Lost At Sea

Despite the current lockdown restrictions Strathnaver Museum is continuing to carry out community research projects and are appealing for members of the public to submit their stories about those ‘Lost at Sea’ along the north Sutherland coast.

As part of the Year of Coast and Waters Strathnaver Museum will be staging a digital exhibition ‘Lost at Sea’ exploring the stories of those who lost their lives at some of the wreck sites to be found along the north coast. These include the SS Ashbury (1945), fishing disasters at Kirtomy (1910), the 1890 storm which saw losses of fisherman from Port Vasco, Portskerra and Melvich, alongside the Portskerra drownings of 1848 and 1918 and ‘The Thorvaldsen’ (1858).

The most recent disaster the team are researching is that of the SS Ashbury. It represented the worst loss of a merchant ship during World War II not due to enemy action. The steamer foundered and sank at the mouth of Talmine Bay with the loss of the 42 strong crew on 8th January 1945.

The SS Ashbury had been traveling as part of a convoy from Lochewe, but falling behind, it became unmanageable in heavy seas. Twenty-six bodies were recovered with fourteen of the crewmen buried in war graves in Thurso Cemetery.

In 1910 the village of Kirtomy was devastated when a fishing boat was swamped within sight of the harbour. Three boats had been out taking in their creels when they were caught in a sudden storm. Two boats were able to make the safety of the harbour but the third, the “Rival”, sailing against the storm was swamped and sank. All five crewmen were lost that day leaving behind four widows and five children.

One of the worst local fishing disasters occurred twenty years previously when a storm swept into Scotland catching many fishing boats out at sea. Three boats from this area, the ‘Excelsior’, ‘Lively’ and the ‘Diadem’ were lost along with the lives of 20 of their crew.

Nearly all of the seven crewmen on the local boat “Excelsior” came from the small hamlet of Port Vasco. The other two boats the “Lively” and the “Diadem” were crewed by fishermen from Portskerra and Melvich. A memorial on the road to Portskerra harbour commemorates the local fishermen who tragically lost their lives at sea in the storms of 1848, 1890 and 1918.

The museum holds 3 objects relating to one of the earliest tragic shipwreck stories to be explored as part of the research project.

The Thorvaldsen with a crew of 12 and 2 passengers left Cardiff for Trondheim in Norway with a cargo of coal on 26th February 1858. The 300 ton Norwegian barque was captained by Hans Berg accompanied by his English wife Eleanor, who was one of the passengers.

From leaving port the ship was beset by heavy gales which led to them mistakenly thinking they were off the coast of Shetland when in fact they were heading towards Strathy Point. On the evening of 9th March Captain Berg, seeing land, ordered the anchor to be let go. Unfortunately, this action resulted in the ship swinging round broadside, her mast going over, tearing out the ships side and breaking the hull in three pieces.

The scene was witnessed by a crowd on shore but with the nearest boat, a coble, being 4 miles distant a rescue attempt was delayed. Four local men bravely rowed the coble to the stricken ship but it took three attempts before they managed to reach and bring ashore the 4 exhausted survivors. Captain and Mrs Berg are buried in Strathy graveyard.

The Board of Trade awarded bronze medals to the rescue party, one of the recipients was Angus Macdonald. His grandson, the late Angus Macdonald of Bettyhill, donated the medal to Strathnaver Museum.

The figurehead of ‘The Thorvaldsen’, sculpted by Hans Michelsen (1789-1859), a student of Bertel Thorvaldsen, an internationally famous Danish sculptor based in Rome, is displayed in Strathnaver Museum.

The final item relating to ‘The Thorvaldsen’ is timbers from the hull of the ship which forms the roof over the croft house display. The cruck frame was retrieved from a croft house in Strathy when it was renovated in 1985. Several of the neighbouring croft houses had adapted parts of the hull to use as roof timbers. This demonstrates just how important the reuse of materials would have been for people on the coast, particularly for scare materials such as wood.

Researcher and Strathnaver Museum Director, Robert Mackay said: “There are many fascinating stories attached to these wreck sites and we are keen to explore these further. We would like to hear from descendants who may have personal family reminiscences about the men and their loss so we can uncover the stories behind the names”.

If you have a family story about these events Strathnaver Museum would like to hear from you. Please contact the team at genealogy@strathnavermuseum.org.uk to submit your stories or to get more information.

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