Tag Archives: War Classics

The shipwreck that never was

There’s a ship called the Priscilla aground in the Pentland Firth at the moment – see for example this from the BBC News website.

Aground cargo ship Priscilla

Photo from BBC News website

My dad was a great storyteller, particularly when it came to both sides of his remarkable family, the Morrisons of North Uist and the Keiths of Thurso. The news item about the Priscilla reminded me of one of his stories which he heard as a boy from his own grandfather, Peter Keith (1847-1936). It’s the story of a shipwreck in the Pentland Firth which wasn’t quite what it seemed ….

Peter Keith

Peter Keith holding his grandson Peter Keith Morrison

As a lawyer and notary public in Thurso, one of Peter Keith’s more sombre tasks was recording the circumstances of shipwrecks on the treacherous Caithness coast. On the morning after a stormy night the captain of a small sailing vessel arrived in his office, looking for a notary public who would record the sorrowful events of the night before. He told how he had tried to take refuge in the Scrabster Roads area just outside Scrabster Harbour, but his ship went down, drowning both the mate and the ship’s boy and leaving him the sole survivor.  He narrated in detail the dramatic circumstances of the shipwreck and Peter Keith made notes, then told him to come back to sign the declaration once he’d had time to write it up fully.

So far, nothing unusual. But when a second man arrived in his office, claiming to be the sole survivor of a shipwreck in Scrabster Roads, Peter Keith began to wonder. Always canny, he said nothing but let the man tell his story. This time it was the ship’s mate, claiming that both the captain and the boy had drowned, but telling a quite different tale of how the vessel came to be lost. So Peter Keith once more made notes, giving nothing away, and in time both men signed their notarial protests.

It was about a fortnight later that the true story emerged, when the twice-drowned ship’s boy turned up alive and well. The ship had indeed taken refuge near Scrabster, but once she was safely tied up and the men presumably resting, both the captain and the mate independently decided to leave the ship – completely against their duty and without the other knowing. They went ashore and spent the evening in the thick, noisy warmth of (separate) pubs.  But while they were enjoying a few stolen hours ashore of good company and fast flowing drink, sheltered from the howling winds outside, the cable holding the ship secure parted, and she began to drift out to sea once more.

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Scrabster Harbour

Eventually the captain and the mate must each have made his way back to harbour. Their ship was gone.  It was a wild night, and there seemed to be only one explanation. Each believing himself to be the only survivor, he took an invented story to the notary public to save his own skin.

And meanwhile there’s a ship adrift on that wild sea, with an inexperienced boy the only person on board.

There was a powerful west wind that night and it was blowing the ship right through the Pentland  Firth. All the poor ship’s boy knew about navigating the Firth was that ‘you sail by Dunnet Head and by Cantick Head in Orkney, and you keep the Skerry lights open’. And it may have been by skill and it may have been by chance, but he brought that ship through the Pentland Firth without disaster, and was blown right out into the North Sea. Here she was picked up by a Norwegian ship and taken in tow, and the ship’s boy eventually got back to shore.

That’s where the story ends, although of course like all good stories it leaves me wanting more. Who was the ship’s boy and what happened to him? What a story he had to tell for the rest of his life! What about the captain and the mate, what happened to them?

There just might be some answers. The whole story was recorded in Peter Keith’s Protocol Book. There’s a collection of Keith Family Papers in Caithness Archives which I consulted when researching War Classics, the story of Peter Keith’s daughter Christina’s time with the troops in World War One.  Among those papers is the Second Protocol Book of Peter Keith. I have no dates and no names for these events, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story of the shipwreck which never was appeared in some form among its pages!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

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9 April 1917: Vimy Ridge and Captain Daniel Gordon Campbell, one hundred years ago today.

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Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge

Extracts from War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Fronted. Flora Johnston

Then we came to open country and the road wound upwards. Stretches of barbed wire, gashes in the ground, trails of camouflage, sandbags in heaps, told us where we were. But they were far less noticeable than they had been from the railway. Our eyes commanded a wide stretch of country, sweeping away to the horizon. For miles all around the air was pure and sweet, and the horror of Thiepval seemed far behind. We saw nobody at all and it was hard to realise that so short ago this had been a battlefield for thousands.  Only a lonely cross here and there – or a group of crosses – suggested it. I had begun to fear our American had forgotten all about us and was prepared to carry us to the end of the world when all at once, in the centre of the champaign and at its crest, he stopped. ‘This is [Vimy] Ridge,’ he said, ‘I’m going on to Lens. Goodbye.’ Hardly waiting for our thanks, he whizzed off and we were alone.

