Eight died in tragic family accident

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THE 150th anniversary of one of the Clyde’s worst tragedies, the death by drowning of a family of eight from Cardross, was on Sunday July 7 2019.

Details of the tragedy have been supplied by a distant relative of the family, Graham Campbell, who would like to find out if there are any family members still living in the Cardross and Helensburgh area.

A 1907 print looking from Cardross towards Port Glasgow.

The McRae family were on their way back from a trip to Port Glasgow in two small boats, but while one made it to the north bank of the river without incident, the second sank in circumstances which have always remained a mystery.

Graham, who lives in Dollar in Clackmannanshire and who is distantly related to one of the few family members who survived the tragedy, passed on a newspaper report of the accident from the ‘Dumbarton Herald and County Advertiser’.

Here is how the tragic news was reported in the July 29 1869 edition . . .

One of the most distressing boat accidents which has taken place on the Clyde for a lengthy period occurred at Cardross whereby a pleasure party of no fewer than eight persons belonging to the one family met a watery grave.

Most of the following details have been furnished by the relatives of the unfortunate deceased, some of who were the last to see the ill-fated occupants of the boat.

On Wednesday evening a family party of eight persons left Cardross in a small boat measuring 14 ft 6 in keel and 4 ft 6in beam on a pleasure excursion to Port Glasgow to view the shows and exhibitions which were collected on the occasion of the annual fair which was being held in the town.

The party consisted of John McRae, aged 34, gardener to Major Geils of Geilston; Janet Hooper or McRae, aged 28, his wife; Janet McRae, aged 2, their daughter; William Thomson, seaman, aged 28, brother-in-law to McRae; Elizabeth McRae or Thomson, aged 24, his wife; William Thomson, aged 1, their child; Thomas McRae, aged 14, and Christina McRae, aged 16, brother and sister to John McRae and Mrs Thomson.

The boat was propelled by means of two oars and the grown-ups males were recognised as being experienced boatmen. 

Their respected father, Malcolm McRae, had acted as ferryman between Cardoss and Port Glasgow for 40 years, and all his sons were trained to manage small boats; indeed some of the family were well known scullers on the Clyde and elsewhere.

The Port Glasgow shore was reached by the party in safety early in the evening. About 10 past eleven they again embarked on board the small boats to return home. The night was calm and clear the surface of the river reflecting the moonlight like a mirror.

Just before departing Port Glasgow, another brother of the McRaes, named Malcolm, accompanied by John Ninian, Marjorie McIntyre, Mary McArthur, John Boyd and Alex and Malcolm McRae, junior sons of Malcolm, came down to the harbour and both parties expressed their astonishment and delight at finding each other under similar circumstances.

They agreed that both boats should keep as close together as possible during the passage across the river, which is about three miles broad at this part, both boats — it may be mentioned — were carefully trimmed by the different members of the party being properly placed in each.

The members of both parties are stated to have been perfectly sober and, as already mentioned, the weather was calm and the night clear so that no danger was apprehended by the most-timid person amongst them.

Shortly after leaving Port Glasgow harbour a sail was hoisted upon the boat occupied by Malcolm McRae and his party, but there being no sail on the other boat, it was necessary to use oars, as there was only a light air of wind from the southward.

Their rowers often got ahead of the boat on which the sail was hoisted, so that the party on board the latter boat were often obliged to use their oars in order to keep alongside of their friends.

On the way across both parties were in the best of spirits, jest, banter and song being freely engaged in.

When the boats had accomplished fully half the distance across, it became necessary that they should separate, as Malcolm McRae and his party resided about a mile further down the river than did the occupants of the other boat.

After bidding each other good night they separated. Malcolm McRae and his party reached the shore in safety, and all retired to their respective homes, believing that their friends would have reached the land about the same time as themselves — but unfortunately it turned out such was not the case.

Upon arriving home, Malcolm McRae retired to his bed and was soon fast asleep. About 2am, however, he was aroused by hearing his father knocking at the door and enquiring if he had seen his brother and sister and the other members of their family, who were known to have been in the other boat.

Upon learning that they had not arrived home, Malcolm McRae at once arose and, having dressed, he, along with his father, quickly launched a boat in the river and proceeded in quest of them.

The son suggested that after he had parted with the other boat, the company seated in her might have returned to Port Glasgow, and upon this slender supposition he proceeded across the river to the town, but no trace of them could be found.

They then returned to Cardross and when about a quarter of a mile from shore they espied through the grey morning light a boat floating, keel uppermost. 

They at once approached it and discovered that it was the boat in which their relatives had left Port Glasgow.

The anchor was down, having fallen out of the boat, as she had capsized, and thus held her fast to the spot. The father and son, after considerable difficulty, succeeded in righting the boat, but no trace of any of the unfortunate occupants could be found.

