Kenny Mackay and his 10-year-old daughter, Kirsty.

 

SEPTEMBER 2001 - NO. 119

Oldshore teacher helped families of lost fishermen


Letters from a schoolmaster in Oldshoremore which were sent to inform and comfort families on the island of Harris who lost their menfolk in a drowning accident off Cape Wrath have come to light more than 100 years later.

Three letters, written in English in a fine copperplate hand by William Gunn Mackay, a native of Skerray, are dated December 21, 1893 and February 5 and 7 the following year. They record descriptions of four dead fishermen whose bodies were recovered after their fishing boat was smashed to pieces off Sandwood Bay. The body of the fifth member of the crew of the boat was never seen again. Also contained in the letters is a moving description of the funerals of the men, which included a father and his 16-year-old son. The funerals were arranged and paid for by the people of the surrounding district and took place in Oldshoremore where plain stone slabs marking the graves can be seen to this day.

A descendent of the men, Kenny Mackay, of the Harris district of Rhenigidale where they came from, last month visited Oldshoremore and Durness with his wife, Moira, and 10-year old daughter, Kirsty, after receiving copies of the letters.

Mr Mackay, a Gaelic-speaking crofter and former councillor, recalled a lady and her family stopping at his house asking if she could find out when her father had left Rhenigidale. Her father had been just five years old when the family had been uprooted, leaving for Skye to take up a new life on an estate broken up for holdings in Portnalong.

“They came in and I showed them where we were related in the family tree,” explained Mr Mackay, who takes a great interest in the history of the island. They started talking about the boat that got wrecked near Cape Wrath and the woman, who turned out to be related to one of the families involved in the tragedy, said: “I’m quite sure there’s correspondence regarding to that in the old house in Skye”.

It is recorded that the 30ft Barra-registered boat, The Evening Star, from Noster, along with two other slightly bigger boats from nearby Rhenigidale, left Gairloch on a herring fishing expedition in December 1893. According to an account which appeared in the Stornoway Gazette in 1969, the skippers were advised against leaving port by an old shepherd who had pointed out that the “skies looked menacing”. They ignored his advice, sailing out of Gairloch in what they took to be favourable conditions.

“About halfway across the Minch, the wind suddenly changed to a south-westerly storm. The boats were sailing together with the crews trying to keep them close together as best they could and they remained like this until they came into the lee of the Shiant Isles where they lost sight of one another when the visibility was reduced by a snowstorm and heavy sea spray. The boats were now in trouble, with their sails being torn by the violent storm.”

The two other 32ft boats made harbour on the Lewis shore, but the boat of Domhnal Noister (Donald MacInnes of Noster) had by that time disappeared from view. It is thought that one of his men, Roderick Shaw, was washed overboard near the Shiant Isles, as his body was never found, and that Donald had turned the boat around to run with the weather.

Mr Mackay, who walked out to see Sandwood, explained that the bodies of the skipper and his son were found above the high water mark. It is thought that they got ashore alive and managed to gain height above the shoreline where they collapsed, exhausted by their ordeal. The bodies of two other men were found nearby. By sheer coincidence, the gamekeeper and only resident of Sandwood Bay, a man by the name of Farquhar MacRae, recognised the men, having settled in Sandwood after having lived in Harris.

William Mackay, in his letter of December 21 1893, takes up the story: “As soon as the search party made known that two other bodies were recovered, two carpenters set to work to make the coffins, and a third one travelled none miles to lend a hand and at 3.00 am the coffins were finished, beautifully finished with pall and pure linen for shrouds.

“Before daybreak, people turned out in hundreds, many of them in their seaboots, as they had to cross two deep and rapid rivers. The bodies were amidst great and profound silence placed in the coffins, and the march for the burying ground was commenced at noon. The procession reached the burying ground at Oldshore (Asher) at 3.30 pm and both the Established and Free Church Ministers officiated at the burial services.”

The schoolmaster continued: “The relatives of the departed may rest assured that the people here did all that Christian men, and Noble withal, could do. The County Council offered to pay all expenses but the public refused the offer. As they did the best so nobly and willingly and without the hope of a reward on earth, they unanimously resolved to raise money by subscription and pay all expenses themselves”.

The great effort by the people to recover the missing bodies — at first, it was not even known how many men were on board — was also remarked upon by William Mackay.

The men who died at Sandwood were Donald MacInnes (aged about 40), his son Norman MacInnes (16), Angus Shaw (35) and Angus Shaw (21). The two Angus Shaws are believed to have been uncle and nephew.

William Mackay, in his second letter to Harris, wrote that he had been born on December 26 1853. Aged nine, he went to live with his uncle, John Mackay, schoolmaster at Stoer, where he remained for nine years. He then attended Normal School in Edinburgh, after which he completed a training course. His first post was at Invershin; then Lochinver and Oldshore. Before him, an uncle, Hector, had taught at Oldshore. Another uncle, William, taught at Latheron, in Caithness. Mackay described his father, George Gunn Mackay, as a crofter and road contractor, and his own brother, Alex, as a fisherman and owner of a large boat. “I am a very keen fisherman myself,” added the father of six.

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