S A N D A
The Island of Sanda lies on the west side of the entrance to the Firth of Clyde, and is approximately seven miles E.S.E. of the Mull of Kintyre, and just under two miles from the nearest point on the mainland. Although it covers only an area about a square mile, the island contains a surprising variety of scenery not perhaps immediately obvious to the casual observer. On the north side there is an excellent anchorage for small vessels, formed by a shallow sandy bay, protected by Sheep Isle nearby. A road runs from here through a central glen to the lighthouse at the south side. The eastern section of the island rises to some 405 feet, falling steeply to sea level, whilst the much lower western portion is considerably broken by numerous rocky outcrops.
The largely grass and heather covered terrain provides grazing for a sizeable flock of sheep, and one cow, plus a few wild goats, looked after by a farmer from Southend, Sanda's one farm having fallen into disuse several years ago. The farm buildings lie empty and deteriorating on the north side, at the edge of the bay. Interestingly enough there are no rabbits, rats or mice to be found on the island.
The lighthouse, established in 1850, has been built on a short, steep sided peninsula, called appropriately enough, Ship Rock. The engineer in charge of its construction was Alan Stevenson. Calls had been made for the provision of a light on Sanda as far back as 1825, when the "Christiania"of Glasgow, outward bound in bad weather, was lost on the nearby Paterson's Rock. Trinity House proposed that the light at the Mull of Kintyre be moved to Sanda, this being rejected by the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners, although they were willing to mark Paterson's Rock with a beacon. The continuing number of wrecks however, caused these earlier plans to be revised and it was eventually decided to build a new lighthouse on the summit of the Ship-Rock, the design incorporating a stone tower in three steps, not against the face of the Rock, still the only one of its kind in Scotland.
The families of the lightkeepers stayed on Sanda, indeed it is on record that in 1871 no less than 57 people lived on the island, making their precarious living from fishing and kelp burning, as well as from the farm. By the mid 1930's, the population was about a dozen or so, split between the lighthouse and the farm. These days the light-keepers are Sanda's only permanent residents, spending four weeks on the island, followed by four weeks at their homes in Campbeltown and Oban, Their families were withdrawn from the Station in 1953, at which time Sanda becane a 'rock' lighthouse, relieved on a regular basis by an attending-boat from Southend. Initially, however, the boatman was resident on the island, and indeed in 1900 the RNLI silver medal and vellum was presented to the then boatman, Daniel Dempsey and his two sons for saving the crew of a schooner wrecked in heavy seas near the lighthouse. The rescue was carried out at great risk to themselves, using their own small boat. There have been about thirty vessels wrecked on Sanda over the years, quite apart from numerous groundings.
The 7,000 ton American 'Liberty' ship, 'Byron Darnton' went ashore just 150 yards from the lighthouse in March 1946 and all 54 people on board, plus one Husky dog were taken off by the Campbeltown Lifeboat in an extremely hazardous rescue operation. This was fully detailed by the local author, Angus McVicar in his book "Rescue Call, published in 1967. The vessel later broke up, becoming a total loss. Today virtually all that remains to be seen is a portion of the bow section.
The Dutch registered cattle carrier, 'Hereford Express' was driven on to the Boiler Reef following on an engine breakdown in October 1970. 250 cattle on board were either drowned or later shot because of injuries, the ship herself broke up and sank shortly afterwards. The last vessel lost on Sanda was the 'Wilmere' of Troon, apparently a converted fishing boat. She was engaged on salvage work on the remains of the 'Byron Darnton' in August 1976 when her anchor cable broke, and she too went down. The Royal Navy submarine L.26 which grounded on Paterson's Rock in October 1933 was probably one of the most unusual vessels to become stranded, though luckily in her case she floated off on the flood tide, after several hours. The loss of the 'Davaar', described as a 263 ton Schooner Rigged Steamer, is of particular local interest. She went on to Paterson's Rock late in the evening of December, 1878, and though her cargo was later salvaged, and none of her passengers or crew lost, 'Davaar' herself later broke up and sank. She was barely six weeks old, and it is significant that she was the first steel hulled steam vessel built by the Campbeltown Shipyard.
Even MacBrayne's and their predecessors have not been immune from Sanda's dangers; 'Lochinvar' en route light ship from Greenock to Tobermory, grounded on Paterson's Rock in March 1956, and was later refloated with the assistance of Campbeltown Lifeboat. In July 1869, the 'Clansman (1) was less fortunate, and went on the same reef in thick fog. All of her passengers and crew, together with several sheep were landed on the Island, using the steamer's own boats. The screw steamer 'Celt' en route to Islay later took some of them plus a quantity of salvaged deck cargo into Campbeltown, that same evening. 'Clansman' later sank, stern first. She had been operating the Oban-Glasgow service and was carrying about 100 passengers in all.
