The Kessack Ferry-Boat Fatality

’Twas on Friday the 2nd of March, in the year of 1894,
That the Storm Fiend did loudly laugh and roar
Along the Black Isle and the Kessack Ferry shore,
Whereby six men were drowned, which their friends will deplore.

The accident is the most serious that has occurred for many years,
And their relatives no doubt will shed many tears,
Because the accident happened within 200 yards of the shore,
While Boreas he did loudly rail and roar.

The ferry-boat started from the north or Black Isle,
While the gusty gales were blowing all the while
From the south, and strong from the south-west,
And to get to land the crew tried their utmost best.

The crew, however, were very near the land,
When the gusts rose such as no man could withstand,
With such force that the ferry-boat flew away
From her course, down into the little bay,

Which opens into the Moray Firth and the River Ness,
And by this time the poor men were in great distress,
And they tried again and again to get back to the pier,
And to save themselves from being drowned they began to fear.

And at last the poor men began to despair,
And they decided to drop anchor where they were,
While the Storm Fiend did angry roar,
And the white-crested billows did lash the shore.

And the water poured in, but was baled out quickly,
And the men’s clothes were wet, and they felt sickly,
Because they saw no help in the distance,
Until at last they blew the fog-horn for assistance.

And quickly in response to their cry of distress,
Four members of the coastguard, in coastguard dress,
Whose station overlooked the scene, put off in a small boat,
And with a desperate struggle they managed to keep her afloat.

Then the coastguards and boat drifted rapidly away,
Until they found themselves in the little bay,
Whilst the big waves washed o’er them, again and again,
And they began to think their struggling was all in vain.

But they struggled on manfully until they came upon a smaller boat,
Which they thought would be more easily kept afloat,
And to which the hawser was soon transferred,
Then for a second time to save the ferrymen all was prepared.

Then the coastguards drifted down alongside the ferry-boat,
And with great difficulty they kept themselves afloat,
Because the big waves were like mountains high,
Yet the coastguards resolved to save the ferrymen or die.

Then at last the ferrymen got into the coastguard boat,
And they all toiled manfully to keep her afloat,
Until she was struck as she rose on the crest of the wave,
Then each one tried hard his life to save.

And the poor men’s hearts with grief were rent,
For they were thrown into the merciless sea in a moment,
And out of the eight men two have been saved,
All owing to their swimming abilities, and how they behaved.

Oh! it must have been a fearful sight,
To see them striving hard with all their might
To save themselves from a watery grave,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh and angry did rave.

