Culture

The first S.S. Saint Rognvald – Part 2

By Ian Cooper. Part of his series Records of a bygone age republished here with kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet

In last month’s Limpet we left the St Rognvald in the early morning of 24th April 1900, hard aground on Burgh Head and the passengers all safely ashore at Odiness and neighbouring farms. The First S.S. Saint Rognvald – Part 1

The story continues:

Later that morning, after news of the shipwreck reached Kirkwall, the Orcadia was despatched to Stronsay where she took on board all the Rognvald’s passengers and conveyed them to Kirkwall. They were then taken to Aberdeen by the St Ninian the following day.

Mr Merrilees, the manager of the North Company, had left for Orkney as soon as he heard of the grounding and hired the steamer Fawn to take him to Stronsay on Wednesday 25th, where he saw for himself that there was no hope of refloating her in her present condition, although he still had hopes of a successful salvage operation. The Fawn returned to Kirkwall with Mr Merrilees and most of the St Rognvald’s crew later that day. The crew were then conveyed to Aberdeen where, on arrival, they were able to sign on to crew the North Company’s steamer St Magnus and take her to Newcastle, where she was due for her annual refit.

The Orcadia was to make another trip out to Stronsay on Thursday 26th, this time an excursion trip, leaving Kirkwall about 3 pm and carrying passengers to the scene of the wreck so that they could see first-hand the St Ronald lying in such a sad state. Captain Young of the Liverpool Salvage Association, along with some divers, also visited the wreck on Thursday 26th, and tugs and pumping equipment had already been sent for but, as a result of the examination made, these were stood down and by Saturday the steamer had been declared a total wreck.

The following Monday, 30th April, a strong gale of easterly wind raised the sea and the St Rognvald slipped off the ledge she was lying on into deep water where she began to break up. Nine years previously, the St Rognvald had stranded at the Head of Work near Kirkwall while entering the harbour there and, by strange coincidence, two of the passengers that night, a Lerwick merchant Mr J L Pole and Rev Robert Andrew from Walls in Shetland had also been passengers in the previous stranding.

The stranding and sinking of the St Rognvald must be one of the best documented shipwrecks on Stronsay, as many of the passengers aboard her recorded their own stories of the event, many of which were published around that time. Many of the accounts bear testimony to the fact that, if there had been a heavy sea running that night instead of it being perfectly calm, not a soul would have reached shore alive.

Below is one such account given by Rev Robert Andrew, who was a long-time minister in Shetland, and recorded his
story in the Shetland Times of 28th April 1900:

Exciting narrative by a Shetland minister

Twice stranded on the St Rognvald Rev Robert Andrew, MA, parish minister of Walls and Sandness, Shetland, related a very interesting narrative of his experience on board the St Rognvald. Mr Andrew, who had been 15 years in Shetland, having been appointed to his present charge in 1885, is a native of Paisley, and was on his way from Walls to Edinburgh.

He stated that shortly after 2 o’clock on Tuesday morning, when all the cabin passengers were asleep, and everything was still, he was suddenly awakened by the sound of the vessel grinding and grating on the rocks.

I wondered what had happened when I heard the steward crying “get the lifebelts”. We were all awake in a few moments, and some in very scanty clothing rushed on deck. But there was nothing to be seen. I hastily dressed myself and went on deck.

The vessel was lying on her side practically, and there was nothing in front but a high precipitous cliff, frowning above the vessel. There was not a sign of panic, hardly any excitement; just a severe nervous tension, for everybody was wondering what next would happen. Fortunately the weather was calm, and the sea hardly rippling, although there was a thick fog hanging around.

I heard some story about a lack of lifebelts, but what truth there is in that I cannot tell; all I can say is that there were plenty for all the cabin passengers. We were all calm and collected; indeed one could scarcely imagine that the St Rognvald was in a precarious position so far as the after passengers were concerned. Probably there was some excitement among those in the fore part of the vessel, but I did not go there, and I don’t know what happened there.

