MOVES are under way in Inverclyde to honour the memory of more than 40 people who drowned in a tragic accident on the Clyde two centuries ago, writes David Carnduff.
All were passengers on a sailing sloop that was rammed by a steam tug close to Cloch Lighthouse on a calm summer night in 1822.
Sadly those who perished in the little-known accident lie forgotten in unmarked graves in the Chapel Street cemetery in Gourock.
The victims had sailed to the Clyde from Mull and Iona in the hope of finding harvest work to augment their meagre income back home.
The sloop — The Mary of Iona (although some accounts name her as The Catherine) — was hit by a 70-ton tug, the Hercules, which inexplicably failed to alter course to avoid a collision.
Of the 42 who perished, 14 were males and 28 females, two of whom were only 13 years old. There were only four survivors from the collision, which left at least 47 orphans on the islands.
The 200th anniversary of the tragedy was marked on August 10 this year at a moving commemoration on the Ross of Mull.
Meanwhile, new research into the incident by Mull resident Tom Aitchison has questioned the behaviour of the tug’s captain and crew who saw the sloop from a good distance prior to the collision yet failed to change course.
Their inept actions before and after the collision led Tom to speculate they had been drinking. He also believes the tug owners staged a cover-up to protect the reputation of the Clyde steamship business which was in its infancy.
In a further injustice, legal moves to prosecute the tug’s captain and crew for negligence were thrown out of court.
Tom said: “Perhaps the prosecution was not as vigorously pursued as it might have been because the islanders were deemed second class citizens and/or that the steamship company had much more sway with the legal establishment than non-English speaking Highlanders?
“In particular, only 10 years into the steam boat age, to portray steam boats as a serious risk to ‘normal shipping’ might have proved commercially damaging.”
Moves are under way to raise awareness of the tragedy in Inverclyde.
Councillor John Crowther, who has studied historical accounts of the sinking, hopes a plaque can be sited at the Chapel Street graveyard in memory, not just of the people from the islands, but also of the 62 people buried there after the Comet II tragedy in 1825.
He said: “I will be bringing this to the attention of Inverclyde Council with a view to a commemorative plaque in order that members of the public are aware of these tragic incidents in the waters of the River Clyde off Gourock.”
Councillor Sandra Reynolds has also instigated moves for a memorial to be placed in the cemetery in memory of the islanders.
She said: “I raised the matter at Gourock Town Centre Regeneration Forum and all were in favour of taking this forward. The council officer is going to look into this and come back to the forum’s next meeting.”
Frances Dunlop, an Inverclyde-based Gaelic speaker and singer who has a keen interest in the history of the Highlands and Islands, said: “What a pity this horrific tragedy has been forgotten. Wouldn’t it be fitting to have a memorial erected to remember them?”