I was prompted to write this article simply because I wanted to set the record straight for our family. I was born in Campbeltown, Argyll in 1939. My father, David S MacArthur, was born in Campbeltown in 1910, the son of Tom and Lizzie MacArthur (nee Stephen). He was a teacher at Milknowe Primary School, but also wrote plays for radio and television, his best known work being Days Of Grace which I believe was broadcast as far away as New Zealand. He also wrote a book titled The Thunderbolt Men of which I have a copy, but I had great difficulty finding it.
The story of the rescue of The Jane’s crew in 1908 was shrouded in the mists of time. We are quite a large family and we all knew something about the rescue but the details differed greatly from member to member. I was keen to determine the facts so that we could all know what actually happened on that cold and stormy December night.
The people who would have known the details have all died, so the only way to find out was to search for records of the rescue. I found what I was looking for in The Argyllshire Herald dated 2nd January 1909, but this was after many attempts which took me nowhere.
I was not aware at the time that a cousin was researching the same topic. We both thought that our grandfather was a lifeboat man, therefore it was through lifeboat records that we were trying to find the details. We knew of the approximate date, but did not know the name of the boat involved. Having found nothing we came to the conclusion that he was not a lifeboat man after all. It was about the same time that we realised we were trying to do the same thing, so we pooled our resources and eventually came up with what actually happened.
My grandfather Tom McArthur was a seaman home for Christmas with his wife and four children. That December had been particularly wet and stormy, with more snow than normal for Campbeltown. Irrespective of the weather it was custom for the men folk to gather at the “weigh house” smoke their pipes and discuss all the problems of the day. It was on such a day that my grandfather'’ life changed forever.
On that fateful day in December 1908, two ketches were among the vessels sheltering in Campbeltown harbour. One of them was the “Jane” of Belfast loaded with coal for Larne, and the other vessel, which was in ballast, was the “Margaret Wotherspoon” of Gigha. Both crews must have thought the worst of their trip was over – They were at anchor and wouldride out the storm in safety, but this was not to be true.
As already stated, the weather was particularly bad, with heavy snow showers causing white out conditions, and, to compound the problem, the gale force wind was coming in from the south east, whipping the sea into an angry cauldron of waves, which were lashing the harbour wall with tremendous force.
Owing to the high winds and its direction, both the “Jane” and the “Margaret Wotherspoon” began to drag their anchors. The crew set off distress flares at about seven o’clock in the evening. The “Margaret Wotherspoon” was driven onto the muddy bottom of the mussel ebb, but she was in no danger and the lifeboat was not required to give assistance. The “Jane on the other hand, had foundered in deeper water about fifty yards from Dalantober Quay with “great waves” breaking over her. The crew took to the rigging and lashed themselves there to await rescue.
The lifeboat had already been out to a rescue off Arran (the schooner “Bessie Arnold” of Whitehaven) and had been damaged trying to get alongside. She was actually lifted by a huge wave and planted right on top of the stricken vessel, but she was lifted off again with the next wave. Although she suffered some damage to her hull, she managed to limp back to harbour and was moored opposite the Victoria Hall.
It was obvious that the “Jane” required urgent assistance if the crew was to be saved, and though the lifeboat was scarcely in a fit state for further service she was manned by a fresh crew and got underway. The intention was to drop anchor and drift down to the “Jane”, but the anchor failed to hold and the lifeboat was driven past her and dashed against the harbour wall, causing further and conclusive damage.
Seeing this, a Dalantober seaman, Captain Duncan Martin, decided to take a crew of volunteers (James Waterson, James Meenan, James S McLean, Colin McSporran, A McLennan and W McLennan) and try to reach the “Jane” in a line skiff, which was moored at the old quay. These fishing skiffs were small and shallow draughted, certainly not designed for putting to sea in such conditions, but it seemed the only way to get to the stricken vessel to rescue those exposed and suffering men. It was an incredibly brave thing to attempt to do but it appeared to be the best option.
The crew took life belts and grapnels and manoeuvred the small craft towards the stricken ketch. The skiff behaved brilliantly as she was tossed like a cork on her mercy mission, the crew were all experts and kept the little boat on course despite the conditions. The many people on the shore were delighted to watch the progress, as the other boats in the harbour shone their lamps, lighting up the route. The crew managed to get a cable secured to the “Jane” and hopes were rising that it would all be over shortly. Unfortunately however, the cable snapped and in the process the skiff shipped a lot of water. Despite this mishap, Captain martin kept trying to get along side again and secure another line, but the valiant attempts were unsuccessful and they had to return leaving the crew of the “Jane” to the elements.
There was a sadness and frustration among the volunteers and also among the many people lining the waterfront. The stricken vessel was only fifty yards from the shore, yet those unfortunate men – their pitiable cries for help carried shoreward by the wind – apparently could not be rescued. The crowd of onlookers increased as the whole town became aware of the desperate attempt to rescue the crew stranded so near and yet so far from safety.
During the night the storm worsened, rendering any further rescue attempt impossible. It must have been terrible for the “Jane’s” crew seeing the many people on the shore not answering their cries for help – and dreadful too for the many seafarers watching helplessly as the drama unfolded and unable to do anything about it. The crowd kept vigil all night, waiting for the storm to drop.
It was 6 o’clock in the morning before the storm had died down sufficiently to allow another rescue attempt to be made. Captain Martin, with another crew, James McLean, Hugh McLean, Danial Morans, Archibald Blair, James Meenan (who was also in the first crew) and Thomas McArthur, my Grandfather set out again in another line skiff. This time in less turbulent waters, they were able to get alongside and board the “Jane”. It must have been a harrowing sight – two crewmembers lashed to the cross yard and the third entangled in the rigging.
The man in the rigging, Captain Houston had died of exposure, but his two sons were still alive and were taken down and helped on to the skiff. Captain Houston proved difficult to get down and our family believes that it was during that exertion that my Grandfather damaged his back (as a result of which he never worked again). The two brothers were taken to Dalantober House, the home of Mr and Mrs Ross Wallace where they received medical attention and hospitality.
At a public ceremony in the Town Hall, Campbeltown, in January of the following year Provost MacNeal presented Captain Martin with the Silver Medal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in recognition of his “gallant conduct”.
I must thank my cousins Myra Lawson and Colin and Alan MacArthur in addition Angus Martin of Cambeltown for the help and assistance I received during the preparation of this article.