1969: Disaster at Longhope
A close-knit Orkney island remembers the courage and sacrifice of its lifeboat crew who lost their lives 50 years ago.
A south-easterly gale had been pounding Scotland’s coast for days, heavy seas forcing the closure of Aberdeen Harbour and damaging the breakwater at Stonehaven.
Further north, the 2,600-ton Liberian registered steamship Irene was being driven towards the Caithness coast, its crew powerless to resist.
As the maroons exploded, momentarily silencing the wind and the rain, the lifeboat crew assembled and Longhope’s Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick considered his options. In view of the conditions, he decided to take an extra member of crew.
Bearing south, then east, the eight-man crew braced themselves for what lay ahead. The lifeboat TGB was about to enter the notorious Pentland Firth. The crew had been together for many years and they had trained in gales before. But as the spring flood tide smashed into the wind whipping in off the North Sea, conditions were perilous, even for an experienced lifeboat crew.
Families held their breath. A coastguard reported seeing the mast light on the lifeboat as it was swept towards Lother Rock. Three or four times he saw the light disappear, only to be followed by an agonising wait until it reappeared. People on the shore were glued to their wireless radios, listening anxiously on the lifeboat waveband to monitor the volunteers’ progress. The radio operator at Wick maintained constant contact with Daniel Kirkpatrick and his crew. An acknowledgement was received from TGB an hour and a half after launching.
Later, the radio fell silent. The lightkeeper on Pentland Skerries rocks recalled seeing TGB’s stern light half a mile to the north-east, putting the lifeboat roughly at a point where the flood tide running down the east coast of South Ronaldsay was crashing into the tide running east. By now it was registering force 10. Repeated calls from Wick went unanswered.
Meanwhile, SS Irene ran aground half a mile south of Grim Ness, further up the South Ronaldsay coast. The steamship was on rocks, but intact. Battered by the wind, a shore rescue party using ropes began the torturous process of getting the ship’s company to safety, a process that would take them 4 hours.
The search for the steamship became a search for the missing lifeboat. The crew of Kirkwall’s lifeboat Grace Paterson Ritchie, which had been launched at the same time as TGB, fired a white parachute flare into the air. There was no sign of the other boat. In conditions such as these, Kirkwall’s coxswain reported to the Coastguard that there was virtually no hope of seeing TGB – there was no radar onboard lifeboats in those days – and the search was called off.
The search resumes
As day broke, the gale had moderated and a full-scale air and sea rescue – involving a Shackleton aircraft from RAF Kinloss, a helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth and lifeboats from Kirkwall, Stronsay, Thurso and Stromness – began.
Tuesday 18 March was London Lifeboat Day. As Longhope families waited anxiously for news of their loved ones, coins were dropped into collection boxes on street corners all over the city.
At 1.40pm, hearts were broken. The crew of the Thurso lifeboat had discovered TGB’s upturned hull floating 4 miles south-east of Tor Ness. There were no signs of life.
The Thurso and Stromness lifeboats began the grim business of towing TGB back to Scrabster on the mainland. They couldn’t have known it at the time, but seven of the crew were still strapped in their seats under the waves. The body of the eighth man, James Swanson, was missing.
Hoy resident Mary Harris moved to the island 15 years ago, and helps run the Longhope Lifeboat Museum. ‘I was always up here as a child. I remember the day of the disaster – I was in London when it happened. It’s the only time I ever heard my dad cry.’
Impact on the community
The sea is part of daily life on Hoy and everyone’s lives were bruised by what happened. The Longhope lifeboat disaster is still raw – and still evokes bitter memories. An inquiry found no blame in anyone’s actions or the condition of the lifeboat. There was significant damage to the lifeboat but exactly what happened in the last moments remain a mystery. The body of Crew Member James Swanson was never found.
In the immediate aftermath, traumatised families faced financial ruin. The Longhope Lifeboat Disaster Fund followed a radio appeal by the broadcaster Raymond Baxter. RNLI pensions were paid to widows and the lifeboatmen’s dependants. Offers of help came from some surprising places. ‘We received some amazing support from the village of Longhope in Gloucestershire,’ says Mary at the museum. ‘They sent money and support, as well as toys for the children who lost family. That connection is still strong today.’
Keeping their memory alive
The old lifeboat station at Brims – affectionately referred to as ‘the Shed’ – has been turned into a museum. One of the old lifeboats is there and the old station workshop has become a dedicated room for the lifeboat disaster. Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick is chair of the museum trust: ‘The museum is very important for keeping the memory of 1969 alive. We like to show our old lifeboat (1936–62) in the museum alongside today’s boat – it complements the RNLI and it shows how far we’ve come in my lifetime.’
After being salvaged and refurbished, and a spell back in service in Arranmore, TGB was sent on permanent loan to the Scottish Maritime Museum in Ayrshire. Here, it serves as a reminder of the heroism and devotion to duty of the Longhope crew.
Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick says: ‘I have been a part of the RNLI here in Longhope for 28 years and have had the privilege and honour of being coxswain for the last 17 years.
‘The lifeboat is just a way of life here in Longhope. It is a great asset to the island and community. It gives us the opportunity to help people and it is something we feel proud to be part of. My wife Karen and I both lost close family, as did other families, in the disaster.
‘One consolation is that we are a small community and it is that spirit of community, I am sure, that provided the support that brought us all forward to where we are today.’
Longhope’s Lifeboat Museum is independent from the RNLI and relies entirely on public support. You can make a donation at longhopelifeboat.org.uk/museum.