The Starfinch was built by Peter MacGregor & Sons (Yard No.113) at their yard in Kirkintilloch and launched in 1921. This small coastal steamship was a classic ‘puffer’ and able to navigate not only the Crinan canal system but as far a field as the west coast of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Constructed with a steel hull with dimensions of 75.2’ x18.6’ x 8.9’ and her tonnage was 114gross, 53 net. She was powered by a small steam engine supplied by Gauldie, Gillespie and Company of Glasgow. Her official number was 139459.
The Starfinch had seen a number of owners since her launch and was purchased in 1950 by James Hay & Sons Ltd of Glasgow, she had formerly been owned by a Captain Macdonald working the Northern Ireland coast moving coal for many years.
It was under Hay’s ownership that she was lost on Friday 19 December 1952 while on a voyage from Troon to Castlebay with coal, fortunately all five crew aboard were saved. The Starfinch had stopped overnight in Tobermory on 17 December, and left there the following morning for Castlebay. Weather conditions were poor and did not improve as they passed Ardnamurchan and on towards the Small Isles. Somewhere north of Coll, in heavy seas the engine room became flooded and the boiler fire was extinguished. With the engine out of action, the pumps were inoperable and the Starfinch was driven north by a strong southerly gale. Cyrus Alexander, her master, assembled the crew around the wheelhouse but there was little they could do in the horrendous conditions.
After sending up distress flares they attracted the attention of the Milford Haven motor trawler Maythorn which came to their assistance. The sea was pitching and rolling both vessels but the Maythorn managed to pass a tow line to the puffer, but the conditions allowed little more than keep their head into the gale. By late evening Cyrus Alexander gave the order to abandon ship as the Starfinch was by now wallowing full of water. Unable to get alongside, the Maythorn’s skipper Harry Rich ordered lifebelts to be floated over on a rope, these were donned by the Stafinch’s crew and they jumped into the sea. Fortunately they were all picked up safely, but were all suffering from their physical ordeal. The Maythorn headed for Oban and landed the five crew of the Starfinch there, they were back in Glasgow that evening – Saturday 20 December.
As for the Starfinch, she eventually foundered somewhere between Hyskeir Lighthouse south of the Isle of Canna and Ardnamurchan. We have three different positions attributed to her point of sinking, but as the last radio message from the Maythorn stated that ‘the Starfinch was still afloat, decks awash and poor lights. A danger to navigation’, it’s possible she was left to sink in her own time and no one witnessed the event. The three positions are a) 15 miles east of Hyskeir Lighthouse; b) 6 miles ESE of Hyskeir Lighthouse in 25 fathoms; and c) off Ardnamurchan – which is somewhat vague to say the least. We have assigned a position of 56° 47.754’N, 06° 20.510’W to the wreck, this has no basis on formal reports or survey data, and is for marking within the area only.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.