50th Anniversary of the George Robb Disaster.

Station Officer Eric Campbell

On Sunday 6th December 2009, it was the 50th Anniversary of the George Robb fishing trawler disaster where all 12 fishermen on board lost their lives, together with Eric Campbell, Wick HM Coastguard Station Officer.   (To read the newspaper reports of the disaster, please click here.)

Below, I have written an account of what happened day by day, mainly for the relatives of the fishermen and of Eric Campbell, who could not attend the church service etc, for one reason or another. I hope to create a little of the atmosphere I encountered - I hope you enjoy it.

Before my arrival at Wick for the 50th Anniversary, I feel I must state that considerable hard work was conducted by two special people, who, without their help and advice, the special church service would not have taken place. My heartfelt gratitude and thanks go to Norman MacLeod - Wick HM Coastguard Station Officer, and to Mr. John Nugent, the Minister of Wick St. Fergus Church of Scotland. I am indebted to you both for your help and advice you so kindly offered.

It was decided to fly to Wick from Birmingham via Edinburgh. This would save 3 days travelling by car and I would be refreshed at the end of the journey. A (comfortable) Ford Fiesta car was hired from Dunnets of Wick, at reasonable rates, to enable me to travel to John O'Groats and around Wick. 

Two flower wreathes and a flower cross were ordered a couple of weeks before from The Flower Patch flower shop, one of the wreathes and the cross had yellow and blue flowers and the other wreath had blue and white flowers, again at very reasonable prices. It was hoped to lay the two wreathes out to sea and the cross be laid close to 'The Stacks' at Duncansby Head, John O'Groats - sometime during my stay.

A room was booked at Carey's Guest House for the three nights stay, the room was very comfortable and the breakfasts were very tasty! (Thank you Phyllis and John for looking after me!).

Friday 4th December 2009.
I arrived at Wick Airport on the Friday morning at 11.35 am on a sunny, dry day, after flying from Birmingham Airport to Edinburgh Airport, then onto Wick. After collecting the hire car at the Airport (Mr. Sutherland from Dunnets kindly met me with the car and paperwork), it was time to familiarise myself with Wick, (it was five years since my last visit). The views of the harbour, the new and old Lifeboat Station, and of course 'The Trinkies' and old Coastguard houses. It was mentioned beforehand that the weather forecast for the weekend was strong winds etc, and possible rain, making it very risky to lay wreathes etc.

A chat with Norman (Wick Coastguard Station Officer and dear friend), revealed he had seen a lunch-time news item of one of the fishermen's' son's talking to a reporter in Aberdeen, stating it that was 50 years ago to the day since the disaster, and that there was no memorial or plaque to commemorate it. The STV TV news item also mentioned the death of Eric Campbell, together with the names of the fishermen who died.

I managed to see the news item for myself on the evening local news at 6.10pm. After watching the report, I felt we were not alone here in Wick!

(Photo gallery from Friday - please click here)

Saturday 5th December 2009.
After a hearty breakfast, the flower cross  was collected from The Flower Patch flower shop ready for my private memorial at 'The Stacks' Duncansby Head. Although it was a dry day, the drive out brought back memories of my last visit and remembered to take along my wind-proof coat and hat. The 18 mile drive from Wick on the A99 to John O'Groats, (and then right at the Sub Post Office), was dry and memories came flooding back.

For anyone who has not visited The Stacks, the views are breath-taking (literally when on the cliff top!), I just have to stop to take photos. In fact the drive from Wick towards John O'Groats, (on the A99),  is full of beautiful scenic views just waiting to be photographed! After parking at the Duncansby Head car park next to the Lighthouse, the wind was quite strong, especially as it blew between the rock crevices. 

    Drive into John O'Groats.      Drive into John O'Groats.     Drive into John O'Groats.

Driving into John O'Groats on the A99.

The walk across the cliff top turned into a hike, especially when walking in the long moor grass blown over by the constant wind and rain. It was hard going, especially as your feet sank into the wet marsh-like grass and the wind blowing against you most of the time. With eyes watering, it was very easy to see how the wind could take your breath in an instant - and the wind now was nowhere near as strong (or no driving rain) as it was that night back in 1959.

After a good 25 minute hike, I made it to the cliff top looking across to the bay and The Stacks, I felt it was a little 'unwise' to continue round the corner and up over to face The Stacks directly below as the ground was very water logged, and not knowing the lie of the land ahead, and what lay hidden, I decided this was a good a place as any to fix the cross down. To secure the cross, I used an old wire coat hanger bent over the cross and into the ground . I felt I had made a good choice. Although the wind was almost blowing me over and howling around my head, I had my private thoughts of the 12 fishermen and Eric - it was emotional, as expected.

I finally left Duncansby Head after taking a few photographs and returned to Wick. I met up with Norman and John (Minister of the church), at the Wick St. Fergus Church around lunchtime, after collecting the remaining two wreathes, (which I must say were absolutely beautiful and very well made - thank you very much Flower Patch!),  and it was there I found out the reporters from the local newspapers were coming along on the Sunday, together with a cameraman and reporter from Grampian Television who said it was such a special occasion, they wanted to cover it.

After a very tasty bowl of Cullen Skink soup in the church hall, it was now I saw just how beautiful the church was. We climbed the stairs into the church which went over the hall building, it was very impressive. Norman brought along some Coastguard rescue equipment to show, including the original searchlight used during the rescue. There was also a display case with a piece of the George Robb steering wheel in it, found washed up on the beach a few days after the disaster, which all made to be a very memorial day.

