the exploits of Alex Ritchie
A story of courage, perseverance and determination to rival the great shipwreck stories of history.
Alex Ritchie, 1863-1955
"Born in Gourdon in 1863, Alex Ritchie was brought up with the sea as a constant backdrop and like most other young men from similar backgrounds, became a seaman learning his trade on the fishing boats sailing daily from the village. After several years he decided to change direction: in 1908 he signed on to the Arctic whaler Snowdrop, a 63 ton ketch sailing from Dundee for the prolific whaling grounds around Baffin Island to the north of Hudson Bay. She was built in 1886 in Scarborough: bought and fitted out for whaling by Osbert Clare Forsyth-Grant of Ecclesgreig Castle, near Montrose.
The voyage across the Atlantic as far as Cape Farewell in Greenland took them thirteen days. They were headed for Forsythe-Grant’s Arctic base at Cape Haven on Hall Peninsula near the southern end of Cumberland Sound. At the base, known as Signia, Forsythe-Grant had arranged to meet native people who were to assist the whalers.
Snowdrop in the Arctic ice
The Inuit families waiting at the settlement would, throughout the Snowdrop’s stay in the Arctic, guide and teach the whalers. They were on board when the Snowdrop foundered: a gale sprung up with heavy snow and very heavy seas and drove them ashore. The shipwreck happened in Countess of Warwick’s Sound, a long way from any outside help. If they were to survive they would have to rely on themselves and their native companions. Between them they salvaged what they could from the wreck and part of the ship’s cargo and stores which were washed ashore.
The Inuit hunters, their families and the crew left the wreck site to walk to the settlement at Signia, covering the distance of about ninety miles in only ‘five or six days’. The Inuit families took in, fed and cared for the crew of Snowdrop who stayed in Signia from September 1908 until February 1909.
The nomadic lifestyle of the natives meant they could not continue staying at Signia and, on the sixteenth of December 1908, six families left to hunt for food and furs. Alex decided to go with them.”
And here is where Alex's adventures really begin!
The above information is an edited version of an article by Sandy Inglis of Gourdon entitled "Hogmanay on Ice" which was originally published in the Leopard magazine. The full text of the article can now be read on Sandy's website here.
IN HIS OWN WORDS...
Alex Ritchie’s subsequent adventures with the Inuit people and his struggles to reach a point at which rescue was possible are told in great detail by Alex himself in a BBC recording made in the 1950s:
Alex Ritchie recovered from this ordeal and, on his return home, resumed fishing in Gourdon. He later became part owner of the Happy Return ll which features in the story of the Bella which can also be read here.
Alex Ritchie (photo courtesy of Robert Ritchie)
Our thanks go to Sandy Inglis for allowing us to reproduce part of his article, and to Robert Ritchie for contributing the photograph of Alex.