Alex Ritchie

Hogmanay on Ice

A story of courage, perseverance and determination to rival the great shipwreck stories of history.

In 1753 the first whale boat sailed from Victoria Docks in Dundee and for the next 160 years, men braved Arctic waters to bring home products that were vital to the economy of the time.

Today, with hindsight and knowledge, our attitudes and understanding of the commercial activities of our forefathers have changed but this knowledge should not blind us to the courage, endurance and skill – reinforced with innate common sense and practicality – of the men who ‘followed the whale’.

The ‘spectacular’ dangers of being pitched into freezing waters by a harpooned whale or being attacked by a polar bear when hunting seals on the ice, were not nearly as common as being shipwrecked or becoming stranded when their ships were sunk or destroyed by crushing ice. It was far more common for a whaler to lose a limb to frostbite than to encounters with the local fauna. Stranding and shipwrecks were very real dangers from which many never returned.

The story of Alex Ritchie, a young seaman on a Dundee whaling ship, shows how history can be overlooked. Even after a local newspaper told his story in the early 1950s and an interview that was broadcast on BBC radio around the same time, few people, even in his home village, have heard the story of his exploits.

As an eleven year old, Tom Ritchie, the son of Alex’s cousin, was so enthralled by the story of a shipwreck half a world away, he wrote it down. Now, after almost 70 years, the handwritten story has come to light amongst Tom’s mother’s belongings.

 

Figure 1 Tom’s hand written notes. 

Nothing in Alex’s life prior to the events of 1908 could have prepared him for what happened but because of what appears to be an inbuilt pragmatism and proven capability, he survived to tell the tale, albeit in a quiet voice.

Born in Gourdon, a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland mid-way between Aberdeen and Dundee, he was brought up with the sea as a constant backdrop and like most other young men from similar backgrounds, became a seaman learning his trade on the fishing boats sailing daily from the village. After several years he decided to change direction, a decision that ended in an adventure that would rival the fiction of a ‘Boy’s Own Magazine’ story.

He signed on to the Arctic whaler Snowdrop a 63 ton ketch sailing from Dundee for the prolific whaling grounds around Baffin Island to the north of Hudson Bay. She was built in 1886 in Scarborough: bought and fitted out for whaling by Osbert Clare Forsyth-Grant of Ecclesgreig Castle near Montrose.

With only twelve of a crew the Snowdrop was the smallest whale ship sailing from Dundee. She was captained by the experienced whaling Captain, James Brown of Aberdeenshire and Forsyth-Grant, although the owner, sailed as the harpooner.

The day she sailed on her last voyage Alex, a religious man, recalled, “All the crew, from the Captain to the cook were drunk – except me.”

The voyage across the Atlantic as far as Cape Farewell in Greenland took them thirteen days. They were headed for Osbert Clare Forsythe-Grant’s Arctic base at Cape Haven on Hall Peninsula near the southern end of Cumberland Sound. At the base, known as Signia, Forsythe-Grant had arranged to meet native people who were to assist the whalers.

In Alex’s narrative he refers to the native people as Eskimo, nowadays the first nation people of Canada and Greenland look on the term Eskimo as demeaning and it has been widely replaced by the term “Inuit”.

While heading for the settlement the whalers took advantage of the abundant wildlife to hunt ‘animals of value’ along the Greenland coast.

“White whales (Beluga), walruses and seals, were hunted.”

Blubber and ivory were the prizes and successful hunting meant the Snowdrop arrived at Signia with with over 600 walruses, 600 seals as well as Polar bear skins and Arctic Fox pelts already in the hold.

Figure 2 Snowdrop in the Arctic Ice. 

The Inuit families waiting at the settlement would, throughout the Snowdrop’s stay in the Arctic, guide, and teach the whalers.

“Men, women and children were brought on board. That was the whole village … even their dogs, so we had a full ship.”

Figure 3 Inuit at Signia 

They were on board when the Snowdrop foundered. Alex described the shipwreck to eleven year old Tom whose handwritten notes are transcribed below.

“In September 1908 we were lying at anchor in a place called Countess of Warwick’s Sound in Baffin Island.

We were watching the chance to run back to Signia to land all our Eskimos at their own home when this gale sprung up and drove us ashore.

It came on to blow from the east with heavy snow and very heavy seas. We were lying on a lee shore. Captain Brown said to me, as I was keeping his watch, to come and let him know if the wind freshened.

