This article is extracted from "The Gallovidian", Vol.4, Spring 1902.


The Commodore of the River Urr.
By Alex. Wilson

THE subject of the present sketch, Captain Samuel Wilson of Orchardtown, Palnackie, is now, without doubt, the oldest mariner of the South of Scotland, and is therefore well entitled to be called the Commodore of the River Urr.

His father, Captain William Wilson, was born at the farm of Barscraigh in the Parish of Colvend, and served his time in a Water-of-Urr sloop belonging to the Maxwells of Munches, in the days when there were quite a fleet of sloops sailing out of the River Urr. The River Nith, at this period, was also a busy seaport, there being a continental and North American trade, besides, of course, the coasting traffic. On attaining his majority he became master and part owner of the schooner Experiment of Dumfries. On the 19th December 1803, he married Mary M'Knight, a Dumfries young lady, and began house-keeping at Carsethorn Village, at the mouth of the Nith, where, on the 3rd of March, 1807, the subject of our sketch was born.

As a boy he was smart, clever, and active at all outdoor sports and pastimes. In boating and fishing he was always foremost, and, living so much in the open air, laid the foundation of his hardy constitution. He received his education at Kirkbean Parish School, but was never happy as a student, and consequently made no great mark as a scholar. While quite a lad he was apprenticed in the brig Elizabeth of Dumfries, trading chiefly to the West of Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. On completion of his apprenticeship he made several voyages in the brigs that traded between the River Nith and North America for timber. His early training was thus of the very severest nature, and the hardships he endured were such that no boy of the present day would submit to it. Take for example the fact that he was only once allowed home while an apprentice and that only for a few hours.

The principal ship owner and merchant of the River Urr was, at this time, the late Mr M'Knight of Barlochan, and he, being in want of a skipper, shipped Samuel Wilson in the smack Jean, a vessel of fifty tons burthen. Notwithstanding her small tonnage he went to the East Coast of Scotland with her and very soon showed the inherent pluck and grit of his nature. From this time his progress was rapid, and very soon he became owner of the Glasgow, a schooner of about 160 tons burthen. In her he did excellent work, and very soon realized a competency. Of course, freights at this period were very good, and it was no uncommon event to deliver coasting cargoes at a freight of from 15/- to 20/- per ton, or quite as much freight as what vessels now deliver tonnage in Australia.

It was in this vessel he outlived the great gale of 7th January 1839. Out of six vessels that left Sligo, only the Glasgow and another survived to tell the tale. His vivid description of the strength of the gale, and the hardships and sufferings endured by him and his crew read like a chapter of romance.

In the year 1840 he married Miss Lammie of Orchardknowes, Colvend, and settled in the village of Palnackie, adding to his business of ship-owner and ship-builder that of timber and coal merchant. This he carried on successfully for many years, until, feeling the weight of years growing on him, he retired to the farm of Orchardtown Mains, where he still resides, and, needless to say, he has shown as much skill and energy in farming as ploughing the seas.

It must not be supposed that during his long pilgrimage he has been free of the troubles and difficulties that usually beset the man who has to make his own fact, he has had more than his share but of him it may be truthfully said - "He'll hae misfortunes great and sma, But aye a heart abune them a'."

His heaviest losses arose through his own kindness of heart in becoming security for some of his business friends, and this, unfortunately, happened more than once or twice, but being possessed of a sanguine and hopeful temperament, no trouble seemed to daunt his courageous spirit. His hazardous employment led him often into dangerous positions, and several times he received serious injuries. He had several narrow escapes of meeting a watery grave, the most striking deliverance being his escape from the wreck of his own schooner Elbe. Although an oft-told story, it is worth repeating here;

On a December day, in the year 1867, the Elbe left Mary port, bound to Palnackie, having on board a more valuable cargo than the usual traffic of the river. She was commanded by Captain George Wilson, then a young man in his twenties, the second son of the subject of our sketch, his crew being five of the smartest seamen that any river could boast of. Captain Samuel Wilson being in Maryport on business took the opportunity of coming as a passenger. With so much skill and experience on board one should never have expected such a dreadful disaster as overtook the gallant ship and crew. Such was the opinion, of the firm who shipped the most valuable part of the cargo, and for the only time in their business career they refrained from insuring it, though valued at £500. Nothing of any importance took place on the passage across the Firth, and the vessel let go her anchor in the usual anchorage in Balcary. Bay. Next tide it was blowing a gale from the S.W., and the sea being very heavy the vessel struck the ground very hard in floating. It is well known to all sailors that there is the greatest risk of a vessel bursting her cables while dealing with the ground in a seaway, and before she is fairly afloat. This was the first mishap to the ill-fated vessel. As one cable snapped; another was let go: Even hawsers and ropes to her kedges were tried,and at last, after several attempts, her head was canted to go over the Rack, between Heston and the mainland.

