Diver’s discovery ends mystery of lost Forth ship

IT is a maritime mystery that has confounded generations of divers in the Firth of Forth.

The recovered bell from the Mallard. Picture: Mike Merritt

But nearly a century after it was lost in a violent storm, the final resting place of the Mallard has been confirmed.

The steamship was en route from Dysart to Aberdeen on 13 July 1921 when, laden with a cargo of coal, it perished in fierce conditions off the Isle of May.

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Although a Dutch minesweeper, Alkmaar, identified a wreck in the area during a NATO exercise in 1989, no one has been able to identify the ship lying on the seabed.

Diving expert Bob Baird in front of HMS Switha before it sank. Picture: Mike Merritt

Now, a Scottish diver has turned up an encrusted ship’s bell which has at last confirmed the site as the Mallard’s watery grave.

Ian Robertson was on a dive in June when he happened across the metal object lying loose on the seabed. After raising it and carrying out a power wash, the name of the Mallard was revealed.

The discovery is vindication for the research of Bob Baird, a 74-year-old diving expert who has written several books in which he argued that the wreck was that of the vessel, built in 1875 by Earles of Hull.

An excited Mr Robertson emailed Mr Baird’s publishers, Whittles of Caithness, with the conclusive evidence of the bell.

“The Mallard ran into a storm and was unable to cope with the heavy seas. It was just overcome by the waves,” said Mr Baird, from Dunfermline.

“Quite a few divers had dived the wreck over the past 26 years, but no-one had been able to find any evidence to prove the identity until now.

“Ian dived the wreck in June and saw an object lying loose on the seabed. This turned out to be a bell which had become detached from the wreck.”

After the Mallard got into difficulty one mile off the North Ness of the Isle of May, its crew was rescued by the motorboat Snowdrop which landed them safely in Anstruther.

However, research from the Records of the Admiralty cast doubt on the location of the wreck, suggesting that the Mallard went down east of the island.

When a 124-foot long boat was found by the Alkmaar sitting upright in 1989 on a sandy shingle bottom, some 137 feet down, it added to the intrigue.

Despite studying the boat on several dives, Mr Baird has been unable - until now - to say for sure that it was the same boat.

The retired motor trader and former diver explained: “I knew I was right. Part of the problem was that the Admiralty record had it east of the Isle of May near an ammunition dumping ground. I never believed it was there - based on researching the records of those who were rescued. I knew it had to be north of the Isle of May.

“I am delighted that the bell has been found and finally proves the ship’s identity and me right. It’s quite amazing. The bell had fallen off the wreck and was on the seabed.

“Ian had dived the wreck a number of times and he had a copy of my book. So when he found the bell he contacted my publishers. I am very grateful to him.

Mr Robertson has since notified the Receiver of Wreck, a UK Government body which deals with cases of voluntary salvage wreck material. It remains to be seen what will happen with the bell, but in the meantime it is in Mr Robertson’s safekeeping.

Mr Baird added: “The mystery has finally been solved. I feel vindicated and happy to be proved correct after all these years.”