By Fred Silver
The deadly rage of a long-forgotten night-time storm is recalled in Acair’s book The Wreck of the Annie Jane which tells how the timbers of the wooden sailing ship cracked and splintered. Shivering and praying in almost complete darkness, the victims felt the masts and rigging being swept away, leaving the Annie Jane adrift in an immense storm that took hundreds of lives along the west coasts of Britain and Ireland.
Then with its over-heavy cargo of iron shifting lethally below decks, a vast wave swept across the deck taking all the remaining structures away…along with the lives of almost all those who had fled to the deck from the pitch-dark watery hell below.
Remaining alive…one man with his arms wrapped around the stump of a mast and a woman who hung on with one of her children strapped to her body.
The shattered wreck of the Annie Jane was swept ashore in three parts on the Island of Vatersay in the southern part of the Western Isles and when daylight came on September 29th 1853, only 102 had survived of the total of at least 450, mostly young people, aboard. The average age of both crew and victims was around 22! It is not known exactly how many were killed as those under 10 were not listed as passengers.
This tragic story is outlined by debut author Allan F Murray, from South Dell, Isle of Lewis, who brings passion and anger to many years of painstaking research, and located several first-hand accounts not widely published before.
The book is an incredibly moving and, at the same time, dispassionate account of the wreck and the society in which it was set. The detail of the night of the wreck, compiled into a minute-by-minute account of the unfolding disaster, is almost overwhelming. And the context of a local society – as was common all down the western coasts – that often took whatever it could from wrecks and their victims is also described. The local farmer claimed hundreds of £s in compensation for his cattle being frightened by a wreck which took place at night in a storm…and more than £225 for burying the dead when in reality they were dumped “like sardines” into two unmarked mass graves. (£225 in 1853 is around £18,500 in present money!) But the surviving crew were left without any money as – at that time – crew members were not paid if the cargo failed to arrive!
Allan tells not only of the immense destructive power of this vast storm but also the corruption and callousness of the administrative response to many of its victims, who remain to this day in two unmarked mass graves somewhere under the sand dunes adjoining West Bay on Vatersay.
When the tragedy took place, almost no one lived on Vatersay itself as the previously numerous population had just been cleared from the land by the landowner…so no surviving folk memories exist of this time, although the wreck has been the subject of several songs and poems which are included in the book.
Mirroring the way entire families were caught up in this disaster, the successful publication of the book involves other members of Allan F Murray’s family and also his neighbours. Some of the artwork was done by his daughter Rebecca; his daughter Anna translated a major text from French and made a key research breakthrough in the National Archives; his son-in-law Craig created a website (http://www.anniejane.net) which provides a focus for research and contributions from descendants of those involved; his neighbour David Green, a former publisher and Acair stalwart, was proof-reader and editor; and – indirectly – his brother, writer and poet Donald S Murray, who declined to take an interest in writing a book on the Annie Jane after Allan F Murray first became aware of the tragedy almost 20 years ago.
The Wreck of the Annie Jane
Author: Allan F. Murray