The Balmoral was three masted iron sailing ship measuring 276.2′ x 40.6′ x 24.2′ built for MacVicar, Marshall & Co. of Liverpool in 1887 and launched on 24th May that year. She weighed 2093 gross tons, 2045 net tons and was registered in Liverpool under the ownership of the Balmoral Co Ltd.
The ship was destined to have a short career. She was mainly employed on the Indian run from Dundee and made several trips to Calcutta and Chittagong importing on average between 2000 and 2400 tons of jute for processing in the Dundee mills.
On 23rd March 1891, under the command of Captain Oliver S. Goldsmith with a crew of thirty hands, the Balmoral left Chittagong with a cargo of jute, bound for Dundee. After a largely uneventful passage she arrived in UK waters, passing St Kilda on the morning of 6th September, when a course was set to pass through the Pentland Firth.
By 7pm the following day, the weather had become rather hazy, but the light on Kinnaird Head was seen about 15 miles west-by-south. At this stage an incorrect observational reading was made which would seal the ship’s fate. Later recorded in the ship’s sight-book, the captain made a longitude reading of 0.46 W, which was actually 0.54 W. The effect was to lead Captain Goldsmith to believe he was five miles farther from the land than he really was.
He ordered the helm to maintain a port tack to the west which sent his ship further towards the shore. An hour later, at 8pm, the wind dropped to a light breeze as fog enveloped them. The captain then ordered the crew to begin to take regular depth readings as the Balmoral slowly edged along through the haze on a flat calm sea. On average these readings showed she was in 30 fathoms of water, until 3am when it suddenly dropped to 16½ fathoms. At the same time the crew reported the sound of breakers. They were too close to the shore. Captain Goldsmith ordered the helm to be put up with the object of wearing the ship round but it was too late. Before she had fully come about she grounded on a ledge of rock and remained fast. The crew dashed below to discover she was holed and taking on water which was rising quickly. By 6am the following morning nine feet of water had begun to swamp the cargo.
Distress flares were fired off which attracted the attention of local fishermen and the coastguards who quickly came to the scene. As dawn broke and the fog cleared it was revealed that she had grounded 300 yards from the shore near Johnshaven, off Brotherton Castle, Kincardineshire. The crew were rescued, while part of the cargo was recovered to Dundee during later salvage operations. Subsequently every effort made to free the vessel proved futile and she became a total wreck.
The formal investigation into the stranding of the Balmoral was held at the Sheriff Court House, Dundee on 24/25th September 1891. After hearing the evidence and the cross examination of witnesses the Court determined that ‘she stranded in consequence of a fog, and of the position of the ship being mistaken owing to an error in calculation affecting the observation taken by the captain at noon, and not checked by the chief officer on the day preceding the disaster’. The Court had sympathy with the officers adding, ‘While the Court does not find the master or chief officer in default, it would caution the master not to rely implicitly in future on the result of an unchecked calculation, nor to omit frequent recourse to the lead when heading towards the shore, it being the opinion of the Court that had the lead been used timeously, the casualty might have been averted.’ However, the assessors were intent on recording their difference in opinion, Sheriff Campbell Smith concluding, “I have to add that Captain Cosens is strongly of opinion that the master was not justified in failing to use the lead after midnight of 8th September while continuing to stand into the land, and that he was in default in respect of this neglect, but that his certificate ought not, in the circumstances, to be dealt with.
The wreck site today is still of interest to divers, who report that the remains of the Balmoral are well-dispersed and her flattened remains extend over a large area among meandering underwater gullys in depths of 6-9 metres in approximate position 56° 47.822’N, 002° 18.581’W.