I went and told him at eleven o’clock at night and said, “We had better clear out if possible it is very dangerous.”

When he came on deck he gave orders for the engine to be started and we got the engine started and to full speed ahead but the cable never slackened the next order to set a small piece of mainsail and mizzen and cut the anchor cable.

All the cable was out and the windlass was broke down with the strain of the cable jerking. By this time the cable had begun to cut through the hawspipe into the hull and it was impossible to let go the end of the cable.

I was personally sent down to cut the cable with a hacksaw and another man with a candle to let me see. I broke all the hacksaw blades by the jerking of the chain as it was very heavy.

I asked for a hammer and a cold chisel and I worked and tried to cut the cable until none of the crew would hold the candle and I was left in the darkness. They were frightened for the cable breaking where I was cutting it as if the cable broke everyone in the chain locker would have been killed.

I had to come up on deck as I would not work in the darkness. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning as I had been there at eleven. I reported to the captain it was a failure he ordered to veer out another anchor and we veered out the second anchor and made it fast and sound to the foremast. Just as we had everything complete both the anchors gave way and we drove on the rocks.

Just before we entered the broken water we put the women and children down in the hold so as that they wouldn’t be washed off the deck.

When the ship struck the Captain asked, ‘Is there any of ye think ye could manage to go ashore with a rope?’ and I said, well yes, I’ll have a try so he says alright if you do get ashore you’ll have to come back. And I thought well, that was rather a tall order to come back after you did get ashore. I thought if I got ashore it would be a good enough day’s work.

The first hit she gave knocked the sternpost right up and the ship began to sink and began to break up. We had sixty five Eskimo men, women and children on board and there was a ten of our crew and there as we thought was no means of escape unless we got a rope on shore, which seemed impossible.

The captain asked the crew for someone to volunteer to go onshore with a rope and no-one spoke as everyone thought it was hopeless. Then I said I would have a try and I did manage but before I left the ship I was asked to come back after I made the rope fast on land which was about three hundred yards distant and there was broken ice between the ship the shore.

So anyhow I did get to the beach and I tied the end of the rope to a big boulder and I hauled myself back hand over hand. By this line we were able to hand every Eskimo from man to man till everyone was ashore and we didnae lose nor hurt one of them.

The Eskimos made tents out of the ships sails that were washed ashore. We stayed in these tents till the storm blew out which was about four days.”

According to Tom’s notes the shipwreck happened in Countess of Warwick’s Sound, a long way from any outside help. If they were to survive they would have to rely on themselves and their native companions. Between them they salvaged what they could from the wreck and from Alex’s description at least part of the ship’s cargo and stores were washed ashore but some things were a little harder won.

“At the end of the fourth day there was one man, an Eskimo man, went up to the high hill at the back of our tent … and he was looking out to where the ship was lying and he saw something white under the water.”

Using one of the ships dinghies that had been washed ashore they went to investigate.

“Our dinghy had many holes in it but we patched it up with bits of skin and went out in it … it was one of our whale boats and after we got ashore we consulted on what we would do now seeing we’d got a boat.”

The whale boat was a larger and more seaworthy open boat used to get close to the whales therefore more suited for travelling any distance.

Now they had a means of travelling, they discussed their options with their Inuit companions who told them that at the head of Frobisher Straits, the land was narrower and they could attempt a land crossing to Hudson Bay. The journey from the head of Frobisher Straits would have taken them across the top of Meta Incognita Peninsula to Hudson Straits. This, they reasoned, despite still being a very isolated part of the world, would give them a better chance of being picked up by a whaling ship.

“It took us seven days to get to the top of Frobisher Straits in the boat. We hauled up … and erected a small tent to lie till morning. During the night it came away a gale from the North with snow and when we tried to get out in the morning the snow was up to the top of our tent. So that finished that.”

Their plan to cross to Hudson Bay had to be abandoned before they could leave the coast of Frobisher Sound. The Inuit guide would take them no further saying the new snow was too soft and could hide too many dangers. Their plans for a land crossing thwarted, they do not appear to have been discouraged because, as soon as they returned to the wreck site, they began to prepare to sail down the Labrador coast to reach civilisation.

They set out the following day but, once again, the shipwrecked sailors became hostage to the elements. They had to shelter from deteriorating weather on an un-named island.

