Yachtsmen of Harris

I happened upon these men by chance when extending my family tree and finding that John Maclean (a Nephew of the Wife of my 1st Cousin 4 times removed!) had been a ‘Yacht’s Man’ in 1891.
Exploring this unusual occupation produced the following records:
(John Mcleod, 52, Yachtsman (Unemployed), 4 Nelson St, Greenock West, Renfrewshire, b. Harris)
John Gillies, 39, Yachtsman, Strond, b. Harris
John Maclean, 23, Yacht’s Man, Strond, b. Harris
William Macleod, 40, Yacht’s Man, Strond, b. Harris
Norman Paterson, 20, Yacht’s Man, Strond, b. Harris
Alexander Paterson, 18, Yacht’s Man, Strond, b. Harris
John Morrison, 30, Yachtsman, Scaplay no 36, b. Harris
John Mackay, Sailor’s Yachtsman, Obbe, b. Harris
Kenneth Morrison, 21, Yacht Caretaker, Kentulavig, b. Harris
Malcolm Campbell, 25, Yachtsman, Bernera, b. Bernera, Inverness-shire
Alexander Macdonald, 30, Yachtsman, Bernera, b. Harris
John Mclean, 29, Yachtsman, Bernera, b. Bernera, Inverness-shire
John Paterson, 28, Yachtsman, Bernera, b. Bernera, Inverness-shire
(John Campbell, 54, Yachtsman, Kirkpark Cottage, Row, Dunbartonshire, b. Harris)
(John Mcleod, 72, Yachtsman (Retired), 85 Roxburgh St, Greenock West, Renfrewshire, b. Harris)
In all cases, these men were living with their families at the time of the census so it is not the case that a visiting yacht happened to be present at the time.
The two clusters of Yachtsmen, in Strond in 1891 and on Bernera a decade later, are therefore all the more intriguing and I am tempted to consider that in each case a local resident may have been the employer of these men?
What is known is that in later years Sir T.O.M. Sopwith extensively employed Hearachs on both his steam and sailing yachts (I understand that the Skipper of Endeavour II was from Direcleit?) and in doing so was following a precedent set at least 50 years earlier.

The Little Minch Channel

These extracts are from The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1866 and give a clear and vivid impression of the seas between Skye and the Western Isles. I have left all spellings as they appeared in the original:

My experience in the navigation of the Minch has been collected in storm and calm, in snow and fog, amidst those difficulties and dangers with which it abounds…

…giving some idea of the weather in that remarkable channel the little Minch; to describe the sudden changes from a quiet calm to a tempestuous raging sea, that will prepare the navigator for what he is to expect there…

…it may be first stated that the Little Minch is the name of a channel or strait in contradistinction to the Great one to the northward of it.

…it will be seen that the Little Minch is a channel from thirteen to twenty-four miles wide, occupying a position between the Isle of Skye and the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland, on the West shores of Inverness and Rosshire.

The navigator who has passed through it knows well that it is exposed to the whole fury of the Atlantic Ocean, being entirely open to its southerly gales, and consequently is very seldom in an undisturbed or tranquil state. It is nevertheless the highway of vessels running between the ports of this country and those of Norway, Sweden, Lapland, Prussia, and Russia, carrying timber, tar, tallow, flax, &c. As might be supposed, in so important and extended a trade, vessels of heavy burden, and many smaller ones, frequent its waters in passing to the West coast of Scotland, England, or Ireland.

…the area of water surface which it contains is about 500 square miles: all of which has been minutely sounded, rocks, dangers, and fishing banks carefully searched for, and their places assigned them in the chart.

The greatest depth of water in it is 111 fathoms (666 feet), off Dunvegan Head ; and the least depth at a moderate distance (one mile) from the shores, 18 to 25 fathoms. It does not contain a single known hidden danger, except at its northern extreme, that will be mentioned in its turn.

