The Lady Isabella was a large iron barque built in Dumbarton by Archibald McMillan & Sons., and launched in August 1882. She had a tonnage of 1396 nt. and had dimensions of 255.7′ x 38.3′ x 20.6′.
On 27th August, 1902 the Lady Isabella left the French settlement of Tehio, New Caledonia, with a cargo of nickel ore, for her first visit to her native river since her maiden voyage in 1882. She was under the command of Captain McKinlay and carried a crew of twenty three. Her voyage was to be an eventful one and was to end in tragedy only a few miles from her destination. She struggled against a succession of violent storms and, by the time she finally reached the Clyde some four months later, she had jettisoned one hundred tons of her cargo, which had shifted in one storm, and lost a member of her crew overboard off the west coast off Scotland in another.
During the night of 17/18th December, she passed Arran under a favourable, but increasing, breeze closely attended by the tug Flying Phantom. Just after 3am Captain McKinlay spotted the beckoning flicker of Little Cumbrae Lighthouse through the darkness and set a course towards it but, as he approached the island, the steady south west wind suddenly increased to a violent squall and veered to the north west. As the sails of the ship flapped useless in the wind, the crew struggled to regain control and steerage. The Lady Isabella was driven relentlessly towards the rocky south west coast of the barren island. The captain ordered anchors away in an attempt to save his vessel from the impending disaster, but to no avail. The Lady Isabella struck the seabed fifty yards from the shore and immediately began to fill with water.
The distress rockets were fired but, as it appeared that they were in no immediate danger, they decided to remain aboard till morning when they could, more safely, make their way ashore in the ship’s lifeboat. Captain McKinlay was on the poop deck examining the position of his ship when, suddenly, she lurched by the stern as a wave swept over her. He was washed overboard and would certainly have drowned had the next wave not miraculously swept him back onto the Lady Isabella where he managed to grab hold of the mizzen mast rigging. The same wave smashed the ship’s lifeboat, leaving the crew marooned on the wreck. The courageous sailmaker, Anderson, seeing the plight of the ship and his comrades, volunteered to swim the cold fifty yards to the shore with a rope. He succeeded in securing the line to the shore and, one by one, the crew pulled themselves ashore,with Captain McKinlay being the last to land.
The ship’s carpenter examined the Lady Isabella shortly before coming ashore and reported that there was water in every hold. She was now completely submerged at the stern making successful salvage very unlikely. Divers surveyed the hull later in the month and reported severe damage to the keel and hull plates, plus four holes in the starboard side. She was abandoned to the sea, which quickly broke her to pieces, although she was extensively salvaged by James Gush of Greenock over the next few years.
Lady Isabella Dive slideshow
The Wreck Today
The remains of the Lady Isabella lie 200 metres north west of Gull Point, Little Cumbrae in approximate position 55° 42.716’ N, 004° 57.500 W.
She lies where she struck approximately 50 metres from the shore, on a sloping sand and rock seabed, with depths ranging from 5 – 15 metres. The wreck lies more or less at right angles to the shore with only a few hull plates and part of the keel remaining. The highest part of the wreck stands 2 metres from the seabed and some machinery, wood and ropes are also clearly visible. Some interesting pieces of non ferrous metal have been found over the years but little remains now.
There are no problems diving the wreck, once located, although the site is exposed to the prevailing south west winds and as such is often subject to substantial swell.