Her sails were quickly set by her wearied crew to drive her into the safety of Gibb's hole;. but none but sailors can imagine their feelings on finding that the vessel's rudder was gone, and, worse than this, the long boat's painter had snapped, and she was soon driven by the strong wind and sea out of their reach and sight. One hope was left, and one only, that by skilful maneuvering the sails and attempting to steer with a spar, she might fetch into the mouth of the Water-of-Urr, even if they had to run her ashore at Rockcliffe.

Their situation was now so desperate that the people were gathering on the high points to watch the struggle for life of the brave-hearted mariners. Many of the onlookers, were sailors and realised the danger, but alas! There was no Balcary lifeboat in these days and the small boats at Rockcliffe could not live in such heavy sea. Several  times the crew thought she was coming in towards the bar, but this vain hope was shattered by the wind veering to the northwest, making it under their crippled condition, impossible to come near the river's mouth. Their fate they knew must soon be settled, for to add to their danger, if any addition could be made, it was found that the heavy striking in the Balcary anchorage had caused her to make water, and very soon she must sink under their feet.

All sail was set tight on the vessel, and every effort was made by the despairing crew to bring her inshore. They were assisted most wonderfully in this brave attempt by the very high spring tide, and that it was just the top of high water. Higher and higher she looked, and it was seen that if she but held her course she would strike the shore at a point a little to the eastward of the old ruins of Glenstocking. As she neared the rocks Captain Wilson, always cool and confident even in danger, called out to his crew, "Every man for himself," and to "stand by." Suiting the action to the word, he threw off part of his clothes, and this example was followed by the others. Nearer and nearer the rocks she came, and, to their great wonder and surprise nothing stopped her. Half of the crew run out to the bowsprit end, ready to jump into the sea the moment she would strike the ground. In breathless anxiety they held on till the bowsprit actually overhung for a minute, the extreme point of a big rock. The foremost two actually dropped on to the cliff as she crashed into it. The next surge threw her back, and     again she leapt forward, allowing another two to drop. Backward she plunged with her two remaining crew, viz. Captain Wilson and the young mate Robert Clachrie.

Their turn had now come, and the younger man stretched out his hand to assist the older man. It was not required. Active as a cat, he hung on to the stay, until, wonderful to say, another sea again brought her over the rock. Both jumped, and just avoided the downward blow of the bowsprit as it swept past the rock. The providential part of' the story has now to be told. No fourth time did she come towards the heaven-sent rock, and the wind veering still more to the north-west caught her top-sails aback, slewed her off the shore, and she stood away seaward as if again under the command of her crew. An eyewitness has informed the writer that he watched her as, with all sail set, she repassed the mouth of the river, steering the usual course down the Firth. When opposite the Rascarrel heughs she was seen to make a final plunge and gradually sink from view. A few days after a search was made, but not even her masts could be seen. She must thus have gone down in the deeper part of the channel, as very shortly afterwards the logs of timber that formed part of her cargo were washed ashore.

No landsman can fully realize the thankful feelings of the half-naked and worn out crew, as they stood watching their noble vessel sailing proudly away westwards, leaping in the sunshine and throwing the white foam from her bows in the still heavy sea and strong wind.

The writer has heard the story more than once or twice, from the lips of the old commodore himself, and in repeating it he never omits to say, that his last look at his favourite ship, which had so nearly been his grave, and meant also a pecuniary loss of' nearly £1000 was the only time that day (and no shame to the brave heart) that he felt the lump rise in his throat and caused him to avert his head but for a minute.

It is quite natural that this particular part of the Colvend coast is hallowed ground for the now ancient mariner and his family, and as each summer comes round forms the happy scene of their annual picnic. Six years ago they erected on the spot a small cairn of stones, embedded in which is a slab, with the following inscription:

"The schooner Elbe, Captain Samuel Wilson, after providentially landing her crew here, backed off the rocks and sank off Rascarrel, December 7th, 1867."