The Little Minch contains three fishing banks, having depths from 23 to 35 fathoms, the ground composed of sand, shells, and sometimes rock, and perhaps some gravel.

The West side the Minch is very much sheltered from the sea and its westerly gales, by the isles of Harris and North and South Uist, which translated simply means western lands. An entrance from the western sea lies between the two former, named the Sound of Harris. A chart of this sound has been lately compiled by the captain and officers of the Porcupine and Seagull, that gives a good idea of this labyrinth of rocks and shoals, showing the laborious, hazardous, and even dangerous task it must have been to construct. The sound has a good channel, which, with moderate caution, may be used by vessels of any burthen, affording them shelter from the fierce and boisterous Atlantic, and a safe entrance into the comparatively tranquil waters of the Little Minch.

On the western side of the Minch the anchorages are numerous, and much frequented by vessels bound to the southward. Every loch affords a shelter, and the principal are, Lochs Tarbert, Greosavsgh, Stokenisk, and Rodel in the Isle of Harris. Lochs Maddy, Evort, Bahnacaplich, Uskevagh, and Loep, in North Uist; and in South Uist are Lochs Skiport, Ainneart, and Brisdale, with many smaller anchorages for coasters.

We will now ask the reader to turn his attention to the dangers of the navigation and the mode of avoiding them. To the mariner they already have appeared so formidable that he will naturally and anxiously wish to have them at a respectful distance.

The southern entrance to the Minch is quite free from dangers, and the yacht or even the deeply laden barque may fearlessly run into it. But at the north-eastern entrance there are some to be carefully avoided. These are, Sgeir i noe, Sgeir Graitich, Eugenie Rock, (on which a vessel of that name was lately wrecked,) Sgeir na mule, Ghiant South Rock, about 2 1/2 to 3 miles South-westerly of Shiant Isles; this is however, out of the limits of the Little Minch. These are what may be termed hidden dangers, but with the simple yet sufficient directions lately compiled by Captain Otter, of the Porcupine, they may be all easily avoided.

…gales are soon up, and the vessel that is caught in one had better run for snug quarters on their first appearance.

I do not know who the author of this document was, but perhaps those more-familiar with the style of Captain FWL Thomas can suggest whether or not  it might have been him?

On the Tides in the Sound of Harris.

By Henry C. Otter, Esq., R.N., Captain of H.M.S. Porcupine.
The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal Volume 7 1858 p272-276

My interest in the Sound of Harris is evidenced elsewhere in my writings so it will come as no surprise to learn that I was delighted to discover this piece on the peculiarity of one particular aspect of that stretch of water.

The basic principles governing the tides were well-known in the mid-nineteenth century but the details regarding their variation were far from a complete understanding. Indeed, I read an extract from a paper of 1996 that indicates that, in several regards, our comprehension is fuller but remains far from being total.

Tides.—The law of the tidal stream in the Sound of Harris is very remarkable…

It may be generally stated, that in summer, in neap tides, the stream comes from the Atlantic during the whole of the day, and from the Minch during the whole of the night.

In winter, the reverse takes place, the Minch stream flows during the day, the Atlantic during the night.

‘Neap’ refers to tides where the tidal range between high-water and low-water is small. They occur in the week leading to a Full Moon and the week leading to a New Moon.

In spring tides, both in summer and winter, the stream comes in from the Atlantic during the greater part of the time the water is rising, but never exceeds 5¼ hours, and flows back into the Atlantic during the greater part of the fall of the tide.

‘Spring’ refers to tides where the tidal range between high-water and low-water is large. They occur in the week following a Full moon and the week following a New Moon.

The stream from the Atlantic is therefore denominated the flood stream, that from the Minch the ebb stream.

Captain Otter then proceeds to give full details of the variations in the tidal flows according to the season, the particular part of the Sound and the strength and direction of the wind. It is not the details themselves that need concern us, we merely note that they were observed in all their complexity.

