Crail Fishing Disaster 1765

Privacy Level: Public (Green)
Date: 21 Jan 1765
Location: Crail, Fife, Scotlandmap
Surnames/tags: Brown, Burns, Cunningham, Dewar, Key/Kay, Ramsey, Runciman, Taylor Runciman Disasters
This page has been accessed 9,642 times.



In 1765 8 fishermen, almost certainly also long-term friends, lost their lives together in a fishing accident very close to Crail harbour in Fife. There were no survivors to tell the tale of what precisely happened. There were few newspapers established at that time whose history has survived – with the notable exception of the Caledonian Mercury and as time has passed memories and word of mouth failed to keep the incident in our collective consciousness. Entire branches of descendents of the drowned men are completely oblivious to their ancestor’s fate.

This profile exists to publish the details which survive the disaster and to create & extend friendships to its descendants and their families. There's a Facebook Group for anyone interested in keeping in touch with people who share our interest in the tragedy:


The names of those who drowned in the tragedy are (with spelling variations of the day) : Brown, Burn, Burns, Cunningham, Dewar, Duar, Keay, Key, Kay, Ramsay, Ramsey, Runciman, Runsheman, Runseyman and Taylor.

The Victims (& widows/children/descendants)

The deaths of the 8 men left 6 newly grieving widows, 12 fatherless sons and 18 fatherless daughters. 5 of the children were orphaned, their mother having already predeceased their father. 2 of the fishermen (Henry Burns & James Key) had children born months after the disaster; another was in the process of arguing with the Kirk Session that he was not the father of a daughter born out of wedlock just weeks before the drowning.

The local community rallied round to support the families. A charity was formed in the shape of a Widows and Orphans Fund. A Fund Raising Ball was held within weeks to raise funds. All walks of life, understandably, got involved from the local nobility to those who lived and worked amongst the victims. A committee operated for at least 3 years (this is the period covered by surviving records) dispersing weekly agreed amounts to the widows and children. Typically this was 4d per week per child. (4d was 4 'old' pennies –pre-decimal- there were 240 old pennies in a £; so it would take 60 weeks to receive £1). It's estimated that the Fund continued for much longer as the last surviving record makes no reference to winding up and there are sufficient funds to continue.

Being primarily a family history site, we hope to reach out to descendents of those who died together in 1765. The core information is extracted from the original records & Minutes written in the years from 1765 to 1768. It’s extremely unlikely that any such attempt to link up descendents has been tried before, as the original records about the disaster are held at the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) in Edinburgh. A researcher would have to actively seek out the papers, rather than stumble across them by chance.

In our family’s case, interest in the disaster increased in momentum when the NAS papers came under the microscope of Phyllis Runciman, a 6th generation daughter of one of the victims, in 2012. Our ancestor, William Runciman, was the skipper on the doomed boat. Much is known of his descendents and is recorded across many family history software sites. His most recent tree, consisting of around 3,000 ancestors and descendents, can be viewed at this MyHeritage site. Tree

What is known of the other families? The drowning victims were-

Henry Burn/Burns

Thomas Cunningham

James Dewar

William Runciman/Runseyman/Runsheman

Andrew Taylor

John Brown

James Keay/Key/Kay/Kae

John Ramsey/Ramsay

A 'tree' of the victims, their wives and children and where known, their descendants is available by following the link to individual family trees for each victim provided later in the profile, in the Section covering 'Can you Help?'.

If any of these surnames or descendants are on your tree, please get in touch with me if you think you may be related to any of the victims, or indeed if you can add any information either to the incident itself and its aftermath, or to the social life and history of Crail around that time.

