A Boating Tragedy at Burgh Head: Records of a Bygone Age

By Ian Cooper

Republished here with thanks to The Stronsay Limpet:

One fine summer’s evening many years ago, on Thursday 15th May 1862, James Brown, a blacksmith from the cottage of Hunday in Stronsay, and farm servant Peter Miller, also from Hunday, decided to go on a fishing trip off the nearby headland of Burgh Head. As was common at the time, they also planned to take a gun with them with the aim of shooting some wildfowl at the craigs around the Head to help supplement their meagre diet.

Accompanied on the trip by Peter’s 9 year old son, also called Peter, they launched a small dinghy from below the farm of Odiness and sailed across the bay to Burgh Head, where there was ample opportunity for both fishing and shooting. On arrival, James went ashore with his gun to shoot some of the seabirds from the cliffs above their roosting sites while Peter and his son kept the boat afloat a short distance from the cliffs to pick up the dead birds.

With enough birds shot to augment their diet for a week or more, James returned to the shore a short time after, bringing with him a young boy, 12 year old James Chalmers of West House near Odiness who was keen to join them for the fishing, and they were both taken aboard the dinghy.

Soon after, the wind picked up and, with a heavy swell also now setting in, a dangerous cross sea became apparent so they decided to head for home with all haste. No sooner had this decision been taken than one particularly large sea came over the side of the dinghy, half filling it with water, and seconds later another wave turned their little craft completely over, throwing all four occupants into the sea. None of the four could swim but luckily the two men managed to keep a hold of the hull of the boat as it turned over. Tragically they could do nothing to aid the two young boys who had been swept away from the dinghy and out of their reach and were both lost.

With great difficulty the two men continued to hold on to the keel of the boat for some time until another heavy wave struck their boat, righting the capsized vessel but at the same time causing the two men to lose their hold on the dinghy. Both men struggled to regain the boat and Peter Miller was fortunate enough to get a hold of the gunwale but James Brown perished in the attempt. Peter eventually managed to haul himself over the side and back into the boat, which was still half full of water, and lay there with no means of propelling the dinghy or getting himself to shore.

For most of the night he drifted with the vagaries of wind and tide right around Burgh Head, on past Lamb Head then carried south past the east side of the island of Auskerry, where the dinghy was picked up by the ebb tide and carried along past the west side of Auskerry heading down the Stronsay Firth, right on past Rothiesholm Head.

Luckily, some of the Rothiesholm lobster fishermen who had made an early start to hauling their creels that day, spotted the dinghy and headed to his rescue, finding him bruised, exhausted, and suffering the effects of exposure, and brought him safely to shore where he was able to make a full recovery and relate the heart-breaking tale of what had befallen them.

This tragic event left three young families to grieve the loss of their loved ones who, namely:

  • Twelve-year-old James Chalmers of Westhouse, one of a family of six.
  • Nine-year-old Peter Miller who had two siblings and whose father was the sole survivor of the tragedy.
  • Blacksmith James Brown, aged twenty-five, who left a widow and three young children to mourn his passing.

As so often happens after a tragedy affecting a small community, a good number of local folk, along with a group of workers making a new road in the area, made contributions to the widow and her family to help them in their time of need. In a community where so many were dependent on the bounty of the seas, this was yet another sad reminder of the ever-present dangers faced when reaping this harvest.

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