The steel cargo passenger motor vessel Rothesay Castle was launched from the Belfast yard of Harland and Wolff (Yard No 944) on 21 February 1935. She measured 443.5′ x 61.3′ x 32.0’ and her tonnage was 7016 gross, 4260 net. She was powered by two direct acting eight cylinder diesel engines developing 1643 nhp. Her official number was 164453. The Rothesay Castle was built to the order of the Union Castle Line of London who retained her until date of loss.
The Rothesay Castle left New York on her final voyage on 27th December, 1939 bound for Glasgow with a cargo of food. As they approached the Scottish coast and the notorious killing ground in the North Channel, Captain Ernest William Hyde Furlong ran his ship at its full speed of 16 knots and steered a zig zag course in an effort to avoid the attentions of the German U-boat commanders. Unfortunately in his zeal to avoid the German submarines he ran his ship ashore on the north west corner of Islay near Nave Island. At a later enquiry the cause of the loss of the ship was found to be the captain’s incorrect sailing procedure and his failure to take depth soundings. His certificate of competency was suspended for a year.
The Rothesay Castle’s SOS message was heard by the coastguard in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of January and around 3:05 hrs the Port Askaig lifeboat, the Charlotte Elizabeth, was manned and on its way to the reported position, 5 miles north of Coul Point. On reaching the area the crew of the lifeboat could not immediately find the grounded ship and it was not until dawn, some hours later, that she was finally located. She had run onto a reef stretching to the south west of Nave Island, close to Eilean Beag and was lying on an uneven, rocky bottom with water in holds 1,2 and 3. By the following morning the sea and the swell had done their worst and her back was broken rendering her a total wreck. An inspection a day later by a Lloyds agent confirmed this and fourteen of the crew were taken off by the lifeboat, which had been at the scene for over thirty hours. They were taken back to Port Ellen and sailed for Glasgow. The next day the rest of the crew were taken off and she was abandoned. It was not long before the massive swell smashed the ship to pieces and she disappeared beneath the surface.
The Wreck Today
The swell that so quickly broke up the Rothesay Castle makes this wreck an exciting dive that should only be tackled by experienced divers or in perfect weather conditions. The wreckage lies in around 8 metres to the south west of Eilean Beag in position 55°53.216’N, 006°21.733’W (GPS). Although the ship has been heavily salvaged, there is still a substantial amount of wreckage, with one of her prop shafts providing the most spectacular aspect of the dive. The shaft is raised from the seabed, probably as a result of the stern area being upside down, and points into the distance like a huge gun barrel, reaching to within two metres of the surface. Around it large pieces of hull, keel and the engines are still visible.
The site is very exposed and very susceptible to swell which, combined with the often jagged metal of the wreck, make the dive only for a calm day and for the more experienced diver. although, probably because of this fact, their is more wreckage remaining than on many of the other Islay wrecks.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.