The Secret of the Sea Box & Other Records

The Sea Box was effectively a mutual benefit society that the fishermen paid into, often based on the proceeds of their part of the catch. Only four men and their families are mentioned. The other four which may be because the others did not contribute to the Sea Box. There is evidence that William Runciman and the three others were party to another ‘Society’ or ‘Association’, probably named the ‘Fisher Box’ or ‘Fishermen’s Box’, perhaps for skippers or owners. Although this is open to debate - it may have been that they were two very similar societies. This Society paid out an immediate sum to ‘William Runciman’s children’ of £1:10/-.

A SeaBox record dated 21 January 1765 is held at Crail Museum. It records 'As the Misfortune of the Seamen having perished this day off this harbour viz Thomas Cunningham, Henry Burns, James Kay and James Duar we order the Boxmaster to defray the expence of their funerals and to give their widows five shllgs each...' The 'order' was also given that the 4 widows receive a weekly pension.

Although only 4 seamen apparently contributed to the SeaBox we learn some valuable information from this record. Until this discovery we had wondered whether the seabed was their last resting place. This is the most detailed record to indicate what happened to the men. The other document to reveal something is unfortunately not as precise as we would have wished. The Widows & Childrens Fund recorded minutes show an Intromission with Richard Runciman which starts "To Amount of the Whole Effects Deducing therefrom the expence of the Roup and funerals etc" of £20.6.6d. This can only refer to the funeral of William Runciman (although the use of the plural unfortunately introduces a new question mark - is that an error in the writing of the record or was more than 1 funeral paid from William's estate – or indeed just a very ‘twirly’ letter ‘l’ at the end of funeral, as was the writing style of the time?)

There is a second minutebook held in Crail Museum which I had the good fortune to see just as it was being examined. It is so old and in such a condition that there is nothing left to indicate exactly which organisation maintained the record. The best guess of those at the Museum is that it belonged to something called the ‘Fisher Box’ or ‘Fishermen’s Box’ or similar. This is believed it may have been an organisation of the skippers/owners. In it William Runciman is noted at least twice – the first as noted above in relation to the payment to his children on the day after the disaster and once as being one of the parties ‘signing off’ the funds held in the bank by the manager – effectively an early style of audit. So it appears William Runciman is a well established figure respected by his peers.

One wonders if the cost of burials excluded a gravestone, which may explain the absence in Beveridge. I find no mention of headstone inscriptions for any of the seamen in Erskine Beveridge's excellent book, ‘Monumental Inscriptions of Crail Churchyard’, which he wrote in the 1890s. This had previously tempted us toward thinking the bodies were never recovered. Knowing now that there were indeed funerals perhaps we can only ask if they were buried in unmarked graves? Whilst perhaps at a stretch this is plausible for the 4 'SeaBox' burials it’s somewhat surprising for William Runciman, given that there was already a family gravestone which only required inscription and there were funds available to do so, as demonstrated in the Fund’s Intromission Statement with Richard Runciman.

Frustratingly, the First Sextant Book of the Church - covering the relevant period - is reported to be lost (although books 2,3 and 4 covering later periods survive and are held in the Archives at St Andrew's University) so no evidence is to be gained from that source. However there has come to my attention (as of May 2015) that a second, alternative record exists of the old Crail Churchyard Inscriptions. This is a record written in the 1850s, some 40 years before Beveridge’s project [note - check this statement as there are some references to Beveridge's book, added later?]. A transcription of the Runciman family stone indicates a slightly different wording from Beveridge’s, as in the image attached to this profile. This alternative wording creates as many questions as answers as the transcription indicates an inscription written before William died – or a stone at least unaltered after he died or indeed whether he was/was not buried there.

