Obituary of Alexander John Kerr

The Late Mr Alexander J Kerr
On Tuesday of last week there passed away a
respected and familiar local figure in the
person of Mr Alexander J Kerr, Shipmaster,
Keith Street. Although he had been in failing
health for several weeks, he was out a few
days before his death, and the end came with
unexpected suddenness.
Sixty Seven years of age, he was one of the
few remaining links connecting us with the
time when in his youth the town of Stornoway
was of considerable importance as a shipping
port, and when a fine fleet of sailing ships
registered here, and belonging to enterprising
local owners, carried on an extensive trader with
Archangel and the Baltic ports; ln those ships
Mr Kerr had his first seagoing experience
having, at the age of 14, joined the “Alliance”
on a voyage to Archangel under Captain
Macpherson. He continued in the same service
under Captain John Smith, in the “Africa”, and
in the brig “Supply”, with Captain Murdo
Morrison – names of ships and men well known
to all old Stornowegians.
After several years’ sailing in foreign parts on
the “Gleniffer” of Glasgow he joined his
father, the late Mr Malcolm Kerr, in the
coasting trade off the West Coast of Scotland
which he continued to work on this own
account after his father’s death. There was no
one better known than Mr Kerr in the
different places of call between the Mersey
and Cape Wrath, and no craft more readily
recognised than the “Jessie,” the “Crest”, and
the “Lady Louisa Kerr”; which he owned and
sailed in succession. But as with the larger
windjammers that had to yield the ocean trade
to the modern steamer, so also with the small
coasting vessels. The competition of steam
has rendered them unprofitable, and the
picturesque sailing coaster has been almost
completely squeezed out of existence.
For some years Mr Kerr had worked on shore
in the employ of Mr Murdo Maclean, shipping
agent, where he was available as pilot for
steamers proceeding south to Clyde, Mersey
and Irish ports. His unique knowledge of the
West Coast peculiarly fitted him for this
service, and among mariners he had the
reputation of being one of the most skillful
and careful of pilots.
Of a very quiet disposition, he was a respected
citizen of his native town, and the esteem in
which he was held was marked by the very
large number who turned. out in wet and
disagreeable weather to his funeral on
Thursday when he was interred in Sandwick
Stornoway Gazette, October 1922

Where’s Malcolm?

At times, it appears that one’s ancestors have done their hardest to elude the family historian’s grasp; birth year’s apparently increasing as the years unfold, spellings as arbitrary as those found in a school exam, the list ins infinite.
Sometimes, however, in the very last act they perform on this Earth, an ancestor can unwittingly unlock a whole new landscape that unfolds before us as beautifully as any hand-crafted chart…
I was searching for my Isle of Harris (Scotland) ancestor Malcolm Kerr (born c1823) using the powerful, albeit pricey, with mixed success: no record of his birth in the Old Parish Registers which wasn’t a total surprise given that the records from the Gaelic-speaking islands are few and far between, rather more success with his second Marriage and with his childrens’ subsequent records, but no sign of him in the 1851 & 1871 censuses and as for his Death?
Well, this was where Malcolm did me a huge favour (almost as big a favour as the one he done in siring my great Grandmother!) for he died in the middle of December 1898, at the age of 76, not peacefully in his home in Stornoway but at sea, as befits an elderly sea-dog in his dotage, perhaps?
The singular significance of this circumstance was not the location, in the sound of Kerrera, near Oban, nor the cause, Heart Disease, but the existence on the record of of a five-letter name and a five-digit number: CREST 44427.
The Crest, as I later discovered in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich where I was vainly searching for Malcolm’s Masters Certificate (Ships Captain who were wholly engaged in Coastal Trade were exempt from certification) was a 47 Net Tonnage Ketch. In translation, she was a small two-masted ship probably about 25 metres from stem to stern (80 feet in ‘old money’!) built in Ramsay on the Isle of Man in 1863????
Although this was a major breakthrough in that it told me something of Malcolm’s seafaring days, it begged even more questions: Who owned the Crest?, who was her Master? (Malcolm was listed as a ‘Hand’ on the Death Certificate), what trade was she plying? And, most of all, what the heck was a 76 year-old man doing off the West Coast of Scotland in the middle of Winter!
Eventually, after having visited every website in the Country that might possibly give me a clue: was he engaged in Herring fishing, was he involved in Trade, was he smuggling…or, perhaps, a combination of all these!, I stumbled upon the Maritime History Archive in…Newfoundland.
Now, much as I had by now become obsessed in my quest to discover all that I could about Malcolm, a trip to Newfoundland was definitely out of the question. It came as a great relief, therefore, to learn that the Archive is searchable online SO LONG AS YOU KNOW THE OFFICIAL NUMBER – but for Malcolm’s untimely death, this vital detail could never have been know to me.
I vividly recall typing ‘CREST’ followed by ‘44427’, checking each for errors, and then gingerly lightly tapping the return key…
…Oh my God, not only did the Archive possess documents, they had some covering the all-important period between 1898/99 that was crucial to my research.
Next, I decided to cover all my bases, and placed a request, via email, for scans covering the years 1896-1899. I don’t know why I added the previous couple of years, but was very glad that I did…
With amazing haste, a reply was received and, a couple of weeks later (and about £70 lighter) my PC shook as the weight of the papers hit the email ‘hallway’…
The emotional impact was even greater when the details revealed that the owner of the ‘Crest’, and her Master, were non-other than Alexander John Kerr, Malcolm’s son and my great, Great Uncle! This remarkable man, the ancestor whom I had grown to respect and love in equal measure, had died as Bosun assisting his own son in his profession.
It was only later, after I had located my cousin who is Alexander John’s granddaughter, that I was able to read his own obituary from the Stornoway Gazette and learn that the Crest was but one of several vessels that Alexander John had owned and sailed until he retired from that and became a Pilot, assisting others in the treacherous seas along Scotland’s Western shores.
It was also my cousin who, when I made my first visit to the isles, showed me this photograph of Malcolm Kerr, born 1823, Direcleit, Isle of Harris, Scotland, died 15th December 1898, Sound of Kerrera, Near Oban, Scotland, but where is he buried???
To be continued…