Following the article itself there are appended the following Notes to Captain Otter’s Paper on the Tides in the Sound of Harris. By James Stark, M.D. F.R.S.E.

An interesting subject of inquiry is the probable cause of the flow of the current through the Sound of Harris.

To James Stark, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a description in itself is insufficient for, as a man of Science, he seeks causes.

As the tidal wave in its progress from the south flows up both sides of the Western Isles, as far as the Sound of Harris, at the same time, so that at both the eastern and western extremity of the Sound the time of high-water is attained at the same hour, it is evident that the peculiar flow of the current through the Sound cannot be due to the tidal wave…

He then proposes a hypothetical cause for the effects that Captain Otter observed:

If we suppose that the sun exerts a strong attractive power over a large body of water like the Atlantic, which is undeniable, then we should expect that attraction to be greatest, and its effect in raising the level of the water most marked, when the sun was more immediately over that body of water.

This explains the variation between Summer and Winter for:

‘…the great mass of the Northern Atlantic in the same parallel of latitude as Harris, would have a higher level during the day in the summer months than it would have during the night when the sun’s attractive power was removed. As the Minch is, to a certain extent, a confined sea, the current from the Atlantic would, therefore, flow into it all day ; but when the level of the North Atlantic fell during the night, in consequence of the sun’s attractive power being removed, the current would flow from the Minch into the Atlantic. During winter, again, the sun’s rays being most powerful over the Southern Atlantic, as it is now to the south of the equator, the waters of the North Atlantic would be attracted southwards during the day, so that its level would be lower than that of the confined waters of the Minch. Consequently, during the winter months, we should expect that the stream would flow through the Sound of Harris from the Minch into the Atlantic all the day. When the sun’s attractive power, however, over the Southern Atlantic was removed during the night, the waters would fall to their level and allow the North Atlantic to regain its level; so that during the night the current during the winter season would flow through the Sound of Harris from the Atlantic.’

James Stark then extrapolates from these observations in the Sound of Harris and:

On the supposition that this explanation is the true one, it appears to me that it throws light on a phenomenon which has been long remarked, but never satisfactorily accounted for,—• viz., that during one period of the year the highest tides occur when the moon is above the horizon, but during the other half of the year when the moon is below the horizon. Now, if the moon be above the horizon during the summer when the level of the Atlantic is higher than usual from the greater attractive power of the sun, the day tide will be higher than the corresponding night tide. But if the moon be above the horizon during the day, when the Atlantic level is below its mean, as during winter, then the day tide will be lower than the corresponding night tide.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty remarkable discovery stemming from observations in a humble little Sound in the furthest flung reaches of the British Isles!

He ends on an optimistic note hoping for further scientific evidence in support of his theory:

It would be interesting to ascertain, by actual measurements, whether there is any difference in the level of the waters in the Atlantic and Minch, and to what extent that difference exists during day and night, and during summer and winter; and I expect that this will be ascertained during the present year through the zeal of Captain Otter and Lieutenant Thomas, who are both engaged in the survey of the western coast.

One final observation of my own: Is this ‘Lieutenant Thomas…engaged in the survey of the western coast’ none other than the husband of the ‘Mrs Thomas’ who references claim to have been instrumental in the development of Harris Tweed, for she was the wife of a Captain Surveyor in the Navy and 1858 most certainly within the right time-frame?

Oh, and Captain Henry C Otter was one of 9 recipients of an Atlantic Cable Medal, First Class, which were presented on the completion of that first Transatlantic Telegraphy cable in 1858:
and lived in the Manor House, Oban, from 1845, long before he became an Admiral:

Update: I came across this interesting note in a modern account:

Navigational Point of Interest
The chart is interesting (Sound of Harris 2642) in that the lat and long lines are not drawn parallel to the edges of the chart but at about 45° – I can’t recall having used any other Admiralty charts with such an arrangement – but here it does get the various passages through the Sound on one chart. Another peculiarity concerns the tides. At springs the streams tend to run SE for the most part during the rising tide and SE during the falling tide, however, during the summer neaps there is a SE stream throughout the day and NW throughout the night whilst during winter neaps the opposite applies (NW during the day and SE during the night). As the streams may run up to 5 knots it’s worthwhile having a passage plan ready before you make for the channel.

