Our Records: The Longhope Lifeboat Tragedy

In 1969 the total number of deaths registered in Scotland was 63,821. Male births totalled 32,631 and 31,190 were female. The death entries of the individuals who died in Scotland in 1969 are now available to search and save on the ScotlandsPeople website. They form part of 129,445 images released in January 2020 comprising of the 1969 deaths, 106,268 birth entries in 1919 and 37,111 marriage entries in 1944.
 
The Annual Report of the Registrar General for Scotland records all of the causes of death in Scotland as well as meteorological notes. The report for 1969 notes that between 13th and 19th March there were sustained south-easterly gales which caused structural damage to east coast harbour installations. Tragically, the storms also led to the loss of a lifeboat crew off the coast of Orkney.
 
On the evening of 17th March 1969, the 'Longhope' lifeboat T.G.B ON962 left Hoy in Orkney to attend to an emergency call. The Liberian cargo ship 'Irene' had been caught in a storm and needed assistance. As a Force 9 gale (approximately 55mph) battered the ship in 60ft (18m) high waves, she issued a distress call at 19.35 hours as she sat three to four miles off South Ronaldsay.
 
The lifeboat crew were experienced and decided to attend the emergency call despite the conditions; ‘Longhope’ manned by eight men, set out to assist. None of them would return home.
 
The men onboard were all from a small community in Orkney and many were related to each other. They were:
 
  • Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick
  • Second Coxswain James Johnston (son of Mechanic Robert R Johnston)
  • Bowman Daniel R Kirkpatrick (son of the Coxswain)
  • Mechanic Robert R Johnston
  • Assistant Mechanic James Swanson
  • Crew Member Robert Johnston (son of Mechanic Robert R Johnston)
  • Crew Member John T Kirkpatrick (son of Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick)
  • Crew Member Eric McFadyen
The crew were last heard from at around 21.28 hours on 17th March.
 
The following day the capsized lifeboat was found. It was floating four miles south-west of Torness Point. Damage to the lifeboat indicated that it had been hit by a huge wave. The bodies of seven members of the crew were found on board the boat. All had died from drowning. The body of the eighth member, James Swanson, was never discovered.
 
Detail from James Swanson's death entry.
Detail from James Swanson's death entry
National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Deaths, 1969, 032/1 5 page 5.
 
Following a Fatal Accident Inquiry, a jury found that the cause of death of the crew was drowning. Additional information was attached to the death entry, as shown here relating to James Swanson, and is recorded in the 'Register of Corrected Entries.'
 
An image illustrating that James Swanson's cause of death was confirmed to be 'Drowning' per verdict of jury in the Fatal Accident Inquiry.
James Swanson's cause of death was confirmed to be 'Drowning' per verdict of jury in the Fatal Accident Inquiry.
National Records of Scotland, Register of Corrected Entries, 1969, 032/01 001 18.
 
The families of the men were greatly affected by the loss of the men both emotionally and financially. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) paid pensions to the widows of the men and support came from outside the community with people sending money and toys for the children.
 
The Inquiry into the disaster found that all crew had taken the necessary precautions and procedures in their attempt to help 'Irene'. The loss of 'Longhope' led to the development of self-righting lifeboats. 
 
The lifeboat was salvaged and refurbished and continued to save lives in Ireland, before retiring from service in 1979. It is now on permanent loan to the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine.
 
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