634: The Fast Lady: a Coronation Race

An account of the Coronation race in 1902, by Malcolm Macinnes

The fishing boat, SY150, was well known in Gravir in the early year of this century. She was called the ‘Mary’ and, because of the slender shape, she was appropriately referred to in the village as ‘Mairi-Chaol’. She operated under sail during her entire life and, with her main and jigger sails hoisted in a favourable wind, she was said to be one of the fastest boats in the fishing fleet of the time.

She is remembered in local lore as one of the boats which participated in the 1902 race for fishing boats under sail. The race, which was organised to mark the coronation of King Edward VII, was held over a course of 25 nautical miles from, and back to, Stornoway.

Boats were placed in one of three categories, depending on their size. The ‘Mary’ was one of two boats – the other was from Point – in the third category which was for the smallest boats, i.e. those with a keel of 33 ft. or less. The ‘Mary’ completed the course in good time but when placings were decided by the application of race rules, the other boat was awarded the runner-up’s money prize which, it is reported, enabled the crew to indulge in high-spirited jubilation afterwards!

As far as I know, there is no written record of those who crewed the ‘Mary’ in the race. Unlike other boats in the village at the time, she was not in the collective ownership of an established crew and, as a result of this, crew members changed frequently. The registered owner was Angus MacLennan (Coachie) of Stornoway, who was originally from Lemreway and then Marvig. He was the brother-in-law of Donald MacAskill, the ‘Mary’s’ skipper. To find out who the other crew members were during the race, it is necessary to rely on hearsay via the memories of the older generation – a path not without risk of distortion and lacunal over an 85-year span. The journey along that path leads to the assumption that the following were on board during the race:

Donald MacAskill (Domhnall Og Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire) – skipper, who later moved to 9 Gravir;

Donald MacAskill, junior (Domhnall beag Dhomhnaill Oig) – the skipper’s son;

Malcolm MacMillan (Calum Iain Bhig) – 33 Gravir;

John MacAskill (Iain Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire) – 26 Gravir, by Allt a’ Sgorain;

Donald Matheson (Danaidh Dhomhnaill Mhurchaidh) – 27 Gravir;

John MacKay (Seonaidh Iain ‘an ‘ic Caoidh) – 28 Gravir.

The crew of the ‘Mary’ probably numbered five, but the rules of the race permitted boats to carry spectators. This could explain why six names appear in the list; one of them may have sailed as a spectator.

The photograph belongs to Mrs. Morag Matheson, Renfrew, (Morag Dhomhnaill Rhuaridh, formerly of 13 Gravir) who inherited it from her aunt, Nurse Ishbel MacAskill (Isbeil Dhomhnaill Oig). It shows the ‘Mary’ tied up at the Gravir pier. When I first saw it, I thought it might have been taken at the time of the Coronation Race in 1902, but evidence from the writing suggests that it was sent to Ishbel MacAskill when she was away from home either training or working as a nurse – she spent some time in Winnipeg, Canada, and is in the handwriting of two other members of the family; Barbara, who died young, just after the first World War, and Donald (Domhnall Beag) who was lost in the ‘Iolaire’ disaster on New Year’s Eve, 1918.

Barbara wrote: "This is the ‘Mary’ taken by the quayside. I am sure you will know the men from each other – our own John at the sail and Mary Kennedy, the little white thing on the deck."

Donald wrote: "You will see your Uncle Kenny there with the paper under his left arm, and Allan."

No date is given but the writing, particularly the identification of the girl as Mairi Choinich Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire – who married Angus MacRae, Habost, and went to South Africa where she died – and an estimate of her age at the time, suggests the date to be circa 1908, and makes it one of the oldest photographs taken in a Gravir setting, that I have seen.

The figures in the photograph are not so clearly outlined as to be easily identifiable, but the probability is that they are all worthies of the MacAskill clan. My tentative conclusion is that they are:

Donald MacAskill (Domhnall Og Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire), beside the jigger mast;
John MacAskill (Iain Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire, beside the hold;
John MacAskill (Iain Dhomhnaill Oig), behind the main sail;
Allan MacAskill (Ailean Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire), near the end of the pier;
Kenneth MacAskill (Coineach Dhomhnaill a’ Phiobaire), also on the pier, with a newspaper under his arm.

It would be interesting to know if any other copies of the photograph exist or if anyone is able to make a more positive identification of the five men in it.

The ‘Mary’ continued to work for a few years after the First World War and she was finally beached near Ath Sidnidh – at the foot of croft no. 9 – and broken up for fence posts and cladding for sheds.

I wish to thank Angus MacLeod, Marybank, for details of the Coronation Race and these senior residents of Gravir who were shown the photograph and made many interesting comments about life in Gravir in the early years of the century. Among the latter were: Mrs. Marion MacDonald, 4b Ranish (Mor Ann’ Eachainn, formerly of 11 Gravir) who was born in 1902, the year of the Coronation Race, and was a contemporary and school friend of "the little white thing on the deck"; Alasdair Matheson (Alasdair Chaluim ‘ig), 39 Gravir, and now living in one of the sheltered houses who was also a 1902 baby; Colin and Ishbel MacMillan, 33 Gravir, and Mrs. Kate Campbell, 13 Gravir, who father was in the ‘Mary’ in the Coronation Race (Colin’s first outing on Latha na Drobh was in the ‘Mary’); and Donald Matheson (Domhnall Dhanaidh), 11 Gravir, whose father was also in the ‘Mary’ in the Coronation Race who had unrivalled knowledge of all aspects of life in Gravir during his lifetime.

Leas meas,
Calum Aonghais Fhionnlaich

Record Type:
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Fishing boat, the 'Mary'

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