On the outbreak of WW1, the Admiralty embarked on a programme of tanker construction for the newly-formed Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service (RFA). Eventually there were eighteen ships in this Class, twelve of which were named after trees with the OL suffix, while the remainder had names connected with the oil industry also with the OL suffix. Four of the Class were diesel engined and were sold after the Armistice but the rest, being triple expansion steamers, had long and successful service. The Birchol was built by Barclay Curle and Co Ltd., Glasgow (Yard No 547), and her dimensions were 210.0′ x 34.7′ x 15.5′, 1097gt.
Launched in June 1917 the Birchol served out the final months of World War One in various Scottish west coast ports supporting the naval vessels based or visiting the area. In the inter-war years, under various skippers, she continued supporting British naval ships around Britain. At the outbreak of World War Two she was based at Scapa and spent time at Loch Ewe. For many years she had been under the command of Lieutenant W McEver who had joined the RFA service in 1926.
On 28th November 1939, Birchol raised anchor in Rothesay Bay and set out on a voyage north to Loch Ewe. She was accompanied by RFA Montenal and the ships were escorted by HMS Sheldrake. Birchol, as the slowest of the three vessels was in the lead. By 11:00am on the following day Birchol was six miles south west of Skerryvore Lighthouse in a Force 8 north westerly gale. At this point the Captain of the Sheldrake signalled Birchol suggesting that she was too close to Skerryvore and in danger of running onto McKenzie Rock, a rugged reef that breaks surface to the south west of Skerryvore. The huge swell on her port beam was continuously breaking over the ship as she laboured on her course. As a result, McEver ordered an eleven degree allowance on the steered course to compensate for a drift to the east caused by the weather. At 2:00pm the wind eased and this deviation was reduced to six degrees and at 4:00pm the final five degrees was removed and she steamed directly on her intended course. The weather as still thick and visibility poor until, at 4:30pm, a light was briefly spotted and again at 4:55pm. The bearing from this light, assumed to be Bo Vich Chuan Light Bouy, was calculated and the course adjusted to 025 degrees. Around this time the Sheldrake lost sight of Birchol in the darkening afternoon. This was the last adjustment to the vessel’s course. At 6:05pm the Birchol ran hard aground with no warning. Her hull was ripped from the stem to the foremast. Thankfully the Birchol had run ashore on a sheltered coastline and the crew were able to get to the shore with little difficulty.
The following morning, with Sheldrake still standing by, some of the crew reboarded the ship to assess the chances of successful salvage. At this point there was water in the forepeak but otherwise Birchol seemed to be undamaged and hopes of refloating were high. A closer inspection revealed water in the engine room and, with little hope of restarting the engines, the crew settled down to await the arrival of salvage crews. During the following day the ship bumped and creaked in the swell and the crew were removed for safety. One day later the tug Buccaneer appeared but now the Birchol was lying parallel to the shore with her starboard side broadside to the rocks. The rising tides had pushed her higher onto the rocks. She was doomed.
The wreckage of the Birchol lies on a sloping seabed in approximate position 57°05.984’N, 007°03.805’W. The last report of diving on the wreck was in the late 1980’s but it is certain that a good deal of wreckage still remains at the site in depths between 4 and 15 metres.