The Mary B. Mitchell

At the south west end of Kirkcudbright harbour, close to the harbourmaster’s office, a large ‘fisherman pattern’ anchor embedded in cobbles provides a talking point for visitors, and a mini-adventure playground for small children. The extent of its own adventures however may not even be guessed at by most of the people that notice it.

On the West shore of Kirkcudbright bay, a little north of Senwick Churchyard, low spring tides expose the keel and a shattered mass of rusty metal that is almost all that now remains of the schooner Mary B. Mitchell.

The Mary B. Mitchell was a 227 tons gross three-masted tops’l schooner with double tops’ls and topgallants on the foremast. She was built in 1892 by the Paul Rodgers yard at Carrickfergus, for William Preston of Beaumaris. Her accommodation was particularly fine and featured a mahogany and maple panelled saloon, with a terrazzo floor. She was initially employed in the Welsh slate trade, and later carried cargoes of cement. Prior to 1919, she was owned by Lord Penrhyn, and is said to have been used as a yacht in the Mediterranean during the summer, reverting to the slate trade in winter.

In 1916, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty, and fitted out for service as a Q-ship operating from Falmouth under the command of Lieut. John Lawrie R.N.R.. Suitably armed, with a collapsible gun house on her stern, and under many different aliases, she sank one submarine in 1916, and evaded the torpedo of another while under sail. In 1917 she was refitted and an engine was installed after which she engaged a further three submarines, possibly sinking two of them in the Bay of Biscay.

After the war, she returned to the less glamorous role of carrying pit-props, coal, burnt ore, and china clay, but her days of fame were far from over as she featured in two films before the outbreak of the Second World War. The first was The Mystery of the Mary Celeste made in 1935, and the second was McClusky the Sea Rover made in 1936.

During World War Two, she carried coals to Portugal under the Irish flag of neutrality, surviving close encounters with both the Royal Navy and a German U-boat. On Wednesday 14th December 1943, having loaded burnt ore at Dublin she cleared the Isle of Man, bound for Silloth. A south easterly gale sprang up and blew out most of her sails leaving her with only one functioning engine, the other being ashore for repairs. In those unhappy circumstances she made increasing leeway towards the coast of Scotland and at 6.00p.m. on 15th December 1943, she grounded on the bar at the mouth of Kirkcudbright bay. The alarm was raised by the keepers at Little Ross Lighthouse, and Captain Brennan and his crew of eight were quickly taken off by Kirkcudbright lifeboat but at first light next morning, the vessel was found to have been driven right across the bay and onto the rocky shore at Senwick. Detailed examination revealed that the damage she had sustained, and her position on the shore, made salvage impractical. A year later, she was smashed to pieces by a further violent storm.

Some years later one of her anchors was recovered by Mr Donald Tait, and brought to the harbour, where it now serves as a memorial to one of the fast dwindling number of sailing vessels that still plied the Irish Sea in the Nineteen-forties. A few minor bits and pieces of her deadeyes and fairleads can also be seen in the Stewartry Museum.

David R Collin, 2002.