Stowaways thrown off ship near N.L. remembered by descendants 150 years later

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Stowaways thrown off ship near N.L. remembered by descendants 150 years later

Every family has a backstory — family trees full of fisherman or pioneers, hard workers and some bad apples.

But a family from Australia is in Newfoundland and Labrador this week to honour a family history that involves a fateful shipwreck, stowaways, tragedy, the frigid North Atlantic and a heroic rescue.

David Brand, a retired engineer from New South Wales, and his wife arrived in the province earlier this week along with their son, also named David.

They've travelled halfway across the world to be part of an emotional unveiling ceremony in the small community of Highlands on the west coast of Newfoundland.

"It's incredible. I saw a photo of this site being prepared last week and I said 'beautiful and stark' and I think that's what it is right now that I'm seeing it, shivering in the cold," said David Brand Sr., standing near a memorial site atop a cliff.

For several months, the Bay St. George South Historical Society and the Bay St. George South Area Development Association have been working to establish the commemorative site to honour six young Scottish boys and one young man who were tossed from a passing ship 150 years ago, and the locals who helped save them.

One of those boys, the then-16-year-old David Jolly Brand, is David Brand's great-grandfather.

"It's a funny feeling when you think about this adventurous spirit they had back in those times. It could have been finished out there on the ice," he said.

Brand will be one of a number of descendants taking part in a ceremony for the unveiling of three interpretive kiosks in Highlands on Saturday.

There, he'll get the chance to meet a man by the name of Don MacInnis, the great-great-grandson of Catherine Ann Gillis-MacInnis — the woman credited with spotting and saving Brand's great-grandfather from what surely would have been a cold death out on the ice.

"We're at the stage now where we just thank God that we are here, and for the care and the compassion of the families and for the friendship that was offered to those boys over months," said Brand.

"They really didn't want to leave because they could see what was being offered to them and it was so beautiful."

The stowaways

On April 7, 1868, a Scottish trading vessel named the Arran left Greenock, Scotland, bound for Quebec with a cargo of coal and oakum. Unbeknownst to the crew, seven young Scots had managed to stow away onboard.

Hugh M'Ewan, John Paul, Hugh M'Ginnes, Peter Currie, James Bryson, David Jolly Brand and Bernard Reilly were all between the ages of 11 and 22 with dreams of becoming sailors. Unfortunately for them, the crew onboard the Arran did not take kindly to stowaways.

By the time they were discovered, it was already too late to turn back, and the crew had no choice but to forge on with the uninvited guests onboard.

What may sound like an adventure turned into a nightmarish ordeal for the boys, six of whom were between the ages of 11 and 16.

"On one occasion, one of the boys, James Bryson, had some 'internal' issues and made a mess in the area they were allowed to stay in and because of that, he was severely abused," said Taylor Chaffey, president of the Bay St. George Historical Society.

"He was stripped of his clothes and naked in the freezing conditions. He was scrubbed by a hard broom to the point where he became bloody."

Over the next few weeks they continued to be starved, beaten and abused. The freezing conditions of the North Atlantic made for even worse conditions, as some of the boys had minimal clothing and were often barefoot.

Trapped in the ice

Things took a turn for the worse when the ship rounded Newfoundland and became stuck in the waters off Bay St. George South. It was one of several ships stuck in the area at that time, the thick ice making it impossible to get by.

By May 15, it became clear that there wasn't enough food and supplies to go around, and the boys were forced off the ship. That was when the captain in charge made the decision to throw them off.

A frozen death

They boys walked across the icefields for hours searching for a nearby ship. When they couldn't find one, they made the decision to head toward land.

Two of the boys didn't survive. Eleven-year-old Hugh M'Ewan fell into the water several times. The last time he didn't come up. Twelve-year-old Hugh M'Ginnes, walking over the ice with no shoes, became too exhausted to go on and had to be left behind.

"The reports are they turned their back on him listening to his cries, knowing that to try to carry him with them meant they probably wouldn't have made it either," said Chaffey.

The rescue

When the remaining boys reached the edge of the icefields they discovered that there was more than a mile of freezing cold water standing between them and the shore.

Just as they began to give up hope, they were spotted by, coincidentally, a Scottish immigrant, Catherine Ann Gillis-MacInnis, who quickly mobilized a group of men in the area to go out and rescue the boys.

"One of the lads, who was named 'Wee Pauly' or John Paul, he couldn't stand when they arrived on shore so he was carried up to the house by one of the rescuers," said Chaffey.

"The next day all of the boys found they were snow blind, but they were very well taken care of and stayed in the area for at least a month before they began their journey back to Scotland."

A tale for the ages

Now that the interpretive kiosks are in place, the Bay St. George South Historical Society is planning to hold commemorative events annually on the third Saturday in May. They hope it will help to keep this harrowing tale alive, and show gratitude to the families involved.