Clan Macquarrie – historic rescue at Borve

On the 31st of January 1953 the largest 'breeches buoy' rescue in history was carried out when the 7000 tonne cargo liner 'Clan MacQuarrie' ran aground at Borve on the west side of Lewis.

The huge vessel was en-route from Dundee to Glasgow when, at around midnight, she ran aground about 100 yards offshore, but the gales were so strong and the sea so ferocious that she was carried inshore and was left 'high and dry' when the tide receded.

Stornoway Coastguard were alerted and soon the Life Saving Auxiliary Company (LSA), led by Station Officer

Thomas Price, were making the 18 mile journey to Borve.

The lifeboat, on the other hand, had been called out hours

before, following a report that flares had been spotted at Rubha Hunish, north west Skye.

When they arrived in Skye the crew found nothing to report and battled against the gale for six hours to make it back to Stornoway.

She re-fuelled, ready for another trip which would have meant an horrendous trip around the Butt of Lewis. Fortunately though, she was not required at Borve.

Meantime, the LSA team, on arrival at Borve, along with having the horrendous weather to contend with, had the problem of dragging the heavy life saving gear over half a mile of cart track and then across rough ground to the beach.

They eventually overcame this difficulty and managed to fire the first rocket line shortly after 3am. Unfortunately, it failed to make contact and although the second rocket line was initially held, it was soon lost.

By this time the men were exhausted and reports said: "They (the LSA team) were soaked to the skin and several men were blown into ditches which had become raging torrents. Hands were swollen and puffy with cold, legs numb to the knees, and faces were caked with mud, oil and salt."

After it was established that the ship and its crew were not in any immediate danger it was decided to leave the rescue until daylight and hopefully, a break in the weather.

A line was secured after the tide had gone out and with the help of brave local volunteers, the process of rescuing the 66 crew members of the Clan MacQuarrie by 'breeches buoy' began at around 12pm.

The 'breeches buoy' is a device designed for 'ship to ship' or 'ship to shore' rescues. It consists of a canvas seat in the form of breeches hung from a life belt running on a pulley system that enables persons to be hauled to ship or shore.

The wind, which was reported to have been gusting at over 100 miles per hour on the West Side during the night, had eased by the time of the rescue but it was still blowing powerfully enough for the rescuers to have trouble remaining on their feet while they held the hawser taut.

All 66 crew members (and the ships cat) were rescued in just over three hours and the last man ashore was Captain Denis De Vall who, apparently, in his 30 years at sea, had, only once experienced such severe weather conditions.

William Ogilvie, the ship's carpenter, paid tribute to the locals and his rescuers: "We are very grateful to the people of Borve for their hospitality and also to the LSA crew for turning out last night. They were worse off than we were - at least we had some shelter."

Captain De Vall remained in Borve, staying at No. 28 with Mr John Graham. The first mate and chief engineer also stayed in the village whilst the remainder of the crew were taken to the sailors home in Stornoway where they were fed, watered and given a change of clothing.

For their efforts during the incident, Stornoway LSA were awarded The Board of Trade 'Wreck' Shield and Station Officer Price received a B.E.M (The Medal of the Order) for Meritous Service.

The LSA men on duty along with Thomas Price were: David Bogle (coastguard), James Cruikshank, William Morrison, Frank Morrison, Murdo Morrison, Jackie Morrison, John Maclennan, Alex Cormack, Malcolm Macleod, Ivor Macleod, Joe Sutherland, John Macleod, Donald Maclean and Hector Macleod.

Brave locals were not forgotten though, and with a fantastic gesture of thanks, Clan Line, the ship's owners, paid for a community hall to built in Borve.

The Clan MacQuarrie remained grounded at Borve for two more months until she was refloated on the high Spring tides but unfortunately she was beyond repair and was broken up at Troon and sold as scrap.


Luck was on the side of the crew of the Clan MacQuarrie that night, but others were not as fortunate as tragedy struck elsewhere during the great storm of January 31st 1953.

The Fleetwood registered trawler 'Michael Griffiths' sank seven miles south of Barra Head with the loss of 13 crew.

She had managed to send one distress message saying she was helpless, full of water and out of steam, but sadly she was never heard from or seen again.

An even greater disaster occurred in the Irish Channel when the passenger ferry 'Princess Victoria', which sailed between Stranraer and Larne in Northern Ireland, sank in the atrocious weather conditions with the loss of 133 lives.

Excerpt from Stornoway Gazette 6th February 1953

Thousands of shellfish washed ashore

People gathered thousands of clams and razor fish on the beach below Melbost and Branahuie when the sands burst.

It is the first time within living memory that the sands have burst with a north-westerly wind. The old folk look for the occurrence with a north-easterly wind.

The first sign that the banks had burst was the gathering of hundreds of seagulls about midday on Sunday. Shortly after midnight the first folk went down to the beach to gather the shell-fish washed up by the tide.

The news went quickly round the island and by Monday afternoon there was a row of cars, lorries and buses along the Braighe from the 'Cable House' to the cemetery.

There were other cars on the Branahuie Road, some of which had come from as far away as Tolsta Chaolais.

People gathered the shell-fish in bags, baskets and pails. They came ashore on a stretch of beach from Steinish to Aignish.

The old folk in the village say they have never seen a heavier sea than the one in Broadbay last Saturday.

(The 'Cable House' was situated at the roadside near the Melbost/Branahuie end of the Braighe. It was demolished in the 60s.)