Memorial service to mark 165 years since shipwreck in which 350 people died

A special memorial service is to be held to mark the 165th anniversary of one of the UK’s worst-ever shipwrecks which claimed 350 lives.

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 the Outer Hebrides in a fierce storm and broke up on September 28, 1853.

In total, 350 men, women and children fleeing poverty and famine died, though the death toll could have been higher because the names of children were not recorded in the ship’s manifest in those days.

The island struggled to deal with the tragedy and the bodies of those who died were said to have been “packed like herrings in a barrel” and dumped into two unmarked, mass graves in the dunes behind a beach.

Reverend Dr Lindsay Schluter
Reverend Dr Lindsay Schluter will lead the service along with a Roman Catholic priest (Church of Scotland/PA)

A special memorial service will be held on Sunday in Vatersay to remember those who died.

Reverend Dr Lindsay Schluter, minister of Barra and South Uist Church of Scotland congregations, will lead the ceremony along with Barra Roman Catholic priest Father John Paul Mackinnon.

She said: “Circumstances at the time of the disaster meant that the deceased were not afforded the dignity of a funeral service and formal committal.

“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 run when she ran into severe difficulty.

Passengers included emigrants from Ireland and Scotland, London schoolboys, 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 and bring the ship into Vatersay Bay where she ran onto rocks and was swept ashore in three parts on the island.

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

The disaster is marked by a simple granite obelisk overlooking Vatersay west beach and is said to have led to survivors demanding the first-ever public inquiry into a major incident.

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 and 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.”

She added: “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.”