Our stories

Our stories drift and flow with the sea and since 1874 Longhope lifeboat has been saving lives in the notoriously dangerous waters of the Pentland Firth, the North Sea and Scapa Flow. Throughout history, even before the lifeboat was established, our local men and women have bravely put their own lives at risk to save others in difficulties at sea.  Our stories are a rich and colourful history including records of alarming, dramatic rescues to everyday routine duties; from echoes of laughter and banter to deepest sighs and weeping; from precise radio messages to heartfelt letters of thanks; from a lilting song to a lively dance. We are the guardians of these precious memories and it is our proud duty to keep these stories alive and safe for future generations.

Each one of these medals tells a story of courage. Left to right, 1930 Silver medal awarded to cox John Swanson for the rescue of the trawler Braconmoor, Silver Second-Service Clasp for the rescue of the trawler Dorbie. / 1906 Silver Medal awarded to William Taylor for the rescue of the Dinnington. / 1936 Medals from the French government to Coxswain William Dass and crew of the Thomas McCunn for the rescue of the French trawler Neptunia. Bronze Medal awarded to G.Johnston and J.Norquoy, Silver Medal awarded to Coxswain William Dass.

Rescue of the SS Victoria of Sutherland 1890

A temporary reserve lifeboat had been sent to the station in August 1890 and was involved in an outstanding service on 3 March 1891 to the steamship Victoria of Sunderland. The steamer was seen flying signals of distress about 5 miles north of Dunnet Head lighthouse in a violent north-westerly gale with extremely heavy seas and snow showers.

The lifeboat found the vessel sinking and the fires to heat her boilers extinguished. Coxswain Benjamin Stout took the lifeboat alongside the casualty so that all twenty-two of its crew could be taken on board. The lifeboat was slightly damaged as she effected the rescue, having been smashed against the side of the steamer by heavy seas, but she got clear safely. Coxswain Stout then set course for Widewell in South Ronaldsay where the rescued men were landed at midnight. Returning to Longhope was impossible because of the heavy seas and strong tides and the lifeboatmen were forced to stay at Widewall Bay until 5 March.

For this outstanding service, the Silver medal was awarded to Coxswain Stout in recognition of his gallantry and courage, while extra monetary awards were made to the rest of the crew. As eleven of the rescued crew were German, the Emperor of Germany presented a gold watch to the Coxswain with monetary awards of £24 going to the lifeboat crew.

Soon after this rescue, the new lifeboat arrived on station. Completed in February 1891, she was a 39ft twelve-oared self-righter, built by Forrestt, at Limehouse, fitted with fore and aft sliding keels, two masts and sails. She was named Samyntas Stannah at the donor’s wishes.

– From Nicholas Leach, Longhope Lifeboats An Illustrated History

Rescue of the S.S. Dinnington 1906

Taken from the Orkney Herald 21st Feb 1906

‘The S.S. Dinnington, of Sunderland for Stornoway with coal, was wrecked on Friday evening 16th, on the west end of Switha, whereby two of the crew lost their lives, and the remaining nine were with the greatest difficulty saved. The particulars so far as can be ascertained, are these: – The Dinnington, coming through the Pentland Firth in stormy weather with heavy snow showers was flooded so frequently that the Captain considered it advisable to put into Longhope.

Drawing near the entrance between Cantick Head and Switha, and an exceptionally heavy snow shower coming on, the navigation through the entrance became difficult if not impossible, with the result that the vessel struck heavily on the reef running out from the west end of Switha. Only a few minutes elapsed before the fore part of the ship broke off, while heavy seas were dashing over her. Instant action was imperative; and the lifeboat became freed by the surging of the ship and the action of the waves, rather than by the men, who, needless to say, did their utmost to save their lives. It is believed that about this time, with the breaking of the ship and the tempestuous seas running, the chief engineer, George Boyd, South Shields, and William Templeman, AB, Brechin, lost their lives. The remainder of the crew had no sooner got into the boat than she was upset, but fortunately, between hanging to the boat, and their own efforts one with another, after the greatest difficulty and no small danger, as well as injury, they all got to the land [Switha]. Many of the crew being partially dressed; and there being practically no place to shelter on the island, they spent a most trying time.

