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In Sight of Shore -

Loss of the Whaler "Oscar" - Girdleness 41 Dead

One of the most melancholy shipwrecks that have ever occurred on this coast took place on the 1st April 1813. The Oscar whale ship left the port that morning along with four others, the weather being fine; but appearances of a gale coming on, the Oscar and another weighed anchor, in order to stand out to sea. The Oscar was detained by one of her boats having been sent for some of the crew who had not come on board, and the gale coming on from the north-east, she was driven ashore about 11 am, in the Greyhope Bay, immediately behind the breakwater at the south side of the harbour, where she quickly went to pieces, and out of a crew of 43, only the first mate and one seaman were saved. The same place proved fatal in 1815 to the Caledonia and the Thames, which were both wrecked in one day, and the crews of both perished.

The location assigned to this record is essentially tentative, being derived from the unverified location that is cited by Whittaker.  The 'Greyhope Rocks' or 'Rocks of Greyhope' are not noted as such on the current edition of the OS (GIS) MasterMap, but the name presumably applies to those on either side of Greyhope Bay, to the North West of Girdle Ness. The vessel was presumably stranded while anchored off Aberdeen harbour.  The present entrance location reflects development towards the East through the construction of successive piers and breakwaters.

In 1541 the Freemasons of Aberdeen held their Assemblies ceremonies in the Greyhope Bay area. They later moved to the Mansion - The White House o' the Links at Futtiesmyre - the later used for the Gas Works,  They then built the New Inn in 1755 and the Lodge was on the top floor in Castle Street hence Lodge Walk.

Grayhope Bay Circa 1840 - The area beneath the Lighthouse is known as Greyhope Bay.

Between the Girdleness and the river mouth there is the Greyhope Bay, memorable as the scene of the most disastrous shipwreck ever recorded in our local annals. "On the morning of the 1st of April, 1813, 5 whaling vessels were riding at anchor in the roads when a sudden tempest came on from the South East.  Two of the ships weighed and stood out to sea; but as part of the crew of one, the ill-fated "Oscar," had been left ashore, she was obliged to put about and keep near the land.  By the time that all her men were on board she was far inshore.  Meantime the wind had died away, and from the heavy roll of the sea, and a strong tide setting in, she was unable to clear the Girdleness.  Soon after the gale sprang up with increased violence; it was accompanied with a dense shower of snow, and now blew from the North East. The vessel in vain endeavoured to ride it out; and after dragging her anchor she was driven ashore in the Greyhope on a large reef.  The tremendous sea which broke over her threatened instant destruction, and the only hope of safety for the crew was that of effecting a communication with the land.  For this purpose the mainmast was hewed down in such a manner as that it might fall towards the beach; but it dropped alongside the vessel.  A number of the seamen who had clung to the rigging were hurled into the sea along with it, many were swept from the deck, and others who attempted to swim to the land were borne down by the floating wreck or overwhelmed by the fury of the surf.  Only the forecastle now remained above water, and for a short time the Master and 3 sailors were observed upon it, imploring that assistance which none could give. Of a crew of 44 men only 2 were saved."  The bodies recovered from the sea were laid in one long grave at the east end of St. Fittick Churchyard. Old folks still living in Torry recall the figure of a broken old woman wandering among the fisher huts and seeking alms at their doors.  Her "all" went down in the "Oscar," which carried her husband and 3 sons, and the poor fisher folk who had seen them done to death, almost within arm's length of help, never refuse to share their crust with the lone woman.

Girdleness Lighthouse was designed by Robert Louis Stevenson (Grandfather to the Author) and built by James Gibb in 1833.  The Lighthouse was lit for the first time at sunset on 15 October 1833.The Lighthouse is 37 metres high and contains 189 steps.

The lighthouse building is listed as a building of Architectural and Historic interest.  The shipmaster of Aberdeen requested that a light be established at Girdle Ness, Aberdeen following the wrecking of a whaling ship called the Oscar in 1813. There were only 2 survivors from a crew of 43.  The lighthouse was built by an Aberdeen contractor, James Gibb. The light had a new form of double light, showing 2 distinct lights from the same tower, one above the other, both fixed. The lower light consisted of 13 lamps and reflectors arranged like a garland in a glazed gallery built round the outside of the tower about one third of the way up. In 1860 Girdle Ness was visited by the Astronomer Royal, Professor George Airy, (later Sir George) who described it as "the best lighthouse that I have seen".  In 1890 the lower light was discontinued.  The main light was altered in 1847 and the old lantern which was too small, was transferred to Inchkeith.   The original cast iron lantern was acquired in 1996 by the National Museums of Scotland. During restoration of this 5 ton lantern, it was found to be decorated with a wonderful casting of dolphins, ships and lighthouses. 

