The Sinking of the Shelbrit: Part 2

This post was written by Heather Martin, a member of the Historylinks Museum Board and her Great Uncle was Captain William Martin.

In the weeks following the Shelbrit’s departure for Hull, newspapers reported that it was travelling to Inverness in ballast. That was most likely deliberate misinformation as the ship had loaded up with a full cargo of petrol and aviation fuel.

At 22.15 on the 18th of September, the convoy was in the Moray Firth. The men on watch heard the unmistakable sound of an aircraft and saw a German plane approaching. It passed overhead and headed off in the direction of Invergordon.

The following morning, in typically dreich autumn weather, the convoy was approaching the entrance to the Inverness Firth. One member of the crew, Frederick Mant, had a special reason for looking forward to a stop at Inverness. His wife Helen was at North Kessock. At 07.35 the Shelbrit passed the Whistle Buoy off Cromarty Bank, an important navigational point outside the Sutors. There the Cromarty Ness lines up with the Free Kirk spire in Invergordon and the Fyrish Monument, and the South Sutor lines up with the Hugh Miller Monument above Cromarty. Some of the men on the ship would have been in their bunks after a night on watch while the others would have been busy: the stewards getting the galley sorted out after serving up a breakfast; the officers checking the charts and planning their approach to the harbour; engineers concentrating on the engines, a sturdy set of Neptune Polar Diesels, with six cylinders, 420mm bore and 720mm stroke. These turned the propulsion crew that could push the ship through the sea at up to nine knots, the equivalent of just over ten land miles an hour. There were four greasers on board to ensure that every part of the engines ran smoothly. They were all Sunderland men, although Arthur Brejder had been born in Finland. He was an experienced seaman, his right arm tattooed with heart and anchor, one of the few men on board who had served in the First World War. Samuel Capper, the pumpman would have been making sure that everything was in order, ready for offloading the cargo. Captain Martin ordered the crew to set course for the Navity Bank Buoy, on the north side of the Firth.

The Shelbrit. Photo from

Seven minutes later the ship hit a mine dropped by the aircraft that had crossed the previous night. The explosion was heard by Captain McGurk at the South Sutor battery. The shipload of fuel ignited. Shelbrit 1 sank slowly and her crew of twenty-one men were lost.

Only one man’s body was ever found. A copy of a telegram was found on it, “Post parcel Inverness – Ted,” and from that the Admiralty identified him as Edward McVicker, the Third Engineer. It was only when Ted’s family received the body for burial that they realized that it was not him, but his friend Walter Stewart. Ted and Walter were both from the Duncairn district of Belfast and had been best friends since they were small boys. They had worked together, as engineers on the Shelbrit I, for four years.

Nineteen of the men who died that morning are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. An inscription on the front of the World War II section reads: “The Twenty-Four Thousand of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets whose names are honoured on the walls of this garden gave their lives for their country and have no grave but the sea.”

With Captain William Martin, they are: First Mate, George Frederick Aird, 40, of Gravesend; Second Mate, Samuel Herbert Taylor, 56, of Sunderland; First Engineer, Thomas Vardy Oliver, 36, of West Hartlepool; Second Engineer, Stanley Bolton, 38, of North Shields, usual residence Shiremoor; Third Engineer, Edward McVicker, 38, of Belfast; Boatswain, Ernest Smith, 37, of Stockport, usual residence North Shields; Able Seaman, John Thomas Gill, 29, of Kings Lynn; Able Seaman, Edward Kavanagh, 58, of Arklow, Eire; Able Seaman, Frederick Garnett Manta, 45, of Aldingbourne in Sussex, usual residence North Kessock; Able Seaman, Robert Stanley Minister, 42, of King’s Lynn in Norfolk; Pumpman, Samuel Capper, 57, of Manchester; Greaser, Edward Graham, 28, of North Shields, usual residence Sunderland; Greaser, William Henry Huntley, 30, of Sunderland, County Durham; Greaser, Arthur Arvid Brejder, 62, of Finland (Naturalized British Subject), usual residence North Shields; Greaser, Henry Gill Johnson, 27, ofSunderland; Cook/Steward, Joseph Smith, 26, of Durham, usual residence South Shields; Assistant Cook/Steward, Sydney Birrell Wells, 17, of Sunderland; and Steward’s Boy, Denis Johnson, who was only sixteen years old. Denis was from London and had been a pupil at the West London Residential School at Staines.

