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Saved from the unforgiving sea

It is a story that is all but forgotten – a story that tells of both the inhumanity and the enduring qualities of people, and how a small north Sutherland community was thrust into the consequences of war, in dramatic circumstances. Faded pencil notes on scraps of paper, and his grandmother’s handwriting on Post Office telegraphs, all found in family papers, set Alistair Fraser off on a trail that was to unearth an amazing story – a story that binds Armadale, the village of which he is a native, into an emotional kinship with the Nordic countries.

IN 1848 the three Olsen brothers, Fredrik, Petter and Andreas, each one a sea captain, founded the shipping company that carries their name to this day. Very quickly the company grew as trading between countries developed, and excellent management skills ensured that the Olsen name became highly respected in maritime circles. Thus, on New Year’s Day 1916, the Olsen-owned SS Bonheur slipped out of the port of Fredrikstad, Norway, bound for Garston, Liverpool.

The 1400-ton Bonheur – a fairly new ship, having being built in 1899 – had a crew of seventeen, including her captain, 49-year-old Christen Hermansen. The Bonheur had a maximum speed of eight knots. In her hold was a cargo of boxwood for Lever Brothers, of Ellesmere Port. The weather was far from ideal: a low-pressure area had formed between Iceland and Scotland and a strong south-westerly wind was blowing, with intermittent showers.

With Fredrikstad gradually disappearing below the horizon, many of the crew would have cast a final backward glance towards the mainland they had just left. Being New Year’s Day there was added poignancy at being parted from their loved ones, and inevitably they would be thinking of the day when they would be together again. Almost certainly, another thought would be on their minds. Their cargo was bound for Britain, currently at war with Germany, who would be anxious to disrupt vital supplies from getting through.

The weather in Armadale was under the influence of the same low-pressure area, bringing cold and blustery conditions to the village on that first day of 1916. The traditional New Year’s Day customs would have been observed: neighbour would have greeted neighbour, and good wishes for the coming year would have been exchanged over the customary dram. But the celebrations would have been muted; a war was being fought and men from the village were engaged in it. It was not a time for too much celebration and, in any case, the next day was Sunday when the tenets of the Sabbath would be observed. Armadale takes its name from the Norse words armr, meaning arm of the sea, and dale, a valley. It is a perfect description, given the arm of land that emerges out of a valley to form the village, ending at a point called Rishmave – Norse, red point – where it meets the sea.

Six days into her voyage the Bonheur was bravely making steady progress, despite the worsening conditions. The low-pressure area was holding and the wind had changed to a strong north-westerly direction. The day, like most of the previous five, was punctuated by squally showers that frequently merged into longer periods of rain. In the very rough sea conditions the Bonheur was taking a heavy battering.

A number of miles south-west of the Bonheur’s position, another ship was taking a similar pounding as it approached Cape Wrath. The King Edward VII, a British naval battleship, was on patrol shadowing the all-important North Atlantic route. Suddenly there was an explosion under the engine room, and she started to list to her starboard side. Attempts by other ships in the vicinity to take her in tow failed and, some ten hours after being struck, the King Edward VII sank – a victim of a German mine. All the crew were rescued by the nearby ships.

Unaware of this incident, the Bonheur was steaming towards the same area. The next day, Friday, January 7, brought no respite from the weather. By now it was extremely cold, with temperatures struggling to reach 7C. The Bonheur passed Sule Skerry with its reassuring lighthouse built in 1894 dominating this 35-acre, treacherous lump of rock. Five miles farther on to the south-west appeared Stack Skerry, a volcanic stack rising 150 feet out of the sea. It was now around midday. As she passed this stack, home to thousands of gannets, kittiwakes, arctic terns and many other species, the Bonheur was rocked by a mighty explosion. Another mine, presumably from those laid by the German ship Moewe, had claimed a second victim within twenty-four hours. The explosion claimed the life of one of the Bonheur’s stokers, H. Lindberg, and badly injured a sixteen-year-old seaman called Hansen, who was blown about by the force of the explosion.

Within a few minutes, with her stem shipping water, the Bonheur started to sink. The crew launched the ship’s two lifeboats and scrambled aboard. Despite the atrocious weather, the two open boats offered their only hope of survival. Each boat was equipped with four oars, mast and sail, rudder, compass, tarpaulin, baling bucket, hatchet, lantern, oil, water cask, tin of biscuits and 30 fathoms of one-inch rope. Within two hours of getting into the lifeboats, darkness overtook them, and with it the fear that they would drift apart. They would be shouting encouragement to one another, and the flickering light from the lanterns would also mark their position. The lanterns would also be used by the compass reader to help steer a course as they clung to one glimmer of hope. Their seamanship, and the north-west direction of the wind, convinced them that they would be driven towards the north coast of Scotland.

