>PSS BRIGADIER 1854-1896 & SS COPELAND 1894 -1917


Should you have been one of the 4 passengers aboard the paddle-steamer ‘Brigadier‘ making her way from Lochmaddy to Portree on the 7th of December 1896 then your journey was about to be rudely cut short just off the coast of Rubha Reinis (Renish Point) at the entrance to Loch Roghadail.
The RCAHMS record of the wreck is both informative and slightly confusing, for there appears to have been a degree of uncertainty as to the location of the accident. However, Captain Otter’s 1857 chart of the Sound of Harris clearly shows us the position of  ‘Duncan Rk’ and the dotted-circle surrounding the ‘¾’ figure indicates why this rock, only three-quarters of a fathom (four-and-a-half feet) below the surface of the sea, presented such a danger to shipping.
A description of the ship together with her history, including the final years in the ownership of David MacBrayne, is to be seen here but what interested me most was seeing if I could learn anything more of her Master on that fateful day, one D McPhail.
A search of the censuses for likely candidates produced just one – Dugald Macphail, from Crinan, Argyleshire, who we find in 1891 in Liverpool and in 1901 in Greenock.
The 1891 record has the 21 year-old Dugald as Master of the vessel ‘Northward’ which also had a Mate & 2nd Mate, an Engineer & 2nd Engineer, two Seamen, two Firemen and a Cook comprising her crew. I was surprised by the (to 21st Century eyes) very young age of the Master but also surprised to see on this census return from Garston Dock, Liverpool in England that there was the familiar column from Scottish censuses that records whether those listed spoke either Gaelic or Gaelic & English. Six of these mariners, including Dugald Macphail, spoke both languages whilst the remaining four recorded nothing in the column, indicating that they only had English.
In 1901, D Macphail aged 32 and hailing from Crinan, is now Master of the ‘Copeland‘ and accompanying him aboard that vessel in Greenock were a Mate & 2nd Mate, a Chief Engineer & 2nd Engineer, a Carpenter, a Donkeyman, eight Able Seamen & seven Firemen, a Cook, a Chief Steward & 2nd Steward, a Stewardess and finally three Passengers. I should perhaps explain that a ‘Donkeyman’ was responsible for the auxiliary steam engines, known as donkey engines, which were used to power winches and pumps.
This pencil sketch from 1898 of the SS Copeland’s Smoking Room was certainly a surprising find!
Finally, although I cannot be absolutely certain that he was indeed the unfortunate Master of the ‘Brigadier’ in 1896, Captain Dugald Macphail, Master of the ‘SS Copeland‘, was awarded an MBE on the 26th of March, 1920 within the list of ‘Civilian Honours Connected With The War At Sea’.
The SS Copeland had been sunk on the 3rd of December, 1917 by the German submarine, U-57 , under the command of Kapitanleutnant Carl-Siegfried Ritter von Georg . Twelve men died when the torpedoing took place in the St George’s Channel whilst she was enroute from Glasgow to Cork. .
Thus what began as the tale of an accident in which no lives were recorded as being lost ends, unexpectedly, with the sad story of a deliberate sinking in which twelve brave seamen lost their lives.



30th May 1861 – Noon: left Loch Tarbert, Harris.
8 P.M. it fell calm when we were four miles from Rodel, Harris.
There were a few trifling showers, and the air was beautifully clear.
At 8.15, when the sun’s altitude was about ten degrees, a brilliant rainbow (C) formed; – its estimated altitude was 40 degrees.
Where the arch joined the horizon (A B) its colours were very bright.
A secondary bow (D) also formed, with the usual characteristics.
But, what must be very unusual, a third or extraordinary bow – (E) appeared.
The extraordinary and primary bow arose from the same points of, and were coincident with, the horizon; from whence the legs of the extraordinary bow rose almost perpendicularly, but bending gradually into a broad elliptic arch, whose summit, estimated at 70 degrees of altitude, was above that of the secondary bow.
The colours of the extraordinary bow were in primary order; less bright than the primary, but brighter than the secondary bow.
Neither the summits of the secondary nor extraordinary bows were ever very distinct.
The phenomenon lasted about half an hour.
A sketch of the arrangement is here drawn. (Please see embedded page)

Note: An old sailor informed me that he once witnessed a similar appearance of rainbows in the West Highlands. And in the Enc. Met. Mety., p. 171, is quoted a description of a like phenomenon, seen by Dr Halley from the walls of Edesten; but in which the extraordinary bow contracted until the upper portion of the arch became coincident with the upper portion of the secondary bow, when, from the order of the colours being contrary, the blending of the two produced white light.
Source: Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society, Volume 1, Nos I-XII, 1866. p270

Note: He had completed surveying ‘East Loch Tarbert’ 4 years earlier, and the West Coast from the ‘Sound of Harris to Lochs Tarbert & Resort’ in1860, so the precise purpose of this voyage is uncertain we can be sure that Fred Thomas had been putting the time to good use, perhaps even collecting Webs with his wife?

