Invergordon History

Invergordon Community Collage

HMS Natal

Memorial plaque, Invergordon.  [Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum.]

HMS Natal

Invergordon and the Cromarty Firth may be synonymous with the Grand Fleet and, in modern times, cruise liners and oil rigs, but to many the vessel that comes to mind is HMS Natal, not because of her grandeur but because of her tragic end.

The vessel had been launched at Barrow-in Furness, Cumbria, on 30 September 1905 and so, at the time of her loss was a mere 10 years in service.  The ship had been funded by the South African province of Natal in appreciation for the protection given by the Royal Navy and was completed in 1907.

One of its first tasks was to escort HMS Medina to India in 1911 and afterwards it was appointed the royal yacht for the new King Geokrge V.  In 1912 it carried the body of Whitelaw Reid, US Ambassador to the UK, to New York, resulting in the nickname Sea Hearse.

Following duty in the North Sea during 1915 the Natal anchored in the Cromarty Firth for the festive season. On the afternoon of 30 December 1915 a party was taking place on board.  This included Captain Eric Black, his wife and children, along with other officers and wives, three nurses from the hospital ship Drina which was moored nearby, and civilians from the surrounding area, including the factor of Novar Estate and his family.  More than 100 of the crew were ashore at a footbal match in Cromarty.

Entertainment was provided by the band of the Royal Marines and through a film show.  Suddenly, a series of explosions ripped through the heavily armed ship, which turned over and sank within five minutes with the loss of 421 lives.  Most of the crew survived as they had been given shore leave. As it was wartime, suspicion lay with the enemy, but an Admiralty inquiry concluded that an internal ammunition explosion was responsible, possibly due to faulty cordite. 

At low tide, in later years, only part of the hull was visible, and this navigation hazard was removed in the 1970s, leaving only a marker buoy.  Prior to that time most of the wreck was slowly salvaged.

The narrative reads:  "On December 30, the result of an accident, John Henry Dods, Dalgheal, Evanton, son of the late Principal Marcus Dods, DD, his wife Annie Farrer, and their children Dorothy Elizabeth, Marcus Palliser and John Frederick.  The portraits were taken a few years ago."  Secrecy in wartime required no mention of the loss of the Natal.
[Cutting, now in Invergordon Museum, courtesy of Mhairi Mackenzie.]

On 30 September 2015 the communities of Invergordon and Cromarty commemorated the 110th anniversary of her launch and the centenary of her loss.  The commemorations were held ahead of the centenary of the sinking in order to avoid potential adverse weather in mid-winter. 

A memorial service was held in Invergordon Parish Church followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the Natal buoy.  The boat from Cromarty had on board Mrs Rosalind Cahill, grand-daughter of Captain Black, with her daughter and son-in-law, and Mrs Cahill laid a wreath at the Natal buoy.

The Natal buoy

Photo courtesy of the Lord Lieutenant, Ross and Cromarty.

Photo courtesy of the Lord Lieutenant, Ross and Cromarty.

In Cromarty, where there are graves of ‚ÄčNatal casualties, as there are in Rosskeen cemetery on the opposite side of the Firth, and one in Kiltearn cemetery, Royal Marines paraded and a memorial plaque was unveiled by the harbour by Mrs Cahill.  School pupils laid flowers on each of the 15 graves in Cromarty cemetery.

Also on board was Lynne Twaddle and her son Craig, who travelled to Invergordon to pay tribute to Mrs Twaddle's uncle, Robert Tweedie, who served on the Natal as ship's boy, first class.  He was 17years old when he died.  Mrs Twaddle had discovered his story after a photograph was found among other family pictures.

Diana Black 1914-2016 

Diana Black was an orphan of the Natal in that she had been left ashore on the fateful day, along with her brother Eric who had a cold.

Miss Black died in Switzerland on 7 November 2016 having spent most of her life there as part of the family who had hired her to look after their children post-World War 2.  They, the Johannot and Gradis families, continued to look after her in her later years and surrounded her with love to the end. She had celebrated her 102nd birthday five weeks prior to her death.

Diana was brought up by her grandparents and had an interesting and eventful life.  As a schoolgirl she heard a talk by Dr Grenfell, the pioneer who brought medical care to the isolated coastal villages of Labrador, and was so impressed that, on leaving school, she went to Labrador and assisted the doctor.  Prior to WW2 she acted as a volunteer on the Isle of Dogs where she helped during the extreme poverty of the days of the Depression, and, later, whilst in Vienna she assisted Jewish children to escape from Austria.

During World War 2 she worked with the security services and listened to radio broad-casts from Germany so that information could be passed on to the War Cabinet.

Post-war, a Swiss family responded to Diana's advert seeking employment.  They were in charge of a school for the children of wealthy families throughout Europe and needed someone to look after their seven-month son.

The family increased in number and Diana continued to look after them while their parents built the school into its prominence in Swiss education.

It was not until the age of 90, in 2004, that Diana visited the Cromarty Firth, following a visit to Glasgow to see her brother Eric, who was seriously ill there.  Indeed, Eric had followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming a distinguished naval officer during World War 2.

During her visit Diana travelled to Cromarty and was surprised that so many people still knew the story of the Natal.  She talked to local resident Jean Newall, then 97, who recalled the noise of the ship exploding and the sailors, who had been playing football in the town, running past her house on their way back to the pier, many in tears.

Diana also visited Invergordon to see the plaque in memory of the Natal at the lifeboat station, and she was so moved by the whole experience and by interest and kindness shown to her, that on more than one occasion since, she gave handsome donations to both the Cromarty and to Invergordon museums and to the Invergordon Lifeboat Station.  

She also saw to it that the 90th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Natal was commemorated with a service at the site of the wreck.  Her niece attended as did relatives of the Dods family who were killed on that day.

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