It is not clear how their course was kept; was it by use of the sail and rudder, or by the use of the four oars per boat? Either method would have taxed them to the point of exhaustion as mountainous seas toyed mercilessly with their boats. With the evening wearing on and with the temperature now down to 4C, the occupants of one of the boats were facing another crisis. Arel Hutala, a native of Finland, was working below deck when the Bonheur was struck, and didn’t have time to collect extra clothes before abandoning ship. Exhaustion and exposure were taking their toll and, despite the valiant efforts of crewmates to shield him from the elements, he died around midnight. The mood amongst the sailors would now be very sombre and dark, and they still had some nine hours of darkness to endure.

When daylight broke over Armadale on the morning of January 8, 1916, there was little hint of the drama that was about to overtake the village. The crofters who made up the majority of this township would be thinking about milking the cow – every crofter did so then – and tending to the sheep and the horse. They would also be hoping for an improvement in the weather as they too were still under the influence of the low-pressure area south of Iceland. Like all coastal people, they would have surveyed the sea, looking for some form of reassurance; its sound, its movement, the form of the waves and all its other features would act as a guide to the weather they could expect during the coming days. The sea brought its own mystique: sometimes serene and calm, other times dark and brooding, but always unforgiving and unpredictable. Throughout the long, dark hours the sea was certainly unforgiving and unpredictable as the sailors endured horrendous conditions.

Using the tarpaulins as a protection against the sea-spray and the biting cold, the sailors huddled together in an attempt to preserve their body warmth. Every so often, a large wave driven by storm-force winds would smash against the boats, throwing the sailors around. Each time this happened, the anguished cries of the teenager Hansen, injured in the initial explosion, could be heard above the shriek of the wind. Occasionally, and with great discipline, they dipped into their biscuit tin. Equally, they were careful about the use of water. Whilst some was used to quench their thirst, it was vital to retain some in order to moisten lips that were showing the effects of the chilling wind and the salty sea-spray. Although they were convinced that a landfall was somewhere out there, they had to be careful with their rations. Morning, and the possibility of some form of rescue, was still a long way off.

It will never be known why the brothers Colin and Neil Mackay, both crofters, were on Rishmave around nine o’clock that morning. They had sea-blood in their veins, so perhaps it was nothing more than the alluring call of the sea, or maybe it was to check what had been thrown up on the rocks. Whatever, nothing could have prepared them for the surprise the sea had in store for them.

With the first weak shafts of light penetrating the inky darkness and the squally showers, renewed hope filled the sailors’ exhausted, chilled bodies. The dark outline of land gradually took form as the daylight increased. They had guessed correctly. Gradually, using every reserve of their energy and strength, they edged ever closer to the coast, desperately looking for a landfall. Then suddenly, as they approached Rishmave point, the broad expanse of Armadale Bay began to open out. There was still a long way to go, great skill would be required against the wrath of the swell, but there must have been a great sense of elation amongst the occupants of the two boats.

Colin and Neil noticed the two boats heading towards Rishmave, and with each surge of the strong-running sea the boats were heading towards this very rocky point. They took off their overcoats or jackets and waved frantically to the occupants, guiding them towards the lee side of Rishmave. Realising the seriousness of the situation, Neil took back to the village to seek help. Colin, who would have known every inch of this headland, kept waving and guiding the boats towards the Cladaich Dhu – Gaelic, black shore. By now Colin could see people coming across the sands in his direction from Lednagullin and Aultiphurst, townships on the east side of Armadale Bay. They too had seen the boats.

As the boats neared the shore, the movement of the sea became more violent and unpredictable. Using their oars, the sailors fought valiantly to keep the boats from crashing against the rocks. The word spread like wildfire throughout the village. Men, some with their horses and carts, started to arrive at the Cladaich Dhu. They were accompanied by Dr James Silver, the parish doctor, who lived in Armadale. Almost every available fit male gathered, ready to give assistance, but for the time being they could only wait and hope and pray. The fate of the men in the boats was in their own hands, their seamanship skill and ebbing strength. In a report held in Olsen’s head office in Oslo, their final few moments before beaching the boats are described in the following terms: “It was a hard battle to get the ship to land. The people living in the village Armadales [sic] made a great effort to help. Due to heavy sea and undertow the lifeboats [were] filled with water and partly destroyed against the rocks.”

