“‘TWAS on the 1st of April, and in the year of Eighteen thirteen, / That the whaler “Oscar” was wrecked not far from Aberdeen” so wrote that dubious poet of Dundee, William Topaz McGonnagall. Two centuries ago this would be the worst maritime disaster to occur on Aberdeen’s coastline; only two of the forty-six crew survived, young first mate, John Jamson, and steersman, James Venus.
There had been an unusually calm spell of weather in the spring of 1813, thus the mighty squall which arose that morning took five whaling ships unawares. Along with the Oscar, captained by John Innes, the Hercules, Latona, Middleton and St Andrew were riding at anchor when the wind whipped around to the south-west and forced three of the ships out of the Dee estuary to avoid damage. Crewmen from the Latona and Oscar were still onshore enjoying liquid refreshment from the previous night, doubtless in some of the hostelries in Fittie or Torry; once they had been retrieved via a rowing boat, the sea lay disturbingly calm. Captain Innes cleared the estuary, but struggled to steer with Venus’ help at the helm as the heavy sea rolled ominously beneath them. By 11am, the Oscar was struck by a new gale which drove it hard inland towards Greyhope Bay. A number of onlookers had already gathered there to watch the progress of the ships. Half an hour later, the Oscar foundered on the Bruntscallie rocks by the bay, monstrous waves engulfing the vessel.
The Torry folk watched in horror as the crew clambered onto the rigging in a vain attempt to save themselves. Captain Innes tried to shout to these observers, they tried to call to him, but the wind tore the words from their very lips. The crew then cut down their mainmast, hoping it would fall straight onto the rocky shore and provide them with an escape route, but it crashed uselessly into the sea beside them. Few of the whalers would have been able to swim due to the old seafaring superstition that if the sea gods wanted a sacrifice, they would not be denied, hence it was quicker to drown than fight. Somehow, John Jamson made it ashore, and to his great surprise was dragged to safety by his own uncle, Richard Jamson, a retired whaling captain, who had been among the crowd at Greyhope Bay.
By midday, the folk had sorrowfully observed Captain Innes and his remaining crew drown as the Oscar broke up beneath them. For the next few weeks, bodies from the stricken ship would wash ashore; every other day a new widow would lament her loss. The majority of the bodies were interred in a mass grave at old St Fittick’s Kirk not far from where they came ashore.
The other ships fared slightly better, and on the St Andrew, Captain Reid was lauded by the Aberdeen Journal for his amazing “seamanship and exertion” at being able to return to port while his fellows on the Oscar perished.
The outpouring of sorrow and sympathy was exemplified in the raising of £12,000 for the families of the crew. The disaster, immortalised in poetry by local worthy, William Cadenhead, and an anonymous correspondent to the Aberdeen Journal, prompted renewed calls for a lighthouse to protect shipping, yet it took another twenty years before the Stevenson-designed beacon, built by James Gibbs was completed.
Oddly enough, even the installation of a lighthouse was not enough to prevent another, though lesser disaster happening a century later in the same spot, when the Danish-registered G Coch ran aground with the loss of the seven-strong crew.
If you walk through St Nicholas Kirkyard from Union Street and look for the headstone to John Coutts, only eighteen, son of a local shoemaker, “drowned by the wreck of the ship Oscar at the Girdleness”. Perhaps it was all his father had to keep the harpooner laddie’s memory alive? It is perhaps also the only visible monument in the city to the ship and her tragic crew, and thus will cause the more curious amongst us to “think of the mariners”, as McGonnagall charged the readers of his verbose epic to do.