Past Times: Farewell to the old St. Magnus

From The Shetland Times, Friday 23rd September, 1960

Nine o’clock on a fine autumn evening. As the Town Hall clock starts to chime the hour, the steamer’s bell rings for the third time and Captain Mainland puts the engine telegraph to “slow astern”. On Victoria Pier – scene of so many farewells – a great crowd of townsfolk watch the good ship “St. Magnus” drawing slowly away from them. On Sunday night, however, few of the crowd had come to say goodbye to friends or relatives but were there to see the last of the ship itself.

As the brass band played “Auld Lang Syne”, the “Maggie” made her exit from the Shetland scene of which she has been a part for 36 eventful years. Superseded by the North Company’s modern motor ships, she is up for sale and, after a few more trips to Orkney only, will be withdrawn from the fleet. A foreign ensign may fly at her stern or she may even end in the breaker’s yard for, although in excellent condition and converted to an oil burner, she is representative of a bygone era.

Few who watched the old ship leave did not have their own memories of her. Her familiar whistle echoed across the black calm harbour and the lights blinked on and off in response to the farewell hooting of the “Earl’s” siren. Her last voyage from Lerwick was a fine one – but many who watched could remember long nights on this fine sea-boat, punching into head-on seas.

Recent alterations to the ship have given her a gross tonnage of 1,591 against the original 1,312. Small by present standards, she was a big ship for Shetland when she arrived in 1924. But even then, say the experts, she was old-fashioned and essentially a 19th century type. Be that as it may, she has given first-rate service in peace and war and had never suffered a mishap of any kind.

On the indirect route before the war, the ship was requisitioned in 1939 and for a while she lay at Kirkwall as a base ship for the Naval examination service. Then she took part in the Norwegian campaign before returning to her old route. Her wartime voyages were hazardous and lengthy.

It was a common thing for the “St. Magnus” to take five days from Lerwick to Aberdeen, what with bad weather, bad coal and slow convoys and escorts. On one occasion she reached Aberdeen in bad weather, found the port closed and headed for Fraserburgh. At Fraserburgh the anchor would not hold, and she ended up unloading fish at Invergordon. Her escort disappeared and is presumed to have foundered.

Quite often the ship sailed unescorted. She carried four Naval gunners and the crew helped to man a four-inch gun on the poop. There was an Oerlikon on each wing of the bridge, rocket projectors, and a barrage balloon overhead. To add to her Naval appearance, the after mast had a gaff for the ensign. Escorting vessels were mainly old Norwegian whalecatchers, and sometimes a Sunderland patrolled overhead.

Frequently attacked by German aircraft, the Maggie had her closest call in 1941, between Fair Isle and Orkney. A near miss from a lone Hun was repaid with machine gun fire which sent the raider off with smoke trailing from it as it lost height and vanished. Once, while waiting to enter Aberdeen harbour, the funnel was holed by bullets.

In post-war service the ship has carried thousands of “round trippers” to Lerwick during the summer and has provided the Kirkwall service during the winter. Her old-fashioned appearance has never detracted from her many good qualities and, with a friendly and cheerful crew, she has held her place through the years. At the end of her days on the North routes, she is still too good a ship to scrap although buyers are not numerous in this market.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.