Posts Tagged ‘Girvan’

Engineers surveying the seabed of the Firth of Clyde and the North Channel on the route of a planned undersea power cable recently came across a wreck. It was identified as that of a First World War German submarine, or U-Boat, either UB-82 or UB-85. Much press coverage resulted, due to the bizarre claim made by the captain of UB-85 when he surrendered to a British warship. A sea monster, he said, had attacked his vessel and damaged it so badly that it was unable to submerge. It seems more likely that human error was actually to blame, and that the captain did not care to admit this.

The war saw the transformation of the submarine from coast defence novelty to wide-ranging commerce destroyer. The wreck discovery is a reminder of the threat posed by these craft in the waters to the west of Ayrshire’s southern tip, where the shipping lanes in and out of the Irish Sea, the North Channel and the Firth of Clyde all converged. This was the closest to Ayrshire that the shooting war came.

On 11 March 1915 the auxiliary cruiser HMS Bayano, a converted merchant vessel, was sunk by U-27 about seven nautical miles south west of Ballantrae. 195 men were lost, and 20 of the 26 survivors were landed at Ayr.

Sectional view of a mine-laying coastal U-Boat.

Sectional view of a mine-laying coastal U-Boat.

Some classes of U-Boat were equipped to lay mines, and many commercial craft including Clyde Coast paddle steamers were hastily converted to auxiliary minesweepers. The Ayrshire shipyards at Ardrossan, Irvine and Troon constructed a total of 31 purpose-built minesweepers.

The Carrick Herald of 6 November 1914 reports the latest restrictions on local lighting. These were progressively tightened and extended in all coastal areas, and transgressors were fined.

The Carrick Herald of 6 November 1914 reports the latest restrictions on local lighting. These were progressively tightened and extended in all coastal areas, and transgressors were fined.

Concern that U-Boats would use lights on shore to navigate after dark led to a blackout being imposed in coastal areas around Britain. When a U-boat fired shells at a chemical plant at Whitehaven in Cumbria in August 1915, it raised fears that Ayrshire’s greatest contributor to munitions production, Nobel’s British Dynamite Factory on the coast at Ardeer, might be similarly targeted or attacked by saboteurs coming ashore. A permanently-garrisoned fortified perimeter was constructed around the works with small coast-defence guns emplaced on the seaward side.

A snapshot dated April 1918, taken from a window in Wellington Square, shows an SSZ class Royal Navy non-rigid airship off the beach at Ayr’s Low Green.

A snapshot dated April 1918, taken from a window in Wellington Square, shows an SSZ class Royal Navy non-rigid airship off the beach at Ayr’s Low Green.

Not long after the sinking of the Bayano, a Royal Naval Air Service base for anti-submarine airships was established at West Freugh on Luce Bay, Wigtownshire, and these craft would have become a familiar sight off Ayrshire’s southern coast. Unlike the huge and complex German Zeppelins with their rigid framework, they were simple gasbags with a rudimentary compartment for crew and engine slung beneath. Their main weapon was the radio with which they could summon patrolling warships if they sighted a submarine. In November 1916 airship SS-23 force-landed near Girvan due to engine failure. Its gasbag was deflated, and it was taken to West Freugh by road to be put back into service.

White crosses mark the graves in Girvan’s Doune Cemetery of French sailors Adolphe Harre and S. Brajuel, drowned when the Longwy was sunk in 1917.

White crosses mark the graves in Girvan’s Doune Cemetery of French sailors Adolphe Harre and S. Brajuel, drowned when the Longwy was sunk in 1917.

The French merchant ship Longwy was heading into the Firth of Clyde with a cargo of iron ore from the Spanish port of Bilbao when she was torpedoed by UC-75 on the night of 4 November 1917. She went down in the same area where the Bayano had been lost. The weather was rough and none of the 38 on board survived. The bodies of three of the crew, including the captain, Joseph Huet from Saint-Malo, were washed ashore near Girvan and were buried in the town’s Doune Cemetery. The following appeal appeared in the local press: ‘It would be a graceful thing on the part of this community, if there were a representative attendance at the interment’. Captain Huet’s remains were later returned to France, but at Girvan, crosses bearing the legend ‘Mort pour la France’ mark the graves of Adolphe Harre and S. Brajuel. Telegraphist Harre was one of an eight-strong French Navy detachment on board.

Although it eventually brought America into the war, the German U-Boat campaign took Britain to the brink of starvation before shipping convoys were belatedly introduced.


Read Full Post »

On a ledge of rock jutting out high on a cave wall, four figures lie motionless, hoping to remain unseen in their hiding place. The setting is Ayrshire’s rocky Carrick coast in the early 1600s, and the fugitives are young Launce Kennedy of Kirrieoch, his friend the schoolmaster of Maybole, and the two daughters of the Laird of Culzean. Escaping by boat after the rescue of the older girl from her abductors, and pursued through night and mist by hostile vessels, they have sought refuge in a cave at the foot of the sea-cliffs of Bennane Head. Now they realise that in evading their pursuers they have only stumbled into much greater peril.


