On Saturday the 14th of October 2023, in front of about one hundred people, the Portmahomack Coastal Rowing Club launched their skiff Auricula.
Auricula had taken a team of four amateur and inexperienced boat builders eleven months to complete, with the build taking place in shed at Bankhead Farm, kindly made available by Lachie and Annie Stewart.
Auricula is a St Ayles skiff, built to a standard design by Iain Oughtred, based on a traditional Fair Isle skiff. It is 22 feet long and 5ft 8inches wide, crewed by four sweep rowers and a coxswain.
The name ‘Auricula’ is a plant of the Primula family and was also the name of a Portmahomack fishing boat, with a crew of five local fishermen, that in December 1910 took part in a heroic rescue of the skipper of the coaster Sterlina, wrecked on the Gizzen Briggs. Some of the descendants of the crew were at the launch. This is commemorated with a stone plaque on the side of the Carnegie Hall in Portmahomack.
The rowing club will now start regular rowing at weekends and if cox and crew are available, through the week. Should you be interested in joining the club, please contact the secretary by email at: email@example.com
The drama of the wreck of the Sterlina developed in December 1910. She was skippered by Richard Macrae of Invergordon and crewed by David Mackenzie and Donald Macleod, also of Invergordon. All three were experienced seamen. On Friday the 2nd of December the vessel left Invergordon, having had engine repairs there, to collect 40 tons of timber from the sawmill at Creich, by Bonar Bridge bound for Glasgow via the Caledonian Canal. They departed Creich on the afternoon of Saturday3rd of December at the height of the tide. The cargo was stowed in the hold and on the deck. The wind was South Easterly, no stronger than a fresh breeze. The crew were sober and had not been drinking.
When they were heading out of the Dornoch Firth, opposite the Morrich Mhor, the engines slowed down. In those days the navigable channel was marked by a black buoy to the South and a red buoy to the North, with the Gizzen Briggs, a sandy shoal north of the black Buoy.
The skipper handed the tiller to MacLeod and went to check on the engine, which soon stopped, and the vessel drifted north on to the Gizzen Briggs before 3pm. The skipper dropped the anchor as soon as the vessel struck. They attempted to leave the Sterlina by the small lifeboat but with the wind increasing, this proved impossible and they were forced to stay on board.
Quickly it turned dark, and the vessel started to break up. Emergency flares were lit and were seen in Tain and the Invergordon and Nairn lifeboats were contacted. The flare was also seen in Portmahomack but as the tide was out all the boats were grounded. The sea became worse, they all climbed into the rigging. The skipper climbed the mast but the two crew men couldn’t follow. About 2am both crewmen fell into the sea and were lost. The skipper felt the only hope of being rescued was by the lifeboat.
A telegraph message about the wreck was received in Portmahomack early on Sunday morning. The sea was rough, but 54-year-old David Mackay, pilot and four other fishermen – James Skinner, Donald Mackay, Alexander Macdonald and William Smith – volunteered to try and rescue any survivors. David Mackay knew the coast well and didn’t expect they would be able t reach the wreck because of the rough sea. Nonetheless, they set sail in their fishing boat ‘Auricula’. After much difficulty, tacking back and forth they succeeded in getting a rope across to skipper Macrae who was still alive in the rigging, having been there for sixteen hours. Skipper Macrae was taken to the Tarbatness Hotel in Portmahomack where he was attended to by a doctor.
It was noted in the Invergordon Times on the 11th of January 1911 that the trustees of the Carnegie Hero Fund had decided that the five members of the rescue team should be given an award of £3 each.
On the 28th of January 1911, in the Carnegie Hall, Portmahomack, an award ceremony was held under the chairmanship of Mr Finlay Munro of the Tarbat Parish Council. The crew were handed three guineas each from the board of Trade and a cheque for £3 from the Carnegie Hero Fund. Skipper David Mackay was also presented with ‘a fine binocular’. On the suggestion of Mr Munro, it was decided that a permanent memorial be established, and subscription was started there and then. The stone memorial is in the wall of the Carnegie Hall to this day.