But no doubt due to its geographical location Sanda has on several occasions been involved in the early history of Scotland. Though little documentation exists, it is known that the island was at one time a possession of the monks of Whithorn, in Galloway, and it is entirely possible that it may have been visited by St. Ninian. At the foot of the central valley on the north side, can be found the ruins of a small chapel. Opinions seem to vary as to whom it was originally dedicated: St. Ninian on one hand, or St. Adamnan (biographer of St. Columba) on the other. In any event it was also said to have been a sanctuary from Justice for criminals, fugitives and their like. Beside the chapel is a small graveyard now largely overgrown. In it are several very old stones indeed, including an extremely ancient cross, which must have stood at least seven feet high. According to one Father McCann who visited Sanda in 1598, this may well have marked the tomb of the fourteen sons of Senchanus, said to have been a 'most holy man,' McCann goes on to describe the tomb as being surrounded by a low stone wall in which are 'seven large and polished stones in the middle of which is an obelisk, higher than a man's stature. No one enters it with impunity. He then goes on to quote two instances of what he calls 'The Great God's care of his Saints,' A hen was said to have laid her eggs in the enclosure, the chicks all being hatched with twisted necks. A boy accidentally threw his ball in, then kicked it back out again. That night it was said that the offending foot becane swollen 'to a considerable extent, inflated by Divine Wrath' so the story goes, and the boy died in agony.
Sanda is frequently mentioned in the Norse Sagas, and was laid waste by Magnus Barefoot in 1093. Somerled's vessels were also known to have visited the Island in the twelfth century, and Haco sheltered sheltered there prior to and following the Battle of Largs.
The Danes apparently named the Island 'Haaven' or Harbour, this later Latinised as 'Avona Porticosa.' The name Sanda or Sand Island was first used by Norsemen, an allusion no doubt to the sandy north harbour. The Island has two Gaelic nanes, 'An Spain' - the Spoon, and 'Abhuinn,' - the Stream. Certainly viewed from the direction of Arran, Sanda does present the appearance of an inverted spoon.
During the Scottish War of Independence, Robert the Bruce, whilst en route to Rathlin stayed in the fortress of Dunaverty on the mainland opposite Sanda, and Prince Edward's Rock, on the south side, is thought to have been named after his brother. Sanda remained a possession of the Priory of Whithorn until 1493; that same year Angus Macdonald, son of the chief of Islay and Kintyre, fled to the Island seeking sanctuary at the chapel. He eventually became tenant and later owner of Sanda, and went on to found the House of Macdonald of Sanda. In 1637, during the Wars of Montrose, Archibald Macdonald of Sanda commanded the previously mentioned fortress of Dunaverty, when it came under seige by David Leslie and his men. The garrison surrendered, thinking that their lives would be spared but such was not to be, and what became known as the Massacre of Dunaverty, the only survivors were Archibald Mohr's grandson, Ranald and his nurse Flora McCambridge. Eventually Ranald succeeded his sole surviving uncle as clan chieftain, and secured his future by by marrying into the Stewarts of Bute. Thereafter the history of Sanda lapsed into relative peace and obscurity, apart from periodic smuggling episodes.
During the course of the eighteenth century, the mainland holdings of the Macdonalds of Sanda were reduced to one farm, all of the remaining family lands including Sanda being sold in 1799. In 1825 Sanda and that one remaining mainland farm were bought back by the family, and remained in their hands until after the 1914-1918 War.
Alexander Russell became the sole tenant farner of Sanda, and purchased the Island in 1929, He was succeeded by his son James, who retired to Southend in 1969, after selling the Island to Jack Bruce of the pop group 'Cream.' He composed several songs during his stay on the island, and a T.V. programme was made of his life there. Once again the Island was sold in 1976 to financier James Gulliver, of the Argyll Store Group whose family comes from Campbeltown. In 1979 it was acquired by a Middle Eastern gentleman, residing in the South of England, in whose hands it remains today. In 1986 he put Sanda up for auction, but the bidding failed to reach the reserve price of £200,00o0, and it was withdrawn from sale.
The Lighthouse was relieved by boat from Southend till in 1976 when the introduction of relief by a helicopter revolutionised the lightkeeper's life, as Sanda could now be reached in rather less than 10 minutes flying time from Campbeltown, and at a stroke the weather no longer became a major factor in relief of the lighthouse men. Today the little red helicopter can be seen every second Friday morning setting down and lifting off from the Green beside Campbeltown's War Memorial with almost clockwork regularity, though with the automation of Scotland's lighthouses proceeding apace, who can say for how very much longer?
(1) Northern Lighthouse Records.
White. "Archaeological Remains of South Kintyre."
Macmaster Campbell: "The Island and House of Sanda."
Munroe (High Dean of the Isles) "Description of the Western Downie: Bute and the Cumbraes./ Isles of Scotland."
Page 7: Bits and Bobs from The Magazine
Page 8: The Days of the Drove Roads
Page 9: John Paul Jones and Others - Part 2
Page 10: West Highland Mercenaries in Ireland - Part 2