They had made it, but there was still a lot to do. Sheer exhaustion and severely chilled bodies meant that most of the sailors were unable to help themselves out of the boats. They had to be lifted out and somehow assisted up the short incline onto the croft land where they were helped onto carts. Those who could walk, albeit with difficulty, were supported between two or more men. It must be assumed someone, presumably Captain Hermansen, spoke sufficient English to explain their plight and who they were.

For the moment, however, the first priority was to get the sailors under cover where they would receive dry clothes and food. With most households represented, there was no shortage of offers of initial hospitality. Dr Silver, who by now had assumed leadership – it would have been expected of him – said it was important to get the sailors indoors where he would visit them and attend to their medical needs. He also said there was much that had to be done, and invited as many as possible to Achnacraig, his house, later in the day to discuss matters. With that, the horses and carts set off up the track with their precious cargo of fourteen Norwegians and one Swede. It was now just after midday, twenty-four hours after they first took to the lifeboats.

A group of men, and a horse and cart, stayed behind. Some temporarily secured the boats whilst for others there was still one delicate, sensitive duty to perform. With great care, they removed the body of Arel Hutala and placed it in the cart before commencing their solemn journey towards the village. At the end of the cart-track there was a house (still there today) then occupied by Alex Macdonald and his recently-widowed young sister, Anabella MacIntosh. Alex was a missionary and lay preacher, and he suggested that the body be laid out in his barn.

As requested by Dr Silver, a group met in Achnacraig where he outlined things that had to be done. The incident had to be reported, the boats and their equipment had to be fully secured, and importantly the welfare of the sailors had to be finalised. A committee of eight was formed, four from Armadale and three from Lednagullin, plus Dr Silver as chairman. Today, that might sound a bit over the top. Back then, every task that had to be undertaken, and every message that had to be conveyed, had to be carried out by foot-soldiers.

Next door to Achnacraig was the post office, occupied by my maternal grandparents, Mary and Hugh Munro, postmistress and postman. This single-storey building, long since demolished, became the nerve-centre of this “international incident” because it contained the only means of communicating with the outside world. The “only means” was a Morse code tapper and sounder system. My grandmother would write out each message on a Post Office telegraph form; she then would convert the words to Morse code by tapping out the message. This Morse signal was then transmitted along the telegraph lines to the Morse sounder at another telegraph office where the message would be written out and delivered to the desired destination. In the same way, incoming messages would be converted by my grandmother from Morse code to the written word onto telegraph forms – the very forms that triggered my interest in this story.

By this method my grandmother contacted a telegraph address simply titled T.S.F.R.G. It is possible that this was the telegraphic address of the Norwegian Consulate in Edinburgh, given that the telegraphs refer to the names of the sailors. The same method would almost certainly be used to contact, for example, the police. A number of the villagers returned to the Cladaich Dhu. Although both boats were damaged they hauled them up beyond the high-water mark, and removed all the pieces of equipment and stored them in local barns. The next task facing the committee was to find accommodation for the fifteen sailors. Not all of the people who initially took them in and provided food and dry clothing had spare sleeping space. Once the necessary sleeping accommodation was found within the village, the sailors were escorted to where they would stay until arrangements were made for them to return home. It was the start of a busy and hectic weekend.

In researching this story, I have been unable to discover the full details surrounding the burial of Arel Hutala. According to the appropriate editions of the John O’Groat Journal and the Northern Ensign, he was buried in Strathy cemetery on the Monday, prior to his comrades commencing their homeward journey. This is confirmed by the records held in Olsen’s office in Oslo. There is no mention of the incident in the daily diaries of the procurators fiscal based in Dornoch and Wick, nor are there burial-ground records available covering burials in Strathy in 1916. The only police reference I traced was a letter from the chief constable of Sutherland, Mr Chisholm, to Constable Thompson, Bettyhill, requesting the names of the sailors who came ashore. There is a further twist. The registrar records for Strathy, which covered Armadale, do not include an entry recording the death of Arel Hutala.

