On18th April 1925, the quiet Ayrshire village of Skelmorlie became the scene of a tragic disaster when the embankment of the lower reservoir situated above the village, gave way, releasing millions of gallons of water resulting in the deaths of five people.
Built in 1861, the Skelmorlie Waterworks and its two reservoirs, which belonged to the Eglinton Estate, provided the village’s main water supply. The lower reservoir could hold up to 3.5 million gallons of water. In the days prior to that fatal Saturday, the Easter holiday had been marred by bad weather, but on Friday 17th and the morning of Saturday 18th April the village was hit with torrential rain which filled the lower reservoir to capacity. Robert Donaldson, the head forester and water superintendent for the Eglinton Estate, had performed a routine check on the reservoir on the night of Friday 17th April and again at 8.30am on the morning of 18th April.
A quarter of a mile below the reservoir and close to the Halket Burn stood Birchburn Cottage, home of Alexander (Sandy) Niven Dallas, coal merchant, his wife Emily and their three children, Elizabeth (9), Alexander Niven (7) and Frederick (5). Staying with them for the Easter break was their niece Winifred Mary Menhennet (8) who was recovering from a bad bout of