Melancholy Boat Accident by Calum McRae

Posted on September 24, 2015

The Clyde, Cardross and Port Glasgow, Ordnance Survey 1890

My great-great grandfather, Malcolm McRae, was orphaned at the age of 8 as a result of his parents drowing along with 6 other members of his family in a boat accident on the river Clyde in July 1869. At that time, small rowing boats were used to make the journey across the Clyde, in this case rowing the 2 miles between Cardross on the north bank and Port Glasgow on the south bank.

After discovering the deaths when working back through the records I went in search of any details of the accident in the press of the time. Here's the transciption I found in the Dumbarton Herald.

Port Glasgow Harbour 1853, (oil painting), Samuel Bough (1822-1878)



One of the most distressing boat accidents which has taken place on the Clyde for a lengthened period occurred on Wednesday night week opposite Cardross, whereby a pleasure party of no fewer than eight persons, belonging to one family met a watery grave.

The most of the following details have been furnished by the relatives of the unfortunate deceased, some of whom were the last to see the ill-fated occupants of the boat in life:- On Wednesday evening a family party of eight persons left Cardross in a smallboat, measuring 14 feet 6 inches keel, and 4 feet 6 inches beam, on a pleasure excursion to Port-Glasgow, to view the "shows" and other exhibitions which were collected on the occasion of the annual Fair, which was being held in that town. The party consisted of John McCrae, aged 34 years, gardener to Major Geils of Geilston; Janet Cooper or McCrae, aged 28 years, his wife; Janet McCrae, aged two years, their daughter; William Thomson, seaman, aged 28 years, brother-in-law to McCrae; Elizabeth McCrae or Thomson, aged 24 years, his wife; William Thomson, aged one year, their child; Thomas McCrae, aged 13 years, and Christina McCrae, aged 16 years, brother and sister of John McCrae and Mrs Thomson. The boat was propelled by means of two oars, and the grown-up males were recognised as being experienced boatmen. Their respected father Mr Malcolm McCrae, has acted as ferryman betwixt Cardross and Port Glasgow for about forty years, and all his sons were trained to manage smallboats; indeed some of them were well-known scullers on the Clyde and elsewhere.

The Port-Glasgow shore was reached by the party in safety early in the evening. About ten minutes past eleven they again embarked on board the smallboat to return home. The night was calm and clear, the surface of the river reflecting the moonlight like a mirror. Just before departing from Port-Glasgow another brother of the McCraes, named Malcolm, accompanied by John Ninian, Majory McIntyre, Mary McArthur, John Boyd, and Alexander and Malcolm McCrae, junior - sons of Malcolm - came down to the harbour, and both parties having expressed their astonishment and delight at finding each other under similar circumstances, they agreed that both boats should keep as close together as possible during the passage across the river, which is about three miles broad at this part. Both boats, it may be mentioned, were carefully trimmed, by the different members of the party being properly placed in each.

The members of both parties are stated to have been perfectly sober; and, as already mentioned, the weather was calm, and the night clear, so that no danger was apprehended by the most timid person amongst them. Shortly after leaving Port-Glasgow harbour a sail was hoisted upon the boat occupied by Malcolm McCrae and his party, but there being no sail on board the other boat, it was necessary to use the oars. As there was only a light air of wind from the southward, the rowers often got ahead of the boat on which the sail was hoisted, so that the party on board the latter boat were often obliged to use their oars, in order to keep alongside of their friends. On the way across both parties were in the best of spirits - jest, banter, and song being freely engaged in. When the boats had accomplished fully half the distance across, it became necessary that they should separate, as Malcolm McCrae and his party resided about a mile further down the river than did the occupants of the other boat. After bidding each other good night they separated, and the course of each boat was steered at about right angles from the other. Malcolm McCrae and his party reached the shore in safety, and all retired to their respective homes, believing that their friends would have reached the land about the same time as themselves; but, as unfortunately turned out, such was not the case. Upon arriving home Malcolm McCrae retired to his bed, and was soon fast asleep. About two o'clock, however, he was aroused by hearing his father knocking at the door, and inquiring if he had had seen his brother and sister and the other members of their family, who were known to have been in the other boat. Upon learning that they had not arrived, Malcolm McCrae at once arose, and having dressed, he along with his father quickly launched a boat in the river, and proceeded in quest of them. The son suggested that after he had parted with the other boat the company seated in her might have returned to Port Glasgow and upon this slender supposition they proceeded across the river to the town, but no trace of them could be found. They then returned towards Cardross, and when about a quarter of a mile from the shore they espied through the grey morning light a boat floating keel uppermost. They at once approached it and discovered that it was the boat in which their relatives had left Port-Glasgow. The anchor was down having fallen out of the boat as she had capsized, and thus held her fast to the spot. The father and son, after considerable difficulty, succeeded in righting the boat, but no trace of any of the unfortunate occupants could be found. They then proceeded to the shore and raised an alarm, when five boats' crews were quickly mustered and at once put out in search. About five yards from the upturned boat the body of Mrs McCrae was observed on the sand in about four feet of water, and about three yards further off the child of Thomson was likewise found. A further search was made for the other bodies, but without success. Both bodies were removed to Geilston.