The Fundraising Ball

An immediate start was made to raise money to ease the burden on the Widows & Children. The Earls of Leven & Northesk and Sir John Anstruther, Bart. led the Fundraising initiative. The main thrust was a Fundraising Ball held in Crail in the Assembly Hall on Wednesday 20th March. 'We had a very fine lot of company at the Ball, where there were 750 people' according to correspondence after the event. 'We cannot positively say how much the whole will amount to...but we imagine it may be near to £200, besides the Donation by the School of Virtue'. Then they set about recording who was dependent on the Charity. 'We are now to immediately write to Crail to get a particular account of the sexes and ages of the children and to Mr Lindsay take the trouble to make some inspection of them & to let us know what may be necessary'. According to the Financial Report a year later ['State of the money Intromitted'] 'the Managers resolved that the sons of the Fishermen be entitled to the Benefits of the Fund till they are fourteen years of age and the Daughters till they are twelve years of Age. And on this ? they consist of twelve sons and fourteen Daughters besides a sister of one of the Fishermen that was supported by him.' In fact there were two babies born to the widows after the date of the drowning tragedy.

The managers of the Fund consisted of

Mr John Lindesay of Wormiston, Advocate Commisary of St Andrews James Moncrieffe of Sauchope James Aytone of Kinnaldie, Esqr John Chiene and David Erskine, Shipmasters in Craill Andrew Jamieson, 'one of the present Baillies of Craill'.

Old Money

Before looking at the list of those who donated to the Fund by supporting the Fundraising Ball it may be helpful to describe what the pre-decimal 'Old Money' system was: £1 consisted of 20 shillings. There were 12 pennies in 1 shilling, so 240 pennies in a £. Tickets were sold at half-a-crown. There were 8 half-crowns (two shillings and sixpence) in a £. The old sterling was styled as follows- No of tickets/ half-crowns 1 was written as 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence, or colloquially '2&6') 2 5/- (five shillings) 3 7/6 (seven shillings and sixpence, '7&6') 4 10/- (ten shillings) 5 12/6 (twelve shillings and sixpence, or '12&6') 6 15/- (fifteen shillings) 7 17/6 (seventeen shillings and sixpence or '17&6') 8 £1 (twenty shillings) A guinea was an old coin in circulation worth 21 shillings, written as £1:1:- or, of course, 21/-. Prices of expensive items and at markets were often priced in guineas rather than £s. This is why you see some donations below listed as £1:1- although it didn't actually equate to the exact price of tickets.

Tickets for the Ball

In fact funds were raised in one of three ways - by cash donated at various points - for example, a bookseller's shop in Edinburgh gets an honourable mention as a point for receiving donations by ordering tickets for the Fundraising Ball at 2/6d each by contributing 6d on the evening of the Ball (according to the Caledonian Mercury of 2 March 1765, 'every Gentleman was to contribute 6d extraordinary to defray the costs of the Ball.') We don't know who actually ended up attending and therefore contributing to the sixpence extraordinary collection by name (but obviously they had bought Ball tickets) and we do have an interesting list of those benefactors who were prepared to pay a half-crown (2/6d) per head for a ticket. This list was provided to the managers of the Fund to vouch for the cash raised which they filed with their other Minutes and Records:

Donor (No. of Tickets) Amount From first page:

Mrs Mill of Millfield (2) 5/-, Mrs Menzies (2) 5/-, Mrs Murray of Balmana (4) 10/-, Mrs Shaw (5) 12/6, Lady Aves, (0) 5/- Mrs Dempster of Dunuchen(?) (4) 0/-, Mr Lindsey (1) 2/6, Mr Chalmers (1) 10/-, Sir Adam Ferguson (1) £1:1:-, Lord Rollo (8) £1:1:-, Lord & Lady Sellrick(?) (2) £2:2:-, Coll.. Fletcher (2) 10/6, Mr Lashley (2) 10/6, Miss Alexander (1) 5/-, Mr Hume of Billie (2) 5/-, Capt (blank space) (12) £1:10:-, Mrs Crawford (6) 15/-, Mr Kerr (1) 3/-, Lord Roseberry - £1:1:-, Coll.. Lesley - £1, Mr Kenedy (2) 10/6 Mr Andrew Sinclair (1) 10/6 Mr McQueen (2) 5/- Mrs Gncame(?) (2) 5/- Name not recorded (3) 7/6 Lady Mountain (2) 5/- Mrs Drummond (1) 2/6 Mr Hog (6) £1 Mr Burnet (3) 10/6 Miss Menzies (7) 17/6 Lord & Lady Downe (7) £2:2:- Sir Lodovick Grant (7) £1 Mr Harper & his Two Sisters (6) 15/- Lady Frances Stewart (4) 10/6

