The Drowning of the Harvesters

Bàthadh nam Buanaichean

Although travel by land to and from the Ross (of Mull) and Iona was long and difficult, sea voyages there were not uncommon and, in fact, many Highlanders travelled south by sea for the harvests in the Lowlands in order to obtain ‘hard cash’ to enable them to meet their ever-increasing rents and to enjoy some minimal improvements in their ‘quality of life’!

The sailing boat or smack, The Mary, was built in 1814 in Tobermory and could sail comfortably with 50 passengers. On 9th August 1822, the owner, Allan MacInnes of Iona, sailed for Greenock with 40 or more paying passengers most intending to work on the harvests in the Lowlands. With favourable winds, the journey would take just over two days using the Crinan Canal recently built in 1801.

The Mary left the islands heading south on the Friday in fairly rough weather although not without losing at least one potential passenger who refused to sail on her having seen a cormorant alight on the boat earlier – a reputed harbinger of bad luck in those times! The first night was spent in the shelter of the Crinan Canal and, next day with fine weather, progress was swift through the Canal, round Bute and then into the Firth of Clyde but, as they could not reach Greenock that night, the master heaved to about three-quarters of a mile off the Cloch Lighthouse near Gourock and the passengers settled down as dusk fell just before 9 o’clock that fateful Saturday night.

That same evening just after 6 o’clock, the ‘Hercules’ (a Steam Tug of 70 tons built in 1822 by Robert Steele and Co Greenock) set sail from the Broomielaw in Glasgow with around 50 passengers on an excursion to Campbeltown via Ailsa Craig calling in at Greenock. As darkness fell, the captain (Mr Blackwood) retired to his cabin with two passengers to “find his compass” after leaving another steam tug boat captain (William Russell) in charge and two seamen (McArthur and McLarty) on lookout at the bow.

Although the Mary was spotted by the lookouts “some distance away”, the Greenock Advertiser reported:-

“While the persons on The Mary were striving with oars to move her, the Hercules came straight forward and hit her right through the stern, the sails being placed round the paddles, and she immediately went to pieces. At this awful crisis many were asleep, and none had the least intimation of approaching danger. Several by the shock of the concussion went to the bottom; and in the moment the water was covered with the unfortunate people, chiefly females. The cries of the poor people were distinctly heard from the shore, but the generous attempt to afford them relief proved unavailing; in their agony they grasped one another; and many of them, by means of their garments, kept floating for a considerable time, laying hold of a piece of wreck; but by the time the steam boat people stopped their engine, and sent their yawl, all that could be picked up alive were four; and another was found dead floating on the water.”

There were only four survivors - Catherine MacLean, Janet MacLean, Duncan MacCallum and Angus Campbell (the last of these a survivor too of the Battle of Waterloo who would go on to remarry and live to a ripe old age of 95+ dying in Bunessan in the 1870s).

In the aftermath of the news percolating slowly north:-

“A week later, some of the relations of the persons who perished in the smack that was run down by the Hercules steam boat on the preceding Saturday commenced trawling for their bodies, and succeeded that night in finding the spot where the catastrophe took place; but it being too late to get up the vessel, they placed a buoy over her, and next morning proceeded to effect their purpose, which they accomplished in a short time, when they found nine bodies, one man (the master) and eight women. It was understood there were more on board, but in getting the smack up, they parted from her. Four of the sufferers were found in the forecastle, where they had probably been asleep when the accident happened; the others were clinging to different parts of the rigging. They were all brought to town on Sunday and interred last night in the same burying ground with those who were found at the time the vessel went down. A deputation of the young relations arrived here from the place of their residence on Monday, just as the dressers were in the act of adjusting the coverings of those who had been carried to the Infirmary. The scene of mourning which here took place was truly heart-rending: some lamenting in wild distraction over the remains of a dearly beloved parent, while others, perhaps, with yet more agony, regretted the disappointment of not finding their relation even in any condition. Their conduct was of such a touching nature, as quite to unman the feelings of those engaged in the necessary duties of humanity to poor sufferers.”

Most, if not all, of the bodies of the 42 islanders who drowned were interred in a cemetery in Gourock after townsfolk raised money for the burials - but without headstones or any formal markers. The cemetery has long been converted into a park and high-rise flats, so no memorial exists of the passing of those "harvesters"!

