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

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Guisachan - Part 3

In Part 2 I described how Guisachan Estate had been purchased in 1855 from the Frasers of Culbokie, who had held it since the 16th century, by Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks MP, who had transformed the estate by building a new mansion house, model farm and village for his employees.

By the time Marjoribanks had completed his changes, there was nobody living on the estate not dependant on him for employment. This transformation provoked Colin Chisholm, a witness before the Napier Commission, to describe "a number of warm-hearted hospitable tenants of small holdings on the estate of Guisachan", who had been "turned out of their farms" by Lord Tweedmouth (as Marjoribanks became in 1880). His Lordship took exception to this and hurried before the Commission a few days later to give his version of events. His evidence is a fascinating account of the transformation of the estate.

When he bought the 22,000 acre estate in 1855, Tweedmouth found a population of 227 including those residing at Guisachan House (presumably domestic servants) and sixteen tenants who, between them, paid an aggregate annual rent of £692 (about £65,000 in today's money).  Of these tenants, two were large sheep farmers, brothers called Cameron from another part of Inverness-shire who had come in 1847. Between them, they paid £499 (72% of the rent roll) and held 20,300 acres (including 101 acres of arable and 74 of improved pasture) or 92% of the estate. The other 14 tenants were crofters who between them held 64 acres of arable, 21 acres of improved pasture and 1,650 acres of moorland.

Tweedmouth was candid with the Commission that he hadn't bought Guisachan for its agricultural rental but for its qualities as a grouse moor, having been its sporting tenant since 1851 - hardly surprising from the man who invented the Retriever breed of dog.

He also admitted that none of the tenants - sheep farmers or crofters - remained on the estate now (1883) but denied Colin Chisholm's charge that they had been "turned out": the Cameron brothers, the sheep farmers, in common with others of their profession at the time, had not been prospering for a while and one emigrated to Australia with Tweedmouth's assistance in 1856 while the other moved to Fort William the following year.

As regards the crofters, they lived in four townships: Auchblair, Tomich, Easter Auchnaheglish and Wester Auchnaheglish: the two latter townships are still visible east of Tomich on the Ordnance Survey 6 inch map surveyed in 1872:-

The crofters all held 19 year leases which expired in 1864 and none of these was renewed. Tweedmouth's evidence to the Commission about what happened to the tenants was nuanced:

"Some three or four had previously [to 1864] asked to be relieved of their crofts but there was not one removed or one who left until provided with either a better farm or an occupation more suitable to himself." 

He went on to detail the fate of each tenant: three died before their leases expired and their heirs had asked Tweedmouth to take their crofts back in hand. Another had emigrated to New Zealand in 1863. That left ten crofters who lasted to the end of their leases of whom three moved to other places in the area while seven remained living on Guisachan becoming wage labourers on the estate.

When does refusal to renew a lease become "eviction"? Or, in more charged language, a "clearance"? And is it any better if an ex-tenant becomes the employee of his former landlord? Tweedmouth was pressed hard on this: wouldn't it have been preferable to have given new leases to at least some of the crofters in slightly enlarged holdings? The chair of the Commission, Lord Napier, was blunt with his fellow peer:-

"I would ask you generally whether, as a matter of policy, you think that the substitution of a class of persons, however respectable and well treated, in the position of dependants, for the small old tenantry, however ill off, but themselves susceptible of improvement —whether the substitution of the one class for the other is, on the whole, a desirable thing?" 

Tweedmouth's response was equally robust:-

"I can answer you if you tell me what on earth I could have done with the 150 people who were on the property in 1855, irrespective of the sixteen tenants, because it was a case of this kind, whether the sixteen tenants were to leave or the 150 or 160 other people; and I thought it better to provide for the larger number."

His point is one that emerged constantly during the course of the Napier Commission: crofters were poor but at least they had some land and were thus relatively well off compared with the landless squatters (or "cottars") who populated many estates in the Highlands where employment was scarce. These people were often the remnants of the aboriginal tenantry cleared from their land holdings during earlier phases of the Clearances and perhaps the 150-60 "other people" on Guisachan dated from 1825 when the sheep farms were first created on the estate. Whatever, Tweedmouth's response to the problem he inherited was not to not renew any of the farm leases on the estate (large scale sheep farmers or crofters) but rather to take the land back in hand to create a farm big enough to be able (in addition to his sporting establishment) to employ the entire population of Guisachan: a different response might have been to renew some or all of the crofters' leases and pay for the emigration of the rest. It's a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't which shows that "the Highland Clearances" are not as black and white as often portrayed.

