On a beautiful, calm afternoon in November 1850, six men from Swordale set out for Grimshader, Lochs. They were going to fetch kelp - perhaps to use it as fertiliser on their crofts, or maybe as part of their rental agreement, whereby they would have had to provide the Estate with a certain amount of kelp each year. They probably fished with handlines as they went, in order to procure a little more food for their tables. The men were:
Torquil Crichton, husband of Mary Macleod, and father to 7 children aged between 2 and 16.
John Mackenzie, husband of Christina Finlayson, and father to 5 children between 0 and 12.
Murdo Mackenzie, husband of Mary Crichton, and father to 5 children aged between 2 and 17.
John Maciver, husband of Catherine Stewart, and father to 7 children aged between 6 and 20.
John Macleod (originally from Coll), husband of Catherine Murray, and father to 4 children aged between 10 and 17.
John Macleod, husband of Margaret Macleod, and father to 8 children aged between 6 and 26.
As experienced fishermen they would surely have known not to overload their vessel. Perhaps they were under pressure from the Estate, although some said afterwards that a whale may have surfaced beneath the boat and upset it. Whatever the truth of the matter, none of the men made it to shore, and a village was devastated.
Mary Crichton lost not only her husband, but also her brother Torquil and brother-in-law John Mackenzie. These same men were two brothers and a brother-in-law to Mary's neighbour Margaret Mackenzie. The very ties which knit the 100-strong village together would have made the loss still more shattering. The disaster became known as Bàthadh Mòr Shuardail - the 'Big Drowning of Swordale'.
However, in some strange way, at least one of the men had some knowledge of what would come to pass that afternoon. The youngest son of John Macleod (listed last) was George, and when he died in 1920 his obituary recalled that day seventy years previously:
[George's] father, John Macleod, who was a notable Christian in the congregation of Garrabost, died by drowning. It is related of him that on the day which he was drowned he went in the morning to another township to help his son William in building a house. As he was about to leave for home, he said to his son, “Proceed with the house, but I will not be with
you to roof it.” When he arrived home, his wife had dinner ready, and wished him to partake of it. “No,” he said, “I have something else to attend to first.” He then took his two sons, Kenneth and George, to the barn, and with his hand on the head of each, he prayed that they might be children of “The Covenant”. He then took his dinner, and went out with his crew to fish, but never returned.*
It is surely worthy of note that this crofter, so busy with house-building and kelp-collecting, regarded the spiritual state of his children as being of more importance than either his dinner or his life.
How do we value our souls, and the souls of our families and neighbours?
* The Free Presbyterian Magazine and Monthly Record, January 1921, p.276-277.