Loss of the Rousay Post Boat

In December 1825 James Sinclair of Newhouse was drowned when his boat sank off Scabra Head. Also lost in the accident were 13-year-old Alexander Mainland of Tratland and one of his elder half-brothers, James or Robert, through his father’s first marriage to Margaret Sinclair.

A painting of the Rousay post boat that was lost between Evie and Rousay in 1893 with the loss of six lives.

In 1893 the sea was to claim another member of the Sinclair family. James the elder, then in his 75th year, operated the small open mail boat, which plied between Rousay and Evie, with 56-year-old John Reid of Tratland. On Wednesday October 11th 1893, while crossing Eynhallow Sound, the boat was lost in a south-westerly gale. It was struck by a squall and overturned, claiming the lives of not only  James  and  John, but also 35-year-old Lydia Craigie, wife of Robert Gibson, originally of  Langskaill, and three of her children, David 9, Maggie Jessie 6, and Lily Ann 4, who were being conveyed as passengers. Another boat in vicinity saw the boatmen and passengers clinging briefly to the upturned hull but could do nothing to help, and several days later the mail boat was washed ashore on Papa Stronsay.

The bodies of James and John were recovered and interred in the Westside kirkyard – 68 years after James’s father was lost nearby at Scabra Head. Lydia and her three children’s lives are commemorated on a headstone in the kirkyard at Stenness, the family having earlier moved to Lochend in that parish. Lydia’s name is also inscribed on the family headstone in the Wester kirkyard on Rousay.

This is how The Orcadian and Orkney Herald newspapers reported the tragedy:



A terrible boating accident occurred in Orkney on Wednesday, resulting in the loss of six lives. The island of Rousay is separated from the mainland by Eynhallow Sound, which is about two miles in breadth, and through which the tide runs with great velocity. With a south-westerly gale, such as was raging on Wednesday, there is always a nasty sea in this Sound; but notwithstanding this, the little boat which plies between Rousay and the mainland with the mails, successfully made the run to Evie that forenoon. After taking on board the mails from the South, and Mrs Gibson, of Lochside, Stenness, and her three children, the boat left Evie on the home journey. When only a short distance from the land, however, the boat was struck by a sudden squall, and the agonised spectators on shore saw it overturn with its living freight. Boat and occupants were swept away with the tide, before any assistance could be rendered – and crew, passengers, and mails were lost. The boat was managed by two Rousay men – one named John Reid, (56 years of age), residing at [Tratland] Frotoft, and the other named James Sinclair, (75 years of age), residing at Newhouse, Frotoft. Mrs Gibson, who with her three children had been lost, was going across to Rousay to visit some friends. When the upturned mail boat was last seen, it was rapidly drifting out of Eynhallow Sound.

Later information regarding the accident is to the effect that when the ill-fated boat left Evie on Wednesday, it was close reefed. All went well while it was under the lea of the land, but immediately it rounded Aikerness Point, it was struck by a squall and was upset. The two boatmen – Reid and Sinclair – were seen clinging to the boat for a minute or two, but it partly righted itself throwing them in the water – and they were never seen again. A small boat manned by William Wood, Wads, and John Mowat, Woodwick, Evie, was at that moment within 150 yards of the scene of the accident, but owing to the terrific gale then blowing, had great difficulty in getting up to the place, and by that time men, woman, and children had disappeared. A boat manned by David Miller, merchant, and Magnus Mowat, Evie, also put off from the shore, but could get no trace of the unfortunate people who were on board the mail boat. The boat was seen to turn over several times, and was carried away past Rousay towards the Atlantic.

[The Orcadian – Saturday, October 14, 1893]



A sad boat accident, resulting in the loss of six lives, occurred in Eynhallow Sound about noon on Wednesday. A small square-sterned boat, which was temporarily being used to carry the mails between Evie and Rousay, capsized off Aikerness, Evie, soon after starting for Rousay. The boat had safely crossed from Rousay earlier in the day, and though there is always a rapid tide through the sound, and a strong gale was blowing from the south-west, the men did not think there was any danger. Beside the two boatmen, John Reid and James Sinclair, there were on board Mrs. Gibson, jr., of Lochside, Stenness, and three of her children. The boat was close-reefed, and was only a short distance from the shore when she was suddenly struck by a squall and capsized. She turned over several times and then drifted northwards between the island of Eynhallow and Rousay out to the Atlantic. The woman and children seem to have gone down almost at once, but the men were seen for a little time, Reid clinging to the bottom of the boat till it turned over again and he lost his hold. The accident was seen from the shore, and steps were at once taken to render help. A boat which was lobster-fishing in the neighbourhood and boats from the shore went to the spot where the accident had occurred and after the drifting boat, but were too late to render any assistance. Much sympathy is felt with the relatives of those who have lost their lives. The two mail-bags came ashore at Westness, Rousay, on Friday, and the mails were delivered the following day. Many of the addresses were almost illegible. The oars and loose boards in the bottom of the boat have also been washed ashore, but no trace of the missing bodies has yet been found.

[Orkney Herald]


Some further accounts are coming to hand of the terrible boating disaster which occurred at Evie on Wednesday last. It seems that though a severe gale of south-westerly wind was blowing, neither crew nor passengers had any misgivings regarding the two-miles’ passage across Eynhallow Sound. Mrs Gibson and her children seemed quite delighted at the prospect of the sail. The boat, however, had scarcely rounded Aikerness Point when it was swamped by the sudden squall. Mrs Gibson and her three children were never again seen, but one of the two boatmen, John Reid, was observed scrambling onto the keel of the boat. He was only there a few minutes, however, when the little craft gave a heavy lurch, pitching the unfortunate man once more into the sea. The two mail bags which were in the boat have been washed ashore at Rousay. A small boat, 10½ feet keel, square-sterned, and painted light blue outside, supposed to be the one  lost at Evie, was driven ashore on the north side of Papa Stronsay last week. It has three fixed thwarts in it, two fitted for a mast, evidently for either a smack or lug rig, but there were no traces of either a mast or sail attached. It had a square iron rollock on each side, fastened with a chain, and two small sail thimbles, fastened one on each quarter, evidently for the sheet. Feeling allusion was made to the sad event in many of the pulpits in Orkney last Sunday. None of the bodies have yet been recovered.

[The Orcadian – Saturday, October 21, 1893]


The body of a boy, son of Mr Gibson, jr. Lochside, Stenness, and one of the children drowned through the capsizing of the Rousay post boat in Eynhallow Sound on October 11th, came ashore near Burgar, Evie, on Tuesday last week.

[Orkney Herald – November 15, 1893]


The body of a man, which has been identified as that of John Reid, one of the boatmen who were drowned by the capsizing of the Rousay post boat in Eynhallow Sound on the 11th of October, came ashore  on  Saturday on the west side of the Sand of Evie. The body of Mrs Gibson, Lochside, Stenness, who was lost in the same accident, has been found at Rousay.

[Orkney Herald – November 22, 1893]


The body of James Sinclair, one of the boatmen lost in the Rousay post boat on the 11th October in Eynhallow Sound, was found on Saturday morning. This makes the fourth body that has been found of the six lost by the accident.

[Orkney Herald – December 13, 1893]

The gravestones of Robert Sinclair and John Reid, in the Westside Kirkyard
– and that of Lydia Craigie, wife of Robert Gibson, and their three children
in the Stenness kirkyard.