I happenstanced upon a couple of entries on the ScotlandsPlaces.gov.uk site which hosts the Canmore searchable database of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS)…
It is Monday13th January 1890 and the vessel SPANKER of Stornoway is on her way to Carloway, on the West coast of Lewis, from her home port. Her owner, M (possibly, Murdo, with whom AJK worked ashore in later life?) Maclean, saw his ketch leave with three crewmen aboard under the Captaincy of Alexander John Kerr. She was laden with cured herring, those salted silver darlings of the sea lying packed in hand-hewn barrels in those most-happy of days for the Lewis fisheries.
34 year-old Kerr, an experienced seaman who’s first voyage had taken him to Archangel some 20 years earlier, had undertaken many such coastal trips as had his 68 year-old father, Malcolm, who may have been with him on this occasion. (Although we know that the 31 year-old Spanker was registered as SY 832 we do not know her Official Number and hence cannot search the Newfoundland archives for further information.)
What we do know is that at some point on this Winter’s day in the Sound of Harris, those dangerous shallow-strewn waters between Berneray & Harris, they ran into a Southerly storm (recorded as Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale).
This 58′ 6″ long sailing ship with a beam of 16′ 6″, fully-laden so that there were maybe only a couple of feet of free-board between her midships and the boiling sea below, became stranded on the rocks somewhere in Obbe Bay. What thoughts did these men have?
Alexander John’s mind, fully-focussed upon his responsibilities, must be allowed to have wandered back to his home in 13 Church Street where his wife Margaret (MacArthur), 6 year-old son Donald and little baby Catherine Isabel (who tragically died of Tetanus, aged 5) who probably did not notice the wind moving round and gathering in intensity. He may also have reflected upon the fact that he was yards away from the shore where his grandfather had been born.
Whether they were attempting to make safe harbour in An-t-Ob, or hoping to ride-out the storm in this treacherous stretch of sea cannot be known, but Maclean’s cured herrings never reached Carloway, nor did whatever else those barrels may, or may not, have contained…
120 years later, if you take the ferry from Berneray to ‘Leverburgh’, you will follow, in part, the fateful course of the last journey of the ‘Spanker’.
Should you do so, take time to peruse the Admiralty Chart on board, the Blue-Sea of the Sound spattered Jackson-Pollock fashion by the Sand-Yellow blotches of the myriad islands and shallows lying in wait and, as you make the two near-ninety degree turns that are the only safe passage, spare a thought for those four men on that stormy day all those years ago who’s fate, save for that of the skipper, I do not know…
A ‘spanker’ is a gaff-rigged sail used on square-rigged ships to add speed and that is probably the reason for the name of this ship in those days when the race to catch, cure & despatch the herring was at its height.