Half a mile west of Kilchoman lies the spectacular, yet treacherous, Machir Bay. The western coastline of Islay is one of the most exposed areas of the island, with nothing but the North Atlantic between it and Newfoundland. It was here, in Machir Bay and the waters around Islay that in 1918 troopships the SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto were sunk during World War 1, resulting in the loss of nearly 700 men.
To mark the 100th anniversary of both tragedies and to celebrate the community of Islay and the spirit of friendship and self-sacrifice shown by its people during World War 1, we have bottled a special single cask to raise funds for WW100 Islay, supporting the on-going remembrance of those lost and continued celebration of Islay's unique community spirit.
This single cask bottling, cask 742/2010 was distilled here at Kilchoman, within a mile of Machir Bay and matured in an American bourbon barrel for eight years. It is available from the distillery shop for £95, bottled at cask strength, 58% alc. All funds raised from the sale of the 252 individually numbered bottles will be donated to WW100 Islay.
Kilchoman, Islay and the Troopships HMS Otranto and SS Tuscania
Kilchoman is named after one of the Celtic saints who, from the 6th century, navigated the seas of the Hebrides to bring their faith to heathen islanders. They must have been intrepid – for even today ships stay clear of this beautiful, pitiless, coastline. Innumerable vessels have been wrecked off Kilchoman Bay – also known as Machir Bay – but none more dramatically than HMS Otranto.
Built as a luxury liner, she was requisitioned at the outbreak of WW1 and fitted with guns and armour-plating. Just five weeks before the conflict ended, the Otranto was part of a 13-strong convoy bringing American soldiers to Europe. Every U.S. soldier and British sailor aboard knew of another ship, the SS Tuscania with more than 2,300 American soldiers and 241 British crew aboard, that only eight months earlier had been torpedoed off Islay. Three destroyers and a flotilla of minesweepers steamed to the rescue that freezing February night but some lifeboats were missed by the rescuers and, in the early hours of the morning, were smashed against the cliffs of Islay’s Oa peninsula. Local farmers scoured the cliffs for survivors and helped them to their homes. Scores of men were saved but more than 220 died that night. In the days that followed the islanders gathered and buried the bodies with honour and dignity. While Islay was unable to bury the 200 of its own men lost in WW1, it treated these strangers as if they were their own. Before the first mass funeral, four local women sat up all night to sew a Stars and Stripes so that the dead American soldiers could be laid to rest beneath their own flag. Eight months later, another disaster happened off Islay, but it was not a U-boat that would claim HMS Otranto. On October 6th 1918, caught in a violent storm and unsure of her position, she collided with a troopship in her convoy, HMS Kashmir.
While the damaged Kashmir managed to limp to the safety of the Clyde, the stricken Otranto was driven by the storm towards the rocky coast south of Kilchoman Bay. In a heroic and superb feat of seamanship, and at great risk to his ship and crew, British destroyer Captain Francis Craven managed to bring the 900-ton HMS Mounsey alongside the 12,000-ton Otranto. Amid the storm, six hundred men jumped for their lives onto the little Mounsey and were saved. The 500 left aboard the Otranto were thrown into the water when the helpless vessel struck the Botha na Cailleach – the Old Woman’s Reef – off Kilchoman.
Kilchoman farmers, shepherds, and servicemen home on leave rushed to the shore and risked their lives to pull men from the maelstrom, but only 19 were saved. Kilchoman’s manse, the homes of local folk and Rockside School became temporary hospitals where survivors were nursed back to life. The following day the islanders began to recover the bodies of the dead. Police sergeant, Malcolm MacNeill, the most senior civic official on the island, painstaking examined every single body for clues to its identity, in order to give as many possible graves a name. With nearly 700 men lost in the two tragedies, it was a grim responsibility which he fulfilled superbly, winning himself the MBE. The victims were laid to rest in a new military cemetery close to Kilchoman Church. The US Government later removed the American dead, but Captain Ernest Davidson of the Otranto and many of his crew still lie at Kilchoman where the Ileachs buried them on the beautiful but perilous coastline where they
lost their lives. On the roadside close to Kilchoman Distillery lies a cairn in memory of two brothers, Duncan and Charles MacNiven, who worked at Rockside Farm. The brothers were well-known bards, and Duncan, who was wounded in WW1, wrote a moving lament for the Otranto.
A chaoidh bidh blàthas gus ’n latha mu dheireadh
Aig America ri Ile,
Oir tha còrr is ceithir cheud dhiubh,
Air an tiodhlacadh ann gu dilinn,
Fo thulachean gorma Chille-Chomain
Tha na h-òganaich ’nan sineadh,
’S los gu’n dùisgear o na mairbh iad,
Ghiulan arm do dh’Iosa Criosda.
Till the last dread trump be sounded,
Never will Columbus’ Land,
Cease to think with pride, but sadly,
Of green Islay’s distant land.
There full more than four hundred
Brave ones sleep beneath its sod,
Till they waken on yon morning,
In the skies to meet their God.