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The Wreck of the Canton

Wreck of the Canton
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Brendan O’Hanrahan
North West Highlands Geopark

In August 1847, a few  women from Durness were herding cows out on the peninsula of Leirin, when they caught sight of two sailing ships quite close to shore, both coming from Orkney direction. One of the ships, the Canton, had set sail from Hull not long before. The weather soon turned and the gales…

In August 1847, a few  women from Durness were herding cows out on the peninsula of Leirin, when they caught sight of two sailing ships quite close to shore, both coming from Orkney direction. One of the ships, the Canton, had set sail from Hull not long before. The weather soon turned and the gales that blew from the north east blew the Canton closer to the shore. The Canton had a crew of 18, and several passengers were also reported to have been aboard the ship, intending to disembark at St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada. 

Witnesses apparently reported crew in the rigging attempting to get the attention and the help of others on shore, or to get into a position from where they could have a chance of reaching shore, for the ship’s predicament was now obvious. Unfortunately soon after the Canton was dashed on the rocks on the eastern or northeastern side of Faraid Head, on or close to Clach Mhòr na Faraid at the northeastern corner of the headland. Due to the severity of the weather it proved impossible to save any of the crew or passengers, despite the efforts of people from Durness.

Wreck Site of the Canton

Ultimately twenty bodies were recovered over the following days, including the body of one woman. It seems that the discovery of a quantity of women’s clothing washed up on shore led to the belief that the ship was actually an emigrant ship, rather than the small cargo ship with a few passengers that she actually was. The bodies were eventually all interred in the local graveyard at Balnakeil  apparently in unmarked graves, now visible as a low mound.

Coast near Durness: Stock Image

Locally it was reported that two Durness men had been on board, presumably having joined the boat at Scrabster. One was supposed to have been a son of Anna Mather and Lachlan Ross and his body was apparently recognised by his father due to the unmistakable gap in his front teeth. Some teak from the deckhouse was said to have been recovered and used to construct a lambing bothy on Faraid Head, which was still visible in 1968. Local tradition also records that a black pig survived from the wreck and that a church elder spied a barrel of brandy on the following Sunday, and said to his companion, “May God forgive me, but lift it on to my back”. The chains and anchor are said to still be visible in a deep pool close by Clach Mhòr na Faraid.

There were some discrepancies from contemporary accounts carried in newspapers of the day, such as The Witness of Edinburgh, much of whose local information came from James Anderson, the tacksman and Lloyds’ agent based at Rispond. According to Anderson the storm blew up just after midnight on the morning of Sunday the 21st August, whereas local memories talk of the women out on Leirinmore first seeing the ship when the weather was flat calm. There was also no report of any Durness-based passengers, but that may have been due to their having joined the ship en route. Either way the sinking of the Canton was traumatic enough for the locals to pass down through local legend to today.

Acknowledgements

Newspaper Articles:

The Inverness Courier and Gene, 11 September 1833, p.3.

Glasgow Courier, 31 August 1847, p.2.

John Peter Tong – shipwreck Sept 1847 

North British Daily Mail, 3 September 1847, p.4.

Maps:

OS MAP Sutherland Sheet L (1875), National Libraries of Scotland,  ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’