The cave of Sawney Bean as depicted in one of the illustrations by Seymour Lucas to the 1896 first edition of S. R. Crockett’s The Grey Man

Flaming torches light up the cave, and the four on the ledge peer down to see that a rabble of men, women and children have entered, ragged and dishevelled, some carrying sacks. They set a fire, and its light reveals rows of human limbs, shrunken and smoke-blackened, hanging from the ceiling. There are vats in which parts of boiled torsos are visible, and the sacks which have just been brought in are full of freshly-butchered body parts. Then a huge hulking figure fills the entrance, silencing the jabbering horde with a voice like a beast’s growl. It has become shockingly clear that the tales of a creature – part man, part monster – who haunts the vicinity of the headland are true. Travellers who have mysteriously vanished from the lonely road which passes nearby have met a terrible fate. This is the abode of Sawney Bean and his cannibal family!


Illustrator Mary Byfield engraved this imagining of the cave of Sawney Bean for an 1825 ‘penny dreadful’

Sawney himself approaches the rough steps hewn in the rock which lead up to the ledge. It is from here that he presides over the feasting, and now the intruders must be discovered. Launce draws his knife and turns to his sweetheart, the younger girl Nell. She understands, and keeps her eyes fixed on his as she bares her neck to receive the mercy blow. Her sister Marjorie already has a blade in her hand, ready to take her own life.

Suddenly an ear-splitting, mind-numbing unearthly howl fills the cavern. The schoolmaster is an enthusiastic performer on his set of Highland bagpipes, which he happens to have with him. Keeping to the shadows, he has stealthily risen to his feet and made ready. Now the skirling pibroch he unleashes, amplified by a hollow behind the ledge, echoes round the rocky walls. The cannibals flee in terror without a backward glance, never doubting for a second that all the demons of Hell have come to claim them. Hard on their heels follow Launce and his companions, and in the confusion they emerge unseen from the cave and slip away into the darkness. The secret of the cannibals’ lair has been discovered, and it will not be long before retribution will overtake them. An expedition led by the king himself will result in their capture and summary execution.


Sawney Bean as he appears in an 18th century broadsheet

This is an episode from a work of fiction, The Grey Man by Samuel Rutherford Crockett, published in 1896. The tale of ‘Sawney’ (Sandy – Alexander) Bean first appears in broadsheets printed in England in the early years of the 18th century. It was subsequently included in collections of accounts of executions, murders, pirate attacks and other gruesome stories which proved highly popular and went through many reprints. Daniel Defoe, who would become best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, is thought to have been significantly involved in the writing and collection of such tales. Defoe was in Scotland as a government spy and propagandist at the time of the 1707 parliamentary union, and it has been suggested that he was Sawney’s creator. The remote cave which becomes the cannibal’s lair is given a vague location somewhere in the south west of Scotland.


Journalist, pamphleteer and novelist Daniel Defoe has been proposed as the source of the Sawney Bean legend

Sceptics who question whether Sawney ever existed point out that a great deal had been written about the history, legends and folklore of south west Scotland in general and Carrick in particular before 1896, and that not one word about him is to be found in any of it. When S. R. Crockett set out to write a novel based on the Carrick bloodfeuds of the 1600s, he decided to weave the legend of Sawney Bean into the plot, and this meant pinning down the hitherto vague location of his cave to the coast between Girvan and Ballantrae.

Regardless of the complete lack of historical evidence for Sawney’s existence, and the likelihood that it was Crockett who brought him to Carrick in his 1896 novel, his tale has gone on to achieve world-wide notoriety, and is now an established part of the folklore of the area in which Crockett located it. Present-day Ordnance Survey maps designate a deep cleft in the cliffs on the edge of the little bay of Balcreuchan Port, which seems to the best fit for Crockett’s description, as ‘Sawney Bean’s Cave’.

Read Full Post »

The first instalment told how Ayr lawyer and banker Thomas McClelland began his diary with an account of the career of the former Irish revenue cutter Lord Charles. She came into the possession of William Brackenridge, tenant of Dowhill Farm north of Girvan and head of the smuggling company based in the nearby hamlet of Ladyburn. At Red Bay on the Antrim coast (where contraband shipped from overseas was unloaded before being brought over to the Ayrshire coast in open boats) she was seized by a revenue cutter and Taylor her captain was killed. However, she again passed into the ownership of William Brackenridge. During the summer of 1791, wrote McClelland, she ‘performed a voyage to Gothenburg and brought a cargo of wood and iron to Ayr under the command of a Captain Thomson’.

McClelland was well acquainted with the Ayrshire seafaring community, and as he does not seem to have known Captain Thomson, this may indicate that he was Irish, as were most of the smuggling skippers – his predecessor the ill-fated Captain Taylor probably was as well.

