The Sailor’s Grave at the Inneans


Looking south across  the Inneans Bay to the slopes of Cnoc Moy, with Largiebaan out of sight around the corner, 9th October 2016. Photograph: George McSporran ©

Next year (2017) is not only the 50th anniversary of the closure of Argyll Colliery, but the 100th anniversary of the Sailor’s Grave in the Inneans Bay.

There follows an extract on the interment from my latest book, A Third Summer in Kintyre, but a little more background is required, particularly on the involvement of miners in the care of the grave.

Few who are familiar with the terrain between Machrihanish and the Mull of Kintyre would dispute the claim that the Inneans Bay is the loveliest spot on that entire rugged Atlantic coastline.  For the grandeur of its cliffs, Largiebaan surpasses the Inneans as a scenic wonder, but the Inneans has qualities which Largiebaan lacks: easier accessibility and an extensive level grassy foreshore which lends itself to picnicking and camping.

The Inneans remains a popular destination for local hikers and campers, and the creation of the Kintyre Way in 2006 has made the bay a familiar sight to thousands of visitors who walk that trail.

It is impossible to reckon for how long the Inneans has attracted local walkers, but it has been a destination for ramblers from Machrihanish and Drumlemble, in the main, for more than a century, and has been a camping spot for almost as long.

The peak of the camping phase came just after the Second World War, and the miners were prominent in that.  This was, of course, before cheap air travel encouraged foreign holidays.

A small tent, now within the means of everyone, was for these poorly paid miners a financial impossibility, and various improvised shelters were used, and sometimes none: they would lie in the open around a fire which was kept going all night.  But in the mid-1960s, the Hamilton brothers, Stewart and Malcolm, acquired a large tent which was lugged, in stages, over the moors from Ballygroggan to the Inneans and pitched permanently in the bay.  When it eventually collapsed and rotted, it was replaced in the early 1970s by a little hut built with sloping walls of overlapped planking, which someone later burnt down.


The Hamilton family tent in the Inneans Bay, looking  north on a drizzly day. The photo was taken by Angus Martin on 24th september 1967, on his first camping trip to the Inneans, with Iain Campbell, his friend and neighbour in Crosshill Avenue. Being nervous about using the big tent – which, it transpired, was unoccupied – they spent  a miserable night in their own small tent with no groundsheet. They discovered later that the Hamiltons were easy about visitors using their tent as long as they behaved themselves and replaced any provisions they used. Photograph by Angus Martin ©

Large groups of miners and friends would spend a week or two camping in the Inneans in the summer.  They passed the time by fishing for saithe and pollack from the rocks, snaring rabbits (now apparently extinct in the bay), and, round the camp-fire at night, by story-telling and singing. There was even, in the 1960s, a three-hole golf course in the bay, laid out by the Hamilton brothers and their friend Willie McArthur.


Four members of the Hamilton family. L-R Bobby, Agnes, Stuart and Malcolm. Photograph courtesy of Mary Hamilton ©

And all the time the Sailor’s Grave was tended; but the traditional custodians of the site are now either dead or unfit to reach the bay, and the present cross is now broken and rotting.  It needs urgent attention and the centenary next year may provide an opportunity to organise a more permanent memorial.  It is not my place, however, to implement any plan without public approval, and in particular the approval of those families which have been most closely associated with the care of the grave, so a fund-raising event will be organised in Campbeltown later this year and a solution discussed.


At the Sailor’s Grave, 9th October 2016. The dilapidated state of the cross is plain to see. L-R Alastair Thompson, his wife Liz, George McSporran and Angus Martin. Alastair, who has contributed a substantial donation to the Sailor’s Grave fund, was previously at the Inneans with Angus Martin on 27th August 1967, approaching 50 years ago. He has lived in Canada for most of his life. Photograph by Sandy McSporran ©

My suggestion, for what it is worth, will be to mount a new cross on top of a small cairn and on to the cairn fix a plaque with the following inscription, or similar: ‘Erected by public subscription in May 2017 to mark the human remains found in this bay by Duncan Sinclair, shepherd, Largiebaan, and ceremonially interred in this spot on 11 May.  This centenary memorial also recognises the dedicated service of generations of local families who voluntarily tended the grave.  6 May 2017.’  Thus, even should the cross never be replaced, the grave will still be marked.  A fuller account of this proposal will be found in the latest issue of the Kintyre Magazine (No 80, Autumn 2016, p 26).

I hope that others, who have spent convivial days and nights at the Inneans, will add their memories to this blog. These contributions need not be great literature.  Ultimately, it’s the stories that count, and the photographs too.