Some Englishmen (and Women) ‘Abroad’ in Harris

Here are those born in England and caught by the snapshot in time of each census.

I have listed the Householder in brackets to give an indication of each person’s situation but have not included full listings for these households for reasons of brevity.

Each decade is followed by brief observations:

Harriet Black, 30, Assistant’s Wife, Scalpay
(Charles Black, 27, Assistant Lighthouse Keeper, b. Edinburgh)

Mary Maclennan, 40, Chelsea Pensioner’s Wife, Flodabay
(Neil Maclennan, 49, Chelsea Pensioner, b. Harris)

John Henry Short, 34, Inland Revenue Officer, Kentulavick
Sarah Short, 29, Inland Revenue Officer’s Wife

Richard H Watson, 32, Fish Merchant, Rodel
Henry G Watson, 12, Errand Boy, Nephew

Only half-a-dozen English-born but illuminating all the same: the Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife in Scalpay and that of a Chelsea Pensioner (who’s Military Record may be explored) in Flodabay, the Tax Man and family on the Sound of Harris and the fish Merchant just a couple of miles down the coast…

Joseph Allan, 36, Butler, Little Borve
Ann Allan, 36, Butler’s Wife
Elizabeth, 14, Daughter
Susan, 10, Daughter
Mary, 5, Daughter

Alexander Bain, 44, Ship Agent, East Tarbert
(John Morrison, 21, Hotel Keeper, b. Harris)

George B Williamson, 34, Master Mariner Merchant Service, Finsbay
Sophia Lauren Williamson, 24, Wife
William Hudson Williamson, 1, Son
William Lambert, 18, Apprentice Seaman
John William Jefferson, 16, Apprentice Seaman

Mary Maclennan, 34, Wife, Flodabay
Jane, 20, Daughter
Catherine, 17, Daughter
William, 16, Son
(Neil Maclennan, 56, Cottar Pension, b. Harris)

Borve Lodge doesn’t surprise us in employing a Butler, and clearly he brought his family sometime after 1856 but I wonder what his three daughters made of their new surroundings by the beatiful beaches of the West Coast? Mr Bain was passing through and hence is found amongst the throng at the Hotel in Tarbert but what of the maritime Williamson’s of Finsbay – did they stay long or was this a fleeting visit? Nice to see our Chelsea Pensioner Neil still surviving in Flodabay but where in England was he, with his wife, when his children were born?

Anne Braden, 47, House Maid, Avensrudh Castle
Mary E Eliot, 16, Visitor, Niece, Avensrudh Castle

Mary Maclennan, 60
Catherine, 25, Domestic Servant, Daughter
William, 23, Fisherman, Son

Jane Maclennan, 27, Wool Weaveress

The castles I have touched-upon before but the transcriptions are confusing and somewhat unhelpful. Sadly, Neil appears to have passed away but his family remain, presumably in Flodabay?
Elizabeth Covell, 32, General Servant, Castle North Harris

Lucy Macaulay, 32, (Unemployed) Gamekeeper’s Wife, North Harris
Robert G Macaulay, 4 months, Son
(Murdo Macaulay, 66, Gamekeeper, b Harris – Lucy’s Father-in-Law)

John Stewart, 5, Son, Kentulavick
(James Stewart, 22, Physician and Surgeon, b Fortingal, Perthshire

A contrast appears here between those serving the North Harris Estate and one providing an altogether different kind of service to the people. Little Robert G Macaulay was born when his Father was working in England, where he probably met his wife Lucy, but now the baby is at his grandparents home in Harris. I wonder whether he followed in his forebears footsteps and also became a Gamekeeper? Down South, little John Stewart’s father, whose age is probably 32?, is a Physician and Surgeon but where, I wonder, did he carry out his observations and operations?

