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.
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.
In Cromarty, where there are graves of Natal 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 17 years old when he died. Mrs Twaddle had discovered his story after a photograph was found among other family pictures.