Article

Article submitted by Willie S Stewart, of Cheshire.

1871 was a terrible year for the people of Avoch. Within a month of each other there had been two fishing accidents which occurred just a short distance from the beach and both resulted in loss of life. In a small village (population 1000 in 1871) such disasters affect everyone and because of the closeness of the community the families were interrelated. My interest in the second accident came about by chance and then by chance again when researching the “Droning” I came across the details of the first accident in May. The arrival of an Australian visitor was what set me on this family hunt which would lead me solving such a tragic piece of family history. Our visitor had always been unsure as to what was the family relationship between him and my wife. His grandmother had been born in Avoch but had moved to Australia at an early age. We knew her maiden name and approximate date of birth. By using the web-site www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk it took me only a couple of hours to establish the fact which dated back to 1871. My wife and the Australian had a common great-great-grandfather whose first wife had died in 1871, and he had remarried in 1872. The Australian was related to the first wife, and my wife to the second one.

End of the story, or was it?

Identifying the death of the first wife had opened up another avenue. The first wife had been drowned in an accident which had occurred in Avoch. Various stories had circulated in the village over the years as to the date, the cause of the accident and the number of people drowned. The numbers drowned varied from 14 to 40. Some stories had it that those drowned were only unmarried women under 25 years of age. David King Sutherland in his book, “Fisherlore of Avoch” states that all of the 14 people drowned were women under the age of 30. Another story was that the women folk had carried their men folk out to the boats and that they had been drowned when they were engulfed by a massive wave as they returned to the shore. In another booklet produced on the “Fisherfolk of Avoch” the date is given as 1851.

So what is the truth regarding the accident?

The Inverness Courier of June 15th 1871 had the following report

One of the most distressing calamities that we have ever had to record occurred yesterday within a stone’s throw of the shore of the village of Avoch.

(The accident had occurred on Wednesday 14th June 1871 at 6.15am, 150 yards from the shore at Avoch on a calm summer morning.). The men had returned to Avoch Bay in the evening after a very successful day’s fishing. As usual before retiring for the night they sorted their creels. They then transferred them to one of the largest of the village’s fishing boats which was anchored about half a mile from the shore. The creels were ready to be carried next morning to the market in Inverness. According to the report in the Courier, a sailing party of five men and sixteen women  had been given the responsibility to get the fish to market. (record show that there were 6 men and 15 women.) The women had the duty to take several creels and sell them at the market. At 6.00 am on that fateful June morning the party assembled on the shore. The sea was perfectly calm and there was not even a ripple on the surface. The party of 21 people boarded the small salmon fishing coble belonging to a father and son, and pushed off. The irony of the accident - is that if the sea had not been calm it is unlikely that they would have loaded so many people on the boat. The small boat had only gone a short way before it started to take on water and by this time they were in fairly deep water - one foot beyond your depth was as fatal as a hundred feet - the passengers became excited and alarmed. In a frenzy of panic one of the women passengers flung herself overboard as the boat began to sink. In the midst o fall this agitation the overloaded boat overturned. Women clung to the few men on board and prevented them from saving themselves or saving others. The scene was fearful and the cries painful. The accident was observed from the beach and the alarm was immediately raised. Unfortunately the tide was out and the boats were high and dry on the beach. It took some time to launch a boat and reach the scene of the accident. Those who survived did so by clinging to the upturned boat.

The report in the Courier stated that twelve people had been drowned and it named all of the deceased as well as the survivors. Two men (father and son) and five unmarried women were rescued. The owners of the boat, a father and son, managed to swim to safety according to the paper.

The Inverness Courier of 22nd June carried the heading, “The lamentable boat accident in he Firth”

Further details of the accident were released. Two of the people who had been brought ashore alive unfortunately died of exhaustion, raising the total number of deaths to 14. The reporter said, “No one who witnessed the melancholy procession that accompanied each corpse that was brought ashore will ever forget this tragic happening.” The burials took place over two days Thursday and Friday.

The Courier correspondent said, “Never have I witnessed so mournful and deeply distressing a scene”.

