Bonnie Lass incident

1935 Bonnie Lass incident

Some dates are imprinted in the history of Tolsta and Thursday 14th February 1935 is one such date.

For several days prior to the fourteenth, bad weather had been forecast, but on that day the weather appeared settled. The forecasted storm seemed to have passed by and several crews decided to go fishing with small lines.

Once the mid-day church meeting was over, five boats were launched from Giordail – the ‘Kate’, the ‘Zealanda’, the ‘Bonnie Lass’, the ‘Rìbhinn Og’ and the ‘Graceful’. They did not have the number of fishermen necessary to crew a sixth boat so, as was customary, the men with baited lines were divided out amongst the five boats and Murdo Mackenzie, (Tobaidh), New Tolsta ended up in the ‘Bonnie Lass’ on that day.

Appalled

Jessie Maciver, (Seonaid Mhorchaidh), 2 North Tolsta was a teenager at the time and recalls how her father was appalled on getting home from church to discover that the boats were going to sea. He insisted that at least the crew of his boat, the ‘Bonnie Lass’, which was skippered on that day by Murdo ‘Barabal’ Macleod, take extra ballast.

The day and the fishing went well until they started hauling in the small lines, when suddenly the wind rose and, before the last lines were hauled in, was gusting to a full storm. The three boats, which were closer to the shore the ‘Kate’, the ‘Zealanda’ and the ‘Faithful’ managed to reach the shore at 9pm with only slight damage, but two boats the ‘Rìbhinn Og’ and the ‘Bonnie Lass’ were long overdue.

Villagers headed for Giordail, as news spread that two of the boats had not made it back. The weather by this time was rough, with heavy showers and severe squalls. There were occasional flashes of lightning and observers on shore reported that during the hail showers it was impossible to see the Tiumpan Head light. Some young men eagerly searched Tolsta Head and discovered the ‘Rìbhinn Og’ sheltering below 150 foot cliffs. One of the young men climbed down the perilous cliff and others headed to the village to call the lifeboat. The mast of the ‘Rìbhinn Og’ had been carried away when rounding ‘Clach a Rubha’ and three of her four oars had snapped. She was now in the lea of a headland in a very ugly corner. When the squalls came it was difficult to control the boat. The lifeboat and the life-saving apparatus arrived, much to the relief of the crew and a few hours later the ‘Rìbhinn Og’ was safely towed by the lifeboat into Tolsta.

Missing

Then came the bad news! The lifeboat had failed to find the ‘Bonnie Lass’ and returned to Stornoway. Jessie, who witnessed all the goings on tells, “ ‘Bha am baile air ghoil! One of the wives , Mrs D. Macleod, (Bean a’ Charbhaidh) was particularly upset and was convinced that she had lost her husband. ‘Chan eil mo shùil ris a’mhuir’, she kept repeating and most of the villagers on the beach were also sure by this time that the ‘Bonnie Lass’ would not be coming back.” Donald Macdonald writes in ‘The Tolsta Townships’, “They were almost sure that the sea had claimed one more member of a family that seemed destined to be drowned Murdo (the skipper) himself.”(see p.125)

But there were calming voices too Jessie recalls. One such voice was that of her own grandmother, Mrs J. Martin of 76 North Tolsta (Bantrach Iain Dhonnachaidh), a devout Christian lady who kept reassuring everyone, “Cha teid duine as a’bhaile seo a chall a nochd”! Then shortly before the ‘Bonnie Lass’ appeared she turned to the distressed Bean a’Charbhaidh and said, “Go home and warm clothes by the fire for your husband. He’ll be home soon!” At the same time and at the other end of the village there was another calming voice, that of Mrs M. Mackenzie, (Bantrach Tob) who told her family, “Put the kettle on, Murdo is on his way home.” (Murdo was her grandson, ‘Tobaidh.’)

Safely Ashore

Once they were safely ashore the crew of the ‘Bonnie Lass’ told their story. They had been blown by the storm into the Minch towards the mainland. The sail had to be lowered right down to the gunnel, because of the strength of the wind and the crew kept rowing and bailing out all night. Murdo ‘Barabal’ Macleod, who was at the tiller for fourteen hours, is said to have chewed his way through two ounces of black twist! One of the crew young Colin Smith, (Cailean na Beinne) did not even have an oilskin to give some protection from the elements. They had had a good catch, but the sea, breaking into the boat, washed most of it away. They had managed to tack into Broad Bay and eventually into the relative shelter of the island and then came along the coast to Giordail where they beached safely at 4am. Cries of, “Good news! Thàinig am ‘Bonnie Lass’,” echoed throughout the village!

The crew of the ‘Bonnie Lass’ on that night was Murdo ‘Barabal’ Macleod (skipper), Norman Macleod, (Tormod Mhorchaidh), Colin Smith, (Cailean na Beinne), Murdo Murray, (Murchadh Chlaoid), Donald Macleod, (An Carbhaidh), Murdo Murray, (Lòdaidh), Murdo Mackenzie, (Tobaidh).

The crew of the ‘Rìbhinn Og’ was John Mòr Maciver of No.5 (skipper), Alexander Graham of No.39, John Morrison?, John Macleod of No.3, John Maciver of No.41, Murdo Morrison of No.46, Murdo Morrison of 4 New Tolsta, Donald Smith of No.65. and Angus Smith of No.52.