23rd September 2018
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History: The lambie-hoose lifeboat

, by , in Shetland Life

The lambie-hoose lifeboat

Charlie Simpson tells the story of an upturned lifeboat, built in 1902, and the First World War submarine attack that brought it to Skerries.

In Skerries, a lambie-hoose stands atop Skeo Houll, a prominent knowe on Housay – da Wast Isle, as the Skerries folk call it. Its roof is a boat, 12 or 15 feet long and square of stern. Such boat-roofed buildings on crofts were once common but are now rare, with very few surviving around the whole of Shetland. This Skerries boat has been a roof for nearly 90 years, and is special in a unique way, for she’s the only known tangible public relic of a maritime drama of 1915, described at the time as an “appalling disaster”.

To set the scene we have to go back to August 1914, when the outbreak of the First World War curtailed a busy and successful Shetland herring season for a fleet of 643 local and visiting boats, and changed the industry – forever, as it turned out.

The British Navy’s strategy was to bottle up German naval strength in the North Sea, and to stifle German commerce by a blockade of all shipping carrying goods to Germany. Submarines in 1914 were considered defensive weapons by the British, but Germany took a different view. In the first months of the war Germany’s submarine fleet was deployed offensively in the North Sea, and early successes in sinking British warships led to the realisation that its U-boat fleet had the potential to significantly counter the British blockade by sinking merchant ships.

This German campaign got going in earnest in February 1915, and in March the waters around Orkney in Shetland were included in Germany’s “war zone”. By May, only one British vessel had been confirmed sunk by submarine anywhere near Shetland, yet despite the risks, herring was still an important food source and fishing was encouraged, although thousands of British fishermen in the Royal Naval Reserve had been called up, and many fishing boats requisitioned for naval service. For the 1915 Shetland season a reduced fleet of around 60 drifters gathered again in early summer, most of them crewed by men too old and boys too young to serve in the Royal Navy.

By midsummer, the herring shoals were as usual to be found north and north-east of Shetland. The local sailboats of the fleet wrought mainly out of the north isles curing stations and fished as close to these stations as possible, while the visiting Scottish steam drifters were able to go further afield, and to land their catches at Lerwick.

So it was that late in the evening of Wednesday 23rd June, around 20 steamers lay drifting to their nets some 30 sea miles east of Unst. The peace and quiet of a fine clear night was suddenly shattered when, according to the skipper of the Peterhead drifter Primrose, “a large enemy submarine was seen, approaching”. There followed six hours of utter mayhem for, metaphorically, a very aggressive 16-knot cat with an 88mm gun was among a flock of unarmed and defenceless 8-knot pigeons.

In an age before fishing boats had radio sets, the first news of events out in the North Sea came early on Thursday morning, when a small boat with Skipper Thomas Stephen and the crew of the Primrose sailed into Lerwick harbour, right up to Alexandra Wharf, with their story. They had been 29 miles ENE of Skerries when the submarine approached, and had cut away their fleet of nets and steamed away. Soon overtaken, the Primrose was stopped and hurriedly abandoned, whereupon three shells from the submarine’s deck gun quickly sank her.

The submarine made off towards a group of drifters as the Primrose’s men hoisted their lifeboat’s sail and set course for Lerwick. With a fair wind and a smooth sea, it took them only 10 hours.

The boat’s arrival prompted consternation on the Lerwick quayside, as the Shetland Times reported: “A good deal of excitement prevailed among the fish trade, and the wharf in the vicinity of the fish market was speedily crowded with people, all anxious for information. The Peterhead drifter Pliades was the first drifter to arrive from the grounds, and she reported having passed four or five boats; but being under the impression that they were local boats at the inshore fishing, she proceeded on her way to Lerwick. Steamers then began arriving at the market, bringing in the crews of sunken steamers; by noon, the crews of 11 vessels had been brought ashore, all without injury save one man wounded in the groin”.

Later in the afternoon, the Earl of Zetland arrived from her midweek run, bringing from Whalsay two crews whose small boats had reached Skerries, and finally on Thursday evening the drifter Dreadnought arrived with another two crews, picked up by a merchant ship and landed in Baltasound.

The scale of the disaster to the fishing fleet was thus apparent; 16 ships sunk in all, 12 of them herring drifters. They were the Ugie Brae, Elizabeth, Quiet Waters, Uffa, Research, Primrose, Four, JM&S, Star of Bethlehem and Monarda, all of Peterhead, and the Yarmouth-registered Piscatorial and Josephine. The other four submarine victims were steam liners – small trawlers really, rigged to fish with long lines mainly for halibut – based in Aberdeen: the Lebanon, Viceroy, Vine and Commander.

