Thursday, August 25, 2016

Meikle Ferry Disaster - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV published in the Northern Ensign 30 June 1881 Part A

"I might give your readers another chapter on Highland poets, but I fear that I have trespassed rather too much on their patience already. I have omitted some well known and talented poets, whose productions are very popular and much cherished in the Highlands; but there are several Gaelic poets whose names are not mentioned either by Mackenzie or Blackie, such as Duncan Bhan McIntyre, Murdoch Grant, and Samuel Matheson, with whose songs we were tolerably well acquainted, the latter more especially. His song on good Sheriff McCulloch, who was the instrument of his conversion, was very popular, and the tragic end of that good man made the song all the more thought of."

Morning Post London, 25 August 1809

The Meikle Ferry (aka Muckle Ferry) Disaster

"The Sheriff was drowned in the Dornoch Firth in crossing over from Muckle Ferry to Tain, where he was going on the Thursday of a communion there, and a boat-full of Sutherland people with him. He had occasion to cross over frequently to Ross-shire, and to reprove the ferrymen for their profanity and wicked conduct. For this they hated the Sheriff and declared that all the heaven they wished for was to get a boat-load of Sutherland Christians, and Sheriff McCulloch in the middle of them, drowned in the ferry. This fearful language was no mere empty words, as these wicked men deliberately set to work to accomplish their diabolical design. They knew the sacrament was to be held in Tain on a particular week, and that on the fast-day the Sheriff and other people would be crossing over. They also knew the time of day the people would be there to get across, and they laid their plans accordingly. The Sheriff and about 50 [111] people, men and women, arrived at the Ferry, and all entered the boat, a large one. The day was fine, and while the stream of the tide ran past them with great velocity, no one suspected that anything serious would happen." 

Ferry Point
View of the Dornoch Firth from Edderton Hill. This narrowing was once the ferry route.

"They proceeded on their way, and when the boat was about the centre of the Firth, which is perhaps about three quarters of a mile broad, one of the fiendish crew pulled the plug out of the bottom of the boat and flung it into the sea. The water rushed in at once and great consternation prevailed among the poor doomed passengers. Some of them attempted to stop the water by pressing their jackets against the hole, but the fiendish crew (only two in number) attacked them with maddening fury, and pulled them away from their work of mercy.  By this time the boat was nearly full of water, and the poor passengers cried out for help from the shore. The people on the shore saw them sinking, and ran to launch a boat to try and save the drowning passengers when they found there was no plug in that boat either, but after some delay this was remedied; but where were the oars? There were none to be had." 

"So deliberately did these murderers set about their work that they took the plug out of the boat and also hid the oars, so as to make it impossible to render any help or assistance to the drowning passengers, and they succeeded but too well. The people on shore ran frantically in every direction in search of the missing oars, and could find none. They saw their fellow creatures perish before their eyes and almost within grasp of them, and yet they could render them no assistance, and they had the mortification of seeing the last of that boat-load of human beings sink into a watery grave before their eyes, the wicked ferrymen among the rest."

Morning Chronicle 2 September 1809

"It was an awful calamity. It cast a gloom of horror and deepest sorrow over the northern counties. Most of the bodies were recovered in the course of time, the godly Sheriff’s among the rest, after being six weeks in the water. It was said there was not a broken bit on the body when found, and that during the whole of the time it lay in the water, at night a light shone over it. The bodies of the ferrymen were also found, but it was said they were so mutilated that, but for their clothing, they could not have been identified. Be that as it may, they got their wish. They lost their lives as suicides, and it is to be feared their happiness ended by the accomplishment of their Satanic plot."

 My Comments:

The incident of the Meikle ferry that Alexander Gunn relates happened on 16 August 1809, 11 years before he was born, and by the time he related the story in 1881 it was over seventy years after the event so it is perhaps unsurprising that he has some of his facts wrong. There had been probably hundreds of retellings of the Meikle Ferry disaster in that time with every new telling adding another layer to the narrative.

There were many reports in newspapers at the time of the Meikle ferry disaster and all are clear that the people were travelling to a market in Tain not to a communion.

The story has clearly impressed the imaginations of decades of people who were both superstitious and very religious. Some myths I have uncovered:

An old crofter who was believed to be able to predict death had foretold of a time when the young would wear seaweed in their hair and the shores of the Firth would resound with the keening of the bereaved - a prediction now accepted as the Meikle Ferry disaster.

Alexander Gunn tells of the body of the godly Sheriff being unmutilated after six weeks in the water, and having a light shining over it. The bodies of the ‘wicked’ ferrymen were said to be recognisable only from their clothes.

Another similar story says the spot where the sheriff lay was uncovered in a dream.

Several reports suggest that the ferrymen were intoxicated and negligent but in no report (other than this one) is there any suggestion that the ferrymen actually pulled the plug on the ferry or vandalised the other ferry on shore. There are reports that the boats were ill-equiped and the ferrymen unconcerned about deficiencies such as missing tholepins (a wooden peg in a rowing boat to support oars), torn sails, frayed ropes, and even broken rudders.

Northern Times 8 September 1910

Part B: The Meikle Ferry Relief fund

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