Tag Archives: Genealogy

The shipwreck that never was

There’s a ship called the Priscilla aground in the Pentland Firth at the moment – see for example this from the BBC News website.

Aground cargo ship Priscilla

Photo from BBC News website

My dad was a great storyteller, particularly when it came to both sides of his remarkable family, the Morrisons of North Uist and the Keiths of Thurso. The news item about the Priscilla reminded me of one of his stories which he heard as a boy from his own grandfather, Peter Keith (1847-1936). It’s the story of a shipwreck in the Pentland Firth which wasn’t quite what it seemed ….

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Peter Keith holding his grandson Peter Keith Morrison

As a lawyer and notary public in Thurso, one of Peter Keith’s more sombre tasks was recording the circumstances of shipwrecks on the treacherous Caithness coast. On the morning after a stormy night the captain of a small sailing vessel arrived in his office, looking for a notary public who would record the sorrowful events of the night before. He told how he had tried to take refuge in the Scrabster Roads area just outside Scrabster Harbour, but his ship went down, drowning both the mate and the ship’s boy and leaving him the sole survivor.  He narrated in detail the dramatic circumstances of the shipwreck and Peter Keith made notes, then told him to come back to sign the declaration once he’d had time to write it up fully.

So far, nothing unusual. But when a second man arrived in his office, claiming to be the sole survivor of a shipwreck in Scrabster Roads, Peter Keith began to wonder. Always canny, he said nothing but let the man tell his story. This time it was the ship’s mate, claiming that both the captain and the boy had drowned, but telling a quite different tale of how the vessel came to be lost. So Peter Keith once more made notes, giving nothing away, and in time both men signed their notarial protests.

It was about a fortnight later that the true story emerged, when the twice-drowned ship’s boy turned up alive and well. The ship had indeed taken refuge near Scrabster, but once she was safely tied up and the men presumably resting, both the captain and the mate independently decided to leave the ship – completely against their duty and without the other knowing. They went ashore and spent the evening in the thick, noisy warmth of (separate) pubs.  But while they were enjoying a few stolen hours ashore of good company and fast flowing drink, sheltered from the howling winds outside, the cable holding the ship secure parted, and she began to drift out to sea once more.

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Scrabster Harbour

Eventually the captain and the mate must each have made his way back to harbour. Their ship was gone.  It was a wild night, and there seemed to be only one explanation. Each believing himself to be the only survivor, he took an invented story to the notary public to save his own skin.

And meanwhile there’s a ship adrift on that wild sea, with an inexperienced boy the only person on board.

There was a powerful west wind that night and it was blowing the ship right through the Pentland  Firth. All the poor ship’s boy knew about navigating the Firth was that ‘you sail by Dunnet Head and by Cantick Head in Orkney, and you keep the Skerry lights open’. And it may have been by skill and it may have been by chance, but he brought that ship through the Pentland Firth without disaster, and was blown right out into the North Sea. Here she was picked up by a Norwegian ship and taken in tow, and the ship’s boy eventually got back to shore.

That’s where the story ends, although of course like all good stories it leaves me wanting more. Who was the ship’s boy and what happened to him? What a story he had to tell for the rest of his life! What about the captain and the mate, what happened to them?

There just might be some answers. The whole story was recorded in Peter Keith’s Protocol Book. There’s a collection of Keith Family Papers in Caithness Archives which I consulted when researching War Classics, the story of Peter Keith’s daughter Christina’s time with the troops in World War One.  Among those papers is the Second Protocol Book of Peter Keith. I have no dates and no names for these events, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story of the shipwreck which never was appeared in some form among its pages!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Loos: a personal story

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Today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Loos, a battle which left deep scars on Scotland. There are commemorations taking place in various locations across the country this weekend, including Dundee and Inverness, home to some of the regiments which were so brutally affected.

Around 30,000 Scots were involved in the battle, and the losses were absolutely devastating. Loos was an attempt by the Allied forces to gain ground and create movement in attack, but as the troops launched their attack on 25 September it became clear that much of the German barbed wire was still in place, and the enemy machine guns and artillery were ready and waiting. A failure to provide reinforcements and relief to the first wave of attack contributed to the horror that unfolded. Loos was also the first time that the British army used poison gas.

My great-uncle, Alexander Morrison (Sandy), was killed at Loos on 25 September, one hundred years ago today.

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Sandy Morrison as school captain

Sandy was the third of seven brothers, born to Hebridean parents living near Oban. The family moved to Edinburgh for the sake of the education of the boys, sending them to George Watson’s College. By all accounts, Sandy was outstanding. This could simply be family legend, the natural result of grief over his death, but it seems to be borne out elsewhere.

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The Morrison family: Sandy is standing on the far right.

