Sunday, May 1, 2011

The loss of the brigantine "Aid" of Dundee

Amongst the thousands of volumes digitised in Google Books are some volumes of early 19th century Scottish legal case reports. I was drawn to these as a retired lawyer but they're as of much, if not more, interest for the human interest stories from a bygone era and local history they contain.

One such is the case of Thomson v Bisset, a suit between the owners of the brigantine "Aid" of Dundee and the ship's insurers arising out of its loss in East Loch Tarbert, Harris, in the Outer Hebrides in 1819.

In October that year, the Aid sailed from Riga (now in Latvia but in Russia in 1819) for Londonderry with a cargo of flax seed. Nearing the end of her voyage on the morning of the 15th, the Aid was sailing down the Minch when she was "driven by stress of weather into the harbour of Scalpa in the Hebrides" - Scalpay, as it's called nowadays, an island off the east coast of Harris.

As the Aid closed the Outer Hebrides, she came within what's known in nautical parlance as "pilot's fairway". In other words, she was sailing close enough to land away from home to merit having on board a local pilot to navigate her safely. The nearest official pilot was at Stornoway, 24 miles away to the north, but the Aid took on board the assistant lighthouse keeper from the Eilean Glas lighthouse at the east end of Scalpay who conducted her through the Sound of Scalpay to an anchorage at the west end of island. She dropped anchor at 1.00pm. The assistant keeper returned to the lighthouse (one of the very few in the 1820s) about three miles away and the sun set that day at about nine minutes past five.

At 6.00am the following morning, about two hours after high water, the Aid set sail again for Londonderry. She planned to follow the wind (being a sailing ship, she had little choice) and leave Scalpay to the west via East Loch Tarbert. But shortly after weighing anchor, the Aid ran aground on a sunken rock. She was stuck fast and holed and, as the tide fell, the ship fell off the rock and sank and was a total loss.

The map below shows the Aid's route in from the north east via the Sound of Scalpay to her anchorage near point X. The dotted line shows her planned route out to the west on the morning of the 16th except she was wrecked probably round about point Y. The Eilean Glas lighthouse is at the eastmost point of the island.

The owners of the Aid duly claimed on their insurance but the underwriters - a Mr Bisset and two others who were each liable to the tune of £100 - refused the claim. Not because the master of the Aid had been at fault in allowing the ship to run aground - it is, after all, against such accidents that one is insured - but rather due to an arcane nicety of marine insurance law as follows: The owners of a ship give its insurers a warranty that it will at all times be adequately crwed. When the ship is "in pilot's fairway", this involves having a local pilot aboard to navigate it safely. It is recognised that an official pilot is not available everywhere and the underwriters were not suggesting it was incumbent on the master of the Aid to send for the nearest one at Stornoway before sailing from Scalpay. But it was incumbent on him to take such local assistance as might have been had, namely, the Eilean Glas lighthouse keeper or at the very least one of the local fisherman (some of whom, it was noted, could speak English as well as their native Gaelic.)

Looking from the west end of Scalpay over the water where the Aid anchored on the night of 15th October 1819. She arrived from the right and attempted to leave to the left.
Legally, it mattered not that, in fact, when conducting the Aid in to Scalpay the previous day, the lighthouse keeper had pointed out to the master the rock the ship foundered on and warned him to take care of it if leaving to the west. In other words, the Aid went aground on a rock the location of which was known and the presence on board of a pilot would not have prevented the grounding. But that was beside the point, legally - if the Aid was deemed to be insufficiently crewed by being within pilot's fairway and not having a local pilot on board, whether the lighthouse keeper or a local fisherman, then the owners were "in breach of warranty" and the insurance was void.

So did the absence of a pilot in the particular circumstances the Aid found herself in on the morning of 16th October 1819 mean that her insurance was void? Five judges of Scotland's highest court, the Court of Session, ruled. You can tell that they all felt it was rather a hard case but in the end they voted three to two that the Aid was insufficiently crewed by not having the lighthouse keeper or a local fisherman aboard when she weighed anchor from Scalpay. An object lesson in taking care to comply with the conditions of your insurance to the letter even when it makes no difference to the outcome!

The Aid is not the only vessel to have come to grief in the treacherous waters of East Loch Tarbert. The Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland lists at least eight, not including the Aid or what I believe to be the most recent wreck which you could still see on a rock off the south coast of Scalpay from the car ferry to Tarbert from Uig in 2006 when I was last on that ferry. I don't know if there's anything still visible but you can see it on Bing Maps aerial photography:-

If anyone knows the story about that wreck, then do leave a comment.


  1. Interesting case study. As a former lawyer, I, too, find it interesting though - like you, I'm sure - could predict the outcome of Sessions considerations!

  2. Do you know who the captain or master was at the time of the Aid's grounding? An ancestor of mine captained this boat in 1818

    Kind regards