Wick Coastguard Rescues. 


George Robb - "The Stacks Of Death."


As reported in  the Scottish Daily Express newspaper Tuesday 6th December 1959

Station Officer Eric Campbell


"Death was Christmas 'bonus' THREE BRAVED THE GALE IN 'SANTA CLAUS' BID."

Only one seaman escaped from the gale-ravaged Aberdeen trawler George Robb early yesterday morning and he died from exposure under the Duncansby Head cliffs near John O'Groats as rescue teams searched for the wreck.

He was found at first light - wearing only shirt and life jacket - crouched against the death-dealing hurricane among the shingle near high water mark. Behind him, his 11 shipmates perished in the trawler, not 50 yards from the shore and safety.

A tiny cove, cut deep into the 200ft. high cliffs, was the only shelter from the storm that ripped the bottom from the 29-year-old boat as it sailed for Faroe fishing grounds. The man - dark-haired and aged about 30 - was within yards of the cleft in the high sea wall. 

He was found by two John O'Groat's men making an early morning search for survivors as the slackening gale screamed and tore at their clothes.

Said 26-year-old John Malcolm Green, a fitter at Dounreay atomic station: "We are almost certain the man was alive when he reached the shore in the darkness. He did not look as if he had been washed up. He must have died as he crouched down in the slack water trying to ward off the wind."

An official of the trawler's owners is travelling to Wick today by train to identify the man - and any others the still raging sea may cast up. The 177ft. long 217-ton trawler - registered No A 406 - lies shattered and torn on her port side in a little bay beside the 200ft. high Stacks of Duncansby. They are cone-shaped pillars of stone a few yards off-shore and a landmark to seamen to the entrance to the stormy Pentland Firth and the Atlantic.

The boiling water ripped the green boat apart during the night. Her bow section is split. Her back broken. The George Robb radioed her one and only SOS at 10 minutes to midnight on Sunday night. Said skipper Marshall Ryles: "Ashore on south side of Duncansby Head. making water fast. Require immediate assistance." That was the last heard of the trawler.

The George Robb claimed a 13th victim just after she was found under the cliffs. Station officer Eric Campbell, 53-year-old (he was in fact 50!) coastguard in charge of Wick's shore rescue crew, collapsed and died as he hurried carrying rocket lines to the cliff top.

Mr Campbell, an Englishman only 18 months stationed at Wick, had raced to the spot after receiving the trawler's position. His squad of 30 men joined by life savers from Scarfskerry, near the Queen Mother's Castle of Mey, carried heavy rescue gear almost a mile across treacherous bogland to the cliff.

Wind and sea held no terrors for Marshall Ryles, 31-year-old skipper of the ill-fated George Robb. Even as the sturdy trawler fought a losing battle with the killer gale, the bold skipper - handsome, dashing father of four - called his wife by radio-phone at her home in North Anderson Drive, Aberdeen.

Four hours before his ship foundered on the rocks, his voice crackled in a cool understatement from the angry Moray Firth: "I'm in for a rough night. The weather's bad."

And 34 children - the youngest 13 months - lost their fathers as all hands perished. At 23, Marshall Ryles was a mate - one of a successful crew. A measure of their success was that Marshall was paying super-tax at that age.

The last trip of the doomed Aberdeen trawler George Robb began with high hopes of a fair catch and a bumper Christmas bonus . . . and it ended in the biggest-ever single disaster to hit the fishing port since the 1930s. At least three of the 12-man crew joined the ship to make money for Christmas and Hogmanay.

The George Robb - recently converted at a cost of 45,000 from coal to diesel - sailed at 11.30 on Sunday morning for a 14 day fishing trip to the Faroes. And a member of the owning firm, the family concern of George Robb and Sons, said yesterday: "Two of the men who sailed were " liners " - men who work the fishing boats. They've stopped work now and the men had joined the George Robb to get money for Christmas."

A third member of the crew, 45-year-old Albert Smith, father of four, had a mate's ticket, but had been out of work for three weeks. "He took this job as a deck-hand to get money for Christmas." said his heartbroken wife, Molly, yesterday.

It was the same story in all the homes where hopes for a merry Christmas had been dashed on the foam-covered rocks of Duncansby Head. For this was a family tragedy. A tragedy for the Robbs, one of the most closely knit family trawling concerns in the port - and a tragedy for the families of the men who sailed the George Robb.