One must now speculate over the apparent absence of any involvement by the police and the procurator fiscal, and the fact that the death was not registered. Was there an assumption made that Hutala had died outside territorial waters, and therefore official enquiries could be kept to a minimum? It was, after all, wartime, and in no-one’s interest to prolong the sailors’ stay in the village longer than was necessary. We will never know, but the question remains: who took on the responsibility for burying Arel Hutala? In a letter (mentioned later in this article) from Sinclair Macdonald, representing the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, he requests Dr Silver to send him the bill for the funeral expenses.

We must now assume that the funeral arrangements also fell to the people of Armadale. If this was so, it is worth considering the logistics of their task. No work would be done on the Sunday; therefore it is safe to guess that a group of men departed the village at the crack of dawn on Monday morning to dig the grave. The journey to Strathy, by horse and cart, would certainly take more than an hour. Only two people would be digging at the same time, but their task would be eased by the very sandy structure of the soil. Did the coffin arrive later at a predetermined time, again by horse and cart? If so, who accompanied it? Did any of the sailors travel to Strathy, or did they leave their final earthly obligation to their dead comrade in the hands of the people who provided them with safe deliverance?

The undertaker was Donald John Macdonald, the local joiner/ undertaker, from Brawl, a coastal hamlet west of Strathy. Donald John was the brother of Alex Macdonald, the missionary and lay preacher. In this strong Presbyterian community, the spiritual needs of the deceased would not have been forgotten. At some stage a short service would have been held, possibly in Alex’s barn, around the coffin, and attended by people from the village. This would consist of a prayer, a reading from the Bible and the singing of a Psalm. This service would certainly have been conducted by Alex Macdonald with some appropriate contribution from Captain Hermansen.

Given the detailed notes that were kept at the time, I am intrigued at the absence of any relating to Arel Hutala’s funeral. Have they been lost, or did they consider the keeping of such notes an intrusion upon the sanctity of the occasion? It must remain an abiding mystery.

Thanks to the medical care they received from Dr Silver, and the hospitality of the villagers, the sailors showed remarkable recuperative powers. Only the young man Hansen, who was severely bruised and sore from being thrown about, was still carrying the effects of their ordeal. On the day that their comrade was buried, arrangements were finalised for the sailors to commence their journey back to Norway. This was done through the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society which, most likely, was contacted by my grandmother.

At five o’clock on the Monday evening the fifteen sailors boarded a Wilson’s of Thurso bus to start the first leg of their journey. Prior to their departure, a number of the villagers met with the sailors to say their farewells. One can assume it must have been an emotional departure, given the dramatic circumstances in which they first met, only two days earlier. As a gesture of thanks, Captain Hermansen presented Colin and Neil, the two brothers who first spotted them, with his binoculars and whistle, and a compass from one of the lifeboats.

Their journey to Thurso took some three hours. There they were met by Sinclair Macdonald, the local representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, and other local members of the society, who had arranged their lodgings for that evening. The following morning they left Thurso by rail, en route to Newcastle, where they would board a boat for Kristiania (Oslo). Mr Macdonald was the founder of the former architectural business in Thurso that carried his name. And so a remarkable chapter in the history of Armadale could now be closed. Well, not quite…

A few days later, Dr Silver received a letter from Sinclair Macdonald, profusely thanking him and the people of Armadale for saving the crew, and for their kindness and hospitality. He said that the master of the vessel was warm in his praise of all the kindness they had received. Mr Macdonald also asked for a note of all expenses, “so that I can get payment of same from the Norwegian Consulate in Leith”.

At the end of February 1916, Dr Silver received a letter from the Fred Olsen Company, signed by Fred Olsen. In it he said that Captain Hermansen had spoken of the kindness shown to him and the other survivors by the doctor and the people of Armadale. Mr Olsen went on: “As a token of my gratitude I have pleasure in enclosing a cheque for £50, of which kindly retain for yourself £20, for your trouble and outlays, and divide the balance amongst the men who assisted the crew.”

These fading handwritten notes detail how the £30 was apportioned. Every task associated with the rescue of the sailors and the safekeeping of their equipment is itemised, and the names of those who carried out the various tasks are listed, and how much each received. Those who housed the sailors were awarded 13/9d (68p) per person, per night.

One couldn’t complete this story without, first of all, visiting the Cladaich Dhu. As I viewed this place from the edge of what is still today croft land, I wondered why this place was chosen. To a landlubber, it didn’t look too inviting. The sandy beach is only a few hundred yards farther inland, where they could have simply beached their boats. Did Colin fear that the sailors were now so exhausted they would be unable to reach there before the boats were smashed against the rocks? Did the sailors somehow convey to him that all their strength had gone? Did he gamble that it was now or never? We will never know, but it did have one very important advantage, given the state of the sailors.