But there were smart men who saw the lights of the ship, although unable from South Walls to know the facts in the darkness. Those brave-hearted men launched their boat; and in such heavy weather bore down towards the wreck. Unable to approach, they searched in different directions; but could find no signs of life. Thinking the crew might have run before the wind to Flotta, they bore down for that place, but found none of them there. Desirous of doing their duty, this same crew lost no time, but set sail, still in the darkness of the night, for Switha again; hoping they might be the means of saving some human lives from the pitiless storm. Most fortunately they found the nine men huddled together for protection in a creek, and so by their timely arrival were the means of rescuing valuable human lives from death by exposure and fatigue.

The names of this brave crew from South Walls who have done the gallant deed are: – William Taylor, William Groat, Edward Jamieson, Bremner Taylor, William Cheyne and Daniel Fiddler. Surely deeds of this nature deserve worthy recognition!

The saved crew of the steamer, who were in a most pitiable condition, were carefully taken into the boat, and were landed at Flotta, where they are being attended to. As many of the steamers crew were but partially dressed- one having practically no clothes, and he certainly would have perished, as well as several others, but for this prompt aid- they were in dire need of clothing and attention, which was bestowed by Mrs Simpson, while others including the Rev Mr Mitchell, who abounds deeds of charity, supplied clothing, and otherwise gave their willing aid.
The crew who have been saved are:-
William James Muir, captain; Wm. M’Comba, mate; William Lane, second engineer; Alexander Gunn, A B; William Good, steward; George Herr, fireman; George Rottgart, fireman; Gust Samuel, donkey- man.

They are being forwarded to their destinations through the hon. Agent of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, who is Rev Mr Mitchell. The after part of the ship seems fixed on the rock meanwhile, but should the sea rise, it is likely soon to disappear. The bodies of the drowned men have been found not far from the wreck, and have been taken to Flotta, awaiting instructions for internment.
The Dinnington was a vessel of 225 tons net register, and 366 gross, and was built at Newcastle in 1873. She belonged to Messrs Cuthbert & Wilkinson, Sutherland.’

Orkney Herald 21 Feb 1906

Rescue of the Braconmoor 1930

One of the most outstanding rescues in which Longhope’s first motor lifeboat K.T.J.S. was involved took place in the early hours of 5 January 1930.

The steam trawler Braconmoor of Aberdeen went ashore on Tor Ness Point, three miles from Longhope. The stranded crew fired distress flares and at 2am the lifeboat was launched. The lifeboat reached the wreck which was near dangerous rocks in very heavy surf.

The coxswain took the lifeboat as near as possible to the wreck, anchored, and then veered down towards the casualty. However, owing to the strong tide, the lifeboat was swept past and had to be hauled back out to her anchor to make another attempt. The manoeuvre was repeated twice before the lifeboat was sufficiently close for the line throwing gun to be used.

A line was fired across the bridge of the trawler and using a rope and lifebuoy, the trawler’s nine crew were hauled through the surf. All made it safely to the lifeboat except the skipper. When he reached the lifeboat he was found to be dead. As he had a weak heart it is thought he died of shock when he went into the surf. 

For this difficult rescue, which had been carried out with great skill, Coxswain John Swanson was awarded the Silver Medal. The Thanks inscribed on vellum was accorded to the other, Second Coxswain William Mowat, Bowman Thomas Gunn, Mechanic Robert Johnston, Assistant Mechanic Charles Mowat and crew members William Dass, George Johnston, Sinclair Mowat and Jackie Norquoy.

– From Nicholas Leach, Longhope Lifeboats An Illustrated History

Rescue of the Olijaren 12 April 1951

On the 12th of April 1951 during a horrendous gale the Longhope lifeboat, the Thomas McCunn, was called out at 1.40am to attend a 8,683-ton Swedish tanker, the Oljaren which had run aground on the treacherous Pentland Skerries.

Coxswain Fred Johnson and eight crewmen struggled through 12 miles of horrendous seas to reach the Oljaren.  ‘It was one of the trickiest jobs I have ever had to tackle’ remarked the coxswain.

They managed to rescue 24 men from the Oljaren as heavy seas broke over the tanker and smashed down onto the lifeboat. However Captain Lottijer and 15 of his crew refused to abandon the ship, so the lifeboat took the 24 survivors back to Longhope. Sven Schierwagen, an engineer aboard the Oljaren said: ‘We didn’t think it was possible for the Scots crew to come alongside, but they did. They are great seamen’.

