Tag Archives: Thurso

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 ….

Peter Keith

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.

233

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.

 

 

 

 

 

William Keith and the Battle of Jutland

Christina Keith, whose extraordinary wartime story you can read in War Classics, was the eldest of eight children. The Keith family, like so many others, saw one child after another drawn into a different aspect of the First World War. One of her brothers, William Bruce Keith, joined the Navy and was involved in the Battle of Jutland, the centenary of which is being remembered today.

001

William as a boy, appropriately dressed in a sailor suit.

William is known as ‘Uncle Bill’ in our family, but when he was a young boy his brothers and sisters called him ‘Willie’. He was born on 15 April 1898, so was just 16 at the outbreak of war. According to my father:

William wanted to go into the Navy and he discovered that he had just missed the date by which he had to apply and he would have to do something else, and then the war broke out so he was able to get in after all.

The Navy at Scapa Flow was a very real presence in the lives of the Keith family living in Thurso, and in her memoir Christina often refers to the familiar sight of battleships in the Pentland Firth. In 1916 William, now aged 18, was a midshipman on HMS Warspite.  He describes the whole engagement in vivid detail in a letter to his brother Barrogill, who was serving with the army in France.

Our steering gear now got jammed and we started turning in circles – just before the ‘Defence’, which was quite close to us, caught fire and vanished. We were now helpless and the Germans seeing us turning in circles singled us out and concentrated on us. We had about 6 or 7 firing at us, and we couldn’t reply as we were turning so quickly that the guns wouldn’t train fast enough. Shells were bursting all around us, and I thought it was all up. One shell dropped so close that the spray from it drenched us in the foretop. We were hit several times and one small splinter came into the foretop.

Eventually the focus of the battle moved on, and they managed to sort the steering and were ordered to return to Rosyth. In an understatement so typical of the writings of the time, William says they were ‘rather hungry and tired’. Fourteen men had been killed and sixteen wounded. Inside the ship they found a scene of devastation, with chairs, tables, lamps and pictures broken into pieces. All lifeboats and rafts had been smashed, and they were in immediate danger of being torpedoed, so the men made makeshift rafts from the broken furniture. They eventually made it back to Rosyth in safety, and William writes, ‘when we got inside the Forth Bridge we did feel thankful.’

He was able to take some leave at home in Thurso, just across the water from the naval base at Scapa Flow on Orkney. Today, one hundred years on, a service was held in beautiful St Magnus Cathedral to commemorate the 8500 men, both British and German, who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland.

 

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

Barrogill Keith

Barrogill

Back to thinking about the Keiths ….

I discovered this week that there’s an exhibition of paintings by Barrogill Keith currently being held in Thurso. Barrogill (his unusual name comes from the nearby Barrogill Castle, which is now known as the Castle of Mey and is associated with the Queen Mother) was my great-uncle. His eldest sister was Christina, whose First World War memoir I published as War Classics, along with some of Barrogill’s own letters from the Western Front. His youngest sister Patricia was my grandmother, and was also an artist.

I’m very excited to be heading up to Thurso soon to see the exhibition, and to spend some time in their hometown once more.

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

Miss Tiny Keith

young ChristinaYesterday I found this wonderful article about Christina from when she was 14 years old. It must have been published c1903, probably in the Caithness Courier or John o Groat Journal, although the clipping doesn’t give a source. I love the picture, from the days when it was too expensive to take a photograph for a short piece on schoolgirl prizes.

It seems there’s always more to find!

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the western front, edited by Flora Johnston, is published by The History Press

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

Publication

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front is now available to purchase via The History Press, Amazon, Waterstones and other websites.

Christina cover

It tells the story of a young academic from Thurso who travelled to France towards the end of the First World War as a lecturer with the army’s education scheme. Christina was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which was most affected by the war. The two themes of education and war intertwine through the book.

Christina writes with warmth and affection of her encounters with the troops, while her account of travelling across devastated battlefields is both vivid and moving. The book also includes letters written by her brother, David Barrogill Keith, from the Front.

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

Women’s education and war

It’s two years now since I first became fascinated by the memoir of Christina Keith, my great-aunt from Thurso. My father – her nephew – has owned this manuscript for many years and I knew of its existence, but had never actually read it. Now it’s to be published. SKMBT_C28413080512270

Christina was an academic who spent much of her working life as a lecturer in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Born in 1889, she was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which would be most affected by the First World War. These two themes, women’s education and war, intertwine in Christina’s story.

Towards the end of the First World War – although it’s worth remembering that when she signed up she didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ – Christina travelled to France to take part in the army’s education scheme. She taught soldiers of all backgrounds, immersed herself in army life, and was one of the first women to travel across the devastated battlefields once the guns had fallen silent. She has left a fascinating memoir of her time in France which offers a truly fresh perspective on life on the Western Front as the conflict drew to a close.

I spent a wonderful few months in 2012 exploring Christina’s story from her early years as the eldest child in a large Caithness family, through her choice to pursue an academic career in male-dominated subjects, and on to her time in France.  The resulting book consists of my narrative of Christina’s story, her own memoir in full with explanatory notes, and some letters written by her brother Barrogill Keith from the front line. It will be published in March 2014 by The History Press, and you can preorder from Amazon or Waterstones.

Lots more on this to follow over the next few months!

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