It "fronted to seaward with weather-resisting glass a quarter of an inch thick and gun metal astragals. The dome of the lighthouse looks immense from inside where as from the ground some 136 feet below it looks minute. The lamp is framed by 2 large concave reflectors which sent its 200,000 candlepower beams 25 miles out to sea on a good night." 

Aerial Photograph c1949 of Girdleness showing the rocky promontory which was a severe threat to shipping.  The Greyhope is clearly visible, as is the outline of the Football Pitch behind the lighthouse.  The sewage outlet can be traced from the plume heading across Greyhope Bay towards the harbour entrance.  On the right is Nigg Bay where 'mony a buckie' was picked regardless of the daily sewage feeding the such sea snails or winkles.  Not much evidence of the Balnagask Golf Course but such areas were used for billeting of troops and conducting nock manoeuvres during the War.  It is now the playground of both golfers and Dolphins despite the ever present Oil Servicing Craft and their demands on shore es and quays.

The current foghorn, known affectionately as the ‘Torry Coo’ (owing to its low sonorous tones) was completed in 1902 and replaced an earlier foghorn which was located to the east of the current structure.  The foghorn, like the lighthouse, was once an invaluable aid to navigation. The siren itself is a cylindrical type. The Aberdeen Daily Journal published the following account on 25 March 1902 of how the horn worked.  ‘Compressed air escapes from tanks into the perforated siren while it rotates and there are thus produced every 2 minutes 4 blasts of 2 high and 2 low notes. For the purpose of producing the compressed air 3 oil engines, each of 25hp, are used, and these are housed in a commodious stone structure within the grounds of the Lighthouse Commissioners surrounding the lighthouse. Each of the engines produces air up to a pressure of about 30lb per square inch, and it is conveyed to the tanks through pipes and stored. Three of these tanks are situated within the engine-house, and are capable of containing 135 cubic feet.  From the tanks to the feeders at the horn house the air is conveyed in pipes, and by an automatic arrangement is discharged in the siren with ear splitting effect.  The horn was worked by a man who was posted on outlook duty and its plant was supplied by James Dove and Co., contracting engineers from Edinburgh. 

Although it has not been used for many years it retains a special place in the hearts of people from Torry and is a striking addition to the rugged coastal landscape of this area.

1st APRIL 1813 
long be remembered as one of the most disastrous days of
Whaling in Aberdeen, in consequence of the melancholy shipwreck of the Oscar on the fatal Greyhope, a rock at the Girdleness, situated a little to the south of the entrance of the harbour. For some time previous the weather had been remarkably propitious, and everything was fraught with the promise of uninterrupted spring.
Early on the morning of the
1st of April the Oscar had left the harbour in company with four other whale-fishing vessels, and all were riding at anchor in a sea as smooth as glass, which proved but too deceitfully calm. About 5 a.m. however, the sky began to lower, and exhibited to the experienced eye of the seaman certain presages of impending storm. The Oscar accordingly weighed anchor and stood out to sea. Unfortunately she had not on board her full complement of crew, and was obliged to stand into the bay for the absent hands, who had been spending their time in all the reckless jollity in which the sailor delights to revel on the eve of departure on a long voyage. 

By this time the storm of the morning had lulled a little, as if on purpose to facilitate the securing of its devoted victims. All the crew were safely shipped on board the Oscar, now far in-shore, amid a heavy sea, a stormy flood-tide setting in, and a fatal calm. Suddenly a hurricane burst from the north-east, accompanied with thick snow. The situation of the Oscar was now perilous in the extreme, and the spectators on shore trembled for her fate. About 11.30 A.M., after dragging her anchor, she drove ashore on the rock called the Greyhope. Her destruction now appeared inevitable. A tremendous surf broke over her, ever and anon dashing her against the rock with such resistless force that the noise of the concussion was distinctly audible at a considerable distance, striking terror and dismay into the crowd that covered the pier, in defiance of the violence of the tempest, which threatened destruction to all that opposed its career. A more heart-rending scene cannot well be conceived. Forty-four hapless individuals were perishing in sight of their nearest and dearest relatives and friends, who could only send them, across the raging deep, their heart-felt yet unavailing sympathy. Some of the crew attempted to form a bridge to the nearest rocks by cutting away the main-mast, but it unfortunately fell alongside the ship, instead of towards the shore as they had fondly anticipated. Soon after the fore and mizzen masts gave way, when many who had clung to them for a chance of safety were swept into the tumultuous waves. Every desperate effort of the sailors to save their lives was fruitless. All that now remained above water of the once trim Oscar was the forecastle, on which 5 men, one of them Captain Innes, were distinctly seen, making signals for that assistance which all longed to give, but found it impossible to afford. After clinging to the wreck for some time, they were at length compelled to share the fate of their unfortunate companions. Of the whole crew only the first mate and one of the seamen were, with the utmost difficulty, saved. The loss sustained by the owners was estimated at £10,000. The Oscar had been recently repaired, and was completely equipped for the voyage. This catastrophe excited the deepest sympathy for the surviving relatives of the sufferers, and the sum of £1200 and upwards was speedily raised and distributed among them, according to their various situations. 