As you read the newspaper reports you can understand how the various versions of the accident have been formed down the years. So we have from the newspaper reports the facts regarding the terrible accident - the date, the numbers and the fast that men as well as women had been drowned. But were the details of the victims accurate?

By accident in my original search of the system I had found out that one of those who had drowned had been called Donald Patience, but her was named Paterson in the Courier’s list. So were there other inaccuracies in the reports regarding the various people who survived or drowned?

The first name I tried to find was James Elison. Well even with my limited knowledge of Avoch dialect I realised that this could be Alison. Sure enough it was James Alison an unmarried man aged 20 years, and that was where I got another bit of luck. The death of Jane Patience, a 20 year old unmarried woman was recorded in the same page of the parish register, but this name was not in the original newspaper list. The name Patience had again been recorded as Paterson. Obviously the Courier reporter hadn’t been in Avoch very often or he would have realised that every third person had Patience as a surname. Another who was recorded as Jessie MacLennan was in fact McLeman, a 42 year old spinster.

One of the difficulties in trying to establish the identity of victims was the use of married women’s maiden names. It could have been worse - they could have used the victims’ bi-names which had been a feature of Avochies identifying each other. Through the www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk site, it was possible to identify all the victims by their correct names, ages and marital status.

The oldest was a married woman of 55. William Jack, the 52 year old owner of the boat was the oldest male victim, although according to the paper report he managed to swim to the shore along with his unmarried son George (21). The Jacks appear to be the victims who died on the shore from exhaustion. One man lost his wife and his younger sister. Over twenty children lost one of their parents. Four married women (one woman (42) had seven of a family), two married men, three bachelors and five spinsters (youngest 20, oldest 43). All of the victims had been born in, and were residents of, Avoch. The names of the victims included Patience, Skinner, Jack and McLeman, all prominent family names in the village. One of the survivors was a man of 66 years (his occupation was as a boat’s carpenter and was born in Petty) along with his married son.

Coming to terms with such a disaster must have taken the villager many years and left many families shattered for years. When we hear about human losses in the fishing industry, we automatically think of fishermen working in terrible conditions. This accident on a calm summer morning in June saw ten women as well as four men pay the high price for fish with the loss of their lives. The names of those who lost their lives, as well as the survivors, are shown in the appendix. Included in the table are the details of each of those involved in the accident.

Inverness Courier of 25th May 1871

“One of the boats from Avoch employed in dredging oysters in the first was lost last week and its crew of three drowned. The boat had gone out along with others on Tuesday in stormy weather but failed to return. Wreckage was later found washed up on the shore. Two of the men, Alexander Skinner and Alexander.” Allison were married with families. The third was a young lad of seventeen.”

As I said earlier another chance happening was to discover the May accident where three lives had been lost. What initially interested me was who was the un-named young lad? A search through the records established that he was John Patience, born 8th December 1854 in Avoch (so he as 16 not 17). In the 1871 census taken only a few weeks before the accident he had been working at Wester Raddery farm as a servant. His mother and father lived on the High Street along with his elder brother Alexander. Also in the 1871 census Alexander Allison (28), another victim was listed as an agricultural labourer. He was married to Margaret MacLennan with three of a family, William (3), Helen Ann(2) and a step daughter Margaret (7), and they lived is Seashore Road. His body had not been recovered at the time his death was registered. The third victim was Alexander Skinner (27) who was a fisherman, married to Ann Jack and had three of a family, Alexander (2), Donald (1) and Margaret (4 months), and they lived in Burn Road.

Were there any connections between the two accidents?

Only two that I could find -

(1) James and Alexander Alison were brothers. Their mother had been widowed.

(2) John Patience (16) was the younger brother of Jessie, one of the survivors of the “Droonins”

In finishing let me return to my visitor from Australia. His ancestor had lost his first wife in the “Droonins”. His second wife, Jessie, whom he married in 1872, was one of the five women who clung to the overturned boat and were saved. The sister of John Patience, the unnamed young lad).

Appendix - details of the victims and survivors