Huna Lifeboat (1877-1930)
By Andrew D Anderson

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded on the 4th March 1824 by Sir William Hillary. His main aim was to organise a national lifeboat service which would provide a means of rescue around the coast of Britain. This ideal took many years to implement fully and even today its requirements are under constant review.

During the later half of the nineteenth century the Pentland Firth, which lies between the extreme north of Scotland and the Orkney Islands, was one of the main trade routes between Europe and America. The speed of the tides and the sudden changes in the weather conditions caused the loss of many fine vessels together with their experienced masters and crews. Because of the large numbers of shipwrecks in the area, the RNLI established lifeboat stations at Scrabster in 1860 and at Longhope in 1874. These together with that at Wick operated by the Pultneytown Harbour Trust and funded by the British Fishery Society in 1848, provided the rescue services available. In spite of the distances involved and the fact that these were sailing/rowing lifeboats many fine rescues were carried out.

In order to improve the facilities at the eastern end of the Pentland Firth, the RNLI decided in 1877 to place a lifeboat at Huna. The locals agreed to contribute towards the estimated cost of £1100.00 for the lifeboat and boathouse and to support the maintenance of the station.

On the 6th December 1877 a large number of the inhabitants of Canisbay assembled at Huna to witness the ceremony for the new lifeboat. After the Rev. McGregor had offered a prayer for the success of the boat it was handed over by the RNLI to the chairman of the Huna Branch, Peter Keith Esq. The lifeboat was named W.M.C. by Mrs McGregor and then launched and demonstrated its capabilities before enthusiastic spectators.

The lifeboat was gifted anonymously to the RNLI by grateful parents in memory of a child whose life was saved on August 6th 1873. At their request it was named W.M.C. It was a standard 34 feet long and 8 ft 3 in. broad, 10 oared self-righting built by Woolfe at a cost of £363. The first boathouse was built by J Charleson for £252.00, but its site is uncertain.

On the morning of 10th January 1893 the fishing fleet had set out from Wick for the winter fishing off Noss Head – the weather being pleasant and the water smooth. The fishing vessel Margaret Gunn WK304 with Skipper Maclean and a crew of six had set four nets and were working lines off Freswick when a violent southerly gale placed the vessel in danger. With great difficulty the nets were recovered, the sails were reefed in and efforts were made to get under the shelter of the land. After a short distance, the mast broke and together with the sail, was swept overboard. However it was made fast by ropes to the stem. The fishing boat WK 1107 skippered by John Robertson went to their aid, but was unable to make fast the ropes which were thrown and the disabled boat was swept past Duncansby Head and into the Firth at the mercy of the winds and waves. The danger was considerably increased by the mast in the water bumping against the stern and several leaks sprang. In spite of many difficulties and with constant baling, Gills’ Bay was reached about 7p.m. Two anchors were cast overboard, but the Margaret Gunn started dragging towards the shore. In answer to the distress flares, Huna lifeboat was quickly manned and launched. By skilful handling under the coxswain John Calder, it went alongside and rescued the crew of seven and landed them at Huna. Shortly afterwards the Margaret Gunn was driven ashore and smashed to pieces on the rocks.

At 8.30am on the 8th August 1883 the 362 ton Norwegian barque Minerva of Langesund (Captain Gundersen) went ashore on the Pentland Skerries. She had left Garston Dock, Liverpool, just over a week before with a cargo of salt for Viburg in Finland. All had gone well until Dunnet Head was reached, but there the steering way was lost due to the direction of the wind, and the vessel was swept by the tide through the Firth and on to the Skerries. When the Minerva struck, Huna lifeboat was launched and together with several Stroma boats was quickly on the scene. By that time, however, the damaged leaking vessel had been dislodged from the rocks by the waves and tide, and sank in a short time on the south side of the main island. The crew of nine were able to launch the ship’s lifeboat and with the assistance of the lighthouse keepers, land on the rocks. Huna lifeboat under her coxswains Messrs Calder and Dunnett, recovered the crew and their immediate belongings from the Skerries and landed them on the mainland.

In November 1889 the W.M.C. was replaced by the Caroline & Thomas. The new lifeboat was self- righting, 37 feet long, 8 feet broad, 12 oared and cost £495.00. She was bought with a legacy from Mr T Hackwood of Sydenham.

Under certain conditions of weather and especially at low tide, difficulty in launching the lifeboat was experienced. This had to be done through a narrow gap eight yards wide which had to be constantly cleared of large loose boulders.

In 1890 the present boathouse was built for £988.00. The slipway, 343 feet long, was constructed by Sinclair & Banks for £724.00. Special rollers were later added at a cost of £100.00. A winch was also placed on a concrete base in a filed at the rear of the boathouse.

There were two methods used when recovering the lifeboat. At high tide and in calm weather it was simply floated on to the trolley and simply pulled up the slipway by winch. The other method was to draw the lifeboat up the beach on the east side of the boathouse, turn it through 180 degrees and enter it through the inland doors for placement on the trolley. The floor of the boathouse had been constructed on two levels in order to make the operation easier.

