51539: The Scarp Boat

An account of the sinking of the Scarp Boat at loch Cravadale, by DJ Macleod (1 Enaclete).

In August 1931, Donald William MacInnes ( A’ Bodach Ruadh) and John MacInnes (A’ Beaganach) no relation, sailed an open boat from Scarp to Kinresort. From there they walked to the West Side of Lewis and bought thirty-two hogs in Bragar and Shawbost.

With John MacInnes’ dog, they drove the sheep before them over the hills back to Kinresort where every animal had to be lifted into their boat, a strenuous and tiresome task after walking so many miles. Instead of tying the hogs they packed them tightly below the thwarts. With the sail hoisted the boat headed down Loch Resort bound for Scarp which was approximately eight nautical miles away.

With mountains on each side, Loch Resort is sheltered and is usually fairly calm. However, it is a different situation when a boat clears the loch and heads out into the open sea.

After leaving Loch Resort the boat would pass Bodha na h-Uinneag and then sail across the entrance to Loch Cravadale, which has a menacing cross swell. This area is particularly hazardous for a boat under sail when there is an easterly wind blowing. Once past Loch Cravadale their intended course would have been to sail between Gob Rudha Mheilein and An Langarraid (Fladday) and onward to Scarp.

When they were approximately half-way across the entrance to Loch Cravadale, an unexpected strong gust of wind hit the boat and filled the sail, causing the vessel to list abruptly. The hogs were pitched on top of each other on to one side, subsequently causing the boat to lose trim and be overwhelmed by the torrential inward flow of seawater.

John Buchanan ( Iain Chalum Eoghainn), 14 Breanish was searching for sheep at Liongam past Mealista when he saw an oar on the foreshore. He identified it as one probably used on a Scarp boat. The Scarpachs sometimes placed the oars instead of wooden rollers under the keel when launching or hauling boats on sandy beaches.

Their oars were therefore indented or marked by the weight of the boat. Buchanan realised a Scarp tragedy might have occurred and informed the people in Breanish. Just eight months later he himself was one of four Brenish fishermen drowned on the boat the Margaret.

The oars used by the Scarpachs were longer, usually sixteen feet, and heavier than normal oars. They had to be durable due to the amount of rowing the islanders had to perform daily in heavy seas. Rowlocks were not used by the Scarpachs on their fishing boats. The boats had thole-pins set upright in the gunwale which was used as a fulcrum when rowing. The oars had a cnotan, a box placed on the oar to protect it from wearing.

Meanwhile back in Scalpay Christina MacInnes (sister of Donald) was walking up the braes above Scarp on the way to milk cows at the Buaile. She thought she heard her brother shouting but looking out over the sea she could not see any sign of a boat. She returned immediately to the village but nobody believed her story. However, after some lapse of time, boats were launched and a search began. People from Scarp also crossed the sound to Traigh Mheilen and started searching along the foreshore.

Neither the boat nor the men were anywhere to be seen. The rescue boats were low in the water making it difficult for the crews to see any wreckage in the distance. As a result, Angus MacLennan (Moigean) went ashore at Meilen and climbed a small hillock. Looking across the wide expanse of water he thought he saw something unnatural in the sea at the entrance to Loch Hamnaway, some miles away.

The boats made for Loch Hamnaway and found the missing boat on her side, full of seawater. It had not capsized as the sail and mast prevented her from overturning. Donald MacInnes was clinging to the hull. He was rescued and on John MacInnes’ father (Shonnigan) asking him, " C’aite a bheil Iain?" (Where is John?) he replied, "I do not know." There was no sign of the sheepdog either.

The rescuers wanted to leave the boat and let her sink but Donald MacInnes was not agreeable. I should point out that in those days a working boat of around 19 feet was a capital asset in any island community such as Scarp.

The Scarpachs, in An Eithear Fada, one of the searching boats, eventually managed to attach a hawser to the stricken vessel. With only four oars they started towing the boat through the heaving seas. It was a toilsome and exhausting task, not only did they have to contend with a semi-waterlogged boat but also the sail was still attached to the mast and lying in the sea, greatly hindering their progress.

They towed the boat to the sands at Meilen, a distance of approximately six miles . After a lot of sweat and toil had been expended, they somehow managed to haul the boat with the mast and sail on to the sandy beach. They detached the sail and pulled the tuc (plug) out of the boat to release the trapped water.

As John MacInnes’s body had not been recovered, all the boats in Scarp and some from Uig started to search for his remains. With pensive faces discussions took place to ascertain where the search should be concentrated. This was the Atlantic and the body could have floated out to sea or grounded.

After two days and the body still not recovered, Donald MacDonald (Domhnall Seoc), 14 Scarp, a man whose expertise in handling boats was second to none, took Christina MacInnes to the spot where she was when she allegedly heard her brother shouting. MacDonald asked her to indicate the direction out at sea from where she thought the shout had come.

Domhnall Seoc, with his crew, then headed out to sea in his boat, the Jubilee. He stopped the boat west of the island of Fladday and started to drag the bottom with grappling hooks. Remarkably he recovered the body on his first sweep. MacDonald’s knowledge of the sea, current and tides was extraordinary, and often commented on by seafarers who knew him.
When the body of John MacInnes was recovered he was gripping the painter. (This is a rope that is attached to the bow of a boat for tying it up.) Unfortunately, the painter was not attached to the boat so it would have just uncoiled when he pulled on it in an attempt to cling to the boat.

John MacInnes was an only son and it is reputed that his father, Shonnigan, a real Scarp worthy, said to his wife, " I thought you said that you would not weep any more if we got his body home."

For months prior to the disaster, the Scarp people were wakened during the night by the loud barking of a dog. Nobody knew who owned the dog or where it was barking. However, one night Angus MacInnes, Flowerbank, came across a dog down at the shore barking incessantly at a boat. This was the boat that later foundered and the dog was John MacInnes’s sheepdog, Queen. Efforts were made to keep the dog in the house at night but it used to escape and head for the boat and start barking.

On the day the boat was found a dog was heard barking on the shore across the sea from Scarp. This was Queen, it had survived the sinking. The dog must have had some unnatural foreboding that this Scarp boat was going to sink with him and his master on board.

The dog was not the only abnormal omen relating to the loss of life on the Scarp boat. Some months before the disaster Donald MacDonald went down to the Jubilee, beached on the shore, and noticed what appeared to be red paint on the cutwater (the white line painted between the paint and tar on the hull of a boat). He was puzzled as he had not used any red paint. However, he wiped it off and did not tell anyone of the strange occurrence.

When the body of John MacInnes, with two hooks attached to his jersey, came to the surface it was upside down beside the boat. On being lifted, a mouthful of his blood was discharged and it splattered along the cutwater of the Jubilee where MacDonald had seen the red paint many months before.

Though the drowning of John MacInnes was a sad blow to the people of Scarp, they were thankful that his body had been recovered and that he was laid to rest in the local cemetery.

The Scarp boat was considered a good strong sea boat with a broad beam. She was built by Donald MacAulay (Saor), boatbuilder, Breanish.

DJ Macleod

There is no doubt that there are people around who have much more knowledge than I have regarding this tragedy and my facts may not be totally accurate. I would welcome corrections.I am indebted to a number of people who have helped me to compile this article and I offer them my thanks. Donald J. MacLeod, Enaclete & Aberdeen

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