The First S.S. Saint Rognvald – Part 1

From Records of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper, republished here with kind permission from The Stronsay Limpet.

Built for the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company (commonly and affectionately referred to as the ‘North Company’) in the famous Hall Russel yard in Aberdeen, the73m, 980 ton screw steamship St Rognvald was named and launched in June 1883.

She was the 6th ship in the North Company’s small fleet of cargo and passenger vessels and, as the largest and best in the fleet, was regarded as the flagship of the shipping line. She was built primarily for the ever-popular Leith, Aberdeen, Wick (until 1890), Kirkwall and Lerwick route which ran regularly between those ports and was designed as a dual purpose vessel, carrying both cargo and passengers, but could also, if the need arose and there was a gap in her timetable, be available for charter.

As time passed, the North Company began to investigate the possibility of sailing further afield and, on 8th June 1886, placed a notice in the Scotsman advertising that the “fast and commodious steamship St Rognvald, is intended to make a special trip with a limited number of cabin passengers on Thursday, June 24 ex Leith [Edinburgh] and Aberdeen to Bergen and some of the principal fjords and places of interest on the west coast of Norway”.

Despite the short notice and a ticket price of £10 (this in a time when an ordinary labourer would be earning less than £30 a year), this 9-day cruise was soon sold out. The trip proved a great success and the Rognvald went on to make four similar sell-out trips that same year, taking her place as the first British ‘cruise ship’ to sail to that area. By today’s standards the accommodation was fairly basic, with a total of 104 berths for both first and second class passengers. Cabins could sleep from 2 to 6 passengers and there was no electric lighting or plumbing in these cabins, with passengers’ personal needs being met by a grand total of four toilets and 11 washbasins!

This success led to the North Company quickly putting in place plans to have a new vessel built specifically with cruising in mind and, in May 1887, the St Sunniva, reputedly the first ever purpose-built cruise ship, was launched to join the St Rognvald in the cruise market.

This new ship could carry up to 142 first-class only passengers in 2 or 4 berth cabins and these passengers were suitably well cared for by a number of stewards. The North Company, in advertising their new cruise ship, stated that in the construction
of all parts of the Sunniva, strength, combined with gracefulness of outline, had been considered so as to give the necessary stability and seaworthiness, together with a yacht-like appearance.

The St Rognvald and the St Sunniva, like many of the ships bearing the name of a Saint that were to follow later on this route, often had the ‘Saint’ dropped from their name, being familiarly and affectionately known as the Rognvald, the Sunniva, the Magnus or whichever Saint the ship was named after.

In 1891, the Rognvald underwent a comprehensive refit to make her more suitable for cruise passengers. These alterations included the removal of the aft cargo hold to make more accommodation for first class passengers, a promenade deck being constructed on top of the aft deckhouse and the fitting of an additional two lifeboats to the four already carried. Following on from this she, along with the Sunniva, continued their summer cruise schedules to Norway successfully for a number of years, even venturing another 1,000 miles further north to the North Cape of Norway on occasion.

By the late 1890s, competition from larger companies and possibly some lack of ambition from the North Company saw their cruises dwindle and then, in the early years of the 20th century, stop altogether as they concentrated entirely on their ‘bread and butter’ services on the ‘North run’ to and from the ports at Leith, Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick.

As the 1890s drew to a close, the St Rognvald was principally engaged in the routine trade of the Company conveying cargo and passengers between Leith, Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick every week for most of the year, although if out of season passenger numbers were low and there was little cargo to carry, she was sometimes laid up for a time in the depths of winter.

Her regular schedule saw her leaving Leith on a Friday morning, calling past Aberdeen that same day then reaching Kirkwall on Saturday morning and arriving in Lerwick that evening. On the return leg of the journey, she left Lerwick on Monday evening, arriving back in Leith on Wednesday.

With the dawn of the new century and spring in the air, the St Rognvald was once again engaged in her voyages carrying cargo and passengers on the North run. After completing her trip north and loading up her usual mix of cargo and passengers, the St Rognvald left Lerwick at 7.45 on the evening of 23rd April 1900 on her scheduled trip to Leith via Kirkwall and Aberdeen, only the third such trip she had made that year. Sea conditions were reasonable at the time, with little or no wind, but as she headed south a sea fog developed and this was to prove to be her undoing.

At 2.30 in the morning of 24th April, the St Rognvald struck rocks on the north side of Burgh Head on Stronsay. She was carrying 68 passengers, along with a crew of 36, and had a mixed cargo including Post Office mails and parcels and about 2 tons of fresh fish. She was also carrying a number of animals – 21 ponies, 34 sheep and four calves, all of which were drowned with the exception of one Shetland pony which managed to swim to a rock and was afterwards landed on Stronsay.

Also in the cargo were two cases of what was classed as “Comforts for the troops in South Africa”, this being gifts for the soldiers fighting in the Boer War, which had been raised by public subscription in Shetland. These two cases were valued at around £120 and consisted of Shetland jerseys, helmets, cowls, gloves, socks, cravats and lambswool underclothes, along with a quantity of chocolate and dried meat. Some days later, these two cases were found washed ashore on Mainland Orkney, one badly broken and with nothing salvageable in it but the other, it is said, containing among other things a total of 171 woolen shawls. What could be salvaged was saved and sent on its way to South Africa, while the North Company also made a donation of £50 to the cause.

The St Rognvald was found to be lying in an exposed and dangerous position on the edge of a submerged ledge of rock, resting on her starboard side with her bow almost touching the sheer cliffs of Burgh Head. While the water on her port side was found to be only about 10 feet deep, the water on the starboard side was up to 40 feet deep. With a large hole in her hull and the water inside the ship and out at a similar level, there was a concern that she would slip off the ledge into deep water, putting the lives of all on board at great risk.

In one of the cabins, the cabin door had become jammed shut and a panel had to be smashed with an axe before the occupants could make their exit, while a number of the other passengers didn’t even take time to change out of their night attire before they appeared on deck. As the ship was in a very precarious state, it was decided to abandon ship and orders were given to launch the lifeboats. Because of the list of the ship it was found impossible to launch the port side lifeboats at first but the starboard side boats were launched, the first one away within 10 minutes and all passengers safely off the wrecked ship within half an hour. One of the port side lifeboats was later launched with difficulty and it too played its part in getting passengers and crew safely to shore. With high cliffs along much of the coast where the Rognvald struck, those in the lifeboats rowed for close on a mile and a half looking for a spot to land. This they eventually found, landing safely on the shore below the farm of Odiness.

The survivors made their way up across the fields to the Odiness farmhouse where, after the occupants, James and Catherine Twatt, were roused from their bed, they were received and very kindly treated, with assistance from the Twatt family at Airy and the Dennisons at Fingeo among others in the area, who were also able to provide clothing and footwear for those who needed it.

My grandmother, Grace Croy, (later Grace Fotheringhame of Hescombe) was a young lass at Kirbuster, a farm that lies close to Burgh Head, at the time of the shipwreck. She was up and about tending to a sow that was having piglets when she heard the sounds of the ship running aground and would almost certainly have been the first to be aware of the grounding.

More of the St Rognvald’s last voyage in next month’s Limpet

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