Bag­pipes and an an­chor from two fa­mous Ar­gyll ships

The Oban Times - - NEWS - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

AR­GYLL and Bute has more than 2,000 miles of coast­line so it’s hardly sur­pris­ing it is lit­tered with the re­mains of hun­dreds of ship­wrecks of all ages.

One of the most no­table is the pad­dle steamer Comet, which went down in a storm in 1820. The Comet is prob­a­bly one of the most fa­mous ships in mar­itime his­tory be­cause it was the first pad­dle steamer to run com­mer­cially in Europe.

Built in 1811 for Henry Bell of Glas­gow, and named af­ter a me­teor which ap­peared dur­ing her con­struc­tion, she was 45 feet long by 10 feet wide, weighed 28 tons and was fit­ted with two pad­dle wheels al­though she was later length­ened and re- en­gined.

About 4.30pm on Fri­day December 13, 1820 – not a good day for su­per­sti­tious trav­ellers – while pass­ing through the treach­er­ous Dorus Mor on her way from Fort Wil­liam to Glas­gow, the Comet was hit by a squall.

Ten min­utes later, in strong cur­rents and near dark­ness, the lit­tle ves­sel was driven broad­side onto the Craig­nish Point where she broke in two. There was no loss of life but by the fol­low­ing morn­ing she was a to­tal wreck. The en­gine was sub­se­quently re­cov­ered, be­ing used for many years to drive the ma­chin­ery in a Glas­gow coach-build­ing works and later in a brew­ery. It was pre­sented to the Sci­ence Mu­seum in Lon­don in 1862.

Shortly af­ter the wreck­ing, two men, Alan MacDougall and Mal­colm MacKin­non from Kin­u­ach­drachd near the north end of Jura, were fish­ing for lob­sters be­tween there and Cri­nan when they saw a wooden box float­ing along on the ebb tide.

They re­trieved it and found that it con­tained part of a set of bag­pipes which they recog­nised as be­long­ing to the piper who was em­ployed by Henry Bell to play when­ever the Comet stopped to pick up pas­sen­gers be­tween Glas­gow and Fort Wil­liam and to en­ter­tain them as they sailed.

It would be nice to think that Comet’s piper, who­ever he was, stood play­ing on the deck as the ship went down just as Wal­lace Henry Hart­ley, English vi­o­lin­ist and band leader, was seen do­ing in James Cameron’s 1997 epic film Ti­tanic.

We may never know ex­actly what hap­pened, but it seems un­likely as the pipes were not aban­doned to the waves but tucked in­side their box which must have bobbed to the sur­face – al­beit less than com­plete.

For years the pipes were trea­sured by the Mackin­non fam­ily un­til they left Jura and set­tled else­where in Ar­gyll. They were stored in an out­house and grad­u­ally for­got­ten about un­til a few months ago when I was con­tacted by one of Mal­colm’s de­scen­dants who, know­ing I would be in­ter­ested in their his­tory, in­vited me to look at them.

Un­for­tu­nately, nei­ther the pipes nor their box have any dis­tin­guish­ing marks to show who made them or when, but Pro­fes­sor Hugh Cheape, a lead­ing scholar in the his­tory of the High­lands, who has a long­stand­ing aca­demic in­ter­est in the High­land bag­pipe and its mu­sic, cul­ture and his­tory, tells me they might date to around 1820.

Per­haps if they are ever re­stored, Robert Robert­son, my fel­low Oban Times colum­nist, might com­pose a tune with a suit­able ti­tle to com­mem­o­rate their re­turn to the Ar­gyll scene?

As you read this, res­i­dents of Stron­tian, near the head of Loch Su­nart, are try­ing to raise the nec­es­sary fund­ing to lift an ob­ject be­long­ing to an­other ves­sel unique in the ship­ping his­tory of Ar­gyll.

The Float­ing Church of Stron­tian was one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary ves­sels ever built in Scot­land.

When the Free Church broke away from the Church of Scot­land in 1843, the new con­gre­ga­tion asked the Epis­co­palian landowner for a piece of land on which they could build a new place of wor­ship. He re­fused.

Al­though it was a time of great hard­ship, £1,400 was some­how found in the area to have a float­ing church built in a Glas­gow ship­yard. It was launched in 1846 and towed to Stron­tian by two steam tugs and moored off­shore.

It was an im­pres­sive ves­sel, al­most 80 feet long, 24 feet wide and 27 feet high. It came with a pul­pit and seat­ing for 400 peo­ple. Wor­ship­pers walked miles to at­tend and were rowed out in boats. The hull had a Plim­soll line show­ing that for ev­ery 100 peo­ple aboard it sank by an inch. Ten years later, in strong winds, she broke free of her an­chors and was washed up onto a nearby beach.

There she lay con­tin­u­ing to pro­vide a place of wor­ship and a pri­mary school un­til 15 years later when the laird re­lented and gave a plot of land for a stone church to be built. No longer needed, the float­ing church was dis­man­tled and sold to a Cly­de­side scrap dealer for £40.

In 2016, a lo­cal diver found one of the an­chors. The vil­lage would like to bring alive the story of its fa­mous float­ing church by rais­ing and con­serv­ing it. A to­tal of £6,000 is needed to meet the costs. Find out more about the project and how you can help by go­ing to http:// www.crowd­fun­­chor.

Pho­to­graph: Iain Thorn­ber.

Ian Mackin­non with the Comet bag­pipes which his fore­bear res­cued.

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