The Exmouth - A terrible tragedy on Islay

Exmouth memorial near Sanaigmore BayThe loss of the emigrant ship Exmouth Castle on 28th April, 1847 is one of the most tragic peacetime incidents of all of the Islay shipwrecks. The ship was owned by Mr. John Eden of South Shields and had departed from Londonderry bound for Quebec on Sunday 25th April with two hundred and forty emigrants plus an additional three women passengers and eleven crew aboard. A memorial was erected near Sanaigmore Bay as a reminder of this terrible tragedy. The Gaelic and English text is as follows:

This memorial is dedicated to the memory of 241 Irish emigrants who lost their lives on the 28th April 1847, when the brig 'The exmouth of Newcastle' out of Derry and bound for Quebec Canada at the time of the great famine, was wrecked on the N/W coast of Islay. 108 bodies, mostly women and childeren (63 under the age of 14, and 9 infants) were recovered and are buried under the soft green turf of Traigh Bhan. May their souls rest forever in the Peace of Christ.

Gaelic Text on the monument: Tógadh an leacht seo i gcuimhne na 241 deoraí éireannach a cailleadh ar an 28ú lá d'aibreán 1847, nuair a briseadh an long the exmouth of newcastle ar an toabh thiar thuaidh d'lle agus í ar a bealach ó dhoire cholmcille go québec ceanada, le linn an drochshaoil, fuarthas 108 corrán-mná agus fáisté a mbunus (63 acu faoi bhun 14 bliana d'aois agus 9 naioman) - agus cuireadh iad faoi mhachaire glas na trá báine, mar a luionn slad inniu faoi shuaimhneas agus faoi shiochain bhuan chriost.

The following is an edited account from the Illustrated London News of May 8, 1847: We are sorry to have to record the loss of the ship Exmouth, under very painful circumstances, the loss of life being very great. According to the statement of three sailors, the sole survivors of the wreck, and who arrived in Glasgow on Saturday evening, the Exmouth, sailed from Londonderry for Quebec with a light south west breeze. She had a crew of 11 men (inclusive of the captain Isaac Booth), and about 240 emigrants, consisting principally of small farmers and tradesmen, with their families. Many were females and children going out to join their fathers and protectors, who had already settled in Canada. There were also three cabin passengers, young unmarried ladies of the middle classes, two of them being sisters, on their way to join their relatives at St. John, New Brunswick.

The vessel was registered for 165 passengers; but, as two children count as one adult, and as a very large proportion were under age-there being only about 60 men amongst the passengers - the survivors of the wreck think that the total number of these ill-fated emigrants must have amounted to 240. The ship lost sight of land about four o'clock on Sunday afternoon. The breeze, which had been light in the morning, increased to a gale during the day, and about eleven p.m. it came in terrific squalls, accompanied by heavy torrents of rain. They then furled the fore and main sails. The wind, which had been to the westward at first, veered northerly, and the storm increased in violence, which blew the two top-sails from the bolt-ropes. The crew then commenced to bend other topsails, which they furled; but about three in the morning they were blown from the gaskets. The ship was now driving to the southward and eastward. The reason of the master not standing to the westward, where he would have ample sea room, was for the purpose of attaining some harbour of refuge, where he might repair damages, and replace the sails.

On Monday forenoon the long-boat was unslipped by the force of the seas, which broke over the vessel, and in the course of the same forenoon the bulwarks were stove in, and the life boat washed away. The gale continued with the same violence during the whole of Monday night and Tuesday. About eleven o'clock on Tuesday night (the 27th April), land, and a light, were seen on the starboard quarter, which Captain Booth, at first, took to be the light on the Island of Tory, off the north west coast of Ireland, and, in the belief that he thus had ample sea-room in the course he was steering, he bore along. As he drifted near the land, however, and observed that the light was a flashing, instead of a stationary one, he became conscious of his error and dangerous position, and made every effort to repair it, by bringing the ship farther to the northward and westward; and, with the view of 'clawing' her off the land, the maintopsail and the foretopmast stay sail were set, and the jib half hoisted.

Gaelic Text on the Exmouth MemorialThe effort, however, was an ineffectual one; the ship soon got amongst the broken water, and, at half-past twelve on Wednesday morning, was dashed amongst the rocks. If the above be a correct version of the impression on the captain's mind as to his position-and it is distinctly spoken to by two of the survivors - the result shows that he must have been fully a hundred miles out of his reckoning; but, perhaps, it could not well be otherwise. The sun was obscured all the time by black clouds; the moon was only seen through a heavy haze at intervals, and from these causes it was impossible that any observation could be taken. The light seen was in reality that of Oransa or Oversay, on the point of the Rhinns or Runs of Islay, to the north-west of the entrance of Lochindaal; and the land seen, and on which the brig eventually struck, was the western part of the iron-bound coast of the island.

She went ashore, and after striking once was dashed broadside on alongside the rocks, which rose to the height of the mast-head. She struck violently against the rocks three times, and at the fourth stroke the mainmast went by the board, and fell into a chasm of the rock. The mainmast had been broken into splinters by the fourth collision with the rocks, and this recoiling wave had not only dragged the ship, but the fragments of the mast, which adhered to her by the rigging, further into the sea, and thus cut off from the dense mass of human beings on board every chance of escape. Had the wreck remained in the chasm where it was originally thrown, and from which the three survivors escaped, it might have been used as a bridge by the others; but, unhappily, this last possibility of relief was taken away. There was no cry from the multitude cooped up within the hull of the ill-fated brig; or at least it was unheard, for the commotion of the elements was so furious that the men on the top could scarcely hear each other at the top of their voices.

The emigrants, therefore, must have perished in their berths, as the rocks rapidly thumped the bottom out of the vessel. The three men who had escaped to the rock, so soon as the ship entirely disappeared, searched anxiously for some outlet by which they might reach the mainland; but none such could be found, and they finally took shelter in a crevice, which, however, did not shield them from the rain, which fell heavily all night, and here remained till grey daylight. They then discovered an opening, through which they scrambled to the summit, and after day had fairly broken, they observed a farm house about half a mile distant, Thither they proceeded, and were most hospitably nourished and put to bed. They were thoroughly worn out by exhaustion, not one of the crew having been in bed from the moment the ship left Derry. They were at the same time nearly naked, from having divested themselves of their heavy clothing when the Exmouth struck, and lost part of that which remained when scrambling on the rigging and amongst the rocks.

The hospitable farmer and others apprised by him, went to the scene of the catastrophe, but of course too late to help, and only to gaze on the desolation. Mr. Chiene, Islay's factor, soon heard of the event, and kindly furnished the men with a passage to Glasgow. At the latest date of our advices from Islay, about 20 of the bodies had come ashore. They were principally females, with one little boy amongst them; and as many of them were in their night clothes, the probability is that they were those who had rushed upon deck at the first alarm caused by the striking of the ship.

Exmouth memorial near Sanaigmore Bay
The Exmouth Monument near Sanaigmore Bay

Relevant Links:

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | Walter Campbell | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


Social & Quick Links

About Islay - Places - Nature - History - Whisky - Accommodation - Activities - Travel - Events - Map Navigation


Norman Newton - Islay guide
A small book loaded with gorgeous photo's and practical Information. Lightweight and soft sided makes an ideal companion on Islay.
More Islay books here...