Betty Mouat

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Picture taken in Ålesund 10 days after Betty was saved
"Columbine" at Fair Isle
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

Betty Mouat, from Scatness, born in 1825, found unwanted fame in early 1886, when as a frail 60 year old, she found herself adrift in the North Sea on the smack, Columbine with no crew onboard.

Elizabeth 'Betty' Mouat, daughter of Thomas Mouat, Levenwick, became fatherless at only 6 months old when her father disappeared with a whaler in the Arctic Sea. Her mother re-married, to the crofter Thomas Hay from Scatness.
Betty never married, and when both her parents had died, she stayed on the croft helping her half brother James Hay with the household. Like many other Shetland women, Betty was a skilled knitter, and she decided to take a trip to Lerwick to sell her knitting, and also to see a doctor, as her health had not been good recently.

Skipper James Jamieson onboard Columbine, to the right. The helmsman, Willie Smith, was not amomg the crew when Columbine drifted to Norway
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

What was meant to be a simple trip from Grutness to Lerwick turned into a nightmare. The wind turned quickly and violently into the southeast shortly after the Columbine departed, and in increasingly heavy seas, while attempting to secure the main boom, the Skipper James Jamieson, from Spiggie, and the mate Jeremiah (Jerry) Smith, from Sandwick, were washed overboard. The mate managed to retain his hold on the main sheet and pulled himself back on board but the skipper was washed away. Seeing their skipper swimming, some distance astern, Jerry and the deckhand Oliver Smith, also from Sandwick, launched the Columbine's small boat, in an attempt to rescue their skipper. They searched the area where they had last seen Jamieson in the water, but found no sign of him. Giving up the search they headed back to the Columbine, but to their horror realised that the smack's sails were drawing wind and sailing faster than they could row. They had to give up and made landfall through heavy surf, at Voe, Boddam.

A contemporary representation from 'The Graphic'

An hour after the men had come ashore, the owner, John Bruce of Sumburgh, got the news about what had happened. He offered substantial sums of money to anyone who would go out with a boat and search for the Columbine, but the weather was too heavy for the small boats in the area. A message was sent to Lerwick with a request to send out a steamer. Unfortunately neither of the big steamers were in Lerwick. The St Clair was en-route from Orkney, and would not arrive before late in the evening, and the Earl of Zetland, skippered by William Nicolson, would only arrive to join the search by next morning. A steam-freighter, the Gipsy, however, was on tour to Yell, and she went out searching. The Columbine was not seen, and after two days everyone believed her sunk.

This left Betty Mouat alone and drifting in a North Sea storm, with little provisions. All she had was a bottle of milk and some biscuits.

Looking northwest towards Lepsøy. The bay were Betty stranded is on the other side of the ness to the left

The chances of survival in winter storms would have been bleak for any person, let alone a 60 year old woman. But fate can twist events in many directions and 9 days after her voyage began, Betty Mouat, in the Columbine, was washed ashore on the 7th of February, on a beach at Lepsøy, near Ålesund, in Norway. The wreck was seen from the small village Rønstad, and men rushed to the shore to try to save it, and found Betty alive on board.
When the news came from Ålesund that Betty Mouat was alive, it was seen as a miracle, and she got a great welcome when she returned--first in Edinburgh, where she rested for three weeks with relatives, and then in Lerwick, when she arrived on the St Clair in late March.

Subscription lists were opened for Betty, and a notable donation was £20 from Queen Victoria with a letter of praise and sympathy.

Despite her adventure, Betty Mouat lived until 6th February 1918, 32 years after her famous voyage. She was 93 years old.

Betty some time after she came back to Shetland
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

A Sea Court was held on the 3rd of March, and it was decided to hold an auction over the ship and the cargo. The cargo of the Columbine consisted mainly of barrels of herring, sacks of potatoes, hams, and a few utensils. But there was one interesting item, a sword, which was bought by the local Sheriff, Hans Vestre. This sword is now in the possession of a grand nephew of Hans Vestre.

The name Columbine became associated with good luck in Norway, and several boats were given the name. This has made it complicated to find out about the fate of the ship. It is known that she was bought by Otto Jervell, a merchant in Ålesund, who had her repaired at Liaaen Shipyard, and first used her as a private yacht and then as a cargo ship. She was wrecked again in 1896, at Folla, but rescued and sold in north Norway. What happened to her later is unclear.

Knut Veblungsnes, one of Betty Mouat's rescue men, as an old man in Ålesund
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

Six men involved in the rescue each received from HM Queen Victoria and the British Government, an inscribed silver medal and £2, as well as sharing the £10 reward which was put up by John Bruce, the owner of the Columbine. These men were: Bernt P. Rønstad, aged 38, from Haram; Paul Hestholm, aged 19, from Herøy; Knut Veblungsnes, aged 24, from Rauma; Johan Rekdal, aged 41, from Vestnes; Ole Nesset, aged 26, from Nesset; and Bertinius H. Knarvik, aged 29, from Lindås. There was a seventh man involved: Elling Hestholm, aged 21, from Herøy, who shunned the limelight and claimed no reward, but his name does appear on the memorial in Lepsøy. All the men, except Bernt Rønstad, were men hired into the area to crew the boats for the Atlantic Cod season.

Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The bay where the Columbine came ashore is now known as "Columbinebukta" (Columbine Bay).

100 years after Betty was rescued on Lepsøy, the local cultural and history society, (Haram kulturistoriske lag), translated Roderick Grant's story into Norwegian, and put up a copper plaque, with text both Norwegian and English, commemorating the stranding and the rescue, and listing the rescue men, near the place where Columbine stranded.
This plaque was unveiled by T.M.Y. Manson on the 17th of May 1986.

Betty Mouat's Böd
Betty Mouat's Memorial at Dunrossness Churchyard

Betty was buried in the Churchyard in Dunrossness. In reacent years a memorial stone has been erected on her grave.
Betty Mouat's house, which stands next to the Old Scatness archeological dig at Scatness in the South Mainland, has in recent years been converted to a Camping Böd.

The full story of Betty's unintended voyage can be read in Drifting Alone to Norway — The Amazing Adventure of Betty Mouat by T.M.Y. Manson, a little 50 page booklet with 8 photos, published by T and J Manson of The Shetland News Office in 1936, reprinted in 1942. In 1986 it was rewritten, due to the 100 year anniversary, and this one was reprinted in 1996.
See also The Lone Voyage of Betty Mouat by Roderick Grant, Impulse Books, Aberdeen (1973).

External Link

The ruin with the stained glass window
Stained glass window installed in a ruined building at Boddam, Dunrossness, showing the history of Betty Mouat.
The project was assisted by the P5 pupils at Dunrossness Primary School, and poems by class members are on display within the building.
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