Wick Coastguard Rescues. 


George Robb - What Went Wrong?


              6th / 7th December 1959

Station Officer Eric Campbell


On that doomed Sunday evening of 6th December, 1959, the George Robb trawler was steadily making it's way home skippered by Marshall Ryles and eleven crew members.  But what exactly did happen that night?  NO ONE KNOWS FOR SURE.

 The Coastguards could hear Marshall talking to his wife on his radio, but could not intercept the radio waves. Once Marshall had finished talking, the coastguards did manage to make contact and requested that he went to Thurso for shelter from the oncoming gale for a couple of days, but, this would make the trip home a much longer one. Marshall declined the request, telling the coastguards their information was over exaggerated and they should not panic, it will blow over!  Marshall kept to his original route and was caught in the 'wash' of the killer gale.

Once caught within the gale, another suggestion was that the George Robb's engines were not powerful enough to 'pull away' from the storm and miss the stacks.  We do know that the trawler had engine trouble at some time before this trip.

It is a known fact that as the skipper was talking to his wife on a short-wave radio (once someone is talking on the radio, no-one else can join in - you have to wait until that person has finished) about hoping to be home shortly.  He knew the weather was getting 'rough' all around him as he expressed his concern to his wife, but, he ignored the Coastguards suggestions of taking shelter at Thurso until the storm had blown over.  To save time, he went close to the coast of Duncansby Head.

Station Officer Eric Campbell, along with the rest of Wick Coastguard and helpers had made repeated requests for a Jeep or Land Rover to help carry the heavy rescue equipment, so often needed, across rough and uneven terrain.  Each request had been refused every time with excuses of 'insufficient funding' or/and unnecessary (possible because local vehicles were called upon and used when possible).

It was somewhat incongruous then, when Eric's body was brought back to Wick in a Land Rover.  Even more so when HM Coastguard officials visited Duncansby Head and the area where Eric collapsed and the George Robb lay, by.......yes LAND ROVER!

For those unfamiliar with Duncansby Head (as I was until my visit in September 2000), there is a narrow road leading up to Duncansby Lighthouse.  From here it is across grassy, broken ground, sometimes flooded.  There are 'clumps' and 'tuffs' of grass which makes walking very difficult in daylight.  The rescue was at night, almost total darkness, the wind and rain was recorded at force 15 (110 m.p.h.) at times, AND man-handling heavy equipment including ropes,  rockets and steel rocket launcher.

The killer storm was like no other storm encountered at Duncansby for many, many years.  The possible speed at which the gale blew and, the force of the seas - powered by the high winds - almost certainly took a lot of people by surprise and shock.  Perhaps if Marshall had listened to the coastguards' experienced advice rather than his own feelings, a much better Christmas would have been had by the crew AND Coastguards alike.

Another possibility has come to light (after a recent visits to John O'Groats and speaking with the local people there who remember - John Green Jnr. who, with a friend actually found the fisherman on the beach), as the George Robb left Aberdeen for probably the last time before Christmas, (this would be an opportunity to earn extra money for Christmas), the port closed because of the storm.  Once caught in the storm, visibility would have been virtually nil - even a large white lighthouse at Duncansby would have been hidden, the skipper could have mistaken the 'Stacks' at Duncansby for the cliffs at Thurso - and so turned the boat onto the rocks  rather than into relatively calm area of Thurso Harbour.

Again, further information has come to light after speaking to the local people of John O'Groats ( Ex Coastguard John Mowart), after the George Robb  investigation, it was announced by The Board of Trade (who managed HM Coastguard at the time) that there would be a Cliff Top Rescue team set up to help speed further rescues along the cliffs.  The main reason for this was that it was the local people ONLY who had knowledge of the cliffs and where the safest places where to be used.  In a rescue, this knowledge could save precious minutes - although this knowledge at the time of the George Robb incident would not have helped the crew.

A caravan was used as a temporary base (on loan from John Mowart) for the Cliff Top Rescue Team, for organising training / practice sessions and as a command post during a rescue.

While Eric's body was being taken back to Duncansby Lighthouse, a rescue was setup and a rock was fired out to the trawler.  The rocket went about ten yards and was blown back onto the cliff top by the strong wind!

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


Additional Reports:

the "John O'Groat Journal" newspaper

The George Robb Skipper

the "Daily Record"  newspaper

Damage To Wick Harbour.

the "Press & Journal" newspaper

the "Scottish Daily Express" newspaper

Back to Wick Rescue's page

the "Bulletin & Scots Pictorial" newspaper


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