Christina Macaulay, 16, Schoolmaster’s Daughter, Obb
(Peter Macaulay, 55, Schoolmaster, b. Perthshire)

Margaret Mckellar, 23, Hotel Keeper’s Daughter, No 2 East Tarbert
(Daniel Mckellar, 53, Hotel Keeper, b. Inverary, Argyll

John Stewart, 15, Scholar, No 15 West Tarbert
(James Stewart, 40, Physician and Surgeon, b. Aberfeldy, Perthshire

Sir John Carstairs McNeill, 60, Major-General Equerry to the Queen, aboard the Dunara Castle

Mr Macaulay who taught in Obb clearly travelled during his pedagogic career and I wonder whereabouts in England he was teaching in 1875 when Christina was born? Which hostelry did Daniel Mckellar serve when Margaret appeared in 1868? And where were James Stewart’s patients when John was born in 1876?

I have received information (for which I am extremely grateful), from a gentleman who is researching the history of Borve Lodge, telling me that Daniel Mackellar ‘was the proprietor of the Harris Hotel immediately prior to Tommy Cameron.’ It would appear, anecdotally, that Mr Mackellar was perhaps a precursor of the ‘Basil Fawlty’ school of hotel management.

These snapshots raise so many such questions, which is why I enjoy exploring them so much!

Milne Lothian, 12, Scholar, Nephew, Obbe
(Jessie Macleod, 48, Nurse and Midwife, b. Harris)

Christina Mackenzie, 25, Housekeeper, Daughter
(Peter Macaulay, 66, Retired Teacher, b. Killin, Perth)

We met Jessie Macleod when I investigated the Midwives of Harris but her Nephew’s name intrigues me.
I may pursue him later.

We end with the Retired Schoolmaster Peter Macaulay, remaining in Harris with his married daughter keeping house for him, the final image from these little windows on the world of the English-born in Harris…

Connected Communities – 19th Century Style

160 years ago, in 1850, the dream of connecting communities separated by sea with telegraph cable became a reality.

The first of these connections in the Western isles was laid in 1872 between Loch Ewe, on the mainland of Scotland to Branahuie Bay, Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis. This 32.5 Nautical mile (Nm) line, like it’s followers, contained just a single conductor. This allowed the land-linked isles of Lewis and Harris to communicate with the the British mainland.

It took a dozen years before the next coupling was established in 1884 linking the island of South Uist the 16.5 Nautical miles to its southerly neighbour, Barra. This allowed communications from Barra all the way to North Uist via Benbecula (although the nature of the other relatively minor links required are sadly not recorded). Evidence to the Napier Commission in 1883 explained the importance of this link.

A couple of years later in 1886 the islands finally became fully connected with the establishment of the 11.5 Nm Port E(i)sgein, Harris to North Uist link.

Thus, a mere 36 years after the advent of this new technology, some of the remotest communities in the British Isles established electrical communications both within the isles themselves, to the British Isles and thence across the Globe.


Serving King & Country…

The 7,267 ton merchant ship Tahsinia was completed in 1941 by William Doxford & Son Ltd of Sunderland. She joined the fleet of the Anchor Line (Henderson Bros) Ltd in Glasgow and was put under the charge of 51 year-old Captain Charles Edward Steuart.

On the 28th September 1943 she left Colombo,Sri Lanka (having sailed from Calcutta) en route to the UK via Aden with over 7,000 tons of cargo, including tea, manganese ore and pig iron. She had no escort.

Fregattenkapitan Ottoheinrich Junker, the 38 year-old captain of the Monson Boat U-532 was patrolling the waters North-East of the Maldive Islands when, on the 1st October, he first torpedoed the Tahsinia and then sunk her with gunfire. She was the third of his 8 victims and he was duly rewarded with the Iron Cross, 1st Class.

