A fateful last trip to Sula Sgeir: ‘Mayflower’ 1952

Hector Morrison (Eachainn), last survivor of the ‘Mayflower’ crew stranded on Sula Sgeir when the vessel was lost, reflects on the experience 50 years later. The ‘Mayflower’, a 23 foot open boat or ‘sgoth Niseach’, Ness-style skiff, set sail for Sula Sgeir in September 1952. This storm-lashed rock lies 40 miles beyond Lewis in the North Atlantic. The crew was taking the last opportunity before winter to catch young solan goose nestlings or guga. The Stornoway lifeboat attended the rescue with the coxswain being awarded a medal for his fine boat-handling.

Hauling the 'Mayflower' up the shore Photo: North Lewis Maritime Society
Hauling the ‘Mayflower’ up the shore Photo: North Lewis Maritime Society

In late August and early September 1952, the wind direction had been unfavourable for a landing on Sula Sgeir, some 40 miles from Lewis into the North Atlantic. The wind changed to the SW on Monday 15 September, and it looked like the last opportunity of the year to secure a good catch of the young solan goose nestlings, or guga, prized by Niseachs, the people of Ness, Isle of Lewis, and an essential source of winter food. Back in the 1950s life was quite harsh and families were generally quite poor in rural Lewis. The guga was a necessary part of the winter diet and a source of income for the men prepared to take the risks involved.

The night we left was the darkest night I have ever seen – no moon or stars – just sheer blackness. We took turns on watch – two at a time. On the last watch with Donald I thought I could see something approaching us – just a black shape which seemed to be getting closer. Donald could see it as well and eventually as it got a little lighter we realised it was Sulasgeir, so the compass was quite reliable. The first compass we tried had been from Taigh Gheadaidh (Geadaidh’s house). I think Geadaidh had died in 1912 and that was probably the last time it had been used! But we decided to take one from Taigh Deelidh (Deelidh’s house). They were both card compasses, but the Deelidh one responded quicker to the motion of the boat.

When we arrived we started harvesting the catch straight away – it was just going to a be a ‘raid’. The Mayflower could carry 400 birds and we were expecting to have that by the end of the day on Tuesday and head back home. We had them all on the ledge ready to load but the wind had backed SE, straight into the cove where the boat was anchored. The Màiri Dhonn had arrived after us, but there were seven of them harvesting and they managed to load 800 on to the boat and moved further out.

On board the Màiri Dhonn were Owner/Skipper George Clark, an Edinburgh business man; Kenneth Morrison (Am Brownie – 3 Knockaird); brothers John Murdo, William and Donald MacLeod (balaich an Mhurdo – 4 Port (their father John Macleod had built the ‘Mayflower’ at his Port of Ness boat yard in 1948); Angus Smith, 9 Port; Murdo Campbell, Knockaird; Donald Murray, (An Gaisean, 19 Port;) John Macleod (Seonaidh Chaluim, 19  Port); Angus MacDonald, 14 Port; Donald MacAulay and Murdo Maclennan, both of Kirkibost (Bernera).

The Màiri Dhonn with its crew of 12 was sheltering in the bay, but conditions were deteriorating and they had to move into open water. They could do nothing for those ashore and, knowing that they were relatively safe on the island, decided that the best course of action was to head for Lewis and raise the alarm. Throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday the backwash from the rocks was gradually flooding the ‘Mayflower’. There was no let up in the storm and at 4pm on Wednesday the vessel swamped, turned turtle and broke loose. The men were marooned with little food and took shelter in the stone bothy to assess their predicament. Eachainn recalls the struggle to save the boat:

We fought hard to save her through the night on Tuesday and into Wednesday but the conditions were such that we couldn’t hold her. Every painter we secured was broken with the motion of the sea – eventually we just let her ride in and out on the swell but we couldn’t hold her. We were exhausted and soaked through. I don’t remember being cold though. She capsized on Wednesday but we were still seeing her the following day floating in the cove. All we could do then was retreat to the bothy and huddle in there.

From then on it was a matter of waiting and eking out the meagre rations. The guga proved to be helpful, as Eachainn described their uncomfortable time on the rock during the storm:

They were to be very useful to keep the fire going and feed us during the days we were stranded there. Every time the fire went low we just threw another guga on it and man you’ve never seen flames like it! We had very little food so we had to eat the guga, but we were also short of fresh water and we were just using the same water to cook every meal and you can imagine what it was like after a few days. Fortunately there was a galvanised bucket there and we cooked them in that over the fire. It was the lack of water that was the main difficulty. We had taken a supply of water with us but we had left it in the boat. We only took enough ashore for the day. By Friday our lips were beginning to swell.

The Màiri Dhonn arrived in Stornoway shortly before midnight on Wednesday and by late on Thursday the weather had moderated a little and the Fishery Protection vessel ‘Minna’ left for Sula Sgeir followed later by Stornoway Lifeboat. Eachainn recalled what happened:

The Fishery Cruiser came first and was able to communicate by semaphore with us – we had no radio – fortunately Dòmhnall na Twins had learned semaphore in the RNR. The cruiser decided to try and launch their motor boat but the weather was just too severe. The Stornoway Lifeboat arrived in the morning at about 7am at high water, but the landing ledge in the cove is more accessible at low tide so he waited till around midday. First of all he thought he could come close enough for us jump on board, but it was just too dangerous – he could have lost the Lifeboat. He then let her in slowly on the anchor and got a line ashore. It was a very tricky operation in the conditions. We then secured ourselves to a line, to be dragged one-by-one through the water onto the lifeboat.

The last to leave the island, skipper Murdo Morrison, secured the borrowed gold watch round his neck. One of the officers on board the ‘Minna’ who observed the rescue said at the time “The cox of the lifeboat did a wonderful job. It was the finest piece of boat handling I have ever seen.” Coxswain Macdonald was later awarded an RNLI medal for the rescue.

The Life Boat crew that day was:
Malcolm Macdonald,11 Morrison Ave (Cox)
Malcolm Crockett, 5 Keith Street (2nd cox)
John Macleod, Kenneth St (Mechanic)
John MacDonald, Seaview Terrace (asst. mechanic)
Malcolm Macleod, Morrison Ave (bowman)
Murdo Maclean, Kenneth St
Angus Maciver, Seaforth Road
Robert McEwan 25 North Beach

News reached Ness through the ‘trawler band’ that the men were safe but that the ‘Mayflower’ had been lost. The final journey home from Stornoway to Ness was by road courtesy of Calum Macleod of 116 Cross Skigersta Road, Ness (Calum Drogaidh), who had left Ness for Stornoway when he saw the Lifeboat passing the Butt on its return journey.

Despite their ordeal the rescued men were determined that another ‘Mayflower’ would be on the stocks at the boatyard, and within a year ‘Mayflower II’ was launched and can still be seen at her home port, the small fishing harbour of Skigersta in the north east corner of Ness. Unlike her namesake, she has never made the 40 mile trip to Sula Sgeir.

North Lewis Maritime Society