From “Heavy the Beat of the Weary Waves” – an Old Dirge from the Isle of Mull

Robert McTavish born 23 September 1859 at Oban, the fifth child, second son of fisherman Duncan McTavish and first child of Elizabeth McFadyen, the daughter of a fisherman left a scant paper trail during his brief life.  Upon completion of his schooling, probably around fourteen years of age, Robert found employment on the fishing or cargo vessels operating out of Oban as the following article from the Oban Times published 28 June 1879 disclosed, in a not too favourable light.

The Oban Times, 28 June 1879

JP Court – Yesterday, John McFadyen and Robert McTavish hands on board the smack “Isabella” of Oban appeared before A Brown Esq. and Bailie Menzies charged with stealing several gallons of porter from a cask while on the voyage from Oban to Kinlochspelve, Mull.  Without sufficient evidence to prove the charge, the matter was dismissed.

Probably, Robert and his uncle, John McFadyen worked for the Cumstie family, merchants in Oban and owner of the smack Isabella, who ran cargo between the mainland and the Islands.

After residing in High Street, thirty odd years and wondering what prompted the McTavish family’s move to Shore Street in 1881, an article in the Oban Times, 25 October 1879 explained – “There are a number of buildings in town in course of erection or nearly finished. High Street will soon be rebuilt and when the old houses have disappeared it will be one of the best streets in the town”.  It is highly unlikely the Shore Street residence was spacious enough for all eleven members of the McTavish family.

Enumerated in the 1881 Census was, Duncan aged sixty a retired fisherman with his wife, forty one year old Elizabeth; thirty-two year old son, Alexander a fisherman, eighteen year old daughter Elizabeth, a domestic servant while Duncan aged fourteen ran errands for a local baker.  At the time, twenty one year old mariner, Robert was unemployed while Duncan and Elizabeth’s daughters Mary eight and Catherine five attended school as did eight year old grandson Duncan McTavish.  Still at home were four year old pre-schooler Flora and baby Donald.

The next Statutory Record located for Robert was an entry in the Return of Deaths at Sea dated 22 February 1886.  On the 25 December 1885, Abel Seaman Robert McTavish 26 of Oban drowned abroad the Aigel official ship no. 86720 as did 21 year old Hugh Kennedy a cook and engineer’s steward of Glasgow.  Whether the drownings were the result of two separate incidents or one dived in to the save other is unknown.

Annoyed at the lack of detail on Robert’s death certificate I exhausted my amateur detective skills to discover exactly where Robert’s death occurred.  After a lot of searching, the ship’s name had been incorrectly transcribed.  Using a database set up to improve access to the records of merchant seafarers on registered British ships for the years 1861 to 1913, I restricted my search to the ship’s official number, getting a hit for the S.S. Nigel later renamed Juno.

Robert Steele & Co, Shipbuilders of great repute with an interesting history, opened its Cartsdyke West yard near Greenock in 1854 to produce iron-hulled screw steamers instead of wooden-hulled paddle steamships.  Orders were slow until the end of the decade when the company secured a contract with J & A Allan Line of Glasgow and Montreal to build a 2,000-ton screw steamer the “Canadian”.  Consequently, the large migratory flow of people between Scotland and Canada ensured this business relationship continued for many years. [1]

SS NIGEL Cargo Ship


The company also produced smaller screw steamers and in October 1882 delivered the SS Nigel to George Hood & Co., Shipping Agents of Glasgow who operated tramp services from Liverpool to various Ports throughout the Mediterranean as well as America and Calcutta. [3]  Still none the wiser because Robert could have worked on any of these routes, further searches took me to

In 1886, George Hood & Co. sold, together with three other steamers, the SS Nigel to newly formed company, Maclay & McIntyre of Glasgow. [4]  Known as the Glasgow United Shipping Company, by 1896 the company owned thirty three ships and concentrated on the coal trade to Algoa Bay on the South African east coast, 425 miles east of the Cape of Good Hope as well as the ore trade in the Mediterranean.  In 1890, the Bristol Steam Navigation Company purchased the SS Nigel and in 1901 renamed it Juno.  A search of the National Archives (UK) described it as a continental trader. [5]  On 2 May 1917, the SS Juno was fatally torpedoed in the ballast by a U-Boat 17 miles East by South of Cape Barfleur, Rouen for Cardiff.

While the question of where Robert’s death occurred has not been resolved, it was certainly an interesting exercise in locating maritime information.

[1] Mark Howard’s paper “Robert Steele & Company: Shipbuilders of Glasgow” provides a history of the company from its humble beginnings in the 1700s through the period of growth and expansion until its liquidation in 1883 – an excellent read.‎.

[2]  Previous update by Stuart Cameron; Photo supplied by Internet source as JUNO; Additional data by Bruce Biddulph; Last updated by George Robinson from the original records by Stuart Cameron.  Copyright (except where otherwise stated).

[3] Page 1043 in the 1882-83 Glasgow Post Office Directory.

[4] Other steamers sold to Maclay & McIntyre of Glasgow: Ivanhoe GT 942; Nigel GT 1384; Peveril GT 731 and Rowena GT 1353.

[5] The National Archives (UK) Crew Lists for the Nigel/Juno 30182/553 no date:  Contents:  Years on Register 1889-1913.  Official No. 86720.  Description Screw Steamer, continental trader.  Crew Lists 1889-1913.  (Held by the Bristol Office)