IN this week of 1953, Scotland was rocked by the MV Princess Victoria disaster in which the roll-on/roll-off ferry going from Stranraer to Larne sank during a ferocious storm with the loss of 135 lives.

The ferry – built at Dumbarton by the Denny group – was swamped by heavy seas after it left Loch Ryan and despite an extensive rescue operation, only 44 people survived.

The storm also caused widespread flooding in Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium in which more than 2500 people died.

The storm ravaged Scotland with 19 people killed, mostly at sea with 70 fishing boats damaged and at least two sunk. Harbours and sea walls were damaged as far apart as Shetland and Banff.

Conditions in the Minch and around the Hebrides were devastating. The Fleetwood trawler Michael Griffiths sank about 10 miles south of Barra Head with the loss of 13 crew, and two crew members of the Islay lifeboat Charlotte Elizabeth collapsed and died in the engine room of the vessel while searching for the trawler.

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More than 300 people on the east coast of England died when a storm-caused tidal surge from the North Sea overwhelmed what flood defences there were in place at the time. The flooding was widely described at the time as the worst peacetime disaster to affect Britain in the 20th century.

As a result of the Princess Victoria sinking and the catastrophic floods, one extraordinary story of exceptional Scottish heroism during the storm was generally missed by the media, and the courage of many people on the Isle of Lewis never fully gained the public acclaim it deserved. I want to put that right today by telling the story of the ship’s crew that cheated death against the odds.

The SS Clan MacQuarrie had originally been the Ocean Wayfarer – one of the many transport vessels built to a standard British Government plan in Canada during the Second World War. Launched in 1942, the ship was bought by the Glasgow-based Clan Line in 1951 and renamed in honour of the original SS Clan MacQuarrie that was sunk by an Italian submarine in 1942.

It was late on January 30, 1953 that the SS Clan MacQuarrie headed round the Butt of Lewis. The 7000-tonne cargo ship had unloaded 14,500 bales of jute at Dundee and was heading with ballast via the Pentland Firth for the Clyde.

As the winds reached hurricane force – gusts of 100mph were recorded across the north of Scotland – the Clan MacQuarrie was driven ashore near Borve on Lewis. The grounded ship was in a precarious position on the rocks and no sea rescue was possible.

HM Coastguard was alerted, as was the Stornoway Life Saving Company. A full-scale rescue operation began, with trucks full of men and gear battling for more than 20 miles through the hurricane and whirling snow to Borve where local people had already gathered to volunteer their services.

The final mile to the ship was accomplished on foot, with the lifesaving equipment being carried on shoulders and by hand. At times, the rescuers were reduced to crawling on their hands and knees as they neared the shore.

The senior Coastguard officer needed the support of three men simply to be able to stand and observe the ship. It was clear that the vessel was liable to be massively damaged in the conditions, and the crew of 66 would need to be brought ashore by breeches buoy.

In the early morning of January 31, three attempts were made to launch a line to the ship by rocket, but all failed. A searchlight brought in to illuminate the operation was swamped by a huge wave and the rescuers had to take shelter and make another plan. Eventually, in the late morning, a line was floated ashore from the ship, and an amazing breeches buoy rescue began.

One by one, each crew member was brought to safety at the rate of one man every two-and-half minutes. The 66 men were taken to Stornoway to recover. It was the biggest rescue by breeches buoy ever carried out, a record which still stands to this day.

The ship was re-floated when the weather improved and it was taken south to the Firth of Clyde where inspections found that the damage was too great. The SS Clan MacQuarrie ended its days in a ship-breaking yard at Troon.

There were press reports at the time of the rescue but the world-beating scale of the breeches buoy operation was not realised at first.

A tribute was paid in the House of Commons a few days later when Western Isles MP Malcolm Macmillan asked Alan Lennox-Boyd, the Minister of Transport and Aviation, whether he had yet received “a report on the rescue of the SS Clan MacQuarrie, which went ashore on the Isle of Lewis during the night of January 30”.

Lennox-Boyd replied: “Yes. I am glad to say that despite the very adverse weather conditions – wind of hurricane force with snow and hail which greatly reduced the visibility – HM Coastguard, with the assistance of the life-saving company and a number of local helpers, succeeded in rescuing the master and crew of the vessel, 66 men all told, by breeches buoy. I should like to take this opportunity [to express] our appreciation for the gallant conduct of all concerned in this rescue operation.”

The Coastguard station and the Stornoway lifesavers were awarded the Ministry of Transport Shield for the best rescue operation of the year.

Local people on Lewis got their own commemoration of the rescue in the shape of a community hall at Borve. It was originally provided by the Clan Line and was named after the SS Clan MacQuarrie. After 50 years, the hall had served its purpose and a replacement was required. The name has been retained for the new community centre at Borve built after a successful fund-raising venture in 2009. It serves the whole of the west side of Lewis and marks the bravery of the people of that area.