Vatersay and Barra remember the Annie Jane

The beach off Vatersay where the Annie Jane was shipwrecked.

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A special memorial service was held in the Outer Hebrides on Sunday to mark the 165th anniversary of one of the UK’s worst maritime disasters.

The Annie Jane was carrying about 450 emigrants from Liverpool to Montreal in Canada when it ran onto rocks off the island of Vatersay in a fierce storm and broke up.

A total of 350 men, women and children fleeing poverty and famine died. Their bodies were said to have been ‘packed like herrings in a barrel’ and dumped into two unmarked, mass graves in the dunes behind a beach.

The death toll may have been even higher because the names of children in the doomed ship’s manifest were not recorded in those days.

The disaster on September 28, 1853, marked later by a simple granite obelisk overlooking Vatersay west beach, led to survivors demanding for what was the first ever public inquiry into a major incident.

Rev Dr Lindsay Schluter, minister of Barra and South Uist Church of Scotland congregations, and Barra Roman Catholic priest, Father John Paul Mackinnon, led the community focused ceremony on the machair in Vatersay.

‘Circumstances at the time of the disaster meant that the deceased were not afforded the dignity of a funeral service and formal committal,’ said Dr Schluter.

‘The recent publication of a book on this disaster has brought awareness of this to people’s minds and there is a desire to do now what was not done then.’

The Annie Jane, a three-masted wooden merchant ship carrying an overheavy cargo of iron, made an earlier attempt to cross the Atlantic but turned back because of bad weather and was on her second attempt when she ran into severe difficulty.

Passengers included emigrants from Ireland and Scotland, London school boys, French-speaking Swiss missionaries and skilled workers from Glasgow hired to help build railways in Canada.

Helpless in a powerful Atlantic storm, the captain of the Annie Jane decided to try to bring the ship into Vatersay Bay where she ran onto rocks and was swept ashore in three parts on the island.

There were around 100 survivors who were fed and looked after in a place with few trees from which to fashion coffins and only one proper dwelling house.

Dr Schluter said: ‘The shipwreck of the Annie Jane overwhelmed the tiny island of Vatersay, which only a few years earlier had been cleared of its people to make way for cattle grazing so only a handful lived on the island at the time.

‘The neighbouring island of Barra was impacted by clearances also and struggling with such levels of destitution and poverty which meant that its people, too, were overwhelmed with the consequences of the tragedy, caring for survivors and burying the dead.’

Dr Schluter said that while the service remembered the victims of the Annie Jane, thoughts will also extend to men, women and children in the modern day who have perished while trying to cross the sea in search of a better life.

‘The shipwreck, impacting on Vatersay and Barra, countless families throughout Britain, Canada and Switzerland also left its mark on the life of the nation by establishing the practice of public inquiries following major incidents,’ she added.