Fair-haired Nancy Dugan, wife of the second engineer, summed it up when she said: "Bob was so pleased about the new boat. He even invited me down to see it. I said what will people think if they see me on a trawler? But he said the chief had already shown his wife around, so I went down, and it was a lovely boat."

But the lovely boat, 12 hours later, was a storm-battered death trap. And the men lost from her left, in her wake, a trail of heartache and poignant 'might have beens.'

Second Engineer Robert Dugan, who would have been 39 next month, was coming home for Christmas to his wife and two sons - aged 5 and 9 - and his daughter Maureen, aged 7. Mrs. Nancy Dugan said: "He was anxious to get the house painted before he left and he had been working hard to have it ready for Christmas and the New Year. I was getting the little girl ready for school when I heard about the boat on the radio. It was a terrible shock."

Ulvjean Dempster, 22-year-old bride of four months of 24-year-old mate Peter Dempster, was tidying their spick-and-span new home in Alexander Drive when her brother broke the news to her.

"It was to have been our first Christmas together in our new home." she said last night.

Across the city, in Torry, Mrs. Charles Graham looked around her stripped living room in Crombie Road. Second fisherman Bruno Saborowski, a former Polish Service man who stayed on in Scotland, had lodged there for almost 14 years.

Her eyes red-rimmed with weeping, Mrs. Graham said: "We don't have any family. Bruno was just like a son to us." Now the Grahams may not move into a new house promised to them in Kincorth.

Mrs. Graham said: "We are all ready to move-all our best stuff is out of the house. Bruno had stayed with us all these years. Now we don't know if we're on our head or our heels. I don't know if we'll bother with that new house. We had it all planned that Bruno would stay with us."

William Mackay, the 35-year-old chief engineer, hated the sea and spent every minute in port at his home in Strathmore Drive, Aberdeen. He was the father of three children - aged from 13 months to seven years.

His last words to his wife as he left home were: "Maybe I'll be back. It looks gey rough." His wife said yesterday: "He'd been hoping for a shore job so that he wouldn't have to go to sea."

The ace skipper - mate at 23 and youngest skipper in the port at 24, liked "plenty of power under his feet," said his wife last night. And the deckboards quivered as the new oil-fired engine thrust the sturdy George Robb through the rising gale. The gale was coming astern - and that may have speeded them on to destruction.

For fishermen in Aberdeen yesterday were surprised that the George Robb had made the Pentland Firth in such quick time. But the gale that hounded her at times gusted at more than 80 mile an hour.

On board, as the trawler hammered through the hissing seas was 30-year-old James Findlay, of Davidson Place, Aberdeen. This was the third time he had been involved in a sea accident. He was aboard the Sturdee when it went aground on Aberdeen beach about four years ago, and when the George Robb grounded in Orkney earlier this year.

He and his wife were to have celebrated a wedding anniversary tomorrow and Mrs. Findlay was expecting a message from him. Mr. Findlay was a native of Govanhill, Glasgow, and former pupil of Abbotsford Place School. He was christened Peter McPhedran, the son of a lorry driver. Later his parents separated and he took the name Findlay.

His mother - remarried and living in Ayr - said yesterday: "Peter was a wanderer. He moved around a lot and worked for a time on some hydro-electric scheme in Inverness-shire. Then he went to Aberdeen and married and settled there."

Deckhand David Lockhart (30) was one of the only two bachelors aboard-the other was one-legged George Duffy (25), another deckhand. Tragedy was no stranger to Lockhart's home in Torry - for his brother Findlay was killed in a "million to one" mystery electrical blast at Countesswells, Aberdeen, last January.

And in Portnockie, Banffshire and Cairnbulg - village of another recent sea tragedy - there were more mourning for two other victims.

Last night in the inky darkness, the seething waves and whipping vicious currents of Duncansby Head hid the scene where tragedy overwhelmed the young skipper, the family men and bachelors.

PAGE 1 OF NEWSPAPER (Click here)


Further stories of the George Robb can be read 
(with picture's) as reported by:

Additional Reports:

the "Press & Journal" newspaper

The George Robb Skipper

the "John O'Groat Journal" newspaper

What Went Wrong?

the "Daily Record"  newspaper

Damage To Wick Harbour.

the "Bulletin & Scots Pictoral" newspaper

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