Bagpipes and an anchor from two famous Argyll ships
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.crowdfunder.co.uk/raise-the-anchor.
Ian Mackinnon with the Comet bagpipes which his forebear rescued. Photograph: Iain Thornber.