Ahead of events this weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Longhope Lifeboat disaster, I have the enormous privilege of leading a debate in the Scottish Parliament marking this historic milestone.
Such member’s debates rarely capture the headlines. They tend to be far too consensual for that. Yet they serve a valuable function, particularly at a time when politics can appear highly polarised and overly tribal.
They allow MSPs a chance to focus parliament’s attention on issues of importance to their constituency or region; raise awareness of local or national campaigns; and highlight the great work and achievements of individuals or groups. While the motions debated are not put to a vote, they do require a minister to be present to respond to the points made.
I am painfully conscious, of course, that in the seven minutes I have to open proceedings on Thursday, there is no hope of doing justice to what happened on the night of 17 March 1969 or the bravery of the eight men who lost their lives when the lifeboat, TGB, capsized in mountainous seas in the Pentland Firth. It will, though, allow parliament to pay tribute and its respects.
As the son of a fishermen, I have never needed any persuading of the debt owed to those in the lifeboat crews and coastguard teams who put their lives at risk to keep our island and coastal communities safe. That this is done on a voluntary basis only reinforces the selflessness involved.
As for the Longhope lifeboat disaster, I vividly recall, after moving to the school hostel from Sanday in the early 1980s, being in awe of the fact that most of my contemporaries from Hoy and Longhope seemed to have a personal connection to the tragedy. Thus began a fascination with the events of that fateful night and a profound admiration for the Coxswain, Dan Kirkpatrick and his crew.
Preparing for the debate has rekindled all that and I am very grateful to The Orcadian’s Craig Taylor for sharing with me some of his research. Howard Hazell’s chronicle of the 20th century similarly proved invaluable, even if it did constantly distract me with other stories that had nothing to do with the subject in question!
The process has also provided a timely reminder of just some of the elements that give this tragedy such poignancy and impact, even 50 years on: the fact that this was a highly-decorated crew that had proved its mettle many times over the years; that the Liberian freighter, SS Irene, to whose call for help the lifeboat was responding, then grounded at Grimness, allowing all 17 crew to be brought safely ashore; that amongst those who perished were two fathers, each with two of their sons; and that, all told, the small township of Brims lost a quarter of its population at a stroke.
As The Orcadian reported at the time: “The whole of Orkney sorrows over this terrible calamity, but only in Brims itself and Longhope can the utter tragedy of it be felt”.
Yet, there was no recrimination or bitterness from those left behind. Dan Kirkpatrick’s widow, Margaret said, “I have no regret about the boat being lost on its way to help others, because that is why it was there”. Like the rest of her community, she was anxious to see the lifeboat replaced.
50 years later and how fitting that the current Coxswain, Kevin Kirkpatrick should be following in the proud footsteps of his grandfather, Dan, his father and uncle. For him, this will be a dignified act of remembrance. As he says, “What happened that night is part of our history.”
At the unveiling of a memorial in Longhope in 1970, Reverend Ewan Trail observed, “These men were not saints… but essentially they were good men. They had qualities, which constituted greatness. As a crew, they were unsurpassed anywhere in the world for efficiency, judgment, for loyalty and for courage”.
This is almost certainly true but this is what helped make them the Heroes of Longhope. As the words on the memorial remind us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lays down his life for his fellowmen”.