Shipwrecks and loss of Life at Tain, John O’Groat Journal, 8th December 1864


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Article from the Newspapers on the tragic sinking of the Tain ship the 'Sarah' on the Gizzen Briggs.

Early on Sunday morning week, the inhabitants of Tain were thrown into a state of great excitement by the circulation of a report that the schooner ‘Sarah’ of that port, commanded by Captain Bowman, has been wrecked on the ‘Gizzen Briggs’ a long and dangerous sandbank, or bar, stretching from the Fendom Point across the Dornoch Links and that the pilot and the whole crew, with one solitary exception, had met with a watery grave.

This report unhappily proved true. The ‘Sarah’ left Newcastle on Sunday evening previous, and all went well until she arrived at Portmahomack on the night of Thursday. Here the captain took on board Donald Ross, a pilot belonging to that port, who took charge of the ship about half-past seven in the evening. From that time down to seven o’clock in the morning of Saturday, the vessel rode of Portmahomack, waiting for a favourite tide and wind to carry her across the bar, over which, we are credibly informed, the sea had for two days been rolling higher and with greater tumult and fury than had been observed in many years. The roaring of the mountainous waves could be distinctly heard at a distance of four miles, and not a little apprehension was felt for the safety of any vessel which might attempt to cross the bar.

The ‘Sarah’ weighted anchor on Saturday morning, and at once made for the harbour, favoured by a fair wind. By dint of great exertions, the crew managed to reach the ‘Middle Buoy’ and here, as regards to the wind, they encountered a dead calm, accompanied by a tremendous rolling sea, and an adverse tide. About an hour after this, the breeze freshened from the northeast but did not continue long, and as the channel at this point is very narrow, the crew let go of their anchors. In a short time, however, it was found that the anchors were dragging, and the men set sail to assist in keeping the ship ahead.

But all in vain, she drifted off among the breakers and about half-past four in the afternoon she touched the south bank on her heel, and canted over with her head to the westward and now commenced a terrible struggle for life. By the side of the captain stood a large retriever dog, his companion on many a sea voyage and on many a stormy sea. From the moment that danger for apprehended, the faithful animal would not leave his side; and he perished in the wreck while endeavouring to save his master. Each man exerted himself to seize a floating spar, but it would appear that the pilot and John Macpherson- the latter of whom alone escaped a watery grave- were the only men out of the six who succeeded in doing so.

While struggling among the broken wreck, Macpherson observed two bodies floating past, but the darkness prevented his recognising them. The pilot and Macpherson were once thrown sufficiently near to each other to admit the exchange of a few words. The last that the pilot was heard to say was that he could not keep his hold, and then Macpherson was borne away he knew not whether. From this time (half-past nine P.M., on Saturday) until after three on Sunday morning, he was tossed about in the dark and roaring sea, when all at once he found a footing and relieved himself of the timber to which he was lashed, he found to his great joy that he had been washed ashore.

It is worthy of notice that Macpherson was the only one of the crew who was able to swim, and that, he had divested himself of his heavy sea-boots, as if preparing for the fearful struggle for life through which he passed so miraculously. Macpherson’s story of the terrible fate of his companions naturally created the utmost excitement in Tain. Scores of people at once spread themselves along the shore for miles, in the expectation that some of the bodies be washed up. The beach for a long distance was found to be thickly strewn with shivered pieces of timber, wood, portions of ship furniture, and books; but there was no trace of any of the crew. During ebb tide in the afternoon of Sunday, the body of Captain Bowman was found near a portion of the wreck, and shortly afterwards that of Kenneth Munro, the mate. Further up the shore, the body of the pilot was also picked up. The two last were interred on Tuesday; the Captain’s funeral takes place today.

The names of those whose bodies have not yet been recovered are; William Bowman brother of the captain and John Mackay the cook. Captain Bowman has left a wife and four children; Munro a wife and four children and Donald Ross, one child, his wife being dead. Both ship and cargo were insured.