Angus Martin

An extract from A Third Summer in Kintyre by Angus Martin

The Sailor’s Grave


The wheel-headed cross which stood at the Sailor’s Grave for many years until it was replaced in 1981. It was acquired second-hand from Kilkerran Cemetery by the late Duncan McLachlan, Campbeltown, a painter and signwriter , who added new lettering. The cross was carried to the bay by the late John Kelly, Machrihanish, in his small motor-boat and set up on the grave by the Hamilton brothers, Malcolm and Stewart. Photograph: Agnes Stewart 1977 ©

The cross on the grave, as reported in Another Summer in Kintyre (p 176), is in poor shape: the top had broken off and been tied on with twine. My suggestion, in that book, that a more durable memorial should be erected for the centenary of the interment, May 2017, had already elicited responses. An old school friend in Canada, Alastair Thompson, sent me £200, suggesting I buy myself a bottle of ten-year old ‘Ardbeg’ malt whisky and put the balance towards the memorial, a generous and inspiring gesture, and John  MacDonald later donated £100.

At least six of them have succumbed to natural decay, weathering and the rubbing of animals; in other words, a wooden structure in that exposed spot can’t be expected to last longer than about fifteen years on average. As the last of the grave’s caretakers die out, has the time come to erect a lasting monument there? Since I have no authority to end the tradition of wood, as the centenary of the burial approaches I’ll arrange a public discussion on the question of a replacement memorial. I hope, however,  that considerations of longevity will prevail over those of custom.

I referred to ‘caretakers’, and I’ll introduce some of them now. They were assembled, as it were, in an article in the Campbeltown Courier in 1964. I didn’t know the article existed until I found it in 2014 while checking the newspaper files for something else. I was 12 when it was published and don’t remember seeing it; even if I had seen it, it wouldn’t have meant much to me because I’d probably never heard of the Inneans, let alone the Sailor’s Grave. But when I read ‘For 50 Years They Have Tended Unknown Sailor’s Grave’, its poignancy hit me. Fifty years further on, I was familiar with the story and with the men and boys mentioned in it, but, of course, most of them are now dead.

The article contains a few errors, and I’ll offer corrections, but in a spirit of humility, since my later researches enabled me to pick away the embroidered edges of a story which had been preserved in oral tradition alone. The burial was not reported in either of the local newspapers at the time; in 1917, the pages of the Argyllshire Herald and the Campbeltown Courier were packed with news of the war and with obituaries and photographs of the Kintyre soldiers and sailors who had been killed, wounded or captured on the battlefields of Europe. Information on skeletal remains washed ashore on a remote beach either didn’t reach the newspaper offices or was disregarded.

The Courier article opens with the statement that ‘For almost 50 years a few Kintyre men have tended the grave of an unknown sailor whose body was washed ashore near Machrihanish during the First World War’. There was no evidence on the corpse to suggest that the man – if a man and not a woman – had been a sailor. When a police report turned up in the Argyll and Bute Archive in Lochgilphead in 1985, the remains were described as skeletal and unidentifiable. However, the assumption that the remains belonged to a sailor was entirely reasonable, and that the grave became known as ‘The Sailor’s Grave’ was almost inevitable. On other coasts, bodies washed ashore were generally assumed to be sailors, and the graves named accordingly.

The article continues

The story began on one sunny morning in May 1917, when three young men from Drumlemble Village, out amping, came across the sailor’s body on the shore south of Machrihanish. They were Donald Munro, John Lambie and Duncan McPhail. After reporting their find to the Receiver of Wreck, a coffin was obtained and the body was buried in a field overlooking the sea. There was no fuss and no funeral service. Since the body was partly decomposed and there was no means of identifying it, the civil and military authorities did not come into the picture. 

Of the three men named as the finders, in 1964 only Donald Munro, aged 66 and living at 14 Rhudal Cottages, Drumlemble, was ‘still alive and resident in the district’. While researching the Sailor’s Grave for Kintyre: The Hidden Past (1984), I encountered two conflicting stories about the finding of the corpse: the one above and one which credited Duncan Sinclair as the finder. Donald Munro was by then dead, but Duncan Sinclair, who had been head shepherd at Ballygroggan, was still alive, living in retirement in Machrihanish. He supplied me with a written account of his role in the corpse’s discovery and I judged that to be the ‘strongest evidence’. As I remarked in the book: ‘It is quite possible, of course, that the body could have been  “discovered” several times over, but it certainly could not have been buried several times over.’ The counter-claim therefore remains a puzzle. The police report, by P.C. John MacDonald in Machrihanish, is dated 12 May 1917 and records that the body was found by Duncan Sinclair, shepherd at Largiebaan, on Sunday 6 May, and that the ‘bones’ were buried on 11 May ‘above high water mark at the place where they were found’. Duncan Sinclair gave the following statement:

On Sunday 6th May 1917 I was going through the hill attending to my Sheep Stock, and when about two miles from Largiebaan nearer Machrihanish I went along the shore noticed that my dogs observed something on the shore amongst the rocks on the shore. I went to the place where I found a Skeleton lying below a rock, the skull & feet was amissing. And as I was sure it was a Skeleton of a human being I went to Machrihanish and reported the matter to the Constable.