Two hours later the lifeboat was called out again to the Oljaren. Miss Minnie Sutherland, the Lifeboat Secretary said: ‘The lifeboatmen think the Oljaren is about finished and the sixteen on board will not be able to hold out much longer’. The lifeboat stood by for a further six hours, the remaining crew still refusing to abandon ship. As the weather was moderating the lifeboat returned once more to Longhope.

The following day Capt. Lottijer received instructions from the tanker’s owners not to endanger the lives of his men anymore and to leave the Oljaren.

So for a third time in 36 hours the lifeboat returned to the stricken vessel. The seas had become calmer and the remaining men were rescued quickly and safely returned to Longhope.

Coxswain Alfred Johnston was awarded the Bronze Medal for this courageous and challenging rescue.

Crew of the Lifeboat: Coxswain Fred Johnston, Eric Mowat (2nd coxswain), Jack Norquoy (bowman), Robert Johnston (mechanic), R. Johnston (2nd mechanic), Dan Kirkpatrick, Steve McFadyen, Freddie Johnston and Jimmy Johnston.

Rescue of the Ben Barvas by breeches buoy 1964

Film made by the RNLI

Masthead lantern from the Ben Barvas

Rescue of the Ross Puma 1968

by Skipper Dennis Speck 1969

‘Just a year ago I was skipper of the Grimsby trawler Ross Puma, homeward bound with fish from the North Atlantic grounds. It was midnight as I headed the ship into one of the most dangerous seas in the world – the Pentland Firth. 

The wind was 25mph with squally showers of sleet and rain, and a heaving sea, where the fierce Atlantic meets the North Sea. This is what we expect in the Pentland.

The trip through it saves hours of sailing around the Orkneys and every hour counts in getting fish to market. Suddenly the wind gusted up to gale force. The sky was black. The Puma heaved and tossed like a live thing. From my bridge the sea looked like a cauldron of bubbling water, spitting and cruel. The wind blew up to 50 miles an hour and 60.

‘Then disaster. My radar packed up. I had to rely on my eyes. It was sheer hell. Visibility dropped to nil. One huge wave after another, each as high as a house, crashed over my ship. I could hardly see the bows for angry spume. It was the Pentland in its most evil mood.

The winds and currents were so strong we kept being driven towards the rocky coast of Hoy. I couldn’t turn back without risking capsize. But the Pentland was merciless. In the morning there was a sickening shudder under my feet.

We’d run aground on North Rackwick Shoals, a group of rocks just below the surface which have wrecked many a fine ship. We were stuck hard. All the time the terrible seas were pulling the Puma this way and that…..tearing her heart out.

I sent out my SOS.  “Mayday! Mayday! Ross Puma aground, two miles north of Tor Ness.” I can’t describe my feelings at that moment. My ship was straddled over a saw-tooth rock. Thirty-foot waves were crashing over us. I had 14 men with me in the jaws of death. All, bar one, family men.

I could have wept.

But within moments my call was answered. Two other trawlers headed towards us. The radio crackled another message. “Longhope lifeboat on its way.”

“Thank God”  I said. I knew if any man could pluck us from death it would be Dan Kirkpatrick. The seas were now so bad the two trawlers couldn’t get near us. The seas were breaking right over the Ross Puma. The bridge and wheelhouse were the only parts above water. We’d a list of 30 degrees. All we could do was wait and pray, huddled together in the wheelhouse.

The radio crackled again. It was Dan. “Coming as quickly as I can, lads”, he said. He made it sound like a Sunday sail! I doubt any man alive could have matched his seamanship that night. In the grim, grey light of dawn I spotted the lifeboat. It was so tiny I couldn’t help shuddering.

Dan ran as close as he could. The lifeboat too, hit the rocks, with a crash we could hear over the storm. Dan, using wind and wave, drew off and shot us a line. The first one missed, the second was spot on. Now came the job of ferrying us to the lifeboat. But one after another, three life rafts were swept away from the line. The fourth stayed afloat. The first men were hauled over to safety. I was the last to go, with a lingering look at the Ross Puma, fast breaking up.

Dan was at the lifeboat wheel when I was hauled aboard. He looked at me. I looked at him. Words would have been tossed away by the wind. But not feelings. And Dan Kirkpatrick knew I was silently thanking God and him for rescuing us from certain death.