From second page:

Sir John Bruce (") £1:1:- Miss Bruce (1) 10/6 Capt Bain (1) 10/6 Mrs Jonston 2 5/- Mr Moray of Abercairny (2) £1 Mr Murray Cherrytrees (2) £1 Mr Menzies (1) 10/6 Mr Wauchop (3) 10/6 Name not recorded (3) 8/- Justice Clerk (3) £1:1:- Name not recorded (2) 5/- Mr Hunter of Burnside (2) 10/6 Mr Douglas of Brigton (1) 10/6 Lord Pitfour (2) £1:1:- Mr Ferguson (2) 10/6 Mr Lashley (6) 15/- Lady Gray (4) 10/6 Mr Fordice (1) £1:1:- Lord Gray (1) £1:1:- Lord Robert Ker (18) £2:5:- Mr Wauchope of Nethery (?) £1:1- Mr Scrimegeour (?) (4) 10/- Mr Henry Lindsey (1) 10/6 Mrs Willson (1) 5/- Mr McKenzie (1) £1 Miss Porterfield (2) 5/- Mr Hope (2) 10/6 Sir William Nairn (2) 5/- Mrs Wright (1) 2/6 Lord Chief Baron (4) £2:2 Mr & Mrs Murray (4) 10/- Miss Betty Stewart (3) 7/6 Miss Herries (7) 17/6 Mr Clephan? (7?) £1 Name not recorded (9) £1:7:6

From Third Page:

Mr Scot of Scotsturret? (?) £4:4:- Miss Murray Philiphaugh (1) 5/- Lord & Lady Glenorchy (4) £4:4- Lady Lindsey & Miss Lindsey (3) 7/6 Name not recorded (2) 5/- Miss Kieth(sic) (10) £1:5:- Mr Cosmo Gordon (3) 10/6 From an Unknown hand (3) £3:3:- Mrs Bruce (5) 12/6 Capt Bain (2) 5/- Mr Paterson in ? Exchange (6) 15/- Lady Chesterhall (5) 12/6 Lady Rachaell Bruce (2) 5/- Lady Balcanap (2) 5/- Mr Greame of Ballgown (-) £1:1:- Miss Menzies (4) 10/- Mr Yeoman (4) 10/- Miss Menzies (4) 10/- Miss Kineard (or Kincard?) (2) 5/- Mr Murray Smithsland (2) 10/6 Mrs Jean Cameron (1) 2/6 Name not recorded (4) 10/- Mr Murray (4) 10/- Name not recorded (4) 10/- Mr Taylor (8) £1 Name not recorded (1) 2/6 Miss Plenderleith (10) £1:5:-

Then after a short gap on the list there is entered 2 names with the number of tickets either received or ordered, but no cash received at the time of ordering. Lady Aberdour (12) Mr Maxwell (11)

After the Ball the following announcement appeared in the Caledonian Mercury on Monday 25 March 1765:

"The Earls of Leven and Northesk and Sir John Anftruther being highly fenfible of the goodnefs of the public, in contributing fo large for the relief of the fix widows and thirty-three children of the fifhermen who were lately drowned off Crail beg leave, in their own names, and in the names of thofe diftreffed families to return them their moft fincere and grateful thanks."

