Scotland has a coastline of considerable length and huge complexity, and is a country renowned for rapidly changing weather patterns that can at times be extremely ferocious. That is a pretty unwelcome combination of factors for mariners. It is perhaps therefore no surprise to hear from the author in his introduction that "Beneath our seas lie around 5,000 known wrecks, with countless others yet to be discovered."
"Scotland's Cruel Sea: Heroism and Disaster off the Scottish Coast" by Robert Jeffrey takes the reader on a clockwise tour of Scotland, beginning in the far south west with the sinking of the car ferry MV Princess Victoria en route from Stranraer to Larne on 31 January 1953 with the loss of 133 lives; and travelling right around the country to end with the Eyemouth disaster of 14 October 1881, in which 189 fishermen were killed by a sudden storm that caught the fishing fleet at sea. The author says in his introduction that he has made no attempt to provide a definitive or comprehensive account of wrecks and disasters around our shores. Instead he has picked a personal selection of the most striking, with particular emphasis on losses during the 1900s, especially in the two world wars.
Submarines feature prominently, including the appalling design issues that led to the sinking of K-13 on 29 January 1917; the loss of HMS Vandal off Arran on 24 February 1943 (just four days after commissioning); and the loss of two Royal Navy submarines during what has become known as "The Battle of May Island" on the night of 31 January and 1 February 1918, a battle in which no enemy ships took part. We also find between the covers accounts including the tragic saga of the loss of the Iolaire entering Stornoway harbour at the end of World War One; the sinking of HMS Hampshire off Orkney; the Piper Alpha disaster; the collapse of the Tay rail bridge; helicopter accidents in the North Sea; the heroism of RNLI lifeboat crews and considerably more. There is even a passing reference to the loss of a RAF flying boat based in Oban.
This could have been a depressing book, but the author's highly engaging style knits together the many individual incidents covered in a way that is extremely readable. This is no mere catalogue of disasters. Rather it is an extremely well researched and beautifully written book that manages to be both informative and, despite the subject matter, enjoyable.