This on the face of it was a perfectly legitimate trading voyage, no doubt with the return cargo consigned to William’s brother John Brackenridge, merchant burgess of Ayr, but Gothenburg in Sweden was the main source of tea smuggled into Ayrshire. This was too early in the year for ships of the Swedish East India Company to have arrived back from the Far East, but business arrangements were probably being made with the smugglers’ agents in Sweden.

In August the Lord Charles, having completed unloading her cargo from Gothenburg, sailed from Ayr bound for Guernsey, in preparation for a winter smuggling run. McClelland wrote that she ‘called at Dowhill to take merchants on board who meant to have taken a passage in her thither, but, a gale having sprung up while she lay there, the crew were obliged to get her underway’. This required the anchor to be raised in a hurry. In small craft like a cutter this was done not with a capstan but with a horizontal ratchet windlass operated by vertical bars. On this occasion, however, the ratchet mechanism apparently failed and the weight of the anchor caused the windlass to kick back. McClelland continues: ‘In heaving up the anchor by the windlass, a bar struck Captain Thomson on the head and fractured his skull in so dreadful a manner that the cutter had to run here (to Ayr) with him, where he lay despaired of for some months’.

A new commander for the Lord Charles had now to be found at short notice if she was to continue to Guernsey, and John Clacher, whose father was the miller at Ladyburn Mill and who apparently had seafaring experience, took Thomson’s place. The merchants which the Lord Charles had called at Dowhill to pick up seem to have been William Brackenridge’s brothers John (married to John Clacher’s sister) and James, as they were involved in legal action before Guernsey Admiralty Court in late September 1791, with further mentions in December and the following February. This may have prevented them from returning to Scotland aboard the Lord Charles. In the meantime, disaster overtook their brother William. It may well have been to make preparations for the receiving of the return cargo of the Lord Charles that he set out to make the crossing to Ireland, but he never got there.

In Thomas McClelland’s diary he is referred to as: ‘William Brackenridge in Dowhill, who was lost in his passage from Sanda to Red Bay in Ireland last October’. In fact it was on 28 October 1791 that he was lost at sea, aged 43, as recorded on the family gravestone in Kirkoswald churchyard. Presumably he was in a small boat which was caught by a storm and overwhelmed.

(Gravestone) - William Brackenridge’s death at sea is recorded on the back of the family gravestone in Kirkoswald churchyard.

(Gravestone) – William Brackenridge’s death at sea is recorded on the back of the family gravestone in Kirkoswald churchyard.

Unaware of this tragedy, the crew of the Lord Charles loaded a cargo of contraband in Guernsey, and in due course she arrived back in the North Channel. She was almost certainly the large cutter which the officers on the Campbelltown customs boat, acting on information received, found anchored at Rathlin at mid-day on Wednesday 21 December. They thought at first that she was one of the revenue cutters (understandably, as the Lord Charles had been built as one) and only realised when they got closer that she was a well-armed smuggling vessel. The smugglers made off towards Ailsa Craig, and then continued eastwards, heading for the Galloway coast. A severe gale forced the customs boat to take shelter at Sanda overnight, but it got back to Campbelltown on Thursday the 22nd.  John Clacher knew that the revenue cutters would soon be alerted, and decided to take the risk of landing his contraband directly on the Ayrshire coast. That night, Thomas McClelland tells us, the Lord Charles put part of her cargo ashore at Ladyburn. She was also carrying goods consigned to the Loans smugglers – a rare piece of evidence that the Ladyburn Company was also supplying them in this period – and having probably spent Friday out at sea, she came in to Troon Point in the early hours of Saturday 24 December. Before daylight, unloading was completed and she headed back out to sea, only to be caught in yet another storm blowing up from the north west. Clacher seems to have tried to take shelter in Ayr harbour, but he missed the narrow entrance and was driven onto the beach to the south. Here is the full entry with which Thomas McClelland of Ayr began his diary:

 ‘On Saturday the 24th ultimo (December 1791) a little before eight o’clock in the morning during a dreadful gale of wind with snow showers from the N. W. a large smuggling cutter mounting several guns, with a chest of small arms, having eighteen men on board, and named the Lord Charles, belonging to the heirs or creditors of William Brackenridge in Dowhill (who was lost in his passage from Sanda to Red Bay in Ireland last October) commanded by John Clacher from Ladyburn nigh Girvan, in ballast, was drove on shore in our bay just under the town’s washing green, and owing to the great surf, none of the crew could be got on shore till nigh one in the afternoon, when a boat from land reached the cutter and found one of the crew dead and three others despaired of from the severity of the storm – the three latter are since recovered. The vessel went to pieces in a day or two afterwards. She and all her materials were seized by the Customhouse officers.’

(Diary) – Part of Thomas McClelland’s diary entry recording the loss of the Lord Charles.

(Diary) – Part of Thomas McClelland’s diary entry recording the loss of the Lord Charles.


McClelland then went on to relate the unhappy career of this vessel, and added the information that the greater part of the goods she had landed before being wrecked were seized on the shore.

Read Full Post »