Fourth Engineer, Walter Stewart, 34, of Belfast, is remembered on stone 29 in Carnmoney Cemetery, County Antrim.

Seaman, Maurice Lamport, 27, of South Shields, was a seaman gunner from the Royal Naval Reserve, assigned to the Shelbrit I. Maurice is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The British Pluck bell. Photo is courtesy of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (Highlife Highland)

In 2007 the ship’s bell, which still bears the ship’s original name British Pluck, was recovered from the seabed. In 2000 it was presented to Inverness Museum by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Although it is not yet on public display, it can be seen by appointment.

Captain Rose War Diary 23 – 25 Aug 1914 : The Retreat from Mons

23 Aug

Left at 8 a.m., marched to Quarouble, where we had just finished billeting, and where I saw the prospect of a lovely bed and food, when we were ordered off as hard as we could go, to line the Condé – Mons Canal. This was through pretty country. We passed through French Cavalry peeping round corners. The roads are very trying to march on, all being pave. Men very thirsty and water bad. We are without Artillery or Cavalry. ‘A’ Coy. Load rifles, one rifle goes off, not ours. Settled the men at a coal mine. Put out picquet under Drew. Had some beer. Tried to sleep in some hay, peculiarly hot, guns going all day on our right.

[Line of march 23 Aug Valenciennes to Condé Mons Canal c 11 miles]

24 Aug

Money [Lieutenant Robert Cotton Money, Cameronians, Battalion Headquarters – later Major General d.1985] came in to say our right hotly pressed, did up valise and put it on an S.A.A. [Small Arms Ammunition] cart. Don’t know what has happened to our transport. 2 a.m. told we must clear off as fast as possible. Hear that Middlesex have lost one officer and three men, but driven off enemy. We had to make a flank march across enemy’s front. CO very anxious because ‘D’ Coy delayed. Got away all right, but ‘D’ Coy, officers lost their kits. Dawn finds us marching, no food. Pass into Belgium, see everybody who can clearing off. Guns getting louder. Come in sight of battle. Shells bursting (Battle of Boussu – our rearguard action). Thought we were for it, but no, marched away through Baisieux back into France, thence via Sebourg to Jenlain.

[Photograph, © South Lanarkshire Council Museums Service, from first album in Capt Rose collection 2008.142.019 with caption "A halt at farm during the Retreat the day after Mons. Vaudaleur (left) is looking at the Taube which was following us up"   (Taube – German aircraft)]

[Photograph, © South Lanarkshire Council Museums Service, from first album in Capt Rose collection 2008.142.019 with caption “A halt at farm during the Retreat the day after Mons. Vaudaleur (left) is looking at the Taube which was following us up” (Taube – German aircraft)]

Rest at Rombies, men very tired, and hardly any food, men loot apples. Our Brigade is 19th : A S H [2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders] R W F [2nd Battalion, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers] Middlesex [1st Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment], ourselves.

On the way saw battle from distance, wood in direction of Quievrain being heavily shelled. Men throwing away their kits right and left.

Halted for some time at a farm for men to rest. Then continued our retreat to Jenlain, where we halted at a picturesque farm, after which we went out and entrenched ourselves. This took till after dark. However, we only stayed till 4.30 a.m.

[Line of march 24 Aug Condé Mons Canal to Jenlain c 15 miles]

25 Aug

Hard march with firing all round, anxious as to whether we will be cut off. Aeroplanes. Apparently very close shave yesterday, one platoon of A.S.H. [Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders] killed outright bar Cpl. [Corporal] and two men. Riddell [Capt Thomas Sheridan Riddell-Webster, Battalion Headquarters],had narrow escape. Find we are bound for Haussy, where we met main army. Saw Cavalry being shelled, met Rasch ? Came under little shrapnel, when we formed to cover Cav.[Cavalry] retirement. Retired amidst crowds of troops, (via Solesmes) on Le Cateau, Pavé, very very trying, troops nearly beat, billeted at station about 10 p.m. Got some beer and tinned beef. Very pathetic to see crowds of inhabitants fleeing.

