Although she sank, nobody was injured and the Lochiel (pronounced "Loch-EEL", incidentally) was salvaged to carry on sailing to Islay for another nine years until replaced in normal course. But the event had far reaching legal repercussions involving an appeal all the way to the House of Lords. Here's the story.
|The Lochiel at West Tarbert Pier|
On Saturday 8th October 1960, the Lochiel's day began when she left Port Askaig at 05.50 for Colonsay under the command of Captain Lachlan McDonald. In 1960, the pier at Colonsay hadn't yet been built so this was a "ferry call" involving the Lochiel lying offshore while a launch from the island brought out the passengers and mail bound for the mainland. Anyway, the round trip to Colonsay occupied some two and a quarter hours and at about 09.00 the Lochiel left Port Askaig again, this time for Craighouse on Jura.
|The Lochiel at Craighouse Pier, Jura|
In fine, calm weather with a light easterly wind, the Lochiel steamed towards the mainland at 11.75 knots. She entered West Loch Tarbert south of Eilean Traighe just before noon where the officer on watch, the mate, ordered a change of course to port (left) to head up the loch and Able Seaman Donald Hamilton took the helm.
|Caught on Bing aerial photography, today's Islay ferry, Calmac's MV Finlaggan alters course to enter West Loch Tarbert south of Eilean Traighe exactly as the Lochiel did on 8 October 1960|
|Officer and helmsman on the Lochiel on different occasion - picture credit Steve Cranston|
|Map showing the Tor Turc Rock just off Kennacraig which the Lochiel hit and where she eventually sank just short of West Tarbert Pier|
|The Lochiel grounded in West Loch Tarbert with a salvage vessel alongside in the days after the accident|
By his own estimation, Captain McDonald had performed the run up West Loch Tarbert around 200 times; although it wasn't marked, he knew of the existence of the Tor Turc Rock and the weather was fine and clear. What went wrong?
Three months after the sinking, a formal investigation under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 was held. You can read the full report here. Characterising the issue as one of pilotage rather than navigation, the investigation homed in on that last change of course opposite the Sgeir Mheinn rock and the role of Eilean Eoghainn, a small island three miles further up West Loch Tarbert off its south shore, as a landmark.
The "West Coast of Scotland Pilot", published by the Admiralty and the sort of "AA Book" of the sea (for anyone old enough to remember AA Books!) directed that, from Sgeir Mheinn, vessels should steer "for" - i.e. directly towards - Eilean Eoghainn (yellow line on picture above). Captain McDonald admitted that the course he had ordered the helmsman to follow kept Eilean Eoghainn "slightly on the starboard bow" - in other words he was steering to the left of EE and towards Tor Turc. He called that an error of judgement but the investigation was unable to take such a lenient view and censured him for a "wrongful act or default by the master in his failure to keep his vessel on a course which would avoid the hazard on which she stranded". Despite this finding, the enquiry was unstinting in its praise for the conduct of the crew after the stranding and in the evacuation of the passengers but nevertheless, according to Steve Cranston's website, Captain MacDonald was dismissed by MacBraynes and he ended up as the pier master at Lochaline: if so, personally, I always imagine the awkward "there but for the grace of God go I" moments there must have been whenever the skipper of a steamer berthing at Lochaline caught the piermaster's eye.
|A car being lifted aboard the Lochiel at West Tarbert Pier - picture credit Rod Lightbody|
The legal sequel - the case of McCutcheon v MacBrayne
The Merchant Shipping Act investigation wasn't the only judicial fallout from the sinking of the Lochiel. Amongst the eight cars on board and written off as a result was a Ford Popular belonging to the grieve at Laggan Farm on Islay, Alexander McCutcheon, and he - or rather his insurance company in his name - sued MacBraynes for its value, £480. They defended the case on the basis that their conditions of carriage provided that all goods were carried at the owner's own risk but Mr McCutcheon's insurers' riposte to this was that these conditions had not been incorporated in the contract made for the carriage of the car on 8 October 1960.
|The Lochiel arriving at Port Askaig|
|Photo credit Rod Lightbody|
The judge at first instance thought the oversight was critical: no signed risk note, no exclusion of liability and MacBraynes were ordered to pay Mr McCutcheon's insurers the value of the car. MacBraynes appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Session (Scottish equivalent of the Court of Appeal) where three judges reversed the original decision and let them off. The insurers then appealed again to the highest court in the land, the House of Lords, who restored the original judgement and ordered MacBraynes to pay. In deciding in favour of the "little guy", their Lordships were clearly influenced by distaste for a company, holding a monopoly and half state owned, seeking to avoid liability by relying on small print. One of the Lords referred to Mr McCutcheon's evidence about why he had never read MacBrayne's conditions of carriage when signing a risk note on previous occasions: "people shipping 36 calves had not much time to give to the reading".
|Today's equivalent of signing a risk note - harder to overlook?|
|Photo credit The Pokerbird|
|Picture credit Clansman|