Dundee’s history is closely interlinked with its location on the Firth of Tay. The city gained its charter in 1191 as one of King David’s new towns, created to encourage trade and civilise the Scottish countryside. The site was strategically positioned, controlling entry to the heart of Scotland.
During the medieval period, Dundee was second only to Edinburgh in terms of commercial prosperity. Most early trade was by sea and Dundee was ideally located on shipping routes to and from the Baltica and North European ports, being closer than Edinburgh by two days.
From here the harbour developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 1830s, when flax gave way to jute, Dundee changed from a trading port to the world centre for the jute processing industry and the city rapidly expanded.
More than 1,000 Dundee built ships once sailed the world’s oceans. Today, the famous shipyards like the Caledon, Gourlay Bros and Alexander Stephen are long gone and now, Discovery aside, the ships they built are no more. Most fell victim to the scrapman, but a few came to a more dramatic end, among them the beautiful jute clipper Strathmore launched from Brown and Simpson’s Dundee shipyard on the 22nd of January 1875.
Strathmore sailed on her maiden voyage to New Zealand on the 8th of March with 50 emigrant passangers and 30 crew on board. Good progress was made until, early on the 1st of July, one of the crew members shouted ‘Breakers ahead….hard a starboard!” Then came a grinding crash as the ship ran full tilt onto rocks and sank by the stern.
Some drowned in their cabins, others including Captain Charles Macdonald were swept overboard and never seen again. Two lifeboats were launched as dawn revealed a huge pillar of rock from the wrecked ship’s bow and, behind it, sheer black cliffs.
Strathmore had hit one of the feared Twelve Apostles, vicious, near vertical rocks forming part of the Crozet Islands archipelago in the middle of the southern ocean.
Forty-nine passengers and crew scrambled ashore, but they were stranded on a tiny, uninhabited island almost 2,500 kilometres (approximately 1,500 miles) from the southern tip of Africa, 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles) from south-west Australia and almost 2,000 miles (approximately 1,200 miles) from the uninhabited Artic mainland. There seemed little hope of rescue.
The survival epic that followed was dogged by bitter cold and violent storms. The decomposing body of one dead man was exhumed to strip it of clothes for Frances Wordsworth, the sole woman survivor. Others fashioned clothing from penguin skins.
Finally, on 22nd January 1878, six months and 22 days after Strathmore was wrecked, an American whaler spotted the 44 surviving castaways’ desperate signals and sent a boat to pick them up. Forty-five men, women and children had died from the effects of starvation and frostbit.
The Strathmore story may have inspired J. M. Barrie’s play ‘The Admirable Crichton’. As a Kirriemuir teenager in 1878, Barrie would have read newspaper accounts of the disaster and its aftermath.
Fourteen ships sailed under the Dundee Clipper Line flag, among them Strathmore and the beautiful Maulesden which still holds the record for the fastest sailing passage to Australia.
- Story of Strahtmore cited directly from information sign at the Victoria Dock