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1894 Kessock Ferry Disaster Ceremony Inverness Scotland
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Image by conner395
(Report and Photos by Dave Conner – Inverness Local History Forum)

Pipe Major Steve Spencer of Northern Constabulary community Pipe Band (who is also a member of Merkinch CC PB) plays a slow air beside the memorial in memory of those who perished.

This tragedy is yet another of the "forgotten" events in Inverness Local History.

Until fairly recently, very few folk were aware of the disaster – but this omission has thankfully been corrected by today’s ceremony to unveil a new commemorative stone on the scenic shorefront at Kessock Road, Inverness between the former Kessock Ferry slipway (The Old Ticket Office) and the former Coastguard Station (Tangle Tower).

Thanks to the efforts of Merkinch Community Council (and in particular, Dell McLurg) and the great support of Tangle Tower’s proprietor Steven Byford, a beautiful commemorative memorial stone was today unveiled. The artwork on the stone was designed by pupils of Merkinch Primary School, who also took part in the unveiling.

Those who attended the ceremony – local people, descendants of some of those who perished in the tragedy, members of HM Coastguard and Inverness Sea Cadet Unit – gathered at Sea Cadet Base "TS Briton" nearby and then were led by Merkinch Community Centre Pipe Band to the memorial.
There, the Rev Richard Burkitt (For The Right Reasons, Grant Street) addressed the audience and related a brief account of the events which resulted in the loss of 6 lives, 3 ferrymen and 3 Coastguards.

Thereafter Steven Byford (and numerous assistants) unveiled the memorial stone, and Dell McLurg then revealed her brilliant idea to help remember the tragedy – she distributed snowdrop bulbs, which those attending then planted around the stone. They should bloom each year around the anniversary of the tragedy, and served to help to remind us of the sacrifice made by these 6 brave men. Afterwards the pipers and drummer played us all back to the Sea Cadet base, where light refreshments were served, and were greatly appreciated.

It was remarkable that although windy, there was a warmth in the wind – and it stayed dry – although it bucketed down about an hour after the event ended. Full marks to the organisers for picking the optimum time for the unveiling.

The circumstances of the tragedy are thus:
Back in 1894 there were two sailing boats which plied between North and south Kessock Piers, the boats crossing the channel every hour. On the evening of 23rd February, a storm had arrived and was blowing down the Firth (Loch Beauly as it was formerly known) with some intensity. At the 6 PM cross-over the boat from South Kessock successfully crossed and reached the North Kessock pier, but the other boat (with a crew of 4) could not reach the South slipway and ended up in a small bay.

The ferry skipper, the experienced Murdo MacLeod, had his crew drop anchor and planned to try to ride out the storm. The weight of waves crashing over the boat however concerned the crew greatly and they signalled their distress to the shore. A party of HM Coastguards, under Divisional Officer William Hobbs saw the signal and set off in a boat to try to take the ferry under tow. They were unsuccessful however as the storm pushed them past and their boat was driven on to the shore. Undeterred Hobbs and three of his men obtained another boat and tried again, this time drifting down at the end of a hawser secured to the moored pilot boat.

As the rescue craft passed the stricken ferry, the Coastguards managed to get a lien across to the ferryboat, and the four ferrymen clambered aboard the coastguards’ vessel. Unfortunately that vessel was then swamped by waves and capsized, throwing all 8 men into the water.

Only two, ferryman Angus MacKinnon and Coastguard Charles Lovejoy survived, MacKinnon clinging grimly to the hull of the upturned boat and Lovejoy who managed to swim ashore to raise the alarm with the Ferry Operator, who immediately organised search parties. The other 6 men drowned, not so very far from their home firesides.

The three coastguards who died were:
William Hobbs (54), divisional officer, coastguard station, who left a widow and eight children, Ruband Staite (40), commissioned boatman, who left a widow and five children, and James Kilby (28) who left a widow and one child.
The three ferrymen were :
Murdo MacLeod (52), skipper, who left a widow and four children,
John Mackenzie (52), boatman, who left a widow and eight children, and
John Macdonald (22) who was not married.