They then proceeded to the shore and raised an alarm, when five boat crews were quickly mustered and at once put out in search. 

About five yards from the upturned boat, the body of Mrs McRae was observed on the sand in about four feet of water, and about three yards further off, the child Thomson was likewise found.

A further search was made for other bodies without success, and both bodies were removed to Geilston.

By the time the fearful character of the calamity which has befallen the family McRae began to be realised, the father, upon being conveyed ashore, became greatly excited and had to be removed to his home, where his wife, upon hearing what had happened, likewise became greatly distressed. 

A boat crew was promptly despatched to Port Glasgow with grappling irons and yesterday afternoon about half dozen boats were engaged trawling for the rest of the bodies.

How the calamity happened must remain a mystery, but it is generally supposed that after parting from the other boats, John McRae and William Thomson, who were both at the oars from the time of leaving Port Glasgow, had been shifting seats with one of the other members of the party, and that the boat had suddenly capsized.

Not one of the members of the other boat heard any cries, but a woman who lives on the shores states that, having occasion to be out for water shortly before 12 o’clock, she heard a indistinct cry, as if someone calling for help and proceeding from the direction of the river. But believing that it was some sea bird, she paid little attention to it and soon returned to her house.

The grownup males on board the boat were known to be good swimmers. Mrs Janet McRae was within a few weeks of her confinement; she was the second wife of her husband. Another little boy, who was likewise to have accompanied his parents but who latterly prevented, was left an orphan. 

Mr and Mrs Thomson likewise leave one child. Thomson was about to leave home to join the ship Anglesen, bound for Montreal. 

The McRae family left is held in much esteem in the district and great sympathy is expressed for the relatives.

On Thursday afternoon the body of a little girl McRae was found on the shore at the foot of Glasgow Street, Helensburgh, and an oar and child’s straw hat were likewise found on the Helensburgh shore.

The lamentable accident produced a most painful sensation at Cardross and not only there but throughout the district generally.

The elderly Malcolm, till within a recent period, when advancing years began to tell on him, was indeed quite unrivalled in the mode of propelling a boat, and was known at regattas in the west of Scotland.

He had a humour about him in those days, and used to show how lightly he valued his younger competitors by sculling without troubling himself to remove his coat or dress hat, which he wore by sitting down and taking a rest himself, and a mouthful of water, keeping a sharp lookout all time to keep ahead of his rivals.

His son John, who met his death under the circumstances narrated, for a time maintained the family laurels in this respect.

As showing, however, that the love of art was not extinct, old Malcolm was anxious to have tried his hand at the Dumbarton Regatta on the 17th curt.

On that day we heard John expressed his determination to meet with Carlile of the Vale, the present champion of Scotland, at the next Loch Lomond regatta, and show that the McRaes were still able to hold first place. 

He said he had begun practising lately and was now able to make a boat go quicker than in the days when he carried off the honours. 

As a gardener McRae excelled and was often succeeding in the local flower show.

From these circumstances, the family must have been well known far beyond the quiet Parish of Cardross, and the sad calamity which has befallen it will be heard of with regret by people distant from the scene of the disaster.

Yesterday, the search in boats was abandoned, but the relations and others continued to look for missing bodies along the shores in the direction of hill of Ardmore and Gareloch. 

The fact that the little body of the girl McRae was carried as far as Helensburgh by a single tide shows the strength of the currents, and the probability is that the remainder of the bodies will be found below rather than above the scene of the fatal catastrophe.

On Thursday Dr Buchannan of Dumbarton made a post mortem examination the body of Mrs McRae and the child Thomson, the results being merely to confirm what was believed, namely that their deaths arose from drowning.

At a meeting of the members of the Vale of Leven Humane Society, held on Friday night, it was resolved to take part in a search for the bodies of the unfortunate persons drowned.

Accordingly, on Sunday last, a numerous party of the members proceeded to cross the hill to Cardross, taking with them an abundant supply of grapplings and tackling.

On arriving at their destination they took the use of the available boats at the place and prosecuted a search. Thus instituted the recovery of the body of John McRae, one of the two men who were on the boat which capsized, making the fourth body recovered of the eight persons who lost their lives on the occasion referred to.

The body was found in the direction of Ardmore and about a mile below the scene of the fatal catastrophe.

The report concludes: Vale of Leven men have it in contemplation to renew a search, and their activity at this time, and whenever their services are required in similar circumstances, will not, we are sure, be forgotten when the society to which they belong makes an appeal for funds required for the renewal of apparatus.

Anyone with information can contact Graham Campbell at 4 Tarmangie Drive Dollar, FK14 7BL, on 01259-742593, or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..