“… after a few days the wind seemed to be increasing and the Captain said, ‘I don’t think this is going to do boys. We’ll get away back to where the ship was lost and we’ll go north to Signia’.”

They returned to the wreck site but the Inuit hunters and their families had already left to walk to the settlement at Signia. Alex and the rest of the crew followed covering the distance of about ninety miles in only ‘five or six days’. Once there it was not long before they realised food would be a problem. Alex explained

“… we just had to do with what the Eskimo did. We had to live on chance … if they got a seal we got a share from them.”

He was full of praise for their generosity.

“When an Eskimo man gets a seal he brings it home…takes off the portion they’re going to eat and goes to the door of his ‘tupic’ or his snow house and he shouts to the whole community ‘Ineuit kiet uyung, ineuit kiet uyung’ that’s ‘everybody come and get a feed’ translated into our language.”

The Inuit families took in, fed and cared for the crew of Snowdrop who stayed in Signia from September 1908 until February 1909.

The crew was split between the various families of the settlement and Alex told of the family that took him in.

“… his name was Goodidlieat and his wife’s name was Kumnae and his mother’s name Lukta.”

Goodidlieat taught him to hunt seal showing him the signs of the ice holes the seals used to breathe and, although the Inuit tried to discourage him, Alex would go onto the sea ice to hunt on his own. This led to near disaster when, on one solo hunting trip, he fell into the sea through a crack in the ice.

After an unsuccessful hunt he was returning to the settlement, hurrying before it became dark and fell through a crack hidden by snow into the sea.

“I just dropped right down into darkness, utter darkness, and when I came to myself I knew that I was in water and thought; now this is the last’.”

Alex quickly realised his predicament and instinctively did all the right things. He managed to throw his rifle and cartridge bag up onto the ice before scrabbling out of the water.

“… I gradually pulled myself up and first I got one elbow on the ice and then another. Then I made a great effort to fall forward. I tell you I thought it was a miracle that I got out of the water.”

He made it back to the settlement but only after a long detour around the ice fissure.

“… I had to make a big detour round about this crack and I prodded the ice all the way along … when the Eskimo saw me they were amazed.

After that day they called me ‘Kiviaktow’ … which means ‘Man that was nearly drowned’.”

The villagers took him in, stripped him, gave him dry clothes. If it hadn’t been for their help Alex’s story could have ended there.

The nomadic lifestyle of the natives meant they could not continue staying at Signia and, on the sixteenth of December 1908, six families, including Alex’s friends, left to hunt for food and furs. Alex decided to go with them.

The owner of Snowdrop , Forsyth-Grant, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Alex to stay in Signia. Unable to change his mind Forsyth-Grant gave him some supplies including a large bag of biscuits and fifty cartridges for his rifle. Alex immediately shared the biscuits with ‘his family’ and the other travellers.

Hunting what they could and living in snow houses, the party trekked toward the south west coast of Meta Incognita Peninsula.

Lasting for four days over Hogmanay 1908, a storm had the whole party holed up in snow houses waiting for the weather to abate. When the storm passed the only way out was to cut their way through the top because snow had completely covered the houses.

But the constant moving and lack of the right food was taking its toll on Alex.

“I’d been travelling since the middle of December, travelling every day cos they’re [the Inuit] always shifting about looking for new hunting fields.”

… the day before we reached our destination I got very, very tired and I couldn’t keep up with them.”

To cross the peninsula they had to cross an ice field located along the south rim of Frobisher Bay called Grinnell Glacier. Alex hung onto the back lashings of the sledge but after falling many times he felt he was hindering them and asked them to leave him. They would not have been able to build snow houses on the glacier so needed to get the dogs and families off the ice before darkness.

“So I told them to go away and leave me, I was tired – and weary – and hungry – and everything.”

The Inuit said they would come back for him once they could leave their families in a safer place but Alex was afraid they might not manage. A night alone on the ice would almost certainly have meant death.

“I thought, ‘Well what a struggle I’ve had and here I am, I’m going to be frozen to death’…but there was no other help and I lay on that ice, perishing with cold and nearly frozen. I prayed help would come somehow…but when I had given everything up – I was just finished – I thought I heard voices.”

The Inuit had reached a place they could build their snow houses and, after ensuring their families were safe, two men come back to rescue him. They carried their dogs, seven of them, across the broken ice at the edge of the glacier to look for him.

