Fifty years ago this week: the sinking of the Iona

Ian Balgowan has dedicated his life to the fishing industry.
Ian Balgowan has dedicated his life to the fishing industry.

Readers of our ‘From the Files’ nostalgia column may recognise a familiar name in our report from 1965 - that of local fisherman Ian Balgowan.

Ian, a ‘well kent’ face in Stonehaven, has been working on fishing boats out of the harbour for well over 50 years, but January 21, 1965, sticks out as a poignant date. It was on this day that he was involved in a dramatic rescue from his sinking boat, the Iona, just outside the harbour.

The Mearns Leader reported on the ordeal at the time.

The Mearns Leader reported on the ordeal at the time.

The Mearns Leader reported the scene at the time after the Iona was dashed against rocks near Crammie Cair point: “On shore, local fishermen and townsfolk looked on anxiously while skipper Robert Cormack (35), Ian Balgowan (19), and Ian Watt (16) hung on to the rail at the bow of their sinking boat.

“It was while they were returning from a fishing trip that they were caught by the swell and swept towards the rocks. A smaller craft, Silver Cord, skippered by Mr George C. Leiper. High Street, quickly went to the rescue. The swell was too great for it to go alongside the Iona, so a rope was thrown to the waiting crew.

“Acting as anchor-man, Ian Balgowan tied the rope round his waist while the two companions clung to it. All jumped into the icy water and were pulled 20 feet to safety on the Silver Cord.”

The article finishes with the paragraph: “For Ian Balgowan, the drama was a repeat of an incident in which he was involved four years ago when the “Loyalty” sank at almost the same spot.

‘‘When his father was asked if this second incident would deter Ian from returning to the sea, he replied: ‘He has no qualms about going back. The sea is his life.’”

Ian’s father was right, and he was back at sea the very next day.

Now, with his 70th birthday approaching in March, he continues to work full-time on the boats while also volunteering at the Tolbooth Museum in his spare time, and serving on Stonehaven and District Community Council.

We had a chat with Ian about the sinking of the Iona, as well as a look back at his career as a fisherman in Stonehaven over the last 50 years.

“I remember it vividly,” he begins, while we look back at old press cuttings in a workshed at Stonehaven harbour.

“We were just coming in, it was a beautiful day. But suddenly we were caught in a big swell, and instead of the usual six or seven miles an hour we were surfing a wave at about 20 miles an hour! The boat landed on the rocks and keeled over.

“It wasn’t scary to jump overboard, it was a matter of survival. I can remember Robbie Cormack’s hat coming flying off as he jumped overboard.”

Ian says of Robbie, the co-owner of the Iona and skipper that day, that he was a “true gentleman” who helped him get a start in the fishing industry, and he will never forget the kindness he showed to him as a youngster starting out.

The pair continued a business relationship until Robbie sadly died in 1978 at the age of just 49.

The two men had also been in partnership with Ian Shearer, and the relationship between the two Ians continues to this day, 45 years after they went into business.

Ian Balgowan said: “I have been very fortunate and lucky to have a brilliant partner in Ian.”.

The pair have co-owned a series of boats over the years, including several incarnations of the Sweet Promise, and the boat they now own, Harvester, which is moored at Gourdon.

The call of the sea came when Ian was just 16 years old, despite his family’s farming background.

He said: “I was born into a farming family who lived on the Auchenblae road. We were due to emigrate to Australia in 1953, but we were unable to go as my mother was unwell, and so my parents moved to Stonehaven and started up a dairy on Barclay Street.”

Ian gave farming a go after leaving school aged 15, but lasted just 10 months before deciding to go to sea, and the draw is still there for him, all these years later.

He said: “I still enjoy it, and have no plans to retire. I like the challenge of it, and that every day your catch is different.

The storm in October of last year, which saw huge waves crash over the harbour wall and residents of Turner Court evacuated, was, in Ian’s opinion, the worst storm the town has seen since the early 1960s. Several boats in Stonehaven harbour were damaged or destroyed by the force of the waves.

Ian’s parting words to us were: “I was very fortunate when I started out to get good advice from the older fishermen, Alec Malcolm in particular.

‘‘wI learned that if you were prepared to listen, they were prepared to teach you.

“I try to help whenever I can, it is my way of thanking those who helped me.”