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The last resting place of the Sailing Ship Onega

The SS Onega was a Dundee based brig (a two masted square rigged sailing vessel) on passage from Montreal in Canada back to Dundee in December 1862. She was owned by George Armitstead & Co, bought by them in 1852, when she was two years old. Her tonnage was rated at 229, making her the largest brig in the companies fleet, although she would have been only about twice the size of a modern fishing vessel.

The SS Onega was sailing along the North Coast on the 20th December when it was hit by a violent storm. The ships master decided to try to sit out the storm in the quiet waters behind Eilean Roan. However he misjudged the waves that build up in the shallow waters of the Kyle when the wind is in the North East, and the vessel dragged her anchor. She dragged right into the shallows off Coldbackie Beach, where the huge waves pounded her to a wreck. The shallow waters of the Kyle can raise significant waves in a very short time.

The vessels lifeboats were carried away and overturned, and despite attempts to launch boats from Coldbackie and Scullomie all the crew were drowned. The bodies were washed up on the coast from Coldbackie Beach around to Eilean Roan. Three were recovered in a small cove on the South East of the island, which was then known as Port na Coinnle - Bay of the Candles, from the phosphorescence in the water draining from the clothes and lifejackets of the dead crew. All the crew were buried in Tongue, and a song, well known as The Stately Onega was composed locally at the time of the wreck. It tells of the vessels voyage, the shipwreck and the great efforts of the local people to rescue the drowning crew. It was popular at ceilidhs up to the 1970s.

All that remains of the Onega is buried on Coldbackie beach, and consists of wrought iron ribs, which can be seen at low tides hard against the tip of a rock on the east side of Coldbackie beach. The rock must have halted the vessels progress up the beach. Occasional metal ribs could be found on the beach, wedged between rocks, up to the 1980s. They fascinated me as a child in the 60s and 70s and indeed I pulled a muscle in my back recovering one around 1984! The wreck was completely covered in sand from about 1970 (when the Kyle of Tongue causeway was built and Coldbackie beach grew significantly) until the late 1990s, when the beach lost a lot of sand. For a time the complete outline of the wreck was visible, although now only the one or two ribs in this photo can be seen.

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