(Photo gallery from Saturday - please click here)

Sunday 6th December 2009.
After another hearty breakfast from Phyllis, I drove up to the top of Wick for another look over the quay, harbour and Lifeboat Stations, followed by a trip to The Trinkies, (A large, flat rocky area which has Wick's outdoor swimming pool - once the tide is out!), before going to the church at 11.00 am. 

At the church, I met Norman and the Coastguard members dressed so smart in their Coastguard uniforms. I also met Norman's brothers John and George MacLeod (who actually helped carry Eric's body back to Duncansby Head Lighthouse 50 years ago). Before the service George, and myself had a brief chat about that day 50 years ago - as you can imagine this was an emotional time for us. The Wick Saint Fergus Church of Scotland is slightly unusual at first glance when you enter through the large doors because as one would expect the church having rows pews etc, there is a large, warm and welcoming Church Hall instead. The church itself is built (recently), above the hall and is reached (very majestically I might add) through newer doors followed by two large glass doors to the staircase.

Staircase into the Church.    

Inside the Church.     

HM Coastguard Display      

Back wall of Church.      

Staircase to the Church. Stained glass windows. Rescue items on display. Back wall of Church.

Norman had brought along a few items of equipment that HM Coastguards  use during a rescue (see above). The searchlight on a wooden tripod was the original searchlight used during the attempted rescue of the George Robb - and is still in use to-day, shining bright as ever! Among the rescue items were a life saving jacket and rescue line which floats on the water and a hard helmet with a multi coloured lamp for use in different conditions.

Perhaps one poignant item on display, and was not a rescue item, was a glass fronted cabinet housing a piece of the original steering wheel from the George Robb trawler, found washed up on the shore once the severe weather had  subsided. This made fascinating viewing.

Mr. Nugent, the Church Minister, started the service by first welcoming the Coastguards and myself to the church and explained how this particular service on the 2nd Sunday in Advent is going to be combined with '50th Anniversary of the George Robb Rescue'. At one particular stage of the service, Mr. Nugent came down to the alter and explained to the 'younger' congregation some of the rescue equipment on display and its uses etc. As expected there were gasps when the searchlight and display case were mentioned.

Following the Announcements and during the Gradual stage, Gordon (Norman's Grandson and volunteer member of HM Coastguard), and myself collected the two wreathes and placed them in front of the alter table, in memory of the 12 fishermen and Eric Campbell. Following a reading from the Bible and Hymn, a PowerPoint presentation was displayed onto the back wall of the church of Eric Campbell and each of the 12 fishermen names and families left behind while Mr. Nugent spoke briefly of how the rescue attempts were made before and after Eric's tragic death, and the conditions met by the rescuers - this was very emotional, as one could expect and was an extremely well designed memorial tribute for all involved.

When the special service had finished, the cameraman from Scottish Television, who had recorded most of the service, and a reporter with the cameraman interviewed George and John of their recollections of that terrible night 50 years ago. I was then briefly interviewed of my recollections of Eric as I was only seven years old at the time. (The interviews were shown during Sunday evening's 6.00 pm local news on STV TV).

My next task was to lay some flowers on Eric's (and Eve's), grave in the local cemetery which I had collected together with the wreathes. The wind was blowing really cold now and quite strong, but once down on ground level the wind was not so bad! This was another somewhat private affair and despite the cold wind managed to place the flowers in an (almost) orderly fashion in the vase! The cemetery had some lovely scenic views and I was surprised at how quiet it was (apart from the wind!).

My final port of call was to drive back to Duncansby Head to pay my final respects to everyone. The weather had turned to light rain as well as wind when I arrived at Duncansby Head Lighthouse, the wind having the strength to blow you over if precautions are not observed when walking over the cliff top. With the light fading quite quickly now - it was about 3.45 pm, I managed to arrive to the spot of the flowered cross I had laid yesterday without being blown over. My thoughts went out to the fishermen and Eric - no one can ever imagine what the atrocious conditions must have been like that night.

On my drive back to Wick, thoughts of  how the day had gone, how kind and welcoming everyone had been to me since I arrived last Friday, the marvellous church service, the Coastguards using their precious spare time to attend -   I COULD NOT HAVE ASKED FOR A BETTER DAY.

(Photo gallery from Sunday - please click here)

Monday 7th December 2009.
With my bags packed, all bills paid, I visited John Nugent at the Church to say 'Thank You for everything' and collect the wreathes which I would have liked to have laid out to sea but due to the rough weather was advised not to. My final visit was to Norman MacLeod at the Coastguard Station. Norman said that the weather appears to have 'calmed down' a bit and we could lay the wreathes out to sea after all before I catch my flight! We drove round to the harbour Lighthouse and Norman gave me the honour of laying the wreathes into the sea. Norman kindly took some photographs of me which was great. I am indebted to Norman for all his hard work, time and effort in getting this special tribute done for me.

    Me holding the wreathes before laying them into the sea.      

     Wreath for Eric being laid.      Wreath for the fishermen being laid.
Me holding the wreathes before 
laying them into the sea.

Laying the wreath for Eric.

Laying the wreath for the 

Everything I had hoped to achieve has been done now, this weekend will be remembered for the rest of my life. Norman very kindly met me at Wick Airport with a CD containing the photographs for me which was brilliant!  

However, I feel I must mention that a very important and poignant part in my complete knowledge of Eric Campbell is through my Father who is the last remaining member of my family who truly knew Eric from 1939 until his very untimely and tragic death in 1959, when he attended Eric's funeral half a century ago. My Father is nearly 80 years old and sadly didn't feel well enough to travel the distance and attend the memorial service of Eric and the 12 fishermen, but I know he was here with us in spirit. Eric played a very important role in my father's life and his wisdom carried my father through many traumatic moments during his career. Eric will always hold a very important place in my father's heart.


(Photo gallery from Monday - please click here)


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