The Shipwrecks of Islay
Following is a compilation of the book Argyll Shipwrecks, which is written by Peter Moir and Ian Crawford. Peter and Ian granted me permission to use some content and pictures of their book for a page dedicated to Islay's shipwrecks.
The varied region of Argyll spreads across an area covering many miles of the west coast of the Scottish mainland and dozens of islands of the Inner Hebrides. From the Mull of Kintyre in the south to Mull and Coll in the north, the coastline is scattered with hundreds of shipwrecks dating from earliest times, when the Vikings invaded and made many of the islands their own, through the days of the Spanish Armada en the Jacobite rebellions and into modern times, where both World Wars and the continual flow of trading vessels between the islands added further to the underwater collection of shipping history.
The area's proximity to the North Channel, the main artery of shippng between the Western Approaches and the main west coast ports of the Clyde and northern England, the unpredictable tides around many of the islands and the prevailing south west winds have taken a terrible toll on ships from the age of sail, steam and still even on today's modern motor driven vessels.
Islay's position, lying to the north east of the North Channel, and the prevailing on-shore south west winds, have made it the final resting place of hundreds of vessels from the earliest to modern times. The west coast, with its sweeping beaches and sand dunes interspersed by some imposing cliffs is a desolate place when the weather is bad and the wind is from the west or south west. The ferocious tides which sweep past the Rhinns of Islay and the Mull of Oa add another hazard for passing ships. In the narrow sound between Islay and Jura the tides race through at up to five knots at spring tides, yet another difficulty in navigating round the island's coast. Finally the south coast has hundreds of hidden rocks and reefs which guard the entrance to Port Ellen, Islay's main port. In all, it is not an area for the inexperienced or careless seaman.
The chart above clearly illustrates the most dangerous areas being those of strong tidal movements and exposed coastline. Islay is also blessed with clear waters, rich with colourful sealife. There are a number of sites around the headlands at the Rhinns, the Mull of Oa and also in the middle Sound of Islay where exciting drift dives can be experienced, provided you have adequate boat cover. Many of wrecks around Islay lie inshore on exposed coastlines and have been reduced to piles of wreckage although wreck sites such as the Otranto, Thomas, Agate and Belford all provide excellent dives in good conditions.
Below an overview of some of the wrecks on Islay and a detailed account of the events that lead to their stranding.
1781 nt. Steamship
Built by W. Pickersgill, Sunderland.
Launched July 1901.
As the crew of the Air Ministry meteorological ship Weather Recorder set off for their lonely vigil at their station in the North Atlantic they could have no idea of the part they were about to play in a dramatic sea rescue off the coast of Islay. As they steamed through the North Channel with the lights of Londonderry off their port bow, a mayday message crackled from the ship's radio. The Norwegian steamship Veni, en route from Leith to Sfax, North Africa, in ballast, had run aground and was sinking fast. She gave her position as off Conlonsay. It was the early hours of Sunday January 11th, 1948 and a 50mph gale had pushed the ship east of her intended course. She was in fact on the Ballach Rocks, a treacherous, unlit reef lying two miles north of Ardnave Point. Captain Ford on the Weather Recorder sent a message to the Veni telling them that he would be at the scene about 4:30am.
Aboard the Veni Captain Pederson and his twenty seven crew were relieved to hear that help was on its way as their ship, which was badly holed and bumping heavily on the seabed, was gradually slipping off the reef and sinking as she filled with water. As the Weather Recorder approached the area her searchlight was illuminated and directed into the stormy night sky to attract the attention of the Veni's crew. This signal was answered by a series of red flares from the Veni. The crew of the Veni had manned the pumps hoping to stay afloat until the Weather Recorder arrived but, as 4am approached, Captain Pederson decided that he had to get the crew off the ship and into the lifeboats as he believed that his ship was about to go down.