The bodies of Captain Innes and thirty-seven of the crew were afterwards cast on shore; and it was a melancholy sight to see the crowds of weeping relatives eagerly endeavouring, often with difficulty, to recognise the storm-disfigured countenances of the departed objects of their affection. In this sad employment they were much comforted by the unremitting and unwearied kindness of the late worthy Dr. Cruden of Nigg, who was equally zealous in ministering to the temporal necessities of the wretched, and pouring the balm of spiritual consolation into the wounded soul. 

Soon after the complete destruction of the Oscar, the storm, which had raged with such unexpected violence, suddenly abated its fury, as if satisfied with having executed the mysterious behest of heaven. The sky resumed its wonted serenity the wind was hushed to repose, and no vestige of the recent wrath of the elements remained, save the deep swell of the hollow-murmuring wave, and the desolation which the untimely visit of winter had left behind. 

The loss of the "Oscar" is mentioned in the "Aberdeen Journal" 7th.April 1813, and in Basil Lubbock's "Arctic Whalers" but the best account is David Dobson's "Tales of the Whalers". All the crew are listed. Buried in Nigg Churchyard from Peterhead are James and Thomas Sangster both 19, seamen, James Christie, 21, seaman and George MacDonald, 27, landsman - buried elsewhere are George and Alex Buchan, James Catto,18,seaman and Thomas Greig, 25, seaman.  The only other Newburgh man was John Henderson, 21, linesman buried in Newburgh Churchyard where there is an epitaph erected by his son. Captain Innes' lair is unknown but there is mentioned a stone erected by his widow Ann Mitchell and the Newburgh Burial records should give a position.



IT was Nigg's lonely churchyard, beside the murmuring ocean, 
The roofless church was old and grey, for since its ancient walls 
In years gone past resounded with the fervours of devotion, 
They long had bleached in summer suns, or dripped in winter squalls.

Among the graves a sailor sat, his locks were long and hoary, 
All weather-beaten was his cheek by many a salt sea-breeze, 
No doubt of calms and tempests wild he well could tell the story, 
'Mid doldrums at the sultry Line, or blasts on Arctic Seas.

I asked the ancient mariner about his meditation 
Among the mouldering monuments, among the grassy graves 
Of that lone seaside churchyard, and this was his narration 
Of strange and fortunate escapes from out the seething waves—

" It was the good ship ' Oscar,' bound for the Arctic Ocean, 
Upon the first of April, in the year of grace thirteen, 
And loving hearts were thrilled that day by many a wild emotion, 
For a whole whaling fleet had sailed from the Port of Aberdeen.

" I was on board the ' Oscar,' a young and ardent dreamer, 
Between her masts a garland hung with ribbons fluttering free, 
For every sailor's sweetheart contributed a streamer 
For luck to the good ' Oscar ' upon the frozen sea.

" The hawser was loosed cheerily that moored her to the jetty, 
The sails were set and off we sped beside the long stone pier, 
The good ship, everyone declared, looked trim and taut and pretty 
As she curtsied o'er the heaving bar amid a ringing cheer.

" Sometimes we tacked about the bay with very little offing, 
To wait a boat that was to bring some laggards of the crew, 
For, heedless of the danger, some men will still keep loafing, 
And this delay brought wild dismay, as soon they sadly knew.

" The day was, like most April days, made up of shine and glooming 
At times upon the heaving seas the sunlight glittered clear, 
But all the while to eastward some heavy clouds were looming, 
Which boded in the seamen's eyes some dirty weather near.

" It lulled, and on a heavy swell we drifted to the leeward, 
The vessel had no steering way ; the tide set in with stress ; 
There was no wind to fill the sails to tack her to the seaward ;— 
Let go the anchors !—or she strikes upon the Girdleness !

" Then from the east a hurricane sprang up with furious rattle, 
Driving the showers of blinding snow in fearful gusts and shocks ; 
And the great breakers ran like steeds urged on to maddening battle; 
The anchor drags-she's driving fast upon the fatal rocks !

Greyhope" Cut down the main-mast ! it may bridge the fierce and angry chasm 
The carpenters and coopers all their saws and axes plied, 
It did not fall athwart-ships ! and each heart was smote with spasm, 
For it huddled down a useless log along the vessel's side.

" Then 'mid the din of breakers, and the great chain-cable's clanking, 
You heard the skipper's husky cry above the roaring squall, 
Above the cracking timbers, and the crunching of the planking, 
'Twas every man now for himself, and God be for us all !