How can words thank a man for saving your life? How can words thank him for saving 14 of your friends? How can 13 families in Grimsby ever thank him for saving their husbands, sons and fathers?

Two hours later, wrapped in warm blankets, we were safely ashore. Our ordeal was over.

Now Dan is gone. I stood at his graveside yesterday on the sad island of Hoy. I stood there for every trawler man in Britain, to pay tribute to Dan and his men. Especially for the 45 men they rescued from the cruel seas.

They have written a proud chapter in the chronicles of courage.’

Skipper Dennis Speck

The Longhope Lifeboat Disaster March 1969

This film, made by the RNLI to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster, marks the selfless heroism of the crew, the inestimable loss to the families and conveys the emotion felt by the island.

We have a dedicated space for this memory here.

Rescue of MVF Tussan 1971

‘If there is one place not to be anywhere near when the ebb tide is running against a heavy westerly swell it’s in the middle of The Merry Men of Mey.

The Merry Men are well named due to the wild and erratic wave activity caused by rocky shoals which jut out into the Pentland Firth between the North coast of Scotland and Orkney. These obstruct the tidal flow as it pours West at speeds of over 8 knots. The tide is forced, like a river in spate, from 200 feet deep near Stroma to depths of 50 feet off St John’s Point in Caithness. This accelerates the speed of the water which then hits the westerly swell head-on in a frightening climax. The result is a cauldron of monstrous spouts and breakers battling for supremacy. From peak to trough these breakers can be 60 feet high and have taken many lives.

Not so merry though if your engine has broken down and your boat is being drawn ever closer into this living hell. Such was our situation in the early 1970s when myself and my crewman, Jim Knight, shook hands fearing we would never survive, then sent out a Mayday call to Wick Radio.

Although huge breakers which would have swamped us were crashing all around us, for some reason our stricken little lobster boat, the Tussan, only 30 feet long, seemed to just miss the most deadly ones as we tumbled and rolled, sometimes falling through the air from the wavetops.

We were pummelled and pushed remorselessly west by the tide against the wind for miles when suddenly we saw her up to the Northeast -the New Longhope Lifeboat, heading straight for us. 

It slowly dawned on us then that we may actually be going to survive our terrifying ordeal. Somehow amidst all that trauma, we managed to get their tow-rope onto our bow bollard and they towed us through the big long swells, all the way to Scrabster, only appearing to us momentarily now and again when we were both lifted simultaneously on separate waves. Most of the time all we could see was their umbilical connection disappearing into the foaming sea.

No words will ever be able to describe the relief we felt at that time. Our gratitude to these finest of men, and to those bravest of souls who went before them, is as boundless as the very ocean they saved us from. 

Thank you.’

Christopher Zawadski

Rescue of the Ross Tern 1973

recalled by crew member John Budge

Painting by harry Berry

Attending the chemical tanker the Ascancia while she was on fire 1999

Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick

Billy Budge recalls his time as a Longhope lifeboatman

Assisting the tanker FR8 Venture

Bronze Medal for Gallantry awarded to Doctor Christine Bradshaw, a local GP, who went out on the lifeboat on 11 November 2006 to assist three seriously injured men on the tanker FR8 Venture. In horrendous northwesterly force 12 winds and a 15metre swell, she was winched from the lifeboat onto the tanker. Two of the men were dead, but she treated the third badly injured man and was recovered with him back onto the helicopter and transferred to hospital. Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick and his crew and Captain Noble and the crew of the helicopter received a collective Framed Letter of Thanks signed by the Chairman of the Institution Admiral Sir Jock Slater. This was the first major service by a new Tamar class lifeboat. Conditions were such that the helicopter pilot commented that he had never seen a lifeboat fly before.

At the AGM of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society held on 9 October 2007 a special commendation was awarded to Dr Bradshaw for her actions on 11 November 2006. – from the RNLI website

Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick and Doctor Christine Bradshaw remember the event, interviewed by a pupil from the school.

Crew member Angus Budge speaks to a young interviewer about the call out that stands out in his mind

Angus Budge interviewed by a pupil from the school.

Coxswain Ian McFadyen tells the story of a small torch that kept the crew of the lifeboat and a trawler in communication

Coxswain Ian McFadyen interview by a pupil from the school