250th Anniversary commemoration in 2015

The 250th Anniversary Commemoration was held at Crail on Saturday 16th May. The programme is shown in the attached Image (To be attached). Two photographers recorded the day’s events, one for still photography and one with video-recording. There is a link to the video here. For best clarity (clear focus on programme & other print items) you are recommended to select the icon at bottom right of screen, choosing the highest level of HD  :

A generously supported fund-raising activity by descendants and two local organisations - Helen Main Charitable Trust and Fife Family History Society - raised sufficient to provide a full programme to pay tribute to this previously little-known Disaster.

Almost 70 descendants of the victims attended, starting in the Golf Hotel in Crail. A small display of copies of the research on Crail Fishing Tragedy records were on view. The Golf was a poignant choice since it was established in 1721 and it’s old ‘pub’ bar always been frequented by the fishing fraternity. It’s very likely that the men who died in the Disaster assembled there regularly after coming back from fishing, as they do to this day. Descendants had travelled from Australia, Canada, Tobago and France as well as from within the UK.

The wreath was thrown into water outside the harbour to musical accompaniment provided by young local bagpiper Ellie Clayton. After the wreath ceremony an inscribed public bench was gifted by the descendants to the local community in tribute to the fundraising efforts of their predecessors 250 years previously. This is sited in the leeway of the harbour wall looking on to the harbour and broad sweep of houses. The oldest descendant, Gordon Kerr, threw the wreath into the water and the 4 youngest descendants (sisters Isobel & Grace Tod and sisters Josephine & Elise Werner) untied a corner each of the covering drape over the bench to reveal the ribbon for cutting. Chairman of the Community Council, Jack Jarvis, cut the ribbon.

For information, an unconnected Harbour Working Group is planning a project for Crail to improve the whole harbour area. Within this project it is hoped the Harbour Master’s Cottage can be refurbished and that a commemoration, possibly a sculpture, may be commissioned and erected in memory of all the local fishermen – including those of the 1765 Tragedy - who have lost their lives. The project is in its early stages of planning, making our activity all the more relevant in this major milestone year. We are assured that our gift will sit comfortably within this ‘bigger picture’ when it becomes reality.

Later at the Scottish Fisheries Museum the Dedication Service was conducted by Peter Donald, superintendant of the Fishermen’s Mission with contributions from Anne MacIver (a descendant of Henry Burns) who read the Fisherman’s Psalm, Bill Runciman (a descendant of William of Crail) reading ‘Those Who Go Down to the Sea’, a poem published by his late father, and Douglas Beddie (a descendant of ‘grandfather’ Richard Runciman who looked after the 3 youngest orphans following the Disaster) who read out the names of the 8 drowned victims.

Afterwards the Runciman family invited others to join them in paying their respects at William’s family gravestone and have first sight of the newly laid Memorial Tablet. Prior to their action, and as part of the Commemoration, the 1750s stone had been in danger of falling over and being lost. A mason’s professional advice was that in attempting to refurbish the stone there would be a high risk of crumbling and causing irreparable damage to the original. We were advised that it was better to leave the stone in its existing condition, straighten it again to an upright position and secure the base. We followed this professional recommendation that laying an inscribed Tablet at its base was a better and safer solution.

The group enjoyed a guided tour round Crail Church http// and Crail Museum & Heritage Centre http// before retiring to the Golf Hotel http// for chat and analysis of the day’s events over drinks & meal. Over the course of the day long-lost relatives became re-acquainted and brand-new relations found where the last shared ancestor was born in the early 1700s. An undoubted success!


Ironically, given the nature of our Commemoration, despite blue skies and some sunshine the planned group sailing to Isle of May was cancelled due to choppy seas.


A group toured the 'Runciman cradle' of East Lothian locations- Haddington, Whitekirk, North Berwick & Dirleton. Whitekirk is where William Runciman was baptised and North Berwick is where his orphans went to live with their grandfather.

Funding for the Commemoration

A successful level of funding was received enabling us to cover all our costs with some late additional thoughts to further enhance our day. In addition to descendants and wider family we have received grants from the local Helen Main Charitable Trust and Fife Family History Society What funding is left was used to support further research into the Disaster and perhaps also encourage DNA/wider research to further family knowledge of the Disaster victims.