>Some Account of the People of St. Kilda and of the Birds of the Outer Hebrides


By W. M. E. Milner, Esq. in ‘The Zoologist’, 1848 p2054-57
Note: I have selected those parts that are of most relevance to my interests, but those with an interest in ornithology might enjoy the full text although it is full of accounts of birds being shot and eggs collected to satisfy the hunger for knowledge – rather than the hunger felt by famine. There is also a large section devoted to St Kilda that I shall leave for others with expertise in that isle to explore.
Thus this piece is neither about St Kilda nor Birds, despite its title!
…I brought our account of the birds of Ross-shire as far as the coast of Skye, from which island we took our departure, in Mr. Matheson’s steamer, for Stornaway ; and after a delightful passage of seven hours and a half, cast anchor in the capital of the outer Hebrides, on a charming summer’s morning, the 29th of May. The whole population seemed busily engaged in the herring fishery, and we remained only long enough to be most hospitably received by Mr. Scobie,. Mr. Mattheson’s factor, who facilitated in every possible way our journey to the Harris…

…On the island of Scalpa, at the entrance of Loch Tarbert, we saw a purple sandpiper, on the 31st of May, in full summer plumage. In this locality the oyster-catcher was very abundant, and we met with several pairs of the black guillemot…

…In our sail from Loch Tarbert to Rowdil, on June 1st, we saw several pairs of the bean goose, and procured specimens of the turnstone in full summer plumage, but I do not think they had begun to lay, for they were in flocks of four and five; and near Rowdil, the southern extremity of Harris, we were gratified by finding an eyrie of the peregrine falcon, containing four young birds. The old ones were too cautious to come within reach of the gun, and we left them their progeny in peace…

…The people here seem very contented, though badly off; and I was sorry to hear subsequently that the potatoes, which looked very healthy in June, have turned out very ill.
Lady Dunmore, represented by her excellent factor Captain Macdonald, has been most active in administering to the wants of the people; and by the constant supply of meal brought by the Government steamers to the various depots, not a man in the outer Hebrides has perished from want…

…Finding that little was to be done in ornithology in Harris, we crossed over to North Uist, twelve miles over the Sound of Harris from Rowdil, belonging to Lord Macdonald, a flat island, containing 5000 inhabitants, completely dotted over with small lakes, and the retreat of innumerable water-fowl chiefly in winter.
We are indebted to the Rev. Mr. Mc Rae and Mr. Macdonald of Balronald, by whom we were most hospitably and kindly entertained, for all the success we met with in this island, which of all the outer Hebrides is best worth visiting…

…I cannot close my account of North Uist without expressing my admiration at the exertions of Lord Macdonald, so fully carried out for the benefit of the people by Mr. Macdonald and the Rev. Mr. Mc Rae. I should be sorry to make any comparison with the sister kingdom, but the state of North Uist affords a bright example of how much good may be done, even with small means, by a landlord anxious for the good of his tenantry, when aided by a zealous factor, and an active, kind-hearted clergyman…

…After being most hospitably entertained in North Uist, we returned back to our kind friends at Rowdil, and made preparations for our voyage to St. Kilda, for which we hired a very comfortable little cutter of forty tons, formerly engaged as the mailpacket between Skye and Harris, well manned by an able crew of five men, which in most seasons of the year is necessary, for the navigation is dangerous, from the currents and storms rising up very suddenly.

We were to be taken to St. Kilda, back to Rowdil, thence to Stornaway, and to be landed at Loch Inver, in Sulherlandshire, for £ 17.
Our starting-place was Ob, the south-west point of Harris, where we were detained three days by contrary winds. Our companions were, the Rev. Neil Mackenzie, the former clergyman of St. Kilda, to whose kindness and zeal we were mainly indebted for the great success we met with, and who was anxious for a passage to visit his old flock,—and the Rev. Mr. Macdonald, the clergyman of Harris, in which parish St. Kilda is situated, and whose services as an interpreter we found very useful in an island where not a word but Gaelic is understood…

…The distance from Ob is is about sixty miles, but from Cape Groemenish, on the west coast of North Uist, it is but forty-two; perhaps the most treacherous passage ever made in those seas…