At 4p.m.on the 31st October 1898 the four masted steamer Manchester City while on her maiden voyage from Middlesborough to Manchester to load for America, broke her rudder quadrant two miles off Dunnet Head and began drifting in the strong westerly gale. Two anchors were let down and these held for a time. In answer to her distress signals lifeboats from Scrabster, Longhope and Huna were alerted and together with the St Ola and a Grimsby trawler, made for the scene. After launching difficulties because of low tide, Huna lifeboat soon made up under a press of sail. By that time the flowing tide was causing problems and the anchors were slipped allowing the Manchester City and her escorts to drive eastwards. Second coxswain Bill Mowat of the Longhope lifeboat was placed on board the disabled vessel as a pilot and although the steering was out of order she was kept off the rocks by using ahead/astern on the engines until past Duncansby Head. The three lifeboats all gave considerable assistance in spite of the mountainous seas in the Pentland Firth and on the way to Wick Bay. Because of difficulties near Noss Head, Ackergill lifeboat together with the steam tug (Captain David Simpson) went to assist. While anchoring at the mouth of Wick Bay awaiting the arrival of more powerful tugs, the Manchester City ranged ahead and two men on the tug, Don Sweeney and Peter Simpson, were injured. During the night the Manchester City drove out to sea while a jury rudder was fitted. With the Aberdeen stern liner in attendance a course was set for the Cromarty Firth. Two days later, while under light anchors in the Cromarty Roads, a sudden gale from the south west drove her ashore on the Nigg Sands. She was later refloated, undamaged, by two tugs and towed south for repairs to her steering gear. The Manchester City (Captain Forrest) was 461 ft long, beam 52 ft and dead weight 8600 tons. She had triple expansion engines of 4000 IHP. made by Sir Christopher Furness & Co of Middlesborough and had a speed of 15 knots.

On 1st May 1900 the Swedish barque Hans of Landscrona, 1200 tons, with a cargo of rosin worth £4000.00, lost her rudder, wheel and sails in a strong north westerly gale near Dunnet Head. Lifeboats from Thurso (coxs. Brims) and Longhope (coxs. John Swanson) pursued her as she was driven eastwards through the Firth. Huna lifeboat was taken from its shed but was damaged in the launching and had to be recalled. Ackergill was made ready but was not launched. When clear of Duncansby Head the twelve members of the crew of the Hans were taken aboard the steam liner Celtic after abandoning ship. Two days later Wick lifeboat was launched when the abandoned Hans was driven ashore at Broadhaven. Its cargo was recovered but the vessel became a total loss.

In thick fog on 21st June 1900 the Kirkcaldy fishing lugger Magdalene Hughes went ashore on the Little Skerry. Two of the crew swam ashore and the remaining five were taken off together with nets and belongings, by the Huna lifeboat under coxswain John Dunnet. The seven members of her crew were later landed at Stromness probably by the steam liner Lilian Maud of Peterhead.

On 6th October 1900 the fishing steamer Champion of Grimsby ran ashore on the Little Skerry and stuck fast. Although Huna Lifeboat was quickly on the scene, the crew were rescued by Stroma fishermen just as the lifeboat arrived. Shortly afterwards nine salvage men set up base in a twelve foot square hut on the Skerry as they attempted to refloat the Champion.

On 11th November 1900, in answer to distress signals from the salvage men, the Huna lifeboat set out to the rescue. Because the weather was unsettled and the sea rough, she was unable to land and had to return to station. Next day Wick lifeboat was towed to the area by the steamer Salisbury, which was helping with the salvage operations, and five men were rescued. The others decided to remain on the island until the weather improved.

In September 1901 the Caroline & Thomas was replaced by the Ida. She was self-righting, 37 feet long, 9 feet 3 inches broad, ten oared and cost £903.00. She was provided by the legacy of Miss Ida B Sutherland of Hove.

At 3am on the 29 November 1902 the steam trawler Silanion GK2279 of Grimsby ran ashore east of the John O’Groats Hotel. The night was intensely dark, there was a strong south easterly gale and a heavy land surf was running. When the distress signals were seen from the shore, the lifeboat under coxswain J Dunnet was hurriedly manned, launched and proceeded towards the stranded vessel. In the meantime the crew of the trawler had launched their own boat, but this was swept away in the heavy seas. Captain Smith who had been staying at John O’Groats, made his way over the rocks and shouted to the shipwrecked crew to wait for the lifeboat. By means of a lantern he was able to guide the lifeboat to the scene as by then the Silanion’s lights had failed. With great skill and determination the lifeboat was taken against the lee quarter and the crew of ten hauled aboard. Because of the heavy seas running the lifeboat had to wait for daylight before attempting to land at Huna. Even then it was not possible and she proceeded with the rescued crew to the harbour at Mey. The Silanion belonged to the Standard Steam Fishing Co. of Grimsby and commanded by William Wright. She had been fishing near the Faroe Islands and was on her way home with a catch worth £400.00. The vessel was two years old and cost £6000.00.