By this time the fearful character of the calamity which had befallen the family of McCrae began to be realised, and the old father, upon being conveyed ashore, became greatly excited, and had to be removed to his home, where his wife, upon hearing what had happened, likewise became greatly distressed. A boat's crew was promptly despatched to Port-Glasgow for grappling irons, and yesterday afternoon about half-a-dozen boats' crews were engaged trawling for the rest of the bodies.

How the calamity happened must for ever remain a mystery; but it is generally supposed that after parting from the other boat John McCrae and William Thomson, who were both at the oars from the time of leaving Port-Glasgow, had been shifting seats with some of the other members of the party, and that the boat had suddenly capsized. Not one of the members of the other boat heard any cries, but a woman who lives on the shore states that having occasion to be out for water shortly after twelve o'clock, she heard an indistinct cry as if of some one calling for help, and proceeding from the direction of the river, but believing that it was some sea-bird, she paid little attention to it, and soon again retired to her house. The grown-up males on board the boat were known to be good swimmers. Mrs J. McCrae was within a few weeks of her confinement. She was the second wife of her husband. Another little boy, who was likewise to have accompanied his parents, but who was latterly prevented, is left an orphan. Mr and Mrs Thomson likewise leave one child. Thomson was about to leave home to join the ship Anglesea, bound for Montreal. The McCrae family is held in much esteem in the district, and great sympathy is expressed for the relatives.

On Thursday afternoon the body of the little girl McCrae was found lying on the shore at the foot of Glasgow Street, Helensburgh. An oar, a child's straw hat, a man's black felt hat, and a black straw hat were likewise found on the Helensburgh shore. The body and the articles found along with it were conveyed to the Police Station.

As mentioned above this lamentable accident produced a most painful sensation at Cardross, and not only there, but throughout the district generally, the McCrae's or, as they are more commonly named the McCraw's - being extensively known from their long connection with the Geilston and Port-Glasgow ferry, and their skill as scullers. The elder Malcolm, till within a recent period when advancing years began to tell on him, was indeed quite unrivalled in this mode of propelling a boat, and was well known at all the regattas in the West of Scotland. He had a spice of humour about him in those days, and used to show how lightly he valued his younger competitors by sculling without troubling himself to remove his coat or a dress hat which he wore, and anon by sitting down and taking a rest to himself and a mouthful of water, keeping a sharp lookout all the time to keep ahead of his rivals. His son John, who has met his death under the circumstances narrated, for a time maintained the family laurels in this respect, but has not been a competitor for some years past. As showing however that the love of the art was not extinct, old Malcolm was anxious to have tried his hand at the Dumbarton regatta on the 17th curt., and on that day we heard John express his determination to meet with Carlile of the Vale, the present champion sculler of Scotland, at the next Loch lomond regatta, and show that the McCraes were still able to hold the firstplace. He said he had been practising recently, and was able now to make his boat go quicker than in the days when he had carried off the first honours. As a gardener, McCrae excelled, and was often successful in the competitions in the local flower shows. From these circumstances, the family must have been known far beyond the quiet parish in which they resided, and the sad calamity which has at this time befallen it will be heard of with regret by many far distant from the scene of the disaster. Yesterday the search in boats was abandoned, but the relations and others continued to look for the missing bodies along the shores in the direction of the Hill of Ardmore and Gareloch. The fact that the body of the little girl McCrae was carried as far as Helensburgh by a single tide shows the strength of the currents, and the probability is that the remainder of the bodies will be found below rather than above the scene of the fatal catastrophe. On Thursday Dr Buchanan, of Dumbarton, made a post mortem examination of the bodies of Mrs McCrae and the child Thomson, the result being merely to confirm what was believed, namely, that their death arose solely from drowning.

Later on that year, a small book was published for the order of service given in the parish church at Cardross on Sunday 1st August. A copy of this book is held by the West Dunbartonshire Library. I also have a transcript. If this is of interest, get in touch and I can e-mail a copy to you.

Cardross and the Clyde 1890

The map is of the river Clyde from an Ordnance Survey map of 1890, 21 years after the boating incident occurred. Cardross is on the north bank, Port Glasgow on the south side about 2 miles apart as the crow flies.

The picture is an oil painting by Samuel Bough (1822-1878), titled Port Glasgow Harbour 1853. The painting is part of the the colection of The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.