…We weighed anchor on the 12th of June, at six in the morning, with a favourable wind, passed Pabbay, North Uist, and the rocks of Hasker, and till within fifteen miles of St. Kilda seemed likely to make an excellent passage. Borrera, an island five miles north of St. Kilda, rose majestically 1400 feet out of the sea, but a haze prevented our seeing its kindred rock. Shortly after catching sight of Borrera a sudden storm overtook us, and for four hours we were beaten about most helplessly.
Our pilot was out of his reckoning, and when everything was prepared to stand out to sea for the night we unexpectedly swung into the bay of St. Kilda, just visible through the fog, and cast anchor within 200 yards of its rocky iron-bound shore at four in the afternoon…
This account from 1848, in the midst of the potato famines and at a time of revolutions in Europe & beyond, provides a glimpse into the world of the islands but not of the ‘ordinary’ islanders.
We learn that Mr Matheson’s steamer from Skye took seven-and-a-half hours to reach Stornoway where the herring fishing was in full flood. In referring to Lady Dunmore and her ‘excellent factor’ Captain Macdonald we obtain confirmation that John Robertson Macdonald had indeed succeeded to this role and, tantalisingly, this is not the only time that he is referred to as ‘Captain’ but I’ve still not been able to ascertain any aspect of his military past.
Over on North Uist, we meet the ‘Rev Mr Mc Rae’ who was Finlay MacRae whose wife Isabella Mary Macdonald was the ‘excellent factor’ of Harris’s sister.
It is clear that the author was much taken by North Uist (and your present one finds it to be to his liking, too!) but it is a shame that he didn’t explain what the ‘exertions of Lord Macdonald’ were that had rendered the island to appear to be in such a good state?
My favourite section is that were we read of the 40 ton cutter that had been the mailpacket between Harris & Skye and its crew of 5 men necessitated by the nature of the seas in the Sound. Was this boat replaced by a steamer or did the Master of the Harris Mail Boat in 1851 sail just such a vessel too?
Whatever the case, the story of the voyage to St Kilda, complete with a disorientating storm and aboard a ship of a similar size to those my own people sailed in those same seas, seemed like a good place to end…

>The Lighthouse Stevensons

>BBC2 Scotland are showing The Lighthouse Stevensons to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

I have blogged about George Edgar, who was the first of several Keepers of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, as well as those of the Arnish, Tiumpan Head & Eilean Glas lighthouses.

This description from Barrahead gives an impression of the natural forces that the lighthouse builders had to contend with.

The programme includes an interview with Bella Bathurst who wrote the The Lighthouse Stevensons which is a brilliant read.


(The link to the BBC iPlayer where you can view or download the programme for viewing is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00y6hym/The_Lighthouse_Stevensons/ )

A Couple of Old Posts…

…that I thought I would mention as they might prove useful to other researchers.

The first, ‘Where’s Malcolm?’ , is an account of how I stumbled upon the fantastic Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland and what I discovered there.

The second, ‘The Belfast News-Letter’ , shows how a search of newspaper archives can supply some surprising information.

You might also like to read my transcript of the Stornoway Gazette’s obituary of Alexander John Kerr .

‘Naval Lieutenant Widow Recently’

When I first read those four sad words in the ‘Occupation’ column of an entry in the 1851 Census I knew that I had to know more.

Una Robertson was 45 when someone sitting in Kenneth Street, Stornoway wrote those words. With her was her House Maid and fellow Stornowegian, the 14 year-old Margaret Maclean. Ten years earlier things had been rather different for the 30 year-old Mrs Robertson living in South Beach Street in the house of her brother, the 35 year-old Surgeon, Roderick Millar for she had her two daughters, 12 year-old Jessie and 10 year-old Catherine, for company whilst her husband was away.

Eunice Millar had married the Royal Navy Lieutenant James Robertson on the 6th of October 1826 in Stornoway and Janet Millar Robertson had been born two years later on the 14th of October 1828. She would later marry Alexander Maciver, the ‘Landed Estate Factor’s Clerk’. Catherine Robertson followed her sister into the World in 1832 and she too married into officialdom in the form of Fisheries Officer David Corner.

Widow Una remained in Stornoway and in 1861 was living at 14 Kenneth Street with her two grandsons, 6 year-old Andrew F Corner born in Rothesay, Bute and his 4 year-old brother Roderick Millar Corner who was a Stonowegian. Catherine Morrison, a 22 year-old from Harris, was there too as a Servant.

By 1871 Una had moved to 25 Kenneth Street and had a new Domestic Servant, Annie Maciver, who was 17 and from the town. Lodging with her was a 38 year-old ‘Supervisor Inland Revenue’ called William Stewart Turner who hailed all the way from Kidderminster in Worcestershire.

We last see Eunice Robertson at the age of 75 in 1881 at 26 Kenneth Street accompanied by granddaughter Eunice Corner who had been born 20 years earlier in Stornoway and their General Servant, 22 year-old Henrietta Macdonald from the town. The inevitable Lodger took the form of a 50 year-old Fish Curer called Murdoch Smith from Nigg in Ross-shire.

Una died on the 6th of October 1881, exactly 55 years since her wedding day.
She had been a widow for at least 30 of those years.