" Of a brave crew of fourty-four that mann'd that gallant whaler, 
But only two, my mate and I, came living through the surf :— 
That fatal Greyhope Bay has been the grave of many a sailor, 
Whose loved ones cannot shed their tears upon their grassy turf !

" 'Twas a sad scene this lone churchyard beside the moaning billows 
After the storm, the cast-ashores among the graves were laid, 
Their sailor garbs their winding sheets, the wet green graves their pillows, 
That lovers and relations might claim their hapless dead.

" There was the skipper, brave and bluff, no more his anchor dragging ; 
The harpooner, shot down by shaft more subtle still than his; 
The lover in his sweetheart's arms no more departure lagging; 
The husband where the widow stands in speechless helplessness.

" Since then I've sailed in many a clime, by continents and islands, 
By icy bergs, or where the airs are balm and spicery, 
Amid the roaring hurricane, or the calm's awful silence, 
But now I've coiled my lanyards up- I go no more to sea.

" But oft I take a tack about, a thankful grey old sailor, 
And often sit a lonely hour among these grassy graves, 
Musing upon the gallant crew of the ' Oscar,' luckless whaler, 
And how my mate and I escaped from out the seething waves."

Many another good ship has perished on the jags which lie pitiless as sharks' teeth under the waves that lap the rocks from Greg's Ness to the mouth of the river. One of the earliest local wrecks of which we know recalls, in its elements of poetic justice, the doom of Ralph the Rover, who perished on the crag from which he had previously stolen the warning bell. Some 350 years ago a band of Reformation Religious Zealots marched from the south to Aberdeen; maddened by the too palpable luxury, vice, and superstitious observances of the priests, they were inspired by a wild desire to sweep away every vestige of idolatry from the places of worship.

Their frenzy ever increasing as they advanced, their minds were at last dominated by a mad desire for destruction, indiscriminate and unreasoning. Like the contagion of a plague, the frenzy fastened on the lower classes in the town, and a wild rabble attacked the religious houses in the city,
sacking and spoiling as they went. They even sought to drag the steeple of St. Nicholas Church to the ground. but other citizens more sane resisted, and it was saved for that time. Away they rushed to Old Aberdeen, and the Cathedral was over-run by the mad crowd. Everything that was beautiful, everything that was breakable, everything that was worth lifting, was defaced, broken or stolen. They tore the lead from the roof and the bells from the steeple, and but for the timely arrival of the Earl of Huntly with troops a broken wall might have been all left us of the goodly church of St. Machar. But the jagged reefs of the Girdleness lay in wait for some of the spoilers. One master robber, loading a ship with the spoils of the church of the twin spires, the lead from the roof, and the bells, set sail for Holland. But a storm arose and swept him on the Girdleness, and, within sight of the church he had robbed, and in the waters across which, in the quiet Sabbath evenings so often stole the tolling of the Cathedral bells
, the robber went down with those bells he had for ever silenced, and weighted with the lead of the church he had desecrated.

Despite the existence of the earlier Inner South Breakwater there was an ongoing need for more quay space and better facilities in Aberdeen’s harbour.  The 1868 Act of Parliament, which allowed the Dee to be diverted and a third extension to the North Pier to be built, also legislated for this breakwater.  The works were carried out between 1869 and 1874.This structure was much larger than the Inner South Breakwater and is built of concrete. A gale in 1937 tore a 100 foot gap in the Breakwater. Repair work began in 1938, was stopped during the Second World War and resumed in 1954. At that time the Breakwater was widened.  The works involved constructing 30 ton concrete blocks in a yard close to the Breakwater. These were loaded onto a Sentinel steam waggon by crane and transferred to a Titan crane, named ‘Goliath’. The completed Breakwater is 1050 feet in length and 35 feet in width.

Heavy seas with waves crashing over the top of the South Breakwater about to engulf the South Breakwater light, water from the previous wave still running over the west side of the South Breakwater, rails for the South Breakwater crane usually removed altogether in the winter months to avoid damage, are partially removed.

Geology of Balnagask and Bay of Nigg
There is a tradition that a stronghold called "Wallace Castle" once stood on the north side of the Bay. There is now no trace of it, and it is likely that this name was applied to the ruins of one of the watch-houses which stood here. Immense quantities of stone setts for paving the London streets used to be shipped at the Bay of Nigg. These were prepared at the quarries in the parish, which, when opened about 1770, used to give employment to 600 or 700 men. The rounded oblong pebbles of this shore were also largely used as cobble-stones, and were shipped in large quantities from the Bay.

The Old South Pier is seen clearly here lying parallel to the 1st and shorter North Pier on the Old Torry side as the former deeper draught berth for offloading and mooring for ships that could not navigate through the Inches of the Dee and Denburn.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013