The immediate problem of accommodating 150 survivors in Lerwick was solved by allowing them to sleep overnight in Lerwick Town Hall, on blankets provided by the RNR, before they left for home on Friday by the St. Ninian.

All the crews had basically the same tale to tell; of scattering as the submarine approached, of being overtaken, stopping and abandoning their ship before it was sunk by gunfire. From their accounts it seemed clear that two submarines were involved, given the considerable distance between sinkings in a fairly short period of time – an area some thirty miles by fifteen. It was also clear that four drifters – the Nigella, A.M. Leask, Energy and Archimedes – had been spared to pick up crews from their small boats. When the drifter Four was stopped, the submarine opened fire before all her men had boarded their small boat, and Robert Buchan was hit in the groin by a shell splinter. The Four’s crew were picked up by the liner Lebanon, which was herself stopped and sunk a couple of hours later. When they reached Lerwick, Robert Buchan was immediately taken to hospital and operated upon, but he died from his injuries six days later.

In the immediate aftermath, the herring fishery came to a virtual standstill, with fishermen demanding effective naval protection and the navy unwilling or unable to provide it. By the end of June all the visiting drifters had left for home and although a few returned later the season was effectively ruined, with only 26,000 crans landed compared with 260,000 in 1914. In fact, there were no more mass attacks on small fishing boats in northern waters; although the U-boat campaign intensified later in the war, it was generally aimed at bigger targets. One saving grace was the survival of all the men bar one, for it wasn’t long before most ships were attacked without any warning whatsoever.

Curiously, in the internet database of ships hit by submarines during World War I, all 16 of the June sinkings are credited to a single U-boat, U38. Her commander at the time, Max Valentiner, was undoubtedly very able for he later became one of Germany’s best submariners in terms of shipping tonnage sunk, but eyewitness accounts clearly identified two enemy submarines, one with a large number on her conning-tower, and another without a number. The balance of opinion has to favour two submarines, given the spread of the sinking positions and the relatively short duration of the operation.

Be that as it may, we have to return to events in Skerries on the morning of 24th June, 1915. Firstly, men were observed wandering over Grunay; they were the crew of the drifter Uffa, who had brought their boat into a landing at the East Geo. As they were being assisted, another boat was spotted a few miles off and a crew from Skerries put off to investigate. The Skerries men thus came upon the Ugie Brae’s boat, her crew tired and making poor progress. It is recorded that help arrived in time to save the Ugie Brae’s pet dog, which was about to be thrown overboard to lighten the load!

The two crews were quickly cared for ashore, then taken to Whalsay to catch the Earl of Zetland for Lerwick. This left the two small boats abandoned in Skerries; by some process of selection now unknown, one came into the possession of John Anderson of Houll in Bruray and the other came to Robbie Sutherland of Houll in the Wast Isle. Drifters’ lifeboats were dumpy little things, heavily constructed with straight stems and square sterns; heavy to row and poor sailers. They were really of no use for fishing in an island well supplied with lighter and more seaworthy Shetland fourerns, and generally too small to serve as flitboats. Accordingly, the practical Skerries men turned both craft into croft buildings by fixing them upside down atop drystone walls, inserting a door and maybe a skylight as well.

The Uffa’s boat became a grice stye which did not long outlive the Bruray Houll crofthouse, itself demolished about 30 years ago. The Ugie Brae’s boat was taken to the Wast Isle and became a lambie-hoose roof, where she remains to this day, a prominent feature in the isle.

Up close, it’s clear she won’t last many more years, for her disintegration is well advanced. Copper nails poke through the planking where both stem-post and transom have fallen out, and her bleached hull is soft and fragile now where the many coats of tar have weathered away. Her lifeboat-shape is a little distorted but still easily discernable, although it’s hard now to imagine she once carried nine men and a dog safely over 30 miles of open sea. She did what she was designed to do, and has served pretty well ashore in a role she was never designed for, surviving a lot longer than the Tyneside craftsman who built her in 1902 ever expected, I’m sure.

I wrote earlier that the boat was the only visible relic of the 1915 drifter disaster. There exists a second relic, not on display, for almost a decade ago the Yell fishing boat Guardian Angel trawled up the drifter Elizabeth’s brass name-plate, which was presented to Shetland Museum in 2001. Perhaps I should call these the only known relics; I wonder what happened to the other 14 drifters’ boats?

Charlie Simpson