[Line of march 25 Aug Jenlain to Haussy c 15 miles]

Bessy and John, Part 5: The Truth will Out

After a pregnancy rife with rumour, gossip and denial, Bessy had given birth with John fending off any outside interference.  John had secreted away the body of the dead infant.  The women of the township simultaneously cared for the young woman while sustaining a fiction of ignorance.  Childbirth was usually a communal female event.  Pooling expertise helped protect mother and baby, as well as providing moral and emotional support.  Giving birth alone was highly unusual and it was dangerous, especially for a first time mother.  Although Bessy had cut herself off from the community of women who would normally have offered help and advice, without speaking to her about what happened they nonetheless gathered around to look after her.  A stream of women appeared at the door of the MacKay house: Aunt Bessy; Christian Ross the midwife, Janet, widow of Alexander Bethune the shopkeeper; and Aunt Margaret.  As Margaret MacKay lived some twenty miles away at Lairg of Tain, her visit was not casual.  It seems likely she had heard about her niece’s predicament and had come to render what assistance she could. 


 The wintry landscape through which Aunt Margaret would have travelled to get from Lairg of Tain to Inveran.  Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

Despite later claiming to know nothing about a pregnancy or a birth, ignorance which was perhaps wise in the case of a mysteriously disappeared infant, Aunt Bessy saw her niece twice after the delivery.  During the first visit the girl was ill and in bed and did not confide in her aunt.  The experienced eyes of Aunt Bessy were not reassured by what she saw and she called on Christian Ross, the Inveran midwife.  Her aunt explained that young Bessy was ‘lying very ill a-bed’.  The problem was that in order to treat her, Christian needed to know details about the birth or about how Bessy’s body had been responding since.  That conversation could not happen without both women openly acknowledging that there had been a birth but that there was no baby.  Christian was reluctant to attend the girl, ‘being apprehensive of after trouble’.  ‘After trouble’ was very likely.  While the ritual humiliation of Kirk Session discipline was deeply unpleasant, the mysterious disappearance of a baby could bring a more serious charge. 

Since 1690 the Act Anent Child Murder presumed that a woman who concealed a pregnancy; who did not ask for help at birth; and whose child was missing or dead; was guilty of murder.  If found guilty, she would be hanged.  Bessy fell into all three categories.  By the middle of the century extreme punishments, such as death, were very rare.  Attitudes were changing, and gradually the public began to see such women as victims of circumstances rather than murdering monsters.  In 1809 the statute was revoked, and the crime became concealment of pregnancy.  This bore a punishment of a maximum of two years in jail.  This is the law under which Bessy and John could be prosecuted.  Understandably, Christian Ross did not want to be mixed up in a prosecution.  She may also have been reluctant for Bessy to incriminate herself through talking to her.  However, the girl became dangerously ill and Christian relented.  She visited on Wednesday 16th February 1814, six days after the birth.  Christian tied a napkin about Bessy’s middle and examined her breasts, concluding that she needed ‘to be taken care of’.  Inspecting her breasts helped confirm that the girl had indeed given birth, but there was already little doubt about that in people’s minds.  For the first time Bessy spoke to someone other than John about what had happened.  Bessy talked, Christian treated her, and Bessy recovered.  The conspiracy of silence continued, although it was perhaps now a desperate attempt to protect Bessy and John, and in the hope that the authorities might not find out.  Soon gossip was to erupt, perhaps inevitably, into something more dangerous.

Thomas Munro was a missionary preacher living in Invershin.  Missionaries were assigned to large Highland parishes to help the minister.  As well as preaching, catechising and visiting the sick, part of their job was to supervise the behaviour of people in their district and report offenders to the Kirk Session.  The Kirk Session dealt with church business, but it also operated as the lowest court in the land, referring more serious cases to the civil courts.  This case potentially involved both the moral offence of fornication and the criminal offence of child murder.  An active Kirk Session could be very powerful and controlling in a locality, and in some places this power appears to have developed into a puerile fascination with people’s sexual lives.  However, it seems that Invershin’s missionary minister had steadfastly ignored the rumours of pregnancy for months.  ‘A story had gone abroad and made some noise in that part of the Country that Bessy MacKay … had been with child some time before and that it was believed she had been delivered of the said child but that no trace was left of where it was or what had become of it.’  The shared surname and place of residence suggests that Thomas was brother to Isobel, Invershin’s midwife.  Recognising that elders, missionary ministers and even ministers were often closely connected with parishioners, means church discipline starts to look less like straightforward, top-down institutional power, and more like community regulation with the authority of the church behind it.  Sympathy for Bessy and John’s circumstances might have led Thomas Munro to ignore the illicit pregnancy but, after a month of thinking about it, he decided the possibility of murder could not be ignored.

