William Fife gets a ducking
Dr. William Collier – Oct. 2020
On the morning of the last day of May 1877 the members of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club gathered at Hunter’s Quay for their annual cruise. About 15 yachts lay becalmed with the lack of wind preventing others from joining. Among the anchored fleet was Beagle, the brand new 10 ton cutter designed and owned by the Marquis of Ailsa. As well as designing and building his own yachts, the Marquis was also a formidable patron of both William Fife II and III. For her first sortie he had entrusted Beagle to William Fife II, his brother Alan who was one of crack Clyde helmsmen, the young William Fife III and Alan Buchanan who had owned the crack Fairlie-built 5 tonner Pearl.
Late morning the vice commodore arrived by steamer having abandoned his becalmed schooner and with little else to do commodore the Earl of Glasgow summoned the members ashore for lunch. During the pleasant proceedings a light breeze sprung up and by 4pm it was decided that a race would be held after all. Half an hour later from aboard his steam yacht, Valetta, the commodore started a mixed fleet of 30 yachts in a race to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. The breeze built and a good race ensued with the Schooners Nyanza, 214 tons and the 157 ton William Fife II designed and built Melita enjoying a particularly good match.
The following morning with only a light breeze the fleet was to race to Tighnabruaich on the Kyles of Bute. For the larger yachts the course was set via Fairlie Roads whereas the smaller yacht proceeded on a more direct course round the southern end of Bute. Both fleets were to pass through Inchmarnock sound. After a slow start during which the fleet spread out over 10 miles, a westerly breeze built in strength and the two fleets met in the West Kyle. As the wind strength continued to increase many yachts were caught with far too much sail aloft. A spectator recalled ‘masts at an angle of 45 degrees, decks filled with foaming water, and the whiskers and chain plates throwing up each its independent jet while the darkening hills and lowering sky formed a fitting background…’
Amongst the smaller yachts in this Wagnerian scene was Beagle with her Fife crew, putting up an impressive performance against the crack 10 tonner Florence. After powering up Kyle on port tack they bore away for the finishing line and the anchorage in Blackfarlane Bay at about 8pm. A dip in the hills makes the northern extremity of Kyle less protected adding an extra final challenge to the yachts as they ran for the finish line. Crossing the line, Beagle soon hove too to lower her topsail. On a dead run through the finish line the mighty 214 ton schooner Nyanza failed to see the little 10 tonner and struck her amidships. Buchanan and the Fife brothers managed to clamber aboard their assailant as she rounded up in chaos. Beagle sank with ‘awful rapidity’ and young William Fife got a ducking before he was hauled aboard Nyanza. Now out of control Nyanza hit the Florence tearing her mainsail in half and bringing down her topmast before dropping sails and anchor and ending her spate of destruction.
Beagle was not so easily rescued as Fife III and salvage attempts were not successful. Typically, none of the Fife’s ever spoke much of the experience although at the time it created ‘a wild amount of excitement’ and was widely reported in the Scottish press.
The study from where I wrote this looks out over the head of the West Kyle and Blackfarlane Bay and whilst the scene described is tantalisingly easy to imagine what is yet more intriguing is that only a few hundred yard away rests Beagle and I cannot but wonder what remains of her.