNLI, with the rather strange proviso that no blame was attachable to the Coxswain, 'Except perhaps from the fact that he did not go up to the top of Dunaverty hill and examine the coast as soon as daylight in the morning permitted'.
The Coxswain had left Southend to go to Campbeltown that fateful morning, before daylight but why anyone could think that he should have climbed to the top of Dunaverty Hill before leaving, is beyond me!
For his bravery, one report states that the Silver medal of the RNLI, and an inscribed vellum, were awarded to Mr Alexander Ritchie of Sanda, for what by any standard was a remarkable feat of stamina, determination and bravery. Another report states that Mr Ritchie was awarded a Board of Trade medal. Which is correct, or are they both accurate, and where are these treasures now?
Later that year, the decision was made to crew the Southend Lifeboat from Campbeltown.
There was one other notable incident with the Southend Lifeboat, the John R. Ker, when she was launched on exercise in a south-westerly gale. She was struck by a tremendous sea and thrown on her beam-ends, resulting in three of her crew being thrown overboard. Two were recovered immediately but the third, 2nd Coxswain Charles Durnin, was in the water for over an hour. He was rescued from the surf by one James Taylor of Machrimore, who entered the water with a lifeline around him, and brought Mr Durnin safely to the shore. For his bravery, Mr Taylor was presented by the RNLI with a silver mounted barometer.
Is this still in existence?
The three boats stationed at Southend from its opening in 1868 until it closed on the 31st December 1929, were launched a total of 14 times, saving 4 lives. The last Lifeboat to be stationed there was sold out of the service, and was bought by Major Parsons of Carskiey. Re-named Knot, she was fitted with a 20hp Gardner engine by Robert Wylie, boat builder in Campbeltown, and was wintered in the old original stone-built boathouse in Southend.
Machrihanish Lifeboat station was established in 1912. It was opened following the loss of a trawler, which had been driven ashore at Westport, four miles north of Machrihanish, during a blizzard in 1908. On that occasion, rescue attempts from Campbeltown were foiled, the roads being blocked by snowdrifts.
The first, and indeed the only Lifeboat to be stationed there during the short (eighteen year) history of the station, was the Henry Finlay, a thirty-five foot, self-righting, sailing/rowing craft. Like Southend, Machrihanish was manned by men from Campbeltown, until the station closed in 1931 - it being felt that the motor Lifeboat now stationed at Campbeltown could cover the area adequately.
The Lifeboat at Machrihanish was never launched to a casualty.
At this time, incidentally, all Lifeboat stations on Kintyre and Ayrshire were deemed to be in the Irish district, under the then Inspector for Ireland, Lt. Cdr. J. M. Upton.
The ex-Machrihanish Lifeboat was eventually towed to Ardrossan by the Campbeltown motor Lifeboat, the City of Glasgow, from whence she was taken, by rail, to Tynemouth. The closure of the Southend and Machrihanish lifeboat stations meant that there was not one Lifeboat on what was then described as 'the weary stretch of the Scottish western seaboard', between Campbeltown and Stornoway, an area now served as I write by seven powerful, modern boats!
Returning to tales of Campbeltown, I noted with great interest two of what were in my opinion quite remarkable services, which were carried out from the station.
In the last week of December 1908, a great gale blew up, which continued for several days. It was accompanied by heavy snowfalls that blocked roads all over Scotland.
In bald facts, on the 28th December 1908, the Campbeltown sailing Lifeboat, James Stevens No. 2, was launched with Coxswain George McEachran in command, in what was described as 'very severe conditions', to the wreck of a schooner, the Bessie Arnold of Whitehaven, which was ashore at Sliddery, on the Island of Arran. While closing the wreck upon which three men - later thought to be dead - had been seen, the Lifeboat was thrown aboard the stricken ship by a “Great wave”. At that time the Lifeboat was badly holed, and - on being washed back afloat - she quickly became waterlogged. No more was seen of the three men on the wreck. It was assumed, and later verified, that the same wave which had swept the Lifeboat on to the ship, had washed them away, but back aboard the Lifeboat it was realised that the then bowman, Neil McKenzie, father of Flora, my maternal uncle Henry Martin’s wife, had also been washed overboard. He was in the water for some twenty minutes, before being safely recovered. As no more life was seen on the wrecked ship, the Lifeboat returned to Campbeltown.
