The attractive fishing village of Gourdon can be found a mile south of Inverbervie and offers one of the few natural harbours along this stretch of east-facing Aberdeenshire coast. In the heart of the village and close to the harbour is the old coastguard building which is home to the Maggie Law Maritime Museum.
The North Sea can be wild and fearsome at times, and the Aberdeenshire coast is particularly unforgiving to vessels in difficulty. As a result tragedies were commonplace for centuries. Lifeboats were first introduced in the UK in the 1820s. In March 1890 the fishermen of Gourdon decided to address the particular problems faced by those attempting to gain the shelter of the harbour at Gourdon in bad weather, and commissioned the double ended surf lifeboat, Maggie Law, from Gourdon boatbuilder James Mowatt. The vessel was completed in May 1890, and named after the daughter of a local fish merchant, Tom Law.
The word "lifeboat" brings to mind the powerful and robust orange vessels capable of taking on the very worst that the weather and the sea can throw at them. Your first sight of the Maggie Law is therefore something of a surprise. What you find is a shallow draughted 30ft clinker built wooden rowing boat with a beam of six feet. She could be launched quickly and was ideally suited to working in and around the rocky harbour mouth of Gourdon, where she could help vessels having difficulty entering the harbour.
Having initially shared the cost of building the vessel, the fishermen of Gourdon also paid for the upkeep of the Maggie Law, and each man paid a penny out of every pound (or about 0.4%) of his earnings into a fund set up for the purpose. The Maggie Law was rowed by six men, and served from 1890 to 1930. During that time she saved 36 lives. The Maggie Law supplemented the RNLI Lifeboats which were based at Gourdon from 1878 until 1969, when it was decided coverage could be maintained by the lifeboats at Aberdeen and Montrose.
The survival of the Maggie Law is remarkable. It is known that James Mowatt built a number of vessels, including several designed by Hercules Linton, designer of the Cutty Sark and originally from nearby Inverbervie. These included a "48 foot long pleasure yacht" and two steam fishing boats. It is believed that the Maggie Law is the only vessel built by James Mowatt to have survived.
The museum was opened in 1997 by Gerald Bannerman, the grandson of James Mowat. In November 2011, Aberdeenshire Council provided funding to allow the building and exhibits to be refurbished, and the museum was reopened on 12 April 2013, by Dame Anne Begg MP.
A visit to the museum should form an essential part of any visit to Gourdon, and Gourdon itself should not be missed by anyone travelling up or down the A92, which passes just inland of the village. The downstairs boatshed is home to the star exhibit, Maggie Law herself, and the remaining space is brim-full of a wide range of artefacts celebrating Gourdon's fishing heritage, the story of Hercules Linton and the Cutty Sark, and much more.
The upper floor, reached by a set of external stone steps, houses additional exhibits and reference material, and offers a fine view over the harbour. When visiting, remember that the museum is largely dependent on voluntary contributions from visitors, and do your bit to ensure that future generations will still be able to see, touch, and appreciate the story of the Maggie Law.