Stronsay’s First Lifeboat: The John Ryburn

Part 1

By Ian Cooper from his series ‘Records From A Bygone Age’ published in the Stronsay Limpet.

Stronsay has twice had the privilege of being a Lifeboat Station for the North Isles of Orkney and played host to lifeboats of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The first was the period stretching from 1901 until 1915 when, due to so many of our young men being involved in the war effort in Orkney and overseas, it was no longer possible to guarantee a crew to man the lifeboat and the Station had to be temporarily closed. The second period was from 1952 until the Station was finally closed in 1972, with a lifeboat service being provided from Kirkwall. This article takes a look at Stronsay’s first lifeboat and the men who sailed in her.

For thousands of years Orkney’s many sheltered bays and natural harbours have provided safe haven for shipping from all over Europe but, at the same time, Orkney’s rugged coasts have been the graveyard for an untold number of ships and, on many occasions, also of their crews.

Steps were gradually being taken to try to ensure safe passage for ships within and around Orkney waters, with a lighthouse built on North Ronaldsay – only the third one to be built in Scotland – in 1789. This was followed in 1794 by a lighthouse on the Pentland Skerries, on Sanday’s Start Point in 1806, Hoy High and Hoy Low in 1851, Cantick Head in 1858 and on the little island of Auskerry in 1867. Yet more were to follow, with lighthouses on Helliar Holm in 1893, Noup Head in 1895 and with Orkney’s last major lighthouse built on Copinsay in 1915.

The necessity to do everything possible to save lives at sea was also recognised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution with the opening of a Station at Stromness where a lifeboat was placed in 1867, followed by the opening of the Longhope Lifeboat Station in 1874. Although these two lifeboats provided good cover for the Pentland Firth and the southern part of Orkney, it was a long journey for the Stromness boat to offer assistance to any ships in distress in the North Isles of Orkney and beyond.

As the 19th century rolled on into the 20th, an ever-increasing number of ships were sailing between and around the North Isles of Orkney, many of these being cargo ships and drifters involved in the growing herring fishing industry based in Stronsay. It had long been recognised that these North Isles would benefit greatly from having a lifeboat stationed in the area and, in 1904, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution agreed in principle to set up a Lifeboat Station and provide a lifeboat in the isles.

With the herring fishing in Stronsay getting ever busier, being fairly central in the isles and having a good natural harbour, Stronsay was the favoured location to place a lifeboat. These calls were made stronger when the passenger and cargo steamer St Rognvald was wrecked, fortunately with no loss of life, on Stronsay’s Burgh Head in 1900 and even more so with the tragic loss of the Portknockie steam drifter Evangeline and all eight of her crew on Grice Ness in 1905. With this increasing vocal support, momentum was gathering to get the Stronsay station operational and also to have a lighthouse erected on the north east coast of Papa Stronsay.

The Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses were soon to authorise David Stevenson of the famous Stevenson lighthouse building family to design a lighthouse for Papa Stronsay. This was quickly done, with the building of the 27ft (8.2m) lighthouse being completed in late 1906 and first being lit in February the following year. The lifeboat was to take a little longer.

The RNLI’s 1904 ‘agreement in principle’ slowly turned into reality and, with Stronsay now agreed as the best location for a new Station, a deputation of Stronsay fishermen had visited a number of lifeboat stations looking at the various types of boat available, both self-righting and non self-righting models. Their favoured vessel was a 43ft non self-righting lifeboat, designed by G L Watson, which they felt was the better sea boat and this was the type it was agreed should be placed at the new Station. Lifeboats based on Mr Watson’s designs were being built right up until the 1960s, with approaching 200 ‘Watson’ class lifeboats of various specifications going into service for the RNLI over the years.

Then, in June 1907, Inspector of Lifeboats Lieutenant Basil Hall visited Stronsay where, under his guidance, a local branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was set up and a local Committee formed. The same gentleman also visited Kirkwall, setting up a sister branch there. He reported that Stronsay’s new boat, which was to be the first to be fitted with a motor, was in the process of being built and that he hoped to bring this new boat up to Orkney himself later that year. That proved to be wildly optimistic!

The RNLI already had a number of steam-powered lifeboats in use but, following successful trials with internal combustion engines, it had previously been agreed that all their new lifeboats should have these fitted and that the three new lifeboats, already on order and in the process of being built by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of London, were all to be fitted with these new engines. These boats were all destined for the north of Scotland, as replacement lifeboats for the existing boats at Thurso and Stromness and as the first boat for the new Station at Stronsay, but only two, the Stromness and Stronsay boats, finished up being fitted, with motors. These two new lifeboats, although fitted with the new internal combustion engines, also had two lug sails and had provision for 5 rowlocks on either side with the accompanying oars provided for use if the need ever arose for the vessels to be rowed. Eventually, by spring 1909, all three were fitted out ready for use.

These boats were still docked on the Thames, where they had been built and fitted out, awaiting their new crews to collect them and take them home. After some confusion and misunderstanding regarding the crew of the Stromness lifeboat’s availability to travel at what was a busy time of year for them, eleven crewmen from Stronsay travelled down to London to bring both the Stronsay and Stromness lifeboats home and they were joined by men from the Thurso station, who were also being provided with a new boat. Members of the crew were paid 5/- (25p) per day while they were away, with an additional 5/- per day to cover food, and any other expenses also being paid.

The three ships – Stronsay’s ‘John Ryburn’, Stromness’s ‘John A Hay’ and the sail and oar powered ‘Sarah Austin’ for Thurso formed a small flotilla to head north together, leaving London on 15th April 1909 and, with overnight stops at many ports on the way, this epic voyage, which had not been without its problems, concluded when the ‘John Ryburn’ eventually arrived in Stronsay on 15th May after a journey lasting a full month and covering over 800 miles.

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