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27/08/15 09:30

History of Scots at Sea

Recorded deaths of Scottish seafarers online for the first time

A complete record of the deaths of Scottish seafarers from late Victorian times until 1974 is now available online for the first time.

Over 14,000 new records are being made available by National Records of Scotland through ScotlandsPeople from today. They include Deaths of Seamen listing Scots along with other crew members of all nationalities who were serving on British-registered vessels, 1909-1974. This includes crewmen on the Titanic.

Also newly-released online today are Returns of Deaths at Sea for the years 1902-1905, completing the record since 1855. They list Scottish seamen, including many fishermen who drowned in Scottish waters, emigrants who did not reach their hoped-for destination and those who served in the Royal Navy.

The records also contain hundreds of entries for Scottish sailors, engineers and other crewmen who died in every corner of the world, whether at sea, or in foreign ports or hospitals.

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said:

"Scotland is a maritime nation with fascinating stories and an important seafaring history and these new online registers will provide wider access to this heritage. I welcome the addition of this new resource that NRS is making available, which is part of the story of Scotland and will encourage people from across the world and at home to find out more about Scotland's seafaring heritage".

Tim Ellis, Registrar General and Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said:

“The Returns of Deaths of Seamen and Deaths at Sea open a window into the lives of Scots seafarers in the first half of the twentieth century. They reveal the dangers experienced by seamen and passengers alike, and provide useful information for anyone wishing to discover more about their ancestors. Our commitment at National Records of Scotland is to continue to extend digital access to the key records that researchers want.”

Case Studies

Deaths of Seamen

Deaths of Seamen which list Scots along with other crew members of all nationalities who were serving on British-registered vessels, 1909-1974. The records were compiled by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and sent to the Registrar General for Scotland.

Among those to appear in the new records is William M Murdoch, the Dalbeattie-born First Officer on the fateful maiden voyage of RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912. He appears with 24 other Scottish-born crew members among the 673 men and women listed in the returns. Like most of them, Murdoch was living in Southampton, where the White Star Line was based. The returns do not include passengers, so the majority of those who perished on the Titanic do not appear here.

The same is true of the Lusitania, torpedoed by the Germans on 7 May 1915. The Deaths of Seamen list 405 crew members who were killed or drowned, most of whom were from Liverpool or Ireland. Of the 17 who can be definitely identified as Scots, John Thompson or Thomson, an ordinary seaman from Annan, was aged just 15, and serving on the deck crew, while Alfred R Thorn, a waiter, was listed as 50 years old and born in Greenock. Like most of the crew their last place of abode was Liverpool, where the Cunard liner was based.

Returns of Deaths at Sea

Also newly-released online are Returns of Deaths at Sea (also known as the ‘Marine Returns’) for the years 1902-1905. These years complete the series beginning in 1855 which is already online through ScotlandsPeople. The returns list Scottish seamen, including many fishermen who drowned in Scottish waters. Some passengers were also reported to the Registrar General for Scotland as having died, including emigrants who did not reach their intended destination.

Many of the deaths off the north-west coast of Scotland were of men who drowned after falling or being accidentally knocked overboard from fishing boats. For example, John McIver, aged 34, was a deck hand from Swordale in Lewis, who drowned on 21 Nov 1905 ten miles north-west of Gairloch Head in The Minch. He was working on the Stornoway-registered boat the ‘Grateful’.

John McLauchlan was the captain of the steel-hulled sailing ship ‘Durbridge’, with more than 36 years’ experience at sea from the age of 15. After seventeen years on sailing ships he obtained his master’s certificate in 1884. He captained the ‘Durbridge’ on voyages between South Africa, Australia and South America. On 13 December 1902 he died suddenly at sea off the southern tip of Africa. The report by the next most senior officer of how he found the captain dead in his cabin is recorded in the Deaths at Sea.

The Returns of Deaths at Sea include poignant entries that throw light on the experience of Scots emigrants and those who worked abroad in scattered parts of the British Empire.

For example in 1927 John Robertson, aged two years, died in 1927 on the ship ‘Orsova’ in the Gulf of Aden. His father had a job for life working as a painter on the Forth Bridge, but decided to emigrate with his wife Jeannie . Tragically they lost their elder son just a few weeks into the long voyage to Australia.

Although the records are a grim catalogue of sudden deaths far from home, not every story ended badly. In October 1901 it was reported that the vessel ‘Fire Queen’ had lost one of its crew north of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast. Peter Hughes, a fireman aged 30 from Glasgow, was missing presumed drowned on 18 October. A few months later a letter was sent to the master of the ‘Fire Queen’: ‘You will be surprised to learn that your supposed drowned Fireman Peter Hughes has turned up. His wife has had two letters from him one enclosing a P.O. [postal order] for 10 s/-. The letters are from London. These are facts which I have had verified.’

Royal Navy

When HMS Hood was sunk by the German warship Bismarck in the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941, all but three of the 1,421 crew died. Among them was William Conchie, aged 16 years and 10 months. One of the three survivors was a Scot, Midshipman William Dundas.

On 17 January 1942 HMS Matabele (G26) was on escort duty with Arctic Convoy PQ-8, when she was sunk by the German submarine U-454. All but two of the crew of 238 perished in the ice-cold waters. The returns of death include this page listing nine Scots. The returns also include the names of some of the many merchant seamen who died on the Arctic Convoys and on wartime service elsewhere.

Examples of the records covering the deaths of seamen on well-known ships, during the Second World War, including the Athenia and Lancastria, can be found on the ScotlandsPeople website

Notes to editors

The Returns of Deaths of Seamen were made by the Register General of Shipping and Seamen under the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, but they were not a formal requirement of the Act. Their purpose was to advise all the General Register Offices in the British Isles, and also some charitable institutions, of deaths of seamen. Charities, particularly those relating to the welfare of fishermen, would use the information to help them contact the next of kin of the dead seaman.

The practice of notifying these deaths gradually declined and ended in the 1990's. Nowadays returns are made under the Merchant Shipping (Returns of Births & Deaths) Regulations 1979.

National Records of Scotland & ScotlandsPeople

National Records of Scotland (NRS) is a Non-Ministerial Department of the Scottish Government. It holds and gives access to the nation's archives, oversees the registration of births, marriages and deaths, produces statistics on Scotland's population and conducts the Scottish Census. It is a centre of expertise on data handling, record keeping and archives., the official Scottish genealogy website, is a partnership between National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon, enabled by Find My Past, a DC Thomson company.


SS Chumleigh Deaths: Please credit National Records of Scotland.

SS Chumleigh Deaths

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John Mason, RMT Lancastria: Please credit National Records of Scotland

John Mason, RMT Lancastria

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John McIver: Please credit National Records of Scotland

John McIver

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HM Matabele - Statutory Register of Deaths: Please credit National Records Scotland

HM Matabele - Statutory Register of Deaths

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John Robertson: Please credit National Records of Scotland

John Robertson

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John McLauchlan: Please credit National Records of Scotland.

John McLauchlan

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