There were 12 ladies on board, and they kept their nerves in admirable control; I have been on a stranded vessel before, and I can assure you that I never saw such serenity and quietness as they exhibited on Tuesday morning.

The order was given to put on the lifebelts, and we did so. Then the lifeboats were made ready for lowering. I don’t want to make any remarks about the lowering of the lifeboats; the seamen, I am convinced, did their best, and if there was any at all it will be discovered in the inquiry.

Now, as regards the weather, I don’t know what kind it was before the St Rognvald struck but immediately we jumped into one of the lifeboats a shifting mist, which sometimes completely obscured the land hung around us; then, in a minute or two it would lift and disappear. As I said, the night was extremely quiet. Had that not been the case, not a single soul of the passengers would have been saved. Ahead of the boat rose a range of precipitous rocks. The St Rognvald from amidships to the fore part was firmly wedged on a reef, hanging over towards deep water, about 7 fathoms. Just after she struck, and while the boats were being launched, the vessel rocked and reeled in a very dangerous way; how dangerous we did not really comprehend until daylight. Then we saw that had the rocking continued she would have tilted upside down into 40 feet of water.

Had the weather been squally, the St Rognvald with every soul on board would have been thrown over the rocks, and nothing could have saved anybody. Even had we managed to launch the boats it would have been impossible to take them ashore in a gale through all the reefs and rocks which abound on that coast. As it was, with a perfectly placid sea, we managed to get everybody into the lifeboats without mishap, but we couldn’t land anywhere near the place that the vessel was stranded. The sailors pulled us a mile and a quarter round the coast to a place called Odiness. There is a farm at that place, and when the people there learned about our position they took us in and made us as comfortable as they possibly could. Indeed, we were all very grateful to Mr James Twatt, the farmer, for his hospitality. You know that there were about 70 passengers on board the St Rognvald. I think there were four boats, and we had to go back for another load of passengers before all were on dry land again.

Capt Masson remained on his vessel directing the removal of the passengers and keeping everybody cool by his demeanour. But when all had been landed, the officers and seamen took to the boats and rowed about in the vicinity of the St Rognvald all night. You will understand by that fact alone that the captain expected the vessel to founder any moment. About midday, the people of Kirkwall had heard all about our accident, and the Orcadia was sent in relief. When we looked at the St Rognvald in daylight we could only congratulate ourselves upon what seemed a marvellous escape. The vessel was lying broadside on a ledge of rocks, with a high, bare mass of cliffs behind. What seems to have happened is this; the St Rognvald would be speeding straight for the cliffs, when she encountered the sunken rocks. Apparently she got over them and stuck there. That was a merciful Providence. If the vessel had gone on she would have crashed against the solid wall of rock and been smashed to pieces. That is the general opinion; but of course, don’t quote me as an authority.

I remarked that I was in a stranded ship once before. The stranded ship was the St Rognvald. This is a very curious coincidence, is it not? Of course, during the 15 years that I have been minister at Walls I have crossed from Shetland to the mainland many times, but I have only twice been a passenger on the St Rognvald.

The first time was nine years ago, when the vessel stranded near the spot where she lies today. The second time – well, I have been describing my second experience. So far as my luggage is concerned – well, I got a bag, but I’ve lost my watch and chain, and I’d rather have let everything else go than these. I had put the watch under my pillow, and in the hurry and stir I overlooked them. Strangely enough other things have been got from the cabin in which I was sleeping, but not the watch and chain – they have been perhaps forgotten.

The Orcadia took the passengers from the farm at Odiness to Kirkwall, where we were lodged until the arrival of the St Ninian. As yet we have not been asked to pay anything by way of expenses. A few of us will have a bill for effects lost, I should think.

In concluding his interview, Rev Mr Andrew remarked that he had heard some story, the accuracy of which he could not vouch for, regarding a momentary excitement among second-class passengers after the steamer grounded, but afterwards when they got into the boats, all were in a settled calm.

The final part of the St Rognvald’s last voyage will be in next month’s Limpet.
Ian Cooper
November 2021

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