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Q Shipwreck: Disaster Strikes off the Coast of Dunskey Castle

Sir Edward Oswald Hunter Blair and his young wife, Elizabeth Wauchope, married at a small church in Edinburgh on June 1, 1850. Edward and Elizabeth eagerly escaped to his family home at Dunskey in the southwest of Scotland for their honeymoon. They were enraptured with each other, paying no mind to the raging sea breaking against the rugged cliff below the abandoned Medieval Dunskey Castle on the coast. But the storm came knocking when the steward pounded at their door past midnight on the third day of their honeymoon. A steamer had struck a rock opposite Dunskey Bay and sank within 15 minutes.

Sir Edward rushed to the beach where fishermen dumped the freezing, gasping survivors before returning to sea to save anyone else they could. Piece by piece, he and the village of Portpatrick learned the tragic story of the Orion. The steam-operated ship ferrying passengers between Liverpool and Glasgow represented the finest technology of 1850. But between fog, a sleeping captain, and a misread lighthouse, tragedy wedged its way in.

The approximately 200 passengers had been asleep below decks just a few hours earlier. The crewmen on deck had seen the rocky outcrops of the Scottish coast far closer than normal, so they roused the captain, Henderson, but he brushed aside their concerns. He assured them the lighthouse they saw in the distance was just the outer lighthouse of the village of Portpatrick and that they had a comfortable shoulder between them and the coast. The Orion churned ahead as a thick sea mist embraced her. The captain stayed below decks, catching some sleep in the warmth of his cabin.

But then a slow scraping announced disaster, but so quietly that it did not even wake most of the passengers. The Orion ran against a rock that tore a hole in her watertight compartments and destroyed a bulkhead. Captain Henderson flew to the deck, insisting to passengers that they only needed to wait for low tide and then they would be safely stranded on the rocks and walk to shore. Chaos broke out. The passengers could see that the ship was sinking no matter what he said. Many of the crew and male passengers took the first seats on a lifeboat and saved themselves. The plugs for another lifeboat were missing, so passengers stuffed its drain with handkerchiefs. The ropes bearing a third lifeboat tangled, snared, and overturned, dumping passengers into the sea.

A fisherman preparing for his early morning hunting and another man pacing his room in the early hours of the morning saw the Orion’s plight from shore. They roused the whole village of Portpatrick to save whoever they could. But before the small flotilla of fishermen’s boats reached the Orion, she lurched into the sea with such force that passengers flew into the sea. The suction of the sinking vessel pulled more victims underwater as they tried to swim ashore. But the boats from Portpatrick were able to save most. Captain Henderson clung to the highest part of the ship until the end, but he survived. Later, he served time in prison for his neglicence. About 50 people died, including a renowned surgeon and a family that had just saved enough money to emigrate to Australia. No one will ever know for certain how many people died because many passengers were unrecorded additions to the third-class cabins.

As the disaster unwound, Sir Edward was on shore among the passengers shaking with fear and cold. Soon, his new wife joined him to offer whatever comfort she could. They opened their home at Dunksey to anyone who needed a warm, safe place to recover.