Bald facts, I wrote at the beginning of this extract.
To elaborate 'bald facts', these crewmen were at sea in an unheated, open sailing boat, for many hours, in absolutely unspeakable conditions. No hot food; soaked by the sea and frozen to the marrow by the wind and driven snow; all the while in dire peril of losing their lives in the storm. As if that was not enough, one of them spent twenty minutes cast adrift in the merciless raging flay of the surf.
Have you had enough? Read on for a few more lines, please!
They got the waterlogged Lifeboat safely back to Campbeltown, and beached her in the most sheltered spot they could find, close to the Royal Hotel and started to attempt temporary repairs. Later that night, the storm still raging as fiercely as ever, they dragged her back off the beach in a vain attempt to reach the crew of the Irish ketch, Jane, which had driven ashore just about one hundred yards from where the Lifeboat lay. Such was the severity of the storm that they could not help the stricken boat with their damaged Lifeboat. Indeed, the Lifeboat was carried past the wreck by the storm and was further damaged when she struck Dalintober quay. For their superhuman exploits that day, the lifeboat crew was awarded double pay!
Seeing the plight of the Lifeboat, a grand-uncle of mine on my mother’s side, one Captain Duncan Martin, mustered a crew of local fishermen and then tried to reach the men, who had tied themselves to the Jane’s mast, using a ‘borrowed’ fishing skiff only to suffer the same fate, being cast ashore and wrecked beside the stricken lifeboat. He then waited for a few hours, during which time he went home for a change of clothes, until there was a short lull in the storm, and tried again. This time he was successful in rescuing two men alive. Sadly the skipper of the Jane, father of the two men rescued, had by then died of exposure.
Captain Martin was awarded a Silver Medal by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, for his bravery and seamanship. Strangely enough, the only public place that I am aware of where Captain Martin’s feat is recognised is in the Maritime Museum in San Diego, California, where there is a photograph of him in uniform, wearing his medal. This display is in connection with the steam yacht Medea, built in 1904 for Major Macalister-Hall, Torrisdale, of which he had been captain. She is preserved in the San Diego museum, and is still used at sea on suitable occasions.
The Silver Medal is now safe in the possession of Efric McNeil, his great-granddaughter. Efric is a Chartered Accountant, who lives in Glasgow. I was indeed privileged to view and to handle the Medal, just this year, 2008.
Have you had enough of heroics in extreme weather?
Neil McKenzie had not 'had enough', for the almost-drowned bowman retired as 2nd Coxswain - still under Coxswain McEachran - some nineteen years later, having spent thirty-five years in all with the RNLI.
Men of iron?
I think not. Stainless steel maybe - iron is too base a metal to describe these fellows!
The second service which I thought was deserving of note, although for totally different reasons, was in March 1928, when the motor Lifeboat William McPherson - the first motor driven boat to be stationed at Campbeltown - attended the wreck of the 8000 tons British tanker Oliva, aground at Bennan Head, on Arran, on a dark, wet night. They found only fifteen Chinese crew remaining aboard the ship, the British officers all having got ashore safely by their lifeboats. These men were persuaded with some difficulty to come aboard the Lifeboat and when they were landed safely at Campbeltown, the appearance on the scene of one John Murray, who had some command of the Chinese language, shed light on the apparent reluctance of the saved men to go ashore to safety with their officers. They were, it appears, convinced that they would be interned if they landed on Arran!
All of the above came from the seemingly simple thought to record on film the remains of an old building, but I must admit to having gained an enormous amount of pleasure in the task, and to have warmed my bones greatly in the heat of the reflected glory of the exploits I encountered in the process.