Incidentally, as well as renting Kerrow Farm from the neighbouring Chisholm estate, Tweedmouth also rented their Glenaffric Deer Forest on the north west of Guisachan where he built Affric Lodge at the east end of Loch Affric:-

Affric Lodge - picture credit dooglenicholson

Now, I said in parts 1 and 2 of this article that I would be talking about how Lord Tweedmouth became embroiled in litigation with an American neighbour, W L Winans. On reflection, I think the Winans litigations (for there was more than one) in this part of the Highlands merits a blog of its own so I'm going to pass on to the decline of Guisachan.

Lord Tweedmouth died in 1894. He was succeeded by his son, Edward, also a Liberal politician who rose to become First Lord of the Admiralty but not before a financial crisis in the affairs of the Meux Brewery, the principal source of his wealth, had obliged him to sell Guisachan in 1905.

Before moving on from the Tweedmouth era, though, it's worth mentioning that, if you google "Guisachan", you get a lot of references to a house (pictured above) in Kelowna British Columbia which is now run as a restaurant and wedding venue. This was built by the 2nd Lord Tweedmouth's sister and her husband, the Earl of Aberdeen: he went on to become the Governor General of Canada.  

Back to Guisachan in Scotland, the purchaser was the exquisitely named Newton Wallop, 6th Earl of Portsmouth, yet another Liberal politician pictured below:-

The Portsmouths appear to have sold Guisachan in the 1930s (the 8th earl having been, for a change, not a Liberal politician but - of all things! - a Republican member of the Wyoming House of Representatives!) by when country sporting estates on such a scale of grandeur were becoming a thing of the past. I don't know the exact sequence of events but the Friends of Guisachan website has information about a sale of part of the estate in 1935 in the following lots:-

Lot 1 - Guisachan House and policies: 143 acres
Lot 2 - Home Farm: 2,870 acres
Lot 3 - Tomich Village (all the houses etc. still belonged to the estate):  19 acres
Lot 4 - Deer Forest: 4,200 acres 
Lot 5 - Hilton Cottage: 10 acres
The whole - 7,242 acres

That's obviously less than the 22,000 acres bought by Lord Tweedmouth in 1855 and my guess is that the rest, mostly at the west end, had been sold privately to the Forestry Commission. I don't know exactly know who bought what at the 1935 sale except that Lord Islington, a former Governor General of New Zealand, bought Lots 4 & 5 (Hilton Cottage and Deer Forest) while Guisachan House remained unsold. It was briefly let as a centre for fitness training summer schools but such plebian activities didn't endear themselves to Lord Islington's widow who, with a view to denying its use to any more uncongenial neighbours, bought the house in the late 1930s and promptly closed it down and took its roof off . In due course, it passed to her grandson, the journalist and historian John Grigg. His son Anthony still owns the property - known as Hilton & Guisachan now - to the present day.

Hilton Lodge
Elsewhere, the Home Farm still exists with the clock-towered steading having been converted into holiday accommodation marketed as Tomich Holidays. The deer forest to the west of Hilton & Guisachan known as Wester Guisachan is, I think, land which was sold off by the Forestry Commission as surplus to their requirements for planting.

Visiting Guisachan on a wet day in December 2013, the thing that struck me apart the ruins of the house itself were the trees. The oak in the picture above has been felled as seen below:-

Picture credit - Tom Parnell
 But otherwise, the trees in the policies around the house, no doubted planted by Lord Tweedmouth in the 1850s to ornament his new acquisition, remain mostly standing as you can see from the shaddows in the aerial photography below:-

Without being too poetical, it does seem fitting that nature's outlasted man's contribution to Guisachan Estate - not just the gaunt ruins of the mansion house but the other little trappings of a Victorian estate you can find around Tomich such as a squint gate post here and there: I was particularly taken with the tree that had outgrown its basket on the avenue leading to the house below:-

But more importantly, what of the people? The 150 souls Lord Tweedmouth thought it better not to renew leases in order to be able to employ? A lease gives security of tenure but what of employment? He was asked this by the Napier Commission and answered simply: "I hope those who will come after me will look after the people in the same way."

Did they? How many people are employed today within the bounds of what was Guisachan Estate? It certainly won't be in three figures. But how many people would be deriving a full time living from crofts on the estate today? Similarly few, I suspect: many would be commuters driving into Inverness for their principal source of income. As today's land reformers ponder these questions, they might reflect upon Lord Tweedmouth's view expressed to the Napier Commission that it was the coming of the Highland Railway to Inverness which had done most to depopulate the outlying glens: people had been drawn to where the railway made commodities cheaper. Today roads and motor cars are having similar effects on remote communities making them increasingly places to be slept in but not lived or worked in.

Aye well ...

Finally, if you want to go for a virtual tour round Guisachan Estate, then you can in the Google Streetview car: start here.