The iron steamship Cairnsmuir was launched from the Govan yard of London & Glasgow Engineering and Iron Shipbuilding Co Ltd (Yard No 193) on 7th August 1876. She measured 290.3′ x 33.7′ x 23.9′ and her tonnage was 1707 gross tons, 1123 net tons. She was powered by a 2 cylinder compound steam engine by London and Glasgow delivering 220 net horse power. Built for Charles Williamson of Leith she was purchased by her final owners, a Leith syndicate in 1881.
The Cairnsmuir, which was managed for the Leith syndicate by Mr Francis Reid, left the port of Hamburg on 2nd July, 1885 at the start of a long ocean voyage to China. Their route would take them via Glasgow, where the last of her cargo for the Orient was to be loaded, before the real voyage began. The captain for what was to be her last trip was Mr John Georgie and she had a crew of twenty five aboard.
The voyage proceeded normally, passing through the Pentland Firth on July 4th, rounding Cape Wrath between 5 and 6pm that evening and then south into the Minch. Here the weather became hazy but this was normal for the area and, as the captain set his course from Eilean Glas towards Ushenish Light, there was certainly no cause for any alarm. By 9:30pm the weather cleared again and Ushenish Light was clearly seen off the starboard bow. Once again the captain ordered a slight course change to south west by south magnetic which would take them close to Skerryvore Lighthouse. The captain estimated the distance to Ushenish light by sight – it was probably this action that was to result in the loss of his ship. By the afternoon of the 5th, the weather had closed in again, but still the ship continued on its course unaware of the danger lurking ahead. At midnight the captain went below handing over the watch to his chief officer. Despite two calls to the bridge from the chief officer, who clearly was becoming uneasy about the ship’s position, the captain maintained his course until, at 2:45am on the 6th, the ship ran aground on a shallow reef called Bo Mor off the west coast of Tiree.
Captain Georgie rushed on deck and immediately took charge, ordering the ship’s boats lowered before trying to pull her off the rocks by reversing the engines. This was to no avail and after a quick inspection below revealed that there was already eight feet of water in the engine room, he ordered the crew into the boats. They stood by the ship for two hours but, as the weather was still deteriorating, they eventually rowed ashore and landed safely on Tiree.
On the island of Tiree the wreck attracted a lot of interest as news spread quickly that her cargo included large quantities of wine, beer and spirits. This was to be another “Whisky Galore” story in the Western Isles. The local Customs officer did his best to round up the crates that washed ashore on the island as the ship began to break up over the next few days, but for some reason most of the cases he found washed ashore were empty! We can only guess what happened to the contents although at least one of the islanders, a large man by the name of Kennedy, was reported to have stripped and dived into the breakers to bring ashore a case he had spotted in the surf and, despite a direct challenge by the Customs Officer, he made off with his prize – no doubt he faced criminal charges for his efforts at some later date. At first it was hoped that the ship itself might be salvaged and a tug was dispatched from the Clyde to assist. However a report by the Salvage Association five days after she ran aground stated that she had capsized with her decks now awash and she was declared her a total loss. She was later heavily salvaged.
At the subsequent enquiry the master was found guilty of careless navigation by failing to verify his position when off Ushenish Light and his certificate was suspended for three months.