Papa Stour History & Community Group


SS Ben Doran

Thanks to Martin Fraser for this story. Originally shared on the PSHCG Facebook Group here.

The SS Ben Doran was a steam fishing trawler that operated out of Aberdeen, Scotland. It was launched in 1900 and operated until its wrecking on the Ve Skerries, Shetland, on 29 March 1930, which claimed the lives of the full crew, believed to number nine crew members. Its wrecking has been called “the most tragic wreck in all Shetland’s history”.

On 29 March 1930, the Aberdeen steam trawler Ben Doran ran aground on the north end of Heligoblo, Ve Skerries, northwest of the island of Papa Stour, Shetland, in bad weather and rough sea conditions, due in part to poor coverage in nautical charts of the area, and lack of knowledge of the tides around the shallow reef surrounding the Ve Skerries which were considered unpredictable even to experienced Shetland fishermen.

Another passing trawler brought news of the accident to Lerwick by 5 pm,

after which the Stromness Lifeboat Station in Orkney was notified, and Board of Trade’s life-saving apparatus – a rocket-propelled rope to shoot to another vessel, to allow for it to be towed to safety – was arranged and taken by lorry to Ronas Voe. The apparatus was taken aboard the steam trawler Arora and it departed towards the Ve Skerries at 2 am on 30 March.

Honorary Secretary of the RNLI’s Lerwick branch, George Theodore Kay, who was aware of the geography of the Ve Skerries, thought that a ship the size of Arora would struggle to come close enough to Ben Doran to effect a rescue attempt. He learned that a smaller motorboat named Smiling Morn was berthed in Voe, Delting, and suggested that this vessel accompanied by a four-oared rowing boat would have a better chance at success. He, with John Falconer, master of the trawler Boscobell, and W. H. Dougall from The Missions to Seamen proceeded to Voe and enrolled the assistance of Smiling Morn. They headed for Housa Voe, Papa Stour to procure the expertise of someone there with experience of the seabed around the Ve Skerries. By entering Housa Voe in rough conditions and during the night, they themselves nearly collided with a sunken rock. Upon landfall in Housa Voe they enlisted the assistance of John Henderson and headed towards the Ve Skerries.

Smiling Morn arrived before 5 am at the Ve Skerries, which Arora had reached first.

Heavy seas and high winds continued and proved to make a very difficult rescue attempt. Five of Ben Doran’s crew were seen clinging to the ship’s rigging while sea spray hit them. Arora made an approach however, they only reached in far enough that their crew thought that they would not be able to return to safety, and still Ben Doran was out of reach. Retreating, they relayed that an additional two crewmembers were spotted in the rigging. Ben Doran’s position in the middle of the skerries (being 600 yards (550 m) west from the nearest skerry) meant there was no plausible means of rescue, owing to the shallow reef surrounding it. Kay, who examined the area 2 months later, commented that it was “abundantly clear that rescue would have been hopeless”.

At one point a "tide lump" (Shetland dialect: a rapid escalation of tidal activity) fell into the 20-foot (6.1 m) rowing boat which Smiling Morn had in tow, and it sank. Smiling Morn's skipper, John Jamieson, was adamant in attempting a rescue despite the danger to his own crew, and due to this a fight nearly broke out upon the ship, leading the rest of the crew to tie him up to keep him from doing so. Despite the effort put in by the crew of each of the would-be rescue vessels, they resolved that nothing more could be done and so they abandoned the rescue.

The Stromness Lifeboat Station was alerted to the unsuccessful attempt by 4 pm 30 March.

By 4:45 pm the Stromness Lifeboat departed, reaching Scalloway by 7:30 am on 31 March. By the time the lifeboat arrived at the Ve Skerries, only the gallows for supporting the ship’s anchor could be seen. All of the nine crew members believed to have been on board were killed. The wrecking of Ben Doran and the deaths of the crew validated the need for a lifeboat to be stationed in Shetland. In 1933 the Aith Lifeboat Station was opened.

The wreck of the Ben Doran is used as a dive site for sport divers and underwater photographers.

The Ve Skerries

​The Ve Skerries are a group of skerries (small rocky islands) situated approximately three miles to the north-west of Papa Stour. The name comes from the Old Norse Vestan sker, meaning west skerries. The group consists of North Skerry, Ormal, The Clubb, Reaverack and Helligoblo. They are notorious for their danger to local shipping, and many ships have been wrecked there.

Since the 1600s there have been 11 confirmed shipwrecks on the Ve skerries, and a further three suspected. With the increase of shipping in recent centuries, the frequency of these has increased. The latest ship to wreck there was the Coelleira, a Spanish owned fishing vessel in 2019. The most famous shipwreck, known as “the most tragic wreck in all Shetland’s history” was the SS Ben Doran in 1930.

The Ve Skerries lighthouse has been in operation since 1979, as a result of the wrecking of the Elinor Viking and to protect increased shipping to the Sullom Voe oil terminal. It became a B-listed building in December 2020.

Elinor Viking: Reaverack, Ve Skerries, Atlantic

Classified as motor trawler: registration numbrer cited as A 278, and date of loss as 9 December 1977. Elinor Viking; this vessel stranded on Vee Skerries, slipped off, and sank.Location cited as HU 102 652 and also as N60 22.5 W1 48.5. This British trawler was lost in 1977 when she ran aground ‘at the East side of Reaerach’. Much wreckage (including a large brass propellor) survives at depths aound 15m.

G Ridley 1992.

Highcliffe: Forewick Holm, Papa Stour, Sound Of Papa

HIGHCLIFFE, British cargo steamship of South Shields, James Henderson master. 3847 tons gross, 364′ x 50′ x 23′. Bound from Narvik to Methil with a cargo of iron ore. Wrecked at Forewick Holm in the sound of Papa, Papa Stour Lat. N60 19.08 Long. W01 39.35 on 6 February 1940.

Juniper: Lyra Skerry, Papa Stour, Atlantic

Motor fishing vessel

Went ashore with defective navigational aids in SE gale. Crew of 12 rescued by Aith lifeboat for which rescue cox was awarded RNLI silver medal.

Date of loss cited as 19 February 1967). Juniper: this vessel was wrecked at the foot of a 200ft cliff in Lyra Sound, on the W side of Papa Stour.