The crofts on Rishmave are only a few feet above the Cladaich Dhu, where a track provides a quick, easy access into the village. I tried to think of the events of that far-off day, and of the people who are the heroes of this story. Firstly, I thought of the sailors, their desperate plight and their fears. Already traumatised by the horror of being blown up, and the loss of two of their comrades, they would be exhausted, numb with the cold and resigned to their fate. As their open boats were being guided to this landing place, what thoughts would be going through their minds? It was wartime and they were far from home, strangers approaching a strange land. Would their incredible story be believed? Would the place they were approaching offer a haven from their nightmare, or would it be the beginning of another?

Then I thought of the people who came to their aid, and how differently things would be dealt with in 2007. Today they would be rapidly sidelined as the rescue services and officialdom descended upon the area. Search-and-rescue helicopters would be quickly on the scene. They would be followed by other helicopters containing the press pack. Satellite dishes would be sprouting on vantage points above the beach, and the dramatic story of how fifteen survivors from a disaster at sea came ashore at Armadale, “after clinging for their lives in open boats in atrocious conditions for twenty-four hours”, would be flashed around the world. Back then, the villagers had no such support. Devoid of today’s communication systems that can instantly summon help, they were left to their own devices.

Led by Dr Silver, they provided the sailors with all that they had to offer: friendship, dry clothes, food and a warm roof above their head. By today’s standards it would all be very spartan. But what the villagers had, they gave – and in so doing many would have deprived their own family. The welfare of their unexpected guests was their first priority, and how magnificently they rose to the challenge. I feel privileged that I can tell this story, and proud that these people from my native village displayed such humanity, caring and dignity in adversity, and when it really mattered.

On this indifferent day, with the gulls crying overhead, I sensed the wind freshening; the tide was coming in, and the sound of the sea crashing upon the rocks and rushing into the many crevices was building up to a crescendo. Below, and all around me, nature was providing its own symphony, as if in Requiem for the two dead sailors, and in honour of the rescued and their rescuers, on the very same stage where this remarkable Nordic saga was played out over ninety years ago. Retracing my steps back up the track to the village, I reflected on the events of that day, and realised I was walking in the footsteps of some remarkable people.

Finally, I paid a visit to Strathy cemetery. There, in an unmarked spot lies Arel Hutala. He was someone’s son. Almost certainly today, in his native Finland, there are people who still carry the same bloodline. They can be assured he now sleeps peacefully in the sunset, far removed from the harsh elements that claimed his life. And, down the slope from where he rests, the sea – one of the awesome forces of nature and so central to this story – still ebbs and flows, relentlessly, always and forever.

The sinking of the Bonheur was the subject of a maritime court hearing in Kristiania (Oslo) on January 17, 1916. There, Captain Hermansen told that just before the explosion he observed what looked like a pole, on the nose of the ship. He had seen it for a split second between two waves. Because of the weather and the high seas, he couldn’t tell if the “pole” was part of a submarine. It was later established that no German submarine was operating in the area, but mines had been dropped by the German cruiser Moewe. Seaman Hansen was treated for his injuries in the Vor Frues hospital in Kristiania. The two lifeboats and their equipment became the property of the Receiver of Wreck. The Olsen company replaced the Bonheur with another ship of the same name. She came into service in 1918, but on December 23 of that year she too was struck and sunk by a mine whilst sailing between Kristiania and South Africa. All in all, the Olsen company lost twenty-three ships during the First World War, almost half of its merchant fleet. The bus in which the sailors travelled to Thurso was a two-cylinder chain-driven Albion, complete with solid tyres and carbide lighting. It was bought new in 1913 when Wilson’s was awarded the contract to deliver and collect the mail to and from the post offices between Thurso and Skerray, a contract the firm held until 1940. It also helps explain why all the postal addresses in these areas carry the “by Thurso” suffix.

In telling this story I am grateful for the help and encouragement I received from many organisations and countless individuals. But my greatest debt is to those three or four people who kept meticulous notes of the events of that weekend, without which the telling of this story would not have been possible. To these people, and the others who provided a sanctuary to these brave sailors, and to all the crew of the SS Bonheur who set sail on New Year’s Day 1916, this story is dedicated.