Early on 8th April 1902 during hazy weather the Glasgow trawler Ardgowan GW4 ran on to the rocks about half a mile from John O’Groats. After being fast for three hours, the crew were able to refloat her on the rising tide. Before, however, the vessel could get under way a rapid current caught her and she was swept on to the Ness of Duncansby in a dangerous position. Meantime the Huna lifeboat was alerted and quickly launched. The crew of nine and the captain’s son were transferred to the lifeboat and landed at Huna. The Ardgowan was later refloated and towed to Wick for repairs.

On 25th May 1910 while the fishing vessel Stratheyre of Findochty, BF493 and skipper Alexander Campbell, was proceeding through the Pentland Firth on passage from Stornoway to Stronsay when the wind fell away and she was swept by the strong tide on to the Skerries. Shortly afterwards she broke up and sank leaving the crew clinging to a rough raft of spars and buoys floundering in the water. At considerable danger to himself, James MacHardy, one of the assistant lighthouse keepers, swam out and made a line fast to the raft which was then drawn to shore by the other lighthouse keepers. Huna lifeboat had been alerted when the incident occurred but the men were ashore by the time the lifeboat arrived. The crew were recovered from the Skerries by the lifeboat and taken to Huna. The Stratheyre was valued at £440,000 and the gear at £350.00 – all was lost.

On 16th October 1910 while passing through the Pentland Firth in dense fog, the four masted Indian of Liverpool under the command of Captain Bruce bound from Nordenham via the Tyne to Pensacola, Florida, with a load of salt went ashore on the east side of Duncansby Head. Such was the force of the current that the vessel heeled over to a dangerous angle, and the captain fearing that the vessel would founder ordered the lifeboats to be launched. This was a procedure fraught with danger and no sooner had the boats touched the water than they capsized and one of the crew engaged in the launching fell overboard and was drowned. Considering that the tide was running at twelve knots it was surprising that the consequences were not more serious. The position where the Indian struck was the Rispie the Keiss vessel F T Barry had been lost there some time previously. The distress signals were quickly answered by the Princess Olga and Princess Royal of Liverpool closely followed by Huna lifeboat under coxswain John Dunnet. The vessel was badly holed in the forward compartments but the other watertight bulkheads held and there was little water aft. The crew were preparing to abandon ship with personal effects when she refloated on the rising tide. The Indian proceeded south under her own steam escorted by the Huna lifeboat but when in danger of sinking was beached in Sinclair Bay. Huna lifeboat remained in attendance from Saturday afternoon until Tuesday. The Indian was owned by the Frederick Leyland Co. Ltd of Liverpool and was built in Belfast in 1900. She was 482ft long, 5990 tons, and had a draught when loaded of 29 ft. Her crew of 52 were German and British with a Shetland captain. She was refloated on 17th August after repairs had been made to the bow and went to Newcastle under her own power with salvage tugs Ranger and Linnet in attendance.

The Huna lifeboat was recorded as having launched on service twenty-nine times and saved twenty-seven lives between 1877 and 1930. She was then withdrawn and the station closed. By that time the lifeboat stations at Thurso, Longhope and Wick had been provided with motor powered vessels and the Committee of the RNLI felt that there was adequate cover in the area of the Pentland Firth. It is worth noting that during the time of the Huna lifeboat 145 vessels were in difficulties in the Pentland Firth and a large number of these were wrecked.

Many were refloated and crews rescued by the actions of local fishermen who in terrible conditions and in dangerous situations gave help on at least 43 occasions. In separate incidents Stroma fishermen were awarded the RNLI parchment for outstanding rescues.

In 1908, the Royal Oak a Stroma fishing boat, was swamped in heavy seas near Muckle Skerry. The crew of five kept themselves afloat by clinging to wreckage from the boat until rescued by the heroic efforts and seamanship of another Stroma boat, the Undaunted. They were landed on Muckle Skerry, provided with hot food and dry clothes and taken back to Stroma by the Undaunted.

In 1912 the Dubbleman, a trawler from Umuiden ran ashore on the Lother Rock on South Ronaldsay and was wrecked. Stroma fishermen rescued the crew under very difficult conditions.

Officers & Officials of Huna Lifeboat (1877-1930)

John Calder June 1878-Oct 1898
John Dunnet Dec 1898-Dec 1915
Alexander Sinclair Dec 1915-Dec 1926
William Mowat Jan 1927 – Mar 1930

Second Coxswains
John Dunnet Dec 1877 – Dec 1898
William Kennedy Jan 1899 – 1921
William Cook 1921 – 1927
Donald Laird 1928 – 1930

Honorary Secretaries
David Meiklejohn 1877 – 1880
David Dunnet 1880 – 1884
Dr David Lechmofe Anderson 1884 – 1885
Dr WJH Sinclair 1888 – 1892

This article is intended as a tribute to generations of men from the Pentland Firth area who, by their devotion to duty, often at great personal danger and discomfort, on life-boats and in fishing vessels, gave help to seafarers in distress.