To be continued… 

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814   

Lynn Abrams, ‘From Demon to Victim: The Infanticidal Mother in Shetland, 1699-1899’ in Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400, Yvonne Galloway Brown and Rona Ferguson, eds, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)

Elizabeth Ritchie, ‘“A Palmful of Water for your Years”: Babies, Religion and Gender Identity among Crofting Families, 1800-1850’ in Jodi Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan and Heather Parker (eds) The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Family, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond (University of Guelph, Ontario, 2011)

Deborah A. Symonds, Weep not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

The Piper of Reay

In 1609 John Roy Mackenzie, one of the Gairloch lairds, paid a visit to his stepfather on the north coast, Lord Reay.  They spent a jolly time at Tongue House, hunting, drinking, riding and piping.  When the time came for John Roy to return south, MacKay decided to accompany his stepson all the way to the Sutherland border, to the Meikle Ferry just a few miles south of Dornoch.  From there John Roy would continue his journey over the Struie, towards Dingwall, and then westwards.  The party rode up to the ferry, the two lairds riding ahead and their grooms, pipers, retainers and luggage clattering behind them.  Loping along beside John Roy were the two new deer-hounds he had acquired in the north: “Cu dubh” and “Faoileag” (“Black Hound” and “Seagull”).  But they weren’t the only group planning to make the crossing that day.  Another gentleman was also travelling south with his men and, full of a sense of his master’s dignity, his groom attempted to prevent anyone else getting on to the boat along with them.  Reay’s piper, Rory MacKay, was a young, handsome seventeen-year-old.  Outraged at the slight, Rory attacked the groom.  In the scuffle Rory pulled out his dirk and, with one blow, cut off the groom’s hand at the wrist.  There on the beach at Meikle Ferry, amid the blood and the screams, the laird of Reay realised the seriousness of the situation.  “Rory, I cannot keep you with me any longer; you must at once fly the country and save your life.”  John Roy Mackenzie saw how he could help.  “Will you come with me to Gairloch, Rory?”  The young piper must have flushed with relief and immediately accepted.  Mackenzie might have thought he was doing his stepfather a favour, but MacKay had an eye for a bargain.  Reay turned to John Roy “Now, as you are getting my piper, you must send me in exchange a good deer-stalker.”  Once he arrived back in Gairloch John Roy did exactly that, dispatching Hugh Mackenzie, whose descendants (at least in the 1920s) still live in the Reay country. 

ImageMeikle Ferry Crossing – Easter Ross side.  Photograph from Collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Rory must have been happy in his new situation and perhaps sent word north, for it wasn’t long before his older brother, Donald, came to join him.  Rory made his home at Talladale, where the Loch Maree Hotel now is.  His first two masters, John Roy and then his son alasdair Breac, lived in houses well defended by Loch Maree, built, as they were on islands, Eilean Ruairidh Beag and Eilean Subhainn.  Skirmishes, raiding and tit for tat attacks were ordinary life to any self-respecting chief so an island residence was a great protection for Mackenzie’s women and children.  Rory was no disinterested bystander when his laird took to arms.  The piper literally played an important part in every fight.  Despite being handsome, with a good job, Rory was in no rush to marry.  He was fully sixty years old before he committed himself to matrimony.  His wife must have been significantly younger than he, but that they only had one son suggests that she may have been a mature woman, possibly a widow.  Young John was born at Talladale in 1656.  When the boy was about seven years old he caught smallpox and lost his eyesight.  His father would probably have trained him in the profession regardless, but this calamity meant piping was one of the few good options open to the lad.  Fortunately he had talent.  Iain Dall (Blind John) became known as Piobaire Dall (the Blind Piper).  Once his father had taught him everything he knew, he sent Iain to the celebrated Macrimmon of Skye for seven years to finish off his musical education.  Iain returned to find Rory and his wife living in the Baile Mor, some miles west of his birthplace.  They had followed the new laird and his son, Kenneth and Alexander, who were building a new house just above where Flowerdale House now sits.  Still mindful of danger, the Tigh Dige was equipped with a moat and drawbridge.  There Iain Dall assisted his father as piper until old Rory MacKay of the Reay country died in 1689 at the age of ninety seven.  The rash actions of the impetuous teenager on the beach at Meikle Ferry, had resulted in Mackenzies in Reay, MacKays in Gairloch, and four generations of legendary pipers on the shores of Loch Maree.

 Osgood MacKenzie, A Hundred Years in the Highlands, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1921, 1965), pp 190-191