By now the Weather Recorder was only half a mile from the grounded ship and standing by to pick up the shipwrecked crew at daybreak when they could more safely approach the wreck. Thankfully the storm abated somewhat and the crew of the Veni managed to launch the boats without too much difficulty. As the crew scrambled over the side of the ship the bosun and another member of the crew plunged into the water as the ship lurched in the huge swell. The bosun was injured as he crashed against the side of the lifeboat but he and the other seaman were quickly pulled into the waiting lifeboats. When they were all safely in the boats they fired white flares to let Captain Ford know that they were off the ship. The Weather Recorder steamed carefully to within two lengths of the Veni and picked up the crew who, apart from the two injured seaman who had fallen in the water, were none the worse for their adventure.
338t. Steel Motor Vessel
Built by Cochrane and Sons, Selby.
Launched July 1956.
The crews of the two Fleetwood trawlers Wyre Majestic and her sister ship Wyre Defence had planned to spend a last night in Oban before heading south for home. They landed their catch at Oban around lunchtime on the 18th October, 1974 but, as the harbour was particularly busy, they could not get a berth for the night. The two skippers agreed to continue their voyage home directly, planning to head down the Firth of Lorne, west of Scarba and Jura then through the Sound of Islay.
All went well untill they reached the entrance to the Sound of Islay around 7pm that evening. By this time the sun had set and in the growing darkness the Wyre Defence was a couple of miles ahead of her sister ship. The narrow confines of the Sound of Islay, with fiercesome currents which reach 5 knots at times, is not the best passage in the dark but, as high tide was around 8pm, the skippers were unconcerned. It is not clear exactly why the Wyre Majestic went aground but, shortly after entering the Sound and with the bosun at the helm, she ran full speed ahead onto the rocks at Rubha a Mhail.
Her distress call was picked up ashore and the Islay lifeboat was launched from Port Askaig and was quickly on the scene. The Wyre Defence turned back and was also standing by her sister ship. First the lifeboat then the Wyre Defence tried to pull her off but neither could manage it. The Wyre Majestic had a large gash in her and had quickly filled with water and settled heavily on the rocks. Five of her crew were taken off by the lifeboat but the skipper and two others stayed aboard hoping that the salvage tug that had been called out would be able to get her off. The tug arrived the next day but attempts to pull her off the rocks failed. She was abandoned and became a total wreck. The wreck was salvaged to some degree but still sits where she ran aground. It is possible to board her although her structural condition looks extremely unsafe. In recent years the Wyre Majestic has began to break up, no doubt hastened by the strong tides which constantly race around her hull.
12,124gt. Steel steamship
Built by Workman Clark & Co, Belfast.
Launched March 1909.
The Otranto only managed five years service for her owners the Orient Steam Navigation Co., before the outbreak of the First World War. She was requisitioned by the government, converted into an armed merchant cruiser and served throughout the war. On 24th September, 1918, as the war neared its climax, she set sail on her final voyage from New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool. She sailed in convoy HX50 escorted by the US cruisers Louisiana and St Louis and the destroyer USS Dorsey. Captain Ernest W G Davidson and his 362 crew had 665 American troops aboard. On October 1st this compliment was supplemented by the unlucky crew of the French sailing ship Croisine, run down by the Otranto as the convoy, with lights out, sailed straight through a fleet of French fishing vessels. The convoy of thirteen ships, with a total of almost 20,000 troops aboard bound for the battlefield of Flanders, sailed in six columns, each column 3 cables from the next. The Otranto was the leading ship in column 3. Column 4 to the north was led by the SS Kashmir, an 8,985 ton liner of the P&O line.
The voyage across the North Atlantic went well until, as they approached the North Channel, they encountered a violent gale which built up enormous waves and shipped the sea into streaks of white foam and spray. The convoy had been navigating for some days by dead reckoning as the visibility had not allowed any sightings to be taken. On the morning of the 6th October, through the murk, the officers aboard both vessels spotted land. The master of the Kashmir rightly identified the land and the breakers that were less than two miles of his port bow, as the coast of Islay. The officer of the Watch aboard the Otranto thought that the land he could see, little over a mile of his starboard bow, was Inishtrahull. Both ships’ helms were put hard over and their inside screws stopped to steer away from the danger seen, the Kashmir to starboard, the Otranto to port, tragically turning them towards each other. The Kashmir turned quickly but the Otranto laboured in the huge seas. At 8:45am the two ships collided, the Kashmir striking the Otranto amidships on her port side almost at right angles despite the attempts by both crews to avoid the collision by reversing rudders and engines. The two ships, both badly damaged, quickly drifted apart and lost each other in the haze. The Kashmir survived but the Otranto was doomed. Water poured through a huge hole in her side soon extinguishing her fires and, despite letting go her huge anchors, she drifted helplessly in the direction of the rocky Islay coast.
