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The Voyage of the Iris To Norway
Hetty Munro

 Historical Articles Caithness Field Club Bulletins

This is the true tale of an incident which occurred in the last century. The story was found by the late Miss A. B. Sinclair, Sister of John Sinclair, (sometime Provost of Thurso and Lord Lieutenant of Caithness - died c.1975), 20 Miller's Lane. Thurso, among papers belonging to her late father. He had written it down as he had heard it many times from his grandfather Donald Sinclair - Miss Sinclair died in the 1960s aged over 70.

On a lovely harvest morning a small vessel of about 25-30 tons set sail from Thurso for Tongue. She was smack rigged and named the 'Iris'. She had a crew of three men from Thurso; Archie Leed, John Mill and Donald Sinclair. They had two passengers with them, a cattle dealer named Meiklejohn who had chartered the boat to go west for potatoes and another man who was a travelling watchmender. It was calm when they left the harbour and went out past Holborm Head, Brims Ness and Sandside Head, but gradually the wind rose and, as they were off the Rabbit Islands near Tongue the skipper (Donald Sinclair) gave orders to run out the anchor until the tide turned when the ship would be able to sail up the Kyle. But the wind rose, and the wind rose. The little ship was bobbing about dangerously when suddenly the cable snapped and the helpless boat rushed out before the gale into the open sea. The crew tried to put up the sail but the relentless wind tore it to shreds; and still the gale drove the boat further and further out to sea. Donald Sinclair, a very devout man, decided that they would just have to trust in the Lord, find as dry a bit to shelter in as they could and leave the boat to take her own way. Providence would surely keep them from harm.

All too soon the boat was midway between Hoy and Suleskerry, still being tossed about like a cork, and then the Old Man of Hoy was before them, staring down impassively at their helplessness. Suddenly the boat lurched and old John Mill was thrown into the sea. Almost immediately a rope was thrown and the others managed to drag him back into the boat. The 'Iris' continued to drive one, past the coast of Birsay on the Orkney main island and on through the dreaded Sumburgh Roost, always tossing like an eggshell. Darkness fell, but because everything was so wet, they could not light a flare. By this time the poor passengers, who were not used to the sea, were in a really bad way between fear and sea-sickness. The crew did their best to comfort them, but truth to tell they were not very happy themselves. There just seemed to be no hope at all and they waited for the end. However when dawn broke they were still alive, still being tossed about, and as the storm became even worse, it seemed impossible that the boat would not break up. They tried to hoist a distress signal but with no luck. They were so cold and wet through and through.

The small amount of food was not enough to keep then warm and drinking water had been contaminated by the sea, and still they lived. And now the sturdy boat sprang a leak and everyone, weak as they were, had to take a turn to man the pump. But amazingly the little boat held her own and although she tossed about in the most alarming fashion, the timbers held. Day after day, day after day, the storm continued, and never a sight of land, only the tossing grey waters all around. There was very little bere meal left and they tried to lick rain water from their clothes but with little success. On board were two cases of whisky but the skipper decided they did not dare to broach these as without water to take with it they might go mad. By this time the wind had moderated but out in the ocean they had no idea where they were. They only knew that there was no land in sight. After a shower one day they managed to hoard some water in a piece of torn sail but soon this was all gone. By now they were too weak to move from one position. Their tongues were swollen, their throats dry and their lips almost glued together and still miraculously they lived.

One morning the man in the stern thought he sighted something. At first he was afraid that he had imagined it but right enough, there on the water not too far from them was a sail. They had no strength to hoist a signal but they tried to move around as much as possible and luckily the other boat spotted them. Soon the half dead men were lifted into a Norwegian herring boat and taken care of by the captain's wife. The men had sighted land right enough. It was no mirage. It was the coast of Norway. Their rescuer was bound for the Baltic with herring and had been driven off course by the storm. Very soon the herring boat docked in Bergen and the poor men were very well looked after, particularly by the British Consul and by the Shipwrecked Mariners Society (one of the Thurso men was a member). As soon as they were sufficiently recovered, the Consul put them aboard a boat bound for Newcastle. From there they went to Berwick, then to Leith and finally caught a steamer bound for Wick.

Meantime in Thurso, after days of waiting and hoping, the crew were given up for lost, but seamen's wives never completely give up hope. One of the older captains suggested that they might have been driven ashore on Suleskerry and when the storm abated, a boat was launched to look for them. Although they searched every inch of the small island, no trace was found and the boat sorrowfully returned. As they were coming near all the townsfolk crowded down to the harbour hoping for some news, only to be told the sad tale. Someone suggested that an old woman in the town who had second sight might be able to help, and sure enough on being consulted, she told the anxious wives not to mourn as their men would return one day. Many folk did not believe her, but some had a lingering hope and used to visit the Post Office regularly praying for some word. The old woman was eventually proved right.

A letter came one morning from Norway telling about the rescue of the men and later still news of their arrival in Wick. When the men reached Wick, they had of course no money for railway fares so they set out to walk for Thurso. The wives and friends went wild with excitement and crowds walked out along the Mount Vernon road carrying banners and welcomed royally the men who had been given up for dead during the previous six weeks. Had it not been for the kindness of the folk they met, the crew would have fared badly on the way home as they thought they had lost everything on board the 'Iris'. Imagine their surprise when on the road from Wick they met a dealer leading a cow and their fellow passenger, the cattle dealer, said he would buy it! He extracted a roll of notes from his pocket and promptly paid the money. The others were outraged that this man had allowed them to suffer so much on the way home while Meiklejohn had all this money. The joy of reunion soon made them forget everything except the fact that they were all safe and at home again. Until they died they never ceased to tell of their wonderful journey, and of their preservation at the hand of God.

This article first appeared in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1987