Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The sinking of the Lochiel

If you look northwards from the Calmac terminal at Kennacraig where the ferries to Islay sail from (above), you'll see a red navigation buoy half way across the loch. It was put there to mark a reef a MacBraynes steamer - the MV Lochiel - struck in 1960 on her way up to the previous Islay terminal, West Tarbert Pier, three miles further up the loch.

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
Today, the islands of Gigha, Jura and Colonsay all have their own dedicated ferries but in the 1960s these islands were all served by the Islay steamer, MV Lochiel built in 1939. Three days a week she sailed to Port Ellen calling at Gigha (the pier at the south end of the island rather than today's ferry slipway). The other three days a week (no Sunday sailings, of course!) she sailed to Port Askaig via Craighouse on Jura and (twice a week in summer, once in winter) extended her run out to Colonsay and back to Port Askaig for the night.

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
From Craighouse, it appears the Lochiel then had to make an unscheduled ferry call off the north end of Gigha but she left there at 11.31 bound at last for her final destination at West Tarbert Pier, about 45 minutes behind schedule. By now, she had on board a crew of 20 and 65 passengers plus a cargo consisting of 8 motor cars, some livestock and a small amount of general cargo and mail.

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
About a mile further on, at Corran Point, the mate ordered a change of course to starboard (right) to follow the twists of the loch and not long after Captain McDonald returned to the bridge to resume command for the final run in to West Tarbert Pier. As the ship passed the Sgeir Mheinn (pronounced "Skeer Vain") rock off the north shore, the Captain ordered a further course change onto 059 degrees Magnetic to keep the Lochiel mid channel.

Officer and helmsman on the Lochiel on different occasion - picture credit Steve Cranston
10 minutes later, at 12.20, the Lochiel hit the Tor Turc Rock just past Kennacraig on her port (left) side. The Captain immediately rang down to the engine room to stop engines and ordered the helm hard to starboard (right) whereupon the ship cleared the obstruction. Sending the mate below to ascertain the damage, Captain McDonald decided his best course of action was to attempt to make West Tarbert Pier and once again ordered Full Ahead. But before long the Chief Engineer was on the bridge reporting that the water was rising in the engine room faster than the pumps could pump it out. About 15 minutes after the collision, less than a mile from West Tarbert Pier, the engines flooded and stopped. As the Lochiel drifted to a halt, the Captain ordered an anchor dropped and she sank bow first about a quarter of a mile from the shore. Fortunately, the loch was so shallow that, even after the Lochiel had hit the bottom, most of the main deck was still above water so the passengers were got off in the lifeboats without difficulty: they were all ashore at Escart Bay by 13.30, less than an hour after the sinking.

Map showing the Tor Turc Rock just off Kennacraig which the Lochiel hit and where she eventually sank just short of West Tarbert Pier
As far as the passengers' experiences went, Steve Cranston was one of them but he doesn't remember anything about it because he was only 13 weeks old at the time. But on his website, Steve has pulled together a lot of information and photos about the event including contemporary news cuttings. Despite the Sunday Mail's attempt to evoke the Titanic by reporting under a massive headline "SHIPWRECK" how the Lochiel had "ripped into rocks" resulting in passengers being "bowled over as part of the hull was torn away" and a "race for life" to the pier (see here), the general reaction seems to have been that, while they noticed a bump and were surprised to see officers coming up on deck wet up to the waist, the passengers don't seem to have thought anything was unduly amiss until they were invited to get into the lifeboats.

The Lochiel grounded in West Loch Tarbert with a salvage vessel alongside in the days after the accident

The enquiry

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
At a hearing at the Court of Session in Edinburgh it emerged that MacBraynes' practice when goods (whether a car, livestock or a grand piano) were being shipped was that the owner signed a document called a "risk note" which contained the conditions of carriage. In Mr McCutcheon's case, he had travelled to the mainland a few days before but decided he wanted his car sent across so he got his brother-in-law, Mr McSporran, to arrange this. McSporran phoned the MacBraynes office at Port Askaig to make the arrangements; he spoke to a Miss Darroch (a common name across the water on Jura!) who prepared a risk note for Mr McSporran to sign when he came in. But when he got to Port Askaig, Miss Darroch had gone out and it was the Lochiel's purser who was manning the office. Crucially, he forgot to get Mr McSporran to sign the risk note.

Photo credit Rod Lightbody
Absent a signed risk note on the one occasion when it really mattered, MacBraynes' lawyers clutched at a legal straw: on every previous occasion they had sent goods on their ships, both Messrs McCutcheon and McSporran had signed risk notes so was there any reason to believe they intended to transport the Ford Popular on different terms from previously just because of the oversight of the purser on the fateful day?

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?
It remains just to note the fate of the star of the show, the Lochiel herself. She was soon repaired and back sailing to Islay and the surrounding islands for another nine years before replaced by a car ferry in January 1970 and sold by MacBraynes. After a not very successful season sailing to the Isle of Man renamed "Norwest Laird", she was laid up for a number of years before opening as a floating bar and restaurant in Bristol in 1978 with her original name of "Lochiel". There she remained until scrapped in 1995.

Photo credit The Pokerbird
I remember seeing this in an episode of Shoestring (Trevor Eve, orange Cortina estate) in the early 1980s before I ever knew the history of the vessel concerned. I leave you with a fine picture on the deck of the Lochiel on passage out to Islay in her heyday:-

Picture credit Clansman


  1. Hi Neil, the ship alongside Loch Eil is the S's PLANTAGENET.
    She was one of the "NET" class of boom defence vessels, and was HMS for the first twenty years of her life. Built in 1939 by LOBNITZ&Co, Renfrew, she was at Scapa when Royal Oak was torpedoed. She was sold in 1959 to Metal Industries, who had her till '62, and who presumably used her on salvage duties. You can see the M I logo on her funnel in your picture.
    She was sold to a French salvage co., who seem to have later sold her to the French Navy in which she served until being scrapped at Brest in '69.
    I'm quite often in the LOBNITZ yard, which has for many years been Christie and Co's scrapyard
    Regards, John MacD.

  2. Thanks for that interesting extra info about the Plantagenet, John.

  3. I was aware of the legal HoL case when I studied law at Leicester and I remember seeing the vessel as a restaurant in Bristol Docks some years later.