The surnames of the lost harvesters included Black, Beaton, Lamont, MacCallum, MacCormick, MacDonald, MacFarlane, MacDougall, MacLucash and Stout (son of Shetland folk brought to Kintra to teach long line fishing in the 1790s). There were 14 males and 28 females two of whom were only 13 years old. At least 47 orphans were left on the Ross and Iona, totally reliant on the good will and benevolence of their families and the local communities.

On the mainland, James Anderson, Glasgow Deputy Procurator Fiscal and Baillie for the Firth of Clyde, actively pursued a prosecution for Culpable Homicide, getting witness statements from 14 crew and passengers of the Hercules and, by means of Oban magistrates, from the four survivors from the Mary (none of whom spoke English all that well nor could read or write). As one might expect, there were conflicting views of the tragedy but the Hercules' deckhand Archibald MacArthur at least says "....that it was perhaps the fault of both parties - the one not having discovered the other in sufficient time".

However, the Office of the Lord Advocate of Scotland concluded in September, 1822 that:-

"It sufficiently appears from the Precognition that the crew of the Hercules were sober, and sufficiently attentive to their duty at the moment when the unfortunate accident occurred, but as it seems fully established that the vessel which was run down was observed from the steam boat a very considerable time before the two vessels came into contact, there was an obvious neglect in not sooner altering the course of the steam boat, by which the accident would have been prevented. - Decerning it the duty of steam boats to keep clear of other vessels, and recollecting how quickly such steam boats can alter their courses, I think that the country will not be satisfied if in a case where there was a certain degree of neglect and where the consequence has been the loss of 42 lives no trial was to take place. The result will certainly be an acquittal but that is of no consequence. - The relatives of the parties deceased will be satisfied that the case has not been neglected - the real facts connected will be made known to the public and the Masters & Crews of steam vessels will be taught that instances of mismanagement or neglect upon their part are in no case to be past over. The parties to indict are William Russell, Archibald McArthur, and Archibald McLarty."

In April 1823, the local Court of Judiciary threw out the indictments on the defence premise that the court had no jurisdiction over the deaths. In May, the High Court in Glasgow upheld this and the defendants were released without trial.

Thus, the 42 Gaelic-speaking islanders who lost their lives in this tragedy had no 'day in court', no Justice and no memorial to their passing save the sorrow and laments of their Gaelic kinfolk on the islands!

Tom Aitchison

Images at the bottom of page: 'Martineau Potato Harvest 1888', 'The Cloch Lighthouse by John Knox' and a '19th century steam boat'.

The following is a list of the drowned harvesters. An * denotes that they were known to have lived in a particular township/location on the Ross (mostly Creich). Four of the drowned were resident on Iona: Ann Black, Christian and Mary MacLean (sisters), John MacKillop.

Euphemia and Margaret Beatoun (sisters)Mary MacDonald (her brother's body not found)Sarah MacInnes
Flora Beatoun (mother to Robert and Margaret MacInnes)*John McDougall (boat hand to Allan MacInnes)Donald and Mary MacKechnie (brother and sister)*
Nelly CrawfordAnn MacFarlaneAlex MacLean
Ann Lamont*Euphemia McGilvraJames MacLean
Catherine and Mary Livingstone (sisters)Allan MacInnes (boat owner)*Mary MacLean
Christian MacArthurDuncan MacInnes (aged 18 years)*John and Mary MacLucash (brother and sister)
Catherine MacCallum (aged 13 years)*Hector MacInnes (boat owner)*Nelly MacLucash
Flora and Mary MacCallum (sisters, Mary aged 13 years)John MacInnes*Sarah MacTaggart
John MacCormick*Marion MacInnesSinclair Stout*
Catherine MacDonaldRobert and Margaret MacInnes (brother and sister)* 
John MacDonald and his wife Mary MacLean)*Sally MacInnes 

The Ross of Mull is an extraordinary microcosm of all that draws visitors to the Hebridean Islands. The scenery, as you travel along the single-track road from the ferry at Craignure is breath-taking. You experience in the many walks in the area a true sense of wilderness; the secret bays with their beaches of silvery sand, the abundance of wildlife and the innumerable marks on the landscape of the lives of past generations and communities long gone. The Ross of Mull is a compelling place for anyone fascinated by history and the ancient way of life of the Gaelic people.

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