The iron cargo passenger steamship Staffa was built by J & G Thomson in Govan (Yard No.68) and launched on 29 October 1863 for the first owner David Hutcheson & Company of Glasgow. The ship measured 148.4′ x 23.1′ x 11.2’ with tonnage of 272gt/155nt. The Staffa was powered by a two cylinder compound steam engine of 100nhp also provided by the builders. In 1873 she was re-engined by Barclay Curle & Company, and these adaptations altered her tonnage to 294gt/128nt. In 1878 David Hutcheson retired and the company was taken over by, and re-named as David MacBrayne.
On Monday 23 August 1886 the Staffa left Glasgow on her usual route, round the Mull of Kintyre, north up the Scottish west coast and through the Caledonian Canal to Inverness. Aboard was a general cargo and more than twenty passengers. Captain McKinnon was relaxed on this familiar trip but, as they sailed north along the coast of Kintyre in the darkness, the night became hazy and, at around 2am on 24 August, they ran aground at full speed on Cath Sgeir, a small rocky outcrop lying half a mile off the west coast of the Island of Gigha.
The sleeping passengers were rudely awakened by the terrible grinding noises as the ship crashed over the top of the low lying rocks and came to a sudden stop. It was soon established that they were in no immediate danger and, after the initial shock, everyone was calm and a disciplined evacuation of the ship was quickly completed as the passengers and crew were taken by ship’s boats to Dubh Sgeir, another rocky outcrop nearer to the Gigha shore. They spent the night there and then; at around 10am in the morning, the SS Fingal arrived on the scene, took them aboard and conveyed them to Tarbert. By the time they left the Staffa had settled with water now between her decks and she had a heavy list to starboard. During the next two days the wreck was battered by gales and she broke in two and sank beneath the surface. By the Thursday only the masts and a small portion of her funnel were visible and she was abandoned.
The wreck and remaining cargo was advertised for sale by a public auction in Glasgow on the 8 September 1886. We have not been able to establish the outcome but note that the Ardrossan Shipbuilding Company’s divers were working the wreck in late August and managed to recover some goods and ships stores before the wreck finally succumbed to another severe storm in early September.
A Board of Trade inquiry into the loss of the Staffa was held in Glasgow on 29 November 1886. At the close of evidence the Court found that the cause of the stranding was the course taken by those in charge, being far too close to the islands of Cara and Gigha. The master, Angus McKinnon and the mate, John Bowie were found in default and the Court suspended both their certificates for 3 months.
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Staffa makes an interesting dive. It lies in position 55°39.616’N, 005°47.299’W (GPS) on the east side of Cath Sgeir with the stern the shallowest part of the wreckage in around 6 metres and the rest of the wreck lying among the rocks on a steep slope down to 15 metres.
She is well broken up but there is still a lot to see. Her propeller and boiler are the most obvious items but large quantities of other wreckage are packed into an almost vertical gully no more than 15-20 metres across. The wreckage is surrounded and covered by interesting encrusting sealife and there are always lots of fish about as well. The only hazard on the site is the swell which often crashes over the rocks which only rise up a couple of metres above sea level. Care is therefore required with boat handling near the rocks. We have not noticed any appreciable tide on any of our visits.