Melancholy Disaster at Kessock Ferry

Six Men Drowned

Five Widows and Twenty-Six Children Left

The most distressing accident that has happened at Inverness, it is believed, within living memory, took place in the Kessock Ferry on Friday evening, involving the loss of six lives – three coastguardsmen and three ferrymen. The news of the disaster spread like wildfire and as the details gradually became known it is no exaggeration to say that the people spoke together with bated breath, the greatest sympathy being expressed for the widows and little ones who, to the number of twenty-six, were at one fell swoop deprived of their breadwinners. The sympathy thus created has since developed into acts, and as will be seen from the annexed report of  a large and influential meeting of inhabitants in the Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon, the most laudable efforts are being put forth to alleviate the distress and suffering – the natural consequence of such a calamity – in the homes of the bereaved. Our worthy member, Mr Beith, was one of the earliest to recognise the claims of the widows and orphans in this respect and telegraphed instructions to put his name down for £25 to any relief fund that might be started. But to the details of this great disaster. It is generally known that Kessock Ferry, which separates Inverness from the Black Isle portion of Ross-shire is most susceptible to the effects of wind and tide, and by the squally wind of fitful violence which suddenly sprung up about six o’clock on Friday evening a somewhat heavy sea was raised. Notwithstanding the raging of the elements however, the boats which have the respective piers of North and South Kessock simultaneously every hour, proceeded on this eventful journey. The North going boat got safely harboured, but not so with the other, which was manned by Murdo Macleod (skipper), John Mackenzie, John Macdonald, and Angus Mackinnon. Having the worst of the gale, which was intensified by a fast ebbing tide, she missed the pier and drifted into the little bay which lies between the Ferry line and the Tail of the Bank. Repeated endeavours were made by the crew to tack against the wind and so reach their destination. These, however, proved unavailing, and the skipper, Murdo Macleod, a man of 52 years, and who had been employed on the ferry for the last fourteen years or so, realising the gravity of the situation, cast anchor. The crew were, however, unable to keep the boat’s head to the gusty winds and being tossed about by the angry waves she drifted broadside on, with the result that the sea broke over her, comparatively speaking, in tremendous volume. Entertaining grave fear for their safety, although the situation was not altogether an unprecedented one, the ferrymen signalled for assistance, and in response to the cry of distress, four coastguardsmen and Mr Andrew Ross, North Kessock Inn, under the command of Divisional Officer Hobbs, put out in the small ferry boat. The other coastguardsmen were Raband Staite, Charles Lovejoy and James Kilby. The wind and current, however, carried the rescuing party past the belaboured ferry-boat and a landing had to be affected about the mouth of the River Ness. The crew returned and took another and smaller boat, which they launched more to windward, and this time they were successful in reaching the pilot-cutter Vanguard., which Ross boarded and made fast a hawser. With the rope thus attached they succeeded in reaching the anchored ferry-boat and the crew of four men, no passengers being on board, were rescued. An effort was now made by pulling hand over hand to gain the Vanguard, with the evident intention of taking refuge in the larger craft, where shelter could be obtained. The peril of the situation at once struck the occupants of the over-laden boat as well as its commander; and their gravest fears were soon realised. “Will she weather it?” shouted Hobbs, and the response was “I am afraid not.” The men were then ordered to slacken the hawser, and thus permit the boat to drift back to the ferry-boat, but a few yards away. But it was too late. The boat, over-laden and water-logged, had already begun to sink by the stern when a large wave caught her bow and capsized her. The eight men were thrown into the tempestuous waters and of that number only two managed to regain the shore – one by swimming and the other by clinging to the upturned boat. Ross, who, fortunately for him, was on the Vanguard, witnessed the heartrending scene, but was helpless to render assistance; while on shore no idea that such a calamity had befallen the rescuers and rescued until Lovejoy, who swam ashore, reached the house of Mr Macdonald, the lessee of the Ferry, and communicated the sad news. He was much exhausted, and did not know whether any of the others had saved themselves or not. Immediate search proved that only one member of the frail craft’s living freight reached land, namely, Angus Mackinnon, who drifted ashore by clinging to the keel of the upturned boat.

Scottish Highlander, 1st March 1894

Notes

The Beauly Firth is a half-mile wide stretch of water that lies to the North of Inverness, separating the city from the Black Isle peninsula. A ferry was first recorded plying these waters in the 15th century, continuing to do so (in one form or another) until the opening of a bridge in 1982. One of the darkest days in that long history was 23rd February 1894.

At this time, the ferry comprised two sailing boats (as shown in the picture on the right, which was taken in 1896) operating from the villages of North and South Kessock, which face eachother on opposite banks of the Beauly Firth. Each hour, the boats would exchange places, each manned by a crew of four men.

At 6pm on the fateful night the two boats set off to cross the water, despite the storm which had already started to blow along the Firth. The Northbound boat reached its anchorage without incident, but the Southbound one missed South Kessock pier and drifted into a small bay. At first, the ferrymen attempted to tack into the wind to reach their intended destination, but to no avail. Skipper Murdo Macleod, 52 years old and a veteran of fourteen years on the ferry, ordered his men to drop anchor and try to sit out the storm. However, waves were soon crashing over the boat, causing the crew to signal to the shore for help.

