The Copeland was an iron steamship of 798 gross tons, built by the London & Glasgow Engineering and Iron Shipbuilding Company Ltd at Govan and launched in January 1874. Her hull dimensions were 225.3' x 29.3' x 15.5’ and at the time of her loss she was owned by James Gourlay of Leith.
The Copeland left Reykjavik bound for Leith on 20th July, 1888 with a large general cargo and 482 ponies aboard. She was manned by a crew of fifteen under the command of Captain Thomson and had nine passengers aboard. After a very difficult passage from Iceland, during which she was battered by strong north easterly and easterly gales, she reached landfall off the Scottish north coast five days later. By this time the storms had abated and a thick fog had settled in but the crew were relieved to sight land despite the poor visibility. The engines were reduced to half speed as a precaution as the ship turned east heading for Dunnet Bay.
The lookout had spotted land during a brief clear spell, which was identified as Strathie Point and the course was set to reach Dunnet Head to take an exact position before attempting the perilous passage of the Pentland Firth and its viscous tidal streams. When somewhere off Dunnet Head the Copeland stopped to take some information from a local fisherman and, armed with this, Captain Thomson set a course to take the ship through the Pentland Firth despite the continuing poor visibility. The strong tides that flow through the Pentland Firth make the accurate calculation of the effect of these tides critical in the safe navigation of this difficult sea passage. The captain incorrectly estimated the current was running at six knots overstating the actual flow by two knots. This error was to prove fatal for the Copeland as she steam further east. The captain stopped at regular intervals to take depth soundings but continued to steam forward at half speed into the thick fog. Indeed, he was to later state that when the ship ran aground on Stroma soon after, visibility had reduced to less than the length of his ship.
At 11:35am on the morning of the 25th July the ship’s course was changed to east south east magnetic as the captain calculated they were now north of Swilkie Point on Stroma but only ten minutes later a lookout spotted rocks directly ahead of the ship and, despite frantic action to stop and turn the ship, she ran aground hard on her port bow. It seemed that the tide was running slower than the estimated six knots and the turn south was therefore made too soon to pass Swilkie Point. The Copeland had run aground on the north west coast of Stroma and stuck fast damaging her keel and rupturing the ships bottom plates. Efforts to reverse off with her own engines proved unsuccessful as water rushed into and flooded hold No 2, so the captain’s attentions were drawn to the safety of his passengers and crew. Thankfully the sea was very calm making the task of getting them ashore a much simpler one than it might have been. All the passengers and crew reached land safely either in the Copeland’s own lifeboats or in one of the many small boats that were quickly on the scene from Stroma itself. Many of the ponies were also released to swim ashore but 110 of them, stored in the flooded No 2 hold were drowned.
The Wreck Today
The wreckage of the Copeland lies in position 58°41.808’N, 003°07.522’ W (WGS84) off the north west coast of Stroma. The wreckage is scattered on a sloping seabed in depths of around 36 metres, the wreck on stands around 3 metres proud of the seabed at most.