I spent the last three years of my schooling at the same school as the Morrison brothers. I remember towards the end of either fifth or sixth year, during that wonderful lazy time we used to have after exams (which today’s students don’t have with the much more efficient but much less enjoyable system of moving on before the summer holidays) I managed to escape some classes and spent the time instead in the library, going through old editions of the school magazine searching for references to the Morrison brothers. (Yes, I’ve been obsessed by all this stuff since back then!) There are some hugely entertaining references to these loud voiced Gaelic speakers keeping everyone else awake on camp, or to one of the brothers playing the bagpipes through Morningside at midnight, and many references to their full involvement in school life. Through it all it’s clear that Sandy was exceptional, and you can find out more about his school career here.

After school Sandy studied agriculture at Edinburgh University, then emigrated to become a farmer in Edmonton, Canada. The records suggest he was already making his way home to Scotland – probably for a visit – when war was declared. He joined up with the Cameron Highlanders, becoming a Captain.

In 2008 I was working on an oral history project, and took the opportunity to record some of my father’s wealth of family stories. This is his account of Sandy’s death at Loos, one hundred years ago today:

On the 24th of September 1914 Shakes [Sandy’s brother, William Shepherd Morrison] was stationed at Loos and he was forward in the trenches because he was spotting the fall of the shells and he met his brother Sandy. Now Sandy according to the family was the brightest of them all and the leading one of the family, and he had become a farmer in Canada but immediately that the First World War broke out he came back to Britain. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and at this stage he was a Captain in the 5th Camerons. The Colonel was Lochiel, Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of the Camerons. And there was to be a big attack on the Germans on the following day, the 25th, and the order was that the officers were not to be armed with their revolvers as was usual, but they were to carry rifles. But Sandy carried neither. He went into battle with an axe. His company was a Gaelic speaking company – this is the 20th century, but this is what happened! The night before then he met Shakes and he told Shakes that he didn’t think he would survive the following day and he didn’t – he was killed in the attack. And they found his body lying beside three dead Germans all with axe wounds on them.

One hundred years on it’s hard to be sure of the truth of this family anecdote. Despite the story, Sandy’s body was never found and buried – like 20,000 others who fell at Loos he has no known grave but is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. But of course, in the carnage and confusion of a battle which lasted for days, someone might well have seen his body and testified to the manner of his death without a burial taking place or being recorded.

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There is in fact an echo of the story of the axe in an unexpected place. In War Classics, my book about Christina Keith’s time in France at the close of the First World War, I published some letters written by her brother Barrogill to their mother from the Western Front. Just a few weeks after Loos, Barrogill was repeating a story he’d heard about the actions of someone they knew during the battle:

I heard that AS Pringle – who was north with Keith Fraser – has been badly hit. He was magnificently game. With a battleaxe and a revolver old Toosie got over the trenches. He was hit 4 or 5 times and still fighting when last seen.

So maybe Sandy did go into battle armed with only an axe, and maybe he wasn’t the only one. If so, it’s perhaps little surprise that he didn’t survive the horrors of Loos. His death was a huge loss to the family – decades later my grandfather, a doctor, still kept a photograph of his older brother in his consulting room. In Sandy Morrison we see the loss of someone with enormous potential – a tragedy which is repeated in the lives of every single one of those young men who fell.

In memoriam.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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I spent yesterday working in the ScotlandsPeople centre, doing some genealogy research for a client.

I love working there – climbing the steps into such a fabulous building and walking through the dome on the way to the search rooms. The system’s really easy to use, and it’s much better value than working remotely if you have a lot to do. Everything’s digitised, it’s simple to search, and you can whizz from generation to generation in minutes.

When I first started doing genealogy research, the original records were brought right to your desk. (It’s not that I’m that old, just that I started doing this when I was a teenager – yes, really!) After hunting through enormous index volumes to find the right entry, you filled out a slip and waited for the book to be physically located and produced – at which point you hoped you really had identified the right person, as otherwise you’d wasted half an hour or more. Any information had to copied out by hand, in pencil of course.

Now you log in, press a few buttons, and view the record instantly on screen.

It makes perfect sense, both for convenience and for preservation of the records … but I found myself thinking yesterday how glad I am that I started doing this in the days when you got to handle the real thing.

For me, that seemed particularly significant when looking at the first statutory registers of births, marriages and deaths in Rogart. My great-great-great grandfather, William Forrest, was schoolmaster, session clerk and registrar, and wrote many of the entries in these volumes. People came to his home, Rogart Schoolhouse, with their fee, and he brought out these books and recorded the information in them.

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Modern school at Rogart

On one page of deaths from 1855 the first two entries are in his untidy handwriting – but an assistant registrar was called on for the third one. That’s because it records the death of William’s own little two-year-old daughter Hellen from meningitis, and his signature appears this time not as registrar but as bereaved father.

Rogart Church, where Hellen is buried.

Now that the original records are no longer routinely handed out, I feel privileged to have held the very books which were handled by William as he recorded the births and deaths of the local community and of his own family.

Somehow, it beats looking at a screen.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.