The Gloup Disaster

Wednesday January 27th
Travelled by ferry across to Gloup on the island of Yell to visit the site of the 1881 Gloup Disaster. Whilst the day had started fine, as I boarded the little ferry the weather began to changed (as it so often does on Shetland), and by the time I had driven across the island to Gloup the wind and rain had set in. Walking up to the cliffs above the heaving sea I experienced severe wind and sleet, and could hardly push myself forward and keep on my feet. Any drawing was completely out of the question.  Watching the sea rushing in and the waves breaking with fury upon the rocks beneath me It was not difficult to imagine how it must have been on 20th July 1881 when the tragedy occurred. In the dark it must have been terrifying even for experienced sailors, and they experienced what must have been up to today’s equivalent of storm force 10, perhaps hurricane force 12.

That day had started as a "day atween wadders"; strong winds having kept the boats ashore for days, the morning of the 20th dawned clear with light winds, and although there was still a heavy sea running, the men were keen to get to sea. Going over 40 miles to the fishing grounds in open sixareens (six-oared boats), using simple landmarks for navigation, the boats had no warning of the incoming storm.

A SURVIVOR'S ACCOUNT OF 'The TERRIBLE TRAGEDY’, printed in "Shetland News":
"A fleet of about 30 boats was at sea the night of the disaster, 26 from the north half of Yell, most of them from Gloup, with others from places such as Gutcher and as far south as Whalfirth (near Mid Yell.) There were a few among the number out from Unst and Feideland. The night was very fine, and we went off from the land about twenty miles, though it is difficult to recollect the distance after so long an interval of time.
"The storm struck us suddenly, and as soon as it struck we were in a fearful sea, and in darkness, in spite of it being the month of July. In our boat we held to our lines and did not leave our position till we had got all our lines on board. We then set sail and turned for home, sailing before the wind. In such a sea it was necessary to steer for each wave, veering away from side to side according to the precise direction from which the wave pursued us. Two men stood by the sail (a square sail) in order to handle it, both for the veering, and because, if a sea threatened to break over us, the skipper would make them lower the sail, thus easing the boat and allowing the wave to go past us before breaking.
"At last as the day broke (about 4 p.m.) we saw that we were nearing the land -- it was then pouring with rain as well as exceedingly tempestuous, with dark overladen sky. The first hint we got of any disaster was a number of oars floating in the water, for we had seen no other boat during the night. As we approached the haven at Gloup Voe we saw an empty boat driving ashore, overturned on its side, mast and sail keeping it in that position. Then as we entered the Voe itself, we saw a great concourse of people -- wives, sisters, parents, and some children -- gathered on the shore with a great lamentation, and a boat manned by twelve men rowing towards us to get hold of the upturned boat. The people had come from miles around to view what they dreaded and expected, for the storm had broken suddenly in the midst of a fine night, and they knew their men were at sea. When we landed they asked if we had seen any other boats, but of course we said we had not."

Only the bodies of seven men were found. The 58 drowned haaf fishermen left behind 34 widows and 85 orphans. 36 of the drowned men were from Gloup.