Captain Steuart, his 39 crewmen and 8 gunners all survived. On 6th October, 23 of them mad landfall on Mahdu Atoll in the Maldives from where they were taken to Colombo by an Indian dhow. The remaining 25, including Captain Steuart, were picked up by the British merchant ship Nevasa some 10 miles West of Alleppey Lighthouse. They had been in their lifeboats for a whole week. The Nevasa took them to Bombay, arriving there on the 11th October 1943.

On the 7th December 1945, 54 year-old Charles Edward Stuart died in the Western Infirmary, Glasgow. The causes listed on his Death Certificate are Subacute nephritis, Uraemia and Cardiac failure. That the true cause was the damage wrought by those 7 days in an open boat in the Indian Ocean is testified by his listing on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site which records his final resting place in the Glasgow Crematorium.

However, that is not quite the end of the story because 3rd Office Steuart had also been injured in WWI as a result of which he met a hospital nurse Louisa Ogg Hall who, although 11 years his senior, he married on 16th February 1918 in Aberdeen.

Years earlier, a family holidaying in Aberdeenshire had a gravely ill son and the call went out ‘for the best nurse in the Land’. Whether Louisa was indeed the best in the Land, or merely the best available locally, is not known, but it was she who was despatched to look-after the sickly child.

It was, apparently, touch-and-go whether he would survive but, due in no small part to the care of his nurse, he recovered.

His grateful parents rewarded Louisa with a brooch which now resides in Canada.

The little boy’s name was Albert, but he is better-known to us as George VI.

Captain Steuart was always known in our family as ‘Uncle Charlie’ but is was in fact Louisa who was my Father’s 1st Cousin on his mother’s side. Upon Louisa’s death in 1951, my aunt in Canada inherited the brooch which is in the form of a monogram bearing the parents initials, G & M

CREST – Official Number 44427 – 47 Net Tonnage – Length 56ft 6in – Beam 13ft

The ‘Crest’ and I go back a long way and I have already written of how I first happened upon her in the register of deaths and of my luck in locating her records all the way across the mighty Atlantic in Newfoundland.

However, I have delayed dissecting that information until now. The spur, the impetus to do so, has been granted me by the serendipitous discovery of an account of her final resting place…

The ‘Crest’ had her keel laid in 1862 in Ramsey on the Isle of Man. She was a wooden ketch, that is to say that she had two masts, and she entered the story of my family when she already had 36 years service under her hull. She had been laid-up in Tobermory following the death of her owner, Alexander Macdonald, and it was from there that Alexander John Kerr rescued her to replace his previous ship ‘Jessie’. I have been unable to discover anything about ‘Jessie’, nor of the ‘Crest’s successor ‘Lady Louisa Kerr’, but on the 6th of August 1896 her Master, John Macdonald, wrote a letter apologising to the Burgh of Tobermory for not having notified them of her movements (or, rather, lack of) during the first half of the year.

I cannot be sure of the date that Alexander John took possession of her but on the 26th October 1896 he (from the SS ‘Alice’ of Stornoway) , together with his 74 year-old father, Malcolm Kerr (from the ‘Jessie’ of Stornoway), and 40 year-old John McLeod (from the SS ‘Clydesdale’ of Glasgow, an 1862 Mail Steamer in MacBrayne’s fleet), set sail from Tobermory and landed in Larne the next day.

There she was loaded (Alas, I know not what with, for nowhere does Alexander record his cargoes!) and on the 14th November set sail for Gairloch, arriving on the 24th. A lighter ‘Crest’ left there on 30th November and made Tarbert on 1st December where her remaining cargo was unloaded. They spent a week in Tarbert, no doubt using the time to visit various relatives on Harris including those in Malcolm’s home township of Direcleit, and then took her the short journey to her new home port of Stornoway on the 8th December where John McLeod was ‘Paid-off’. He and his fellow ‘Able Seaman’ Malcolm have a ‘Report upon Character’ entry ‘For Ability’ and ‘For Conduct’ that Alexander John had to complete. I am delighted to inform you that he gave his father and John McLeod the same (presumably impeccable?) grades!