HMS Mounsey, commanded by lieutenant F W Craven, was the first ship to answer the SOS calls from the Otranto and by ten o’clock she was in sight of the stricken ship. It is difficult to imagine the scene during the rescue which followed. The massive liner dwarfing the destroyer with both rearing and plunging in the enormous swell and the disciplined lines of US troops waiting for their chance to jump onto the heaving deck of the Mounsey. The ships came together four times, the Mounsey smashing against the Otranto’s sides. Each time wave after wave of men jumped for their lives. Many fell between the ships’ sides and were crushed or drowned while many others were killed or badly injured as they crashed onto the destroyer’s deck. The Mounsey then sailed for Belfast with 596 men aboard and in great danger of sinking herself due to the overcrowding. This left around 400 still aboard the now rapidly sinking Otranto. She had hit bottom less than a half mile from the shore and, as she was in danger of breaking up, Captain Davidson gave the order to abandon ship, only 16 were to survive the swim to the shore. The next day the bodies of the victims, including Captain Davidson, were washed ashore along the west coast of the island. They were buried in a special burial ground above Machir Bay overlooking the site of the loss of their ship.
It was the worst convoy disaster in the whole of the war. At the subsequent inquiry both ships were found equally to blame for the incident.
These are only a few of the stories that lead to the disasters which took place near or on Islay's coast. Peter's and Ian's book describes in total 41 of these fascinating stories on Islay alone. Below is a list of the wrecks that they cover in their book, complete with the vessels name, the date it was lost and the location.
|Name of Vessel
||Rubha Ghlamraidh - west coast of Islay
||Cill Cleit - north of Frenchman's Rocks
||Near the Mull of Oa - Sgeirean Buidhe
||North west coast of Islay near Ballinaby
||Sgeir Traigh - North entrance Sound of Islay
||Tormisdale - west coast of Islay
||Mull of Oa
||near Port Ellen
||Mull of Oa near Stremnish
||Smaull point - west coast of Islay
||Entrance of Kilchiaran Bay
||Opposite Port Askaig - Sound of Islay
||south of Saligo Bay
||Eilean a'Chuirn off south east Islay
||Mull of Oa
||south west of Port Charlotte
||Mull of Oa
||north side of Frenchman's Rocks
||Stremnish near the Mull of Oa
||half a mile from Port Ellen harbour
||Eilean Imersay near Ardbeg
||Entrance Port Ellen harbour
||rocks near Ardbeg
||Kilchoman Bay - Islay's Whisky Galore
||a reef near Port Ellen
||east side Mull of Oa
||South of Machir Bay
||Mull of Oa - more information
||Mull of Oa
||south of Nave island
||a reef opposite Ardbeg
||near Eilean a'Chuirn off the south west coast
||one mile south of Lossit Bay
||6 miles south of the Mull of Oa - more information
||Ballach Rocks north of Ardnave
||near Bunnahabhain - Sound of Islay
Relevant Links: Otranto and Tuscania The tragedy from 1918 written down by Lord George Robertson.
Exmouth Tragedy The loss of the emigrant ship Exmouth Castle on 28th April 1847 is one of the most tragic incidents on Islay.
I would like to thank Peter Moir and Ian Crawford very much for letting me use this fascinating material. I can imagine that, after reading this page, you are interested in getting this book yourself, something I can highly recommend. This book is available online via their website www.scottishshipwrecks.com
1 Cedar Walk
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Tel: 01475 520141
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