In all 26 children were left fatherless, and a fund was set up locally to help to support the families of hose lost.

William Topaz McGonagall, "Scotland’s best worst Poet" even commemorated the disaster in verse – but sadly he managed to get the date of the tragedy wrong – perhaps because of the time it took for news to reach him in Dundee. That apart, his work does cover the sequence of events fairly accurately (the mis-spelling "KESSACK" he later attributed to his printer – or was simply his handwriting?).

" The Kessack Ferry-Boat Fatality "
" ’Twas on Friday the 2nd of March, in the year of 1894,
That the Storm Fiend did loudly laugh and roar
Along the Black Isle and the Kessack Ferry shore,
Whereby six men were drowned, which their friends will deplore.
" The accident is the most serious that has occurred for many years,
And their relatives no doubt will shed many tears,
Because the accident happened within 200 yards of the shore,
While Boreas he did loudly rail and roar.
" The ferry-boat started from the north or Black Isle,
While the gusty gales were blowing all the while
From the south, and strong from the south-west,
And to get to land the crew tried their utmost best.
" The crew, however, were very near the land,
When the gusts rose such as no man could withstand,
With such force that the ferry-boat flew away
From her course, down into the little bay,
" Which opens into the Moray Firth and the River Ness,
And by this time the poor men were in great distress,
And they tried again and again to get back to the pier,
And to save themselves from being drowned they began to fear.
" And at last the poor men began to despair,
And they decided to drop anchor where they were,
While the Storm Fiend did angry roar,
And the white-crested billows did lash the shore.
" And the water poured in, but was baled out quickly,
And the men’s clothes were wet, and they felt sickly,
Because they saw no help in the distance,
Until at last they blew the fog-horn for assistance.
" And quickly in response to their cry of distress,
Four members of the coastguard, in coastguard dress,
Whose station overlooked the scene, put off in a small boat,
And with a desperate struggle they managed to keep her afloat.
" Then the coastguards and boat drifted rapidly away,
Until they found themselves in the little bay,
Whilst the big waves washed o’er them, again and again,
And they began to think their struggling was all in vain.
" But they struggled on manfully until they came upon a smaller boat,
Which they thought would be more easily kept afloat,
And to which the hawser was soon transferred,
Then for a second time to save the ferrymen all was prepared.
" Then the coastguards drifted down alongside the ferry-boat,
And with great difficulty they kept themselves afloat,
Because the big waves were like mountains high,
Yet the coastguards resolved to save the ferrymen or die.
" Then at last the ferrymen got into the coastguard boat,
And they all toiled manfully to keep her afloat,
Until she was struck as she rose on the crest of the wave,
Then each one tried hard his life to save.
" And the poor men’s hearts with grief were rent,
For they were thrown into the merciless sea in a moment,
And out of the eight men two have been saved,
All owing to their swimming abilities, and how they behaved.
" Oh! it must have been a fearful sight,
To see them striving hard with all their might
To save themselves from a watery grave,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh and angry did rave.
– by W.T. McGonagall

………. and so the loss of these six men is now properly commemorated, 123 years after the tragedy occurred.

Full marks to Dell and Steven for their efforts to preserve the memory of this event.
It is 35 years since the Kessock Ferry ceased to operate following the opening of the Kessock Bridge, and two generations of Invernessians have grown up with no experience of the joys of crossing the Ferry – or how important a facility it was to both Inverness and the Black Isle.

These days (so very true of the forthcoming Hurricane) the Kessock Bridge is likely to be closed to high-sided vehicles in bad weather, so a simple – but nuisance – solution of having to re-route via Beauly is made, but back in 1894 that was not really an option for most folk. Thus the ferry boats ran in the foulest of weather, sometimes with tragic consequences. God Bless these brave men – we must not forget them.

Finally, my sincere thanks to Lt Cdr (SCC) Robbie Hay RNR, Commanding Officer of TS Briton and to Sea Cadet Howarth for kindly giving me a guided tour of the Sea Cadet Establishment (and the fascinating artefacts and memorabilia) and enlightening me greatly as to the history of the Sea Cadet Unit TS Briton and it predecessor TS Citadel – more local history I never knew.

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