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Moving memorial for Duncansby tragedy of 1959


By David G Scott

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DUNCANSBY Head lighthouse was the setting for a memorial event to honour the lives of the men lost during the George Robb trawler disaster of 1959.

Sixty years before, 13 men had lost their lives when the Aberdeen boat foundered on rocks near the Stacks of Duncansby. Twelve of the crew died, as well as a coastguard officer from Wick who was involved in the rescue attempt.

At exactly 2.22pm flares were sent up from each of the three lifeboats sitting offshore from Duncansby Head lighthouse and their horns were sounded for 10 seconds to commemorate the dead.Pictures: DGS
At exactly 2.22pm flares were sent up from each of the three lifeboats sitting offshore from Duncansby Head lighthouse and their horns were sounded for 10 seconds to commemorate the dead.Pictures: DGS

Andrew Mowat, treasurer of the John O'Groats Development Trust, was instrumental in setting up Friday's event and was delighted that those who attended gave more than £300 in donations towards the erection of a permanent memorial to be sited in the area.

He said: "It was an absolutely excellent day with a great turnout from ex-services, the coastguard, local people and the many relatives who had travelled from as far away as London to be here."

During his speech in the Seaview Hotel, which he runs at John O'Groats, Mr Mowat said the permanent memorial will commemorate not only the George Robb tragedy but the loss of other boats, including the Cyprus-registered cargo ship Cemfjord which sank in the Pentland Firth in January 2015. The old foghorn from Duncansby lighthouse will be incorporated into the memorial.

The hotel lounge was packed to the gunwales and many listened to the stories from relatives and others who had a direct connection to the trawler disaster.

Earlier, many attended a memorial service at Duncansby Head lighthouse conducted by retired local minister the Rev Lyall Rennie who offered up prayers to the men lost in the tragedy. Readings from the Bible came from retired Merchant Navy man Mike Coupland and Alison Smith on behalf of the coastguard service. An emphasis was put on the role of Jesus's disciples as fishermen and how their master calmed the Sea of Galilee when a dreadful storm brewed up.

It was a brisk and chilly afternoon but nothing in comparison to the conditions 60 years before. The tidal streams flowing through the Pentland Firth earned it the title Hell’s Mouth and, when coupled with huge seas and 100mph winds, the crew had little chance of being saved despite valiant attempts to rescue them.

Mary Edmondson played organ at the event. Mary is also a prolific artist and shows a painting of the stacks at Duncansby Head where the disaster occurred.
Mary Edmondson played organ at the event. Mary is also a prolific artist and shows a painting of the stacks at Duncansby Head where the disaster occurred.

Flares were sent up by the three lifeboats – from Wick, Thurso and Longhope – that were in attendance close to the cliffs at Duncansby. As the roll call of names was read out, coastguard man Ivor Thomas liaised with the lifeboat crew so that 13 white roses could be cast adrift from the boats simultaneously. Wreaths were also dropped from each lifeboat and drifted off into the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth.

George MacLeod from North Murchison Street, Wick, was one of the coastguard volunteers called out that fateful night in December 1959. He was roused from his sleep at 1.30am by a policeman.

George MacLeod talked of his memories from the night of the disaster.
George MacLeod talked of his memories from the night of the disaster.

"The policeman told me to jump in the car with him," he said. "They had the blue flashing light on. It was a terrible night and a struggle to get out there.

"We fired a line but they couldn't grab it. I would have tried abseiling down but the commander said no."

Mr MacLeod (81) said he was there the whole night and searchlights were trained on the stricken vessel. Wick coastguard officer Eric Campbell, who was 50, collapsed and died beside him of what was thought to be a heart attack. "I had to help carry him away with my brother who was there that night too.

"I still get nightmares about it all. I can see the feet of the [dead] men hanging out the back of the civil defence Land Rover the next day."

He recalled that he had to cycle the 19 miles home the following morning with a bike borrowed from a local nurse.

Marshall Ryles travelled all the way from Cambridge to pay tribute to his father, who was the skipper of the George Robb and shared the same name. By chance he overheard a man he had never met before talking about his father when looking at newspaper clippings in the Seaview Hotel.

"I'd never actually met him before but it turns out it's my cousin and he was talking about the man in the newspaper being his uncle," Mr Ryles said. "It's totally amazing and we'll keep in touch now."

He said the commemorative event was a great opportunity to meet other relatives of the George Robb crew.

Mr Ryles said he "vividly remembers" hearing about his father's death. "My grandmother was looking after me and just said, 'You're not going to school today,' and that was it. I went into the grocer's across the road who said something about a tragedy with the George Robb.

"I ran back and asked my grandmother and the rest is history."

Marshall Ryles, left, holds the broken ship's wheel from the George Robb along with his cousin Gordon Wrigley.
Marshall Ryles, left, holds the broken ship's wheel from the George Robb along with his cousin Gordon Wrigley.

Dave Hanson is the nephew of Wick coastguard officer Eric Campbell who died at the scene of the rescue. He talked about some little-known details of what happened to his uncle.

"I was only seven when he died but I remember coming up to Wick and meeting him. He was a jovial chap and always smoked a pipe. I always remember him with a smile on his face."

Mr Hanson said that contrary to the details reported at the time his uncle did not die of a heart attack.

"He picked up some ropes for the rocket launcher and the wind took his breath away," he said.

Dave Hanson's uncle was the coastguard officer who died at the scene.
Dave Hanson's uncle was the coastguard officer who died at the scene.

"It literally burst his lungs in his body and killed him instantly."

John Flett from Wick was a fisherman at the time and a lifeboat volunteer too. "It was too stormy to go from Wick harbour so we went overland to reach the site," he said.

"I could see the men at the wheelhouse. The Longhope lifeboat fired off flares and we could see the whole thing happening.

"Every rocket we fired went back up over our heads."

Mr Flett fought to get dole money paid out to the fishermen who lost their benefit after they helped in the rescue bid. He also felt a calling from God and joined the Salvation Army as a direct result of what he had witnessed.

"I wanted to do something else with my life. Within two years I sold my boat and went on to join the Salvation Army."

Mr Flett, in his new role, was also a first responder at the Aberfan disaster in 1966 and was involved in helping at Lockerbie when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded and crashed into the village.

Donations to help fund the creation of the permanent memorial can be made to John O'Groats Development Trust via its Facebook page or by contacting Andrew Mowat by email at seaview@fastmail.com


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