Last year we wrote a blog about Catherine Pearson or MacPherson (c. 1813–80) who had been prevailed upon by Alexander Carmichael in 1870 to perform a keening or tuireadh at a funeral in Barra. At its end we asked – given we know that Carmichael was in Barra in June, September, November, and December of 1870 – if any of our readers could help with the identity of the man being mourned. A swift return from Peter Kerr, writer of the ever-fascinating a’ spaidsearachd agus a’ meòrachadh Direcleit blog, suggested that two widows with young families in the 1871 census might be worth further investigation.
One of these widows was 30-year old Joanna MacPhee from Oban. Her husband, Roderick MacPhee, lighthouse ferryman, had been drowned some time in the late evening, Saturday 28 May 1870. As we’ll see, although we can’t prove that Roderick MacPhee was indeed the man being mourned, there certainly was a connection between himself and Alexander Carmichael, and the sad story is well worth the telling.
Here’s the initial report of the tragedy as it appeared in the Scotsman, 3 June 1870:
Three Fishermen Drowned. – The Dunvegan Castle, which arrived at Greenock yesterday afternoon, brought intelligence of the capsizing of a fishing-boat while on its way from Barra to Vatersea [sic]. The crew of three men were drowned. The names are not yet given.
On the same day the Dundee Courier reported:
FATAL BOAT ACCIDENT ON THE WEST COAST. – The Dunvegan Castle, which arrived at Greenock yesterday, reports the upsetting of a fishing boat going from Barra to Vatarsay, and the drowning of the occupants – Robert McFie, porter for the Barra-head Lighthouse, and a man and a boy. McFie was the best boatman about Barra, but the boat was new, and east country built. The boat was got upset, but no trace of the bodies was found.
On 3 June again another report was printed in the North British Daily Mail: it was reprinted verbatim in the Glasgow Herald the following day, and in Inverness Courier on 9 June.
MELANCHOLY OCCURRENCE OFF BARRA HEAD LIGHTHOUSE – THE LIGHTKEEPER AND TWO PERSONS DROWNED. – By the arrival of the S.S. Dunvegan Castle, Captain McEwan, at Greenock, from the North Highlands, we learn of a very melancholy occurrence off Barra Head Lighthouse on Saturday, by which three persons have been drowned. The keeper of the lighthouse, Roderick McPhee, was a man well known in that part of the Highlands, and for fifteen years had charge of the Barra Head Lighthouse. He had quite a reputation in the matter of boating, being considered the best handler of a boat in those parts, and many parties have enjoyed a sail with him, considering themselves quite safe under his guidance. On Saturday last, a gentleman and boy, whose names are at present unknown, desired a sail with McPhee, who readily consented. The boat, specially built for the lighthouse service, was entered, and the voyage which was to have so disastrous a termination commenced. A few hours afterwards, in the narrow Sound between Barra and Vatersa, the boat was found, keel up, with sail set, but without any trace of the unfortunate occupants. The boat was, of course, secured, but nothing was found to explain the occurrence. Diverse are the rumours as to the cause of the accident, but from McPhee’s known ability and carefulness, it is conjectured it must have been something unusual. From the nature of the Sound, where the upturned boat was discovered, and where the event is supposed to have taken place, there is little probability that the bodies will be found. It would be a pity to cause undue excitement amongst those who may have friends there, but it may be as well to state that there was a rumour to the effect that the name of the gentleman was McLeod.
The Dundee Courier also reprinted the report, but – perhaps rather more responsibly – omitted the final sentence.
References: Dundee Courier, 3 & 4 June, 1870; Inverness Courier, 9 June 1870; North British Daily Mail, 3 June 1870; Scotsman, 3 June 1870.
Image: Caolas Bhatarsaigh, by Leo, geograph.org.uk