The iron sailing ship Charlemagne was launched from the Front Yard, Kelvinhaugh of Alexander Stephen and Sons Ltd (Yard No 14) on 10th January 1857. She measured 195.0′ x 30.0′ x 21.0′ and her registered tonnage was 1014 tons. She was ordered by Robert Catto and Son of Aberdeen who intended to operate the vessel on the long trade routes to the Far East and Australasia. The ship was inspected by Lloyds agents at Greenock on 6th February and was given the all clear to begin operations for her owners.
In March 1857 the Charlemagne departed Greenock on her maiden voyage bound for Melbourne, Australia under the command of Captain Reid with a general cargo including four valuable horses, some breeding sheep and ten passengers aboard. She also carried a substantial quantity of alcohol increasing the total value of the ship and cargo which were insured for £100,000, an enormous sum in 1857. She dropped anchor in Gourock Bay where her compass was adjusted then, on 19th March, she set sail attended by two local tug steamers. One tug turned back near Cumbrae and the second tug left Charlemagne when she was clear of Pladda at the south end of Arran which the ship passed at 11pm in the evening. The weather was clear and calm although Captain Reid could see that there was a haze on the horizon. As they proceeded south the haze gradually thickened and by one o’clock was quite dense. Minutes later the new ship was on the rocks south of Campbeltown in Corvine Bay close to the farm at Feochaig, destined to become a total wreck.
Captain Reid was later to blame the error that led to her loss on a faulty compass although it would be expected that the newly fitted and adjusted compass would have been stringently checked during the construction and handover process. Indeed, at the subsequent inquiry, Captain Small, adjuster of ship’s compasses for Alexander Stephen testified that he had adjusted the ship’s compass as she lay in Gourock Bay and provided Captain Reid with a card detailing the compass deviations measured during the test. The second mate, James Colquhoun, also testified that he had observed that the compass was very sluggish which perhaps supported the captain’s assertion that there was a problem with the compass. Captain Reid stated that the course he steered should have placed the Charlemagne some 7 miles east of Sanda. The enquiry held that Captain Reid was not to blame for the loss of his ship but did admonish him that he should have taken lead soundings when the visibility deteriorated so badly in the hours leading up to the stranding.
The passengers and crew were quickly taken the short distance to the shore in the ship’s boat but, inexplicably, Reid apparently made no attempt to save the valuable livestock which unfortunately perished. A report the following morning stated that she had seven feet of water in her hold and was lying, leaning towards the sea in an exposed position, with bows pointing in a southerly direction. Three days later she was reported as a total wreck breaking up during an easterly gale on the 23rd. By this time a good deal of the cargo had been salvaged either officially or otherwise. There is a report of one local youth who had to be carried to the nearby farm and attended by the doctor after some unofficial salvage of some of the liquor included in the cargo. A substantial amount of her other cargo was subject to more unofficial recovery by the local population including the figurehead from the ship which appeared in a number of local premises over subsequent years.