“…’Well,’ they said, they didn’t expect to get me alive. They thought that I would be frozen by the time that they would reach me.”

They took him off the glacier and again shared what food and warmth they had with him. They told him he was the only white man that had ever crossed the glacier.

“I think Archibald Fleming crossed it once, but I think it was farther north … and it took him a fortnight. We were four days, if I can remember rightly, on the glacier.”

They continued across the peninsula eventually reaching Hudson Strait but were unable to find much food. When they met another group of nomads heading for Lake Harbour– today called Kimmirut – Alex carried on with them.

His new companions had even less food and for the next two days they ate nothing eventually resorting to chewing walrus skin to survive and, on reaching Lake Harbour, Alex’ problems worsened.

“My Face all seemed to be queer somehow and I asked the people if there was anything wrong and they said, yes, my face was very much swelled.

It is almost certain that Alex was suffering from scurvy causing his extreme fatigue. Until the discovery that scurvy could be avoided by regular doses of vitamin C, it was dreaded amongst sailors because it almost certainly meant death. In Alex’s weakened condition, and the lack of vitamin C needed to counteract the disease, it would only have been a matter of time before he succumbed.

“… I grew ill and I was twenty one days that I didn’t know nothing.”

Again the Inuit looked after him. By now it was getting warmer and the snow houses were being abandoned for nomadic summer dwellings, the skin tents or ‘tupigs’. By this time Alex’s condition was so bad the Inuit family had to resort to ingenious methods to move him.

“… they cut out a hole in the snow house and pushed in a sledge and lifted me, bedclothes, sleeping bag and everything onto the sledge and took me down to their tupig.”

Before long the Inuit had to be on the move again.

“… the summer was beginning to come in and the Eskimo…said they were going down to the Saddle Back Islands in the hope of meeting the whaler ‘Active’ from Dundee.”

The effects of his illness were causing Alex even more difficulty and when they left Lake Harbour by boat, he was not able to do much more than steer while the Inuit rowed. Sometimes, in favourable winds, they sailed but for most of the journey they rowed.

Around the end of June 1909, the Dundee whaler Active called in at Saddle Back Island but by then Alex was a very sick man.

“I was so weak I could hardly climb up the side ladder. When I got aboard all the crew came and they shook hands with the new Eskimos…I saw three men that I had been shipmates with on Snowdrop the previous year.

… there was one standing close beside me, his name was Jim Scott…and after I’d shaken his hand, he was about to turn and go away, I said, ‘Jimmy, don’t you know me?’“

It was only after he spoke, the crew of the Active realised he was not a native. He was given food and clothing. But, as Alex explains:

“… before [I was taken] below the Captain took me by the back of the neck, by the hood of my ‘koolitan’, and … put me in a steelyard that was hanging on the spanker boom and I weighed seven stone as I was. That was with all my clothes and boots on.”

The Captain asked Alex to stay with the Inuit and he would pick him up at the end of the whaling season but the St John’s schooner, Lorna Doone , arrived before Active retuned.

Again he was mistaken for a native by a missionary, the Reverend Earnest Peck, who had sailed with the Lorna Doone.

“So he [Peck ] said, ‘I thought you was an Eskimo.’ ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I’m a Scotsman’.”

Alex was taken to St Anthony, in Newfoundland and managed to get passage to St Johns in a ship called the Prospero .

From there he sailed for Scotland on the liner Siberia and arrived in the upper Firth of Clyde, in November 1909, nineteen months after sailing on the ill-fated Snowdrop .

Alex never forgot the people he lived with during his time in the Arctic, the people who had shared their food and shelter and their lives with a stranger.

“Well, when we left everyone of the Eskimo came down to the beach to say goodbye.

I never forgot these people all my life. I’ve always wished like I could be able to go back and repay them, you see? But eh, it was a thing that was impossible.”

The next year Alex turned down an offer from Osbert Clare Forsyth-Grant to return to the Arctic on his new boat the Seduisante .

Alex never managed to return to Baffin Island and apart from serving as a naval officer during the first world war, lived and worked for the remainder of his life in Gourdon.

Acknowledgements

Tom Ritchie, Johnshaven

Maurice Forsythe-Grant, Ecclesgreig.

Maggie Law Maritime Museum, Gourdon.