The signal was spotted from the Coastguard station which stood in South Kessock near to the ferry pier. Divisional Officer William Hobbs was quick to organise a rescue party comprising three of his men and a civilian named Ross. The five men climbed into a small boat and set out to the relief of the ferry. One of their number, Charles Lovejoy, an athletic 28-year old described as “a typical example of the British tar”, tells us what happened next:

We pulled for the distressed ferry boat, which lay a bit beyond the pilot boat Vanguard. It was our intention to make a hawser fast on board the Vanguard. As we passed the pilot boat, we tried to do so, but failed owing to the heavy sea. We were swept past the pilot boat and the distressed vessel. Our boat drifted round to the point of the towing path, which is known as the Tail of the Bank. The boat was beached there. We proceeded round the towing path, and, taking another boat, we launched it well to the windward of the boat in distress. We managed to put Andrew Ross aboard the pilot with the end of a hawser. Drifting down by the hawser, we succeeded in reaching the ferry boat, and took the four men who were in it aboard our boat.

Having already seen their would-be rescuers drift powerlessly past them, the ferrymen must have been pretty frantic by the time the rescue boat actually reached them. As they clambered aboard, however, their problems were far from over. Ferryman Angus Mackinnon takes up the story:

I was the last to leave the ferry boat, and on entering the small boat I sat on the weather side beside Mr Hobbs, the divisional officer, who was in command. On starting away, the small boat moved unsteadily against the waves. The sea was running very high. Mr Hobbs cried out “Will she weather it?” and one of the coastguardsmen replied “No sir, I am afraid not.” Then, said Mr Hobbs, “Slack astern.” A rope at this time had been attached to a pilot sloop, the Vanguard, and it seemed Mr Hobbs’ intention to get back into the ferry boat. Mr Hobbs gave his orders with great coolness. The water, however, was rapidly coming into our boat, and young Macdonald the ferryman cried out – “The boat is sinking under your feet, Mr Hobbs.” In a twinkling the boat turned over, and we were all thrown into the water. I got hold of the upturned boat, and in this way drifted to the shore. I did not see any other men. I am afraid they became entangled in the ropes. My poor brother-in-law was an excellent swimmer, but I suppose, poor fellow, he got entangled among the ropes like the others and was thus unable to strike out for himself. I did not see Lovejoy in the water; it was only after I came ashore that I knew that he had saved himself by swimming.

Lovejoy had indeed saved himself, and gave us this account of it:

A tremendous sea struck the boat and capsized her. I was sitting in the bow, and it seemed to me as if the bow lifted high in the air. The port quarter went under first, as I best remember. We were all thrown into the water. I struck out for the Coastguard Station, knowing the wind and tide would drift me down to the point of the towing path. I swam about 200 yards, and then scrambled through the water a distance of fifty yards. When I found myself about knee deep, I knelt down and got hold of the seaweed. Regaining my breath, I made the best effort I could to walk along the towing path, at the same time crying for help. I failed to get any response from the roadway, and the thought struck me to go into Mr Macdonald’s house, he being lessee of the Ferry. I saw Mr Macdonald, and let him know what happened. He took me to my own house, and then went away. In two hours I had quite recovered, and I gave a report to the Divisional Officer.

Mackinnon and Lovejoy were the only survivors. The other six occupants of the rescue boat – three ferrymen and three coastguards – perished in the waves. All but one of the dead men were married, and the disaster left a total of 26 children fatherless.

Such a tragedy was, of course, an ideal subject for McGonagall’s pen. He doesn’t disappoint, with even the Tay Bridge Disaster’s “storm fiend” putting in a repeat appearance. The misspelling of Kessock as Kessack was a printer’s error – “There’s no man more likely to make mistakes than the printer” remarked McGonagall to a journalist friend (though one wonders whether the fault was actually with his handwriting!).

One error he couldn’t lay at the door of his printer, however, was that he dated the disaster a full week after it actually happened. Presumably he was somehow confused by the dates given in the papers. 1894 was a difficult year for the poet, with ill-treatment and lack of money driving him to leave Dundee for ever later in the year. We can perhaps forgive him for being a little distracted.

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