My Connection to the Evangeline Tragedy

The sinking of the Evangeline fishing boat in 1905 is quite well known in the Banffshire area of Scotland due to the number of families that it affected and this blog post is the story of my connection to the Evangeline tragedy.


My paternal 4 x great uncle, John Mair, had a son Alexander Mair who tragically had two members of his family drown when the Evangeline sank, his son Alexander (married to Barbara Ann Mason) and his son-in-law John Wood (who was married to Alexander senior’s daughter Helen).

I shall explore below the lives of Alexander and Barbara and Helen and John and I shall then look at the sinking of the Evangeline.

Alexander was born on 25 September 1866 in the fishing village of Portknockie to Alexander Mair, a fisherman, and Georgina Mair, Alexander and Georgina having married in Portknockie in 1853. You will notice that Georgina’s maiden surname was the same as her husband’s. This is not at all unusual in the Scottish fishing communities where there are often limited surnames and tee or by names are attached as a suffix to the surname to aid in differentiating families. Alexander was a member of the Mair Shavie family.

In the 1871 census Alexander was living at house number 134 in Portknockie with both of his parents and his siblings John, Jean, Elspet, Ann and James. Thanks to the excellent map produced by the Cullen, Deskford and Portknockie Heritage Group I know that 1 Pulteney Street is the modern address equivalent for the family’s home in 1871. I’ve been unable to find Alexander in the 1881 or 1891 censuses, he was probably away fishing.

On 14 September 1894 at the Seafield Church of Scotland Church in Portknockie Alexander, a fisherman, married Barbara Ann Mason, a 20 year old domestic servant also living in Portknockie, the witnesses being William Mair and James Mair. In the 1901 census Alexander and Barbara were living at house number 261 (now known as 22 Church Street) in Portknockie with Alexander’s father Alexander and Alexander and Barbara’s 3 children Georgina, Barbara and Helen.

I shall now turn to Alexander’s sister Helen. Helen was born on 17 September 1873 in Portknockie. I’ve been unable to fond Helen in the 1881 or 1891 censuses as yet – I suspect the family was fragmenting as Alexander senior’s wife Georgina died in 1875, 2 years after Helen’s birth.

On 28 November 1895 at the Seafield Church of Scotland Church in Portknockie Helen, a fisher girl, that is someone who traveled up and down Scotland and England gutting fish, married John Wood King (King being John’s tee/by name), a 23 year-old fisherman who also lived in Portknockie. The witnesses were William Mair and James Mair (possibly the exact same two men who had stood witness at Alexander’s wedding the year before but the surname Mair is so common in Portknockie who really knows). I’ve been unable to find a suitable entry for Helen and John in the 1901 census.

Now I shall turn to the Evangeline:

The Evangeline

The Evangeline was built in 1896 by George Innes & Co of Portknockie to the Zulu design named after the Zulu wars in southern Africa. The Zulu design was repeated many times and had a reputation as excellent fishing boats. The Evangeline had been built for David Wood King who had sailed from Wick, Caithness on Friday 13 January 1905 heading for the Orkney fishing grounds. The wind reached hurricane strength before dawn on Saturday and other boats which had sailed from Wick at the same time headed for the safety of the Fair Isle. Not the Evangeline unfortunately, it sank off Stronsay, Orkney, with the loss of 8 lives. This photo shows the crew of the Evangeline in 1904, the year before the Evangeline floundered:

The crew of the Evangeline in 1904.

7 of the crew were from Portknockie with one man from the nearby town of Cullen. The Portknockie men who drowned were David Wood King (the owner of the boat), John Wood King (David’s nephew and married to Helen Mair Shavie as discussed above), Alexander Mair Shavie (as discussed above), James Mair Shanker, William Mair Shanker, Joseph Mair Bobbin and Alexander Mair Bobbin. The Cullen man was George Findlay Hooker – George was only on the Evangeline because David Wood had had an argument with his step-son Alexander Mair Saucy who would normally have been a member of the crew on the Evangeline.

(It is not always known why families have the tee-names they do but I have recently discovered that Alexander Mair Saucy’s family had a different tee-name from their relations due to historic cheekiness).

In the photo above, the only men who have been named are the owner David Wood, back row second from right, and Alexander Mair Saucy, front row middle. Alexander Mair Saucy not being on the Evangeline when she sank, all the other men in the photo drowned when the Evangeline sank.

I shall now turn to a local newspaper, the Banffshire Reporter, for the details of the sad recovery to Portknockie of the bodies of 5 of the crew once they had washed ashore in Orkney on Tuesday 17 January.

The bodies of 5 of the crew of the Evangeline arrived back at Portknockie very early on Friday 20 January.

Around 10pm on the Thursday evening around 60 Portknockie fisherman, who been based at Stornoway, returned home to Portknockie by train to pay their respects to their colleagues. The steam drifter Blue Bell had gone from Stornoway to Stronsay with a large number of fishermen on board to assist another Portknockie steam drifter, the Trident, to bring home the bodies.

At half past eleven at night hundreds of local people were lining the cliffs waiting for the Blue Bell and the Trident to come in with the Trident arriving first at five past midnight on a moonlit night. The Trident was burning flares as she went so she could be seen without having to sound her horn on such a solemn occasion. There was a great crowd at the jetty to meet the Trident and nobody spoke above a whisper as the bodies of Alexander Mair Bobbin and William Mair Shanker were lifted out of the hold in temporary coffins shrouded in black. (There had been a number of boats in difficulty at the same time with some issues in identifying exactly which boats needed help but some could be identified easily unfortunately – William Mair had his initials WM tattooed on his hands and could thus be recognised when his body was recovered).

Fifteen minutes later the Blue Bell arrived and berthed alongside the Trident so that the coffins containing the bodies of David Wood King, John Wood King and George Findlay Hooker were lifted up onto the quay.

Four fishermen shouldered each coffin and the five bodies were walked up the steep path 200 feet from the harbour to the village with large amounts of mourners behind each coffin and the top of the hill being lined by two lines of weeping women.

Each coffin was carried to the family home of each fisherman with a special party carrying George Findlay home to his family in Cullen.

The body of Alexander Mair was recovered from the sea by a Hull trawler, the Mercury, and Alexander was buried in Orkney rather than being brought home. James Mair was also buried in Orkney.

The body of Joseph Mair was never recovered from the sea.

The widows of the ancestors of mine on board the Evangeline made different choices. Barbara Ann Masson, Alexander’s widow, stayed in Portknockie and died there in 1945. Helen Mair, John’s widow, emigrated to Canada in 1920 and died in Toronto in 1941.

Sources: birth, marriage and death certificates and census entries from the Scotland’s People website, ‘A Portknockie Tragedy’ written by John Crawford and the Banffshire Reporter dated Wednesday 25 January 1905 from the British Newspaper Archive website.

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