In the account Duncan later gave me, he identified the burial party on 11 May as Machrihanish lobster fisherman Robert Rae, in whose boat the party sailed to the bay, Robert’s daughter Nellie, Duncan’s sister Annie, and P.C. MacDonald. Duncan was preoccupied with lambing that day and missed the burial.

The ‘sailor’ wasn’t forgotten, though, and the tending of is grave was the focus of the 1964 Courier article. As the anonymous writer observed: ‘There is no special organisation, no committee behind this remarkable example of parochial humanity. It has been done so quietly and spontaneously that only a handful of people in Kintyre know where the grave is.’ The outline of the grave was described as being ‘covered with pebbles, sea shells and glass bottles’. (The latter were doubtless glass flotation-balls which were lost from fishing gear and drifted ashore. These were collectable, until replaced by plastic floats, and could be seen as decorative features on pathways and in gardens.) The cross bore the ‘roughly cut out’ date 16 May 1917 and the words ‘God Knows’. The specificity of the date is misleading, and ‘May 1917’, which would cover both the date of the body’s discovery and of its burial, might now be preferred.

Angus MartinSailorsgrave_1.jpg

The subsequent cross was made by Neil Brown, a joiner, Campbeltown, and carried to the Inneans Bay on 29th July 1981 by Neil, his son Stephen, his brother-in-law George MacKendrick and Teddy Lafferty who took this photograph. Photograph: Teddy Lafferty ©

Malcolm Hamilton  was interviewed for the article. His father, Robert, had tended the grave before him, and Malcolm occasionally took his sons Robert (13) and Leslie (7) with him to the Inneans. In the following week’s issue of the Courier, a photograph of the grave was published with two young boys – Robert and Leslie, presumably – flanking the cross. ‘As long as I am here,’ Malcolm is quoted as saying, ‘I will continue to go round. My two boys are very keen on those trips to Eanon and I am trying to encourage them.’

Willie McArthur was also interviewed. When asked why he and the other ‘volunteers’ gave ‘their time and effort to caring for the grave of a man they did not know’, Willie replied: ‘One or two of us are old soldiers and I suppose it is a feeling of comradeship. Willie McArthur was the only one of all the adults mentioned in the article – the others were Willie Colville, Willie Brown, and Duncan McLachlan – I ever met in the Inneans, and that was in 1980, as recalled in A Summer in Kintyre (pp. 22-25).

A Mystery Verse

Several days after my walk to the Inneans with Don O’Driscoll, Agnes Stewart mentioned to me that Robert Brown had asked her about a ‘poem’ he’d seen, as a young boy, on the Inneans cross. He recited a couple of lines of it, but she didn’t recognise them and didn’t remember seeing them there. I did remember lines connected with the Sailor’s Grave, but they were out of reach in memory and I abandoned the struggle and fetched my file of Inneans material. I wasn’t optimistic of success there either, but the information was in that file and I’d forgotten I had it.


Looking south from Inneans Bay to the north coast of Antrim, 9th October 2016. Photograph: George McSporran ©

When I tape-recorded Duncan McLachlan in February 1981, he had plenty to say about the Sailor’s Grave. He had acquired, from Kilkerran Cemetery, a wheel-headed teak cross, of ‘Celtic’ design, which had marked the grave of an English sailor who drowned during the Second World War and was buried in Kilkerran. The sailor’s family had erected a new memorial and the cross was redundant. Duncan, a skilled sign-writer, added the customary lettering to the cross, John Kelly took it to the Inneans in his motor-boat, and it was set up on the grave by the Hamilton brothers and stood there until replaced in 1981.

But Duncan told me he had added something extra to the cross, a verse from a poem. He quoted the couplet, ‘Borne ashore by tidal hearse/ created a mystery time cannot pierce’, adding: ‘Well, it’s taken from the Ancient Mariner, isn’t it?’ These were indeed the lines I had struggled to recall, but I didn’t remember them from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous ballad, and they didn’t, to my ear, sound as though they could belong there, even had Duncan misquoted them slightly. His own uncertainty about the source of the quotation is obvious from his quizzical remark. The question was easily solved, of course. I read the entire Coleridge poem and failed to find the lines, but a further question took its place: what was the source of the couplet?

When I contacted Robert Brown to hear the lines he had recited to Agnes Stewart, they transpired to be substantially the same as those I had heard from Duncan. As Judy and I had done, Robert and his wife Margaret tried internet searches to establish a literary source, likewise without success. I asked him when he had seen the lines on the cross, and he reckoned his first time at the Inneans was with his father, John, around 1955, when he would have been about eight years old.

Angus Martin ©