Can you help?

We continue to trace as many living descendants of all victims as we can. This is a Family Researchers Dream. In addition to a starting point from each victim's WikiTree Profile there is an individual tree on My Heritage (access is free) for each person which shows the present status of discovery of their descendants. You are very welcome to add to this research if this is an area which interests you. Descendant or not, would you care to 'Adopt a Family' and research them down to the present day descendants?

Links to the sites are :

Website Links to Family Trees of Victims (for 7 of the 8 victims as no tree for John Ramsay, a single man)

There's also our own Runciman family site. It's well researched and contains quite a number of trees. For this reason the site can feel a bit cumbersome if you're not used to working on My Heritage. However, to view it, go to:

Happy hunting! (Don't forget to let me or know of discoveries either through this profile or on the My Heritage sites or if you prefer through the FFHS site (link shown above).

To keep informed or to add information all you need to do is keep an eye on this page or if there's something specific please contact either myself, Alan Runciman or Ros Runciman.

Alan Runciman (6th generation son of William) Ayr, Scotland

If you believe you are related to one of the victims, or would like help in tracing whether you are, then please get in touch.

Memories: 2
Enter a personal reminiscence or story.
Thank you to Alan Runciman for inviting the Fife Family History Society to get involved. I was very privileged to have shared some of the day with you all. Well done to all of the organisers, descendants and the locals who came out to make this such a lovely day. I hope all the visitors from Canada, Australia and France enjoyed their trip to the East Neuk of Fife and that they will have fond memories of the 16th of May 2015. Please keep us up to date with any developments. Best wishes Alison Murray, Fife Family History Society Committee. and (you will find photographs I took of the day on FB) If anyone would like to write a piece for our journal published in the Summer for family history society members please email [email address removed]
posted 17 May 2015 by Alison Murray   [thank Alison ]
Feed back from a few already indicates we shall have a wonderful time May 16 2015. It would be so good to share the day with descendants of the other fishermen who perished.

Ros Runciman Australia

posted 12 Nov 2014 by Roslyn (Davie) Runciman   [thank Roslyn]
Login to add a memory.
  • Login to request to the join the Trusted List so that you can edit and add images.
  • Private Messages: Contact the Profile Managers privately: Alan Runciman and Roslyn Runciman. (Best when privacy is an issue.)
  • Public Comments: Login to post. (Best for messages specifically directed to those editing this profile. Limit 20 per day.)
  • Public Q&A: These will appear above and in the Genealogist-to-Genealogist (G2G) Forum. (Best for anything directed to the wider genealogy community.)
Comments: 5

Leave a message for others who see this profile.
There are no comments yet.
Login to post a comment.
Thankyou Sheryl Moore for your contribution of categorising our Profile into 'Scotland Disasters'.
posted by Alan Runciman Jr

What a heart-felt and tremendous page in memoriam to those lost.

How wonderful you could all commemorate the loss shown in a passionate video so professionally done. I could not help but be moved and shed a tear, not so much of the loss, but that they must know what wonderful and thoughtful children they brought to present. I feel they were with you and rest in peace.

Fantastic tribute, and a marvelous article for future generations. Well done!

posted by Sheryl Moore
Corrected category, added links to county and also the Scottish Project so others may see this page. Also will link to resource page.
posted by [Living Lockhart]
To receive occasional emails if you do not already receive them, email me with your email address to

Please note the provider of my [email address removed] address has withdrawn from providing any email services - if you have me on your contact list with this address please change it to the 'gmail' address above. If you have used the old address recently and had no contact from me please retry on my new address.


posted by Alan Runciman Jr
Many thanks to Peter Salkeld for his interest and for spreading the word of the Crail Fishing Disaster on his About Crail blog.

posted by Alan Runciman Jr