The high ground of Vimy Ridge provided a natural vantage point of great military significance. In April 1917, as part of the wider Battle of Arras, the Canadian Corps succeeded in winning the Ridge from the Germans at the cost of over 10,000 casualties.

The silence was unbroken; the land was desolate. Almost afraid to break the quiet, we moved on to the grass, and with a cry of delight, I stooped down and picked a flower. It was the commonest little yellow thing, that grows in unnoticed thousands at home, but I held it reverently and greedily and the Hut Lady looked at it too. ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ she said lingeringly, stroking it petal by petal. To find a flower after all that we had seen, seemed a miracle.

We moved on and picked up bits of shells, bullets, stray bits of camouflage: all the odds and ends left over from the fighting.

 ‘Come, and I’ll show you a big gun emplacement – boche,’ he said, changing the subject, ‘and then we’ll look at the Canadian memorial.’

My eyes had turned to the horizon again, to the heights that once were St Eloi. Someone I knew lay there, who had been a Canadian, and it was too far for me to go. I could only see the Ridge where he had been killed, and not the place where he lay.

As Christina looks towards St Eloi, we have a rare insight into her personal experience of loss and grief during the war years. The soldier in her thoughts is Captain Daniel Gordon Campbell of the Canadian Infantry, who had been engaged to marry her sister Louise. He had grown up near the Keith family, in Halkirk.  Like them he attended the Miller Institute and Edinburgh University, where he excelled both academically and at sport, representing Scotland at the high jump. A lawyer, he had emigrated to Canada, and was serving with a Canadian regiment when he was killed at Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917. He is buried in the cemetery at Mont St Eloi. Louise was devastated by his death, and kept detailed scrapbooks which include newspaper cuttings about the Canadian action at Vimy, letters of sympathy from friends, and information about his final resting place.

 I went quietly to the big gun emplacement. It seemed untouched, and even to my inexperienced eyes, of amazing strength. ‘We got held up here I don’t know how long,’ he explained, ‘you see how well it is screened and how it commands all this stretch of ground.’

‘Put down those things you’re carrying,’ he said, glancing at my armful of spent bullets, bits of camouflage, bits of shells and flowers. ‘No-one will touch them here and I’ll snap you at the foot of Canada’s cross.’

The great high cross, with Canada in white letters, stood high on the crest of the ridge. The bright March sunlight danced on the white letters and picked out with silver the grey cross. The keen March wind blew like the winds of home over all the quiet field. The Hut Lady and I sat in the shadow of the memorial and looked towards St Eloi.

I have never seen the snapshots for, though our officer carefully took our names and addresses down on our map, he forgot to send them.

Today Vimy Ridge is the site of the breathtaking Canadian National War Memorial, overlooking the landscape on which so many Canadians lost their lives. More than 11,000 names of those whose grave is unknown are inscribed on the walls of this impressive monument, which was unveiled in 1936. However, even while the war was still continuing, memorials were erected on Vimy Ridge to commemorate the devastating losses suffered by the Canadian troops. Christina and her friend were photographed at the foot of one of these memorials. Louise’s scrapbook contains a photograph sent to her of one such cross, which may be the one visited by Christina.

Edit:

Daniel Gordon Campbell is among the lawyers featured in this exhibition in Toronto. It’s good that he is remembered.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

#100womenwiki : Christina Keith

 

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#100womenwiki is a 12 hour ‘edit-a-thon’ taking place today (8 December) with the aim of adding more women to wikipedia. At present only around 17% of notable profiles on wikipedia are of women, and  today is about  encouraging people across the globe to consider whether there are women who should be included and are currently missing. I read about the initiative on the BBC website  and decided to try submitting an article on Christina Keith, whose First World War memoir I edited and published as War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. It was less complicated than I expected, and you can now read Christina’s wikipedia page here!

 

Barrogill Keith

Barrogill

Back to thinking about the Keiths ….

I discovered this week that there’s an exhibition of paintings by Barrogill Keith currently being held in Thurso. Barrogill (his unusual name comes from the nearby Barrogill Castle, which is now known as the Castle of Mey and is associated with the Queen Mother) was my great-uncle. His eldest sister was Christina, whose First World War memoir I published as War Classics, along with some of Barrogill’s own letters from the Western Front. His youngest sister Patricia was my grandmother, and was also an artist.

I’m very excited to be heading up to Thurso soon to see the exhibition, and to spend some time in their hometown once more.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.