1897 begins with the well-laden ‘Crest’ (only 20 inches above the sea at her midships!) departing on the 20th January for Belfast which she eventually reaches on the 15th February. On board are the same three men who last sailed her, but Malcolm is now promoted to ‘Mate’ which I suspect was more in recognition of his having been a Ship Master in his own right rather than a reflection of the need to establish a formal naval hierarchy in such circumstances?

At this point, I must introduce my conjecture that Alexander John (no doubt encouraged by Malcolm) demonstrates his dislike of the formality of form-filling for the next voyage sees the trio departing Larne on the 25th February as if sailing from Belfast to Larne somehow didn’t count as something worth recording…

They arrive in Gairloch on the 4th April and the freeboard, which had been 2ft 4in on departure, was down to a mere 1ft 4in upon their arrival. The length of time, together with this alarming evidence of extreme loading, suggests that there had been a wee bit more to this voyage than the record suggests!

Another leap takes place and on the 22nd April they depart Tarbert and take a week to reach Stornoway, presumably due to adverse weather.

In fairness to my relatives record-keeping, there were circumstances in which voyages did not require documenting, these being termed ‘Agreement-Eng. (1) or Eng. (6), but I am still attempting to discover the precise nature of these.

The second half of 1897 sees the Crest undertaking eight separate voyages:

Stornoway July 12 Troon July 22 Empty
Troon July 30 Stornoway Aug 11 Laden
Stornoway Aug 24 Ullapool Aug 25 Part Laden
Ullapool Sep 13 Stornoway Sep 20 Laden
Stornoway Oct 11 Carrick Fergus Nov 1 Empty
Carrick Fergus Nov 10 Lochmaddy Nov 26 Laden
Lochmaddy Dec 3 Tarbert Harris Dec 4 Nearly Laden
Tarbert Dec 7 Stornoway Dec 7 Empty

I am reasonably sure about the three ‘Empty’ voyages as her draught & freeboard are identical on each occasion, albeit that they appear to have reduced the ballast carried, possibly as a result of having chosen to spend a couple of months getting her ship-shape?

The crew of four comprised Master Alexander, Bosun Malcolm, 48 year-old Able-Seaman Malcolm Munro and 16 year-old Murdo Macleod who’s status was simply ‘Boy’. These two were discharged, with apparently excellent Reports, on the 8th of December.

1898 sees Alexander at 24 New Street, Stornoway and the Crest is laid-up from 1st January until the 13th March. On the 14th she leaves for Larne, riding even higher in the water suggesting that father and son had made yet more modifications, no doubt to increase both her speed and her carrying capacity. This time the crew of four includes Able-Seaman John MacPherson and the Boy Donald Macleod, for whom this is his maiden voyage.

They reached Larne on the 24th March and, fully laden, departed on the 5th April for Gairloch which they reached on the 9thApril. A nearly-full Crest left Gairloch on the 18th April and reached Aultbea the same day. On the 24th they were similarly full and headed for Stornoway which they made on the 27th April. The two new crew members are discharged, each marked as ‘VG’ but clearly no-longer required. The 6th May saw them depart for Larne, customarily Empty but with Able-Seaman Malcolm Munro returning, and they reached there on the 15th. By the 29th May they were full and Stornoway bound, attaining home on the 10th June. Malcolm Munro had been employed on another vessel but his return suggests that he was deemed preferable to John Macpherson?

I shall leave the remaining voyages of 1898 for a later entry, encompassing as they do the final journey of Malcolm Kerr, a remarkable man who was born the son of the landless cottar ‘John an Taileur’ in a sea-swept house in the Bays of Harris and became a Stornoway Ship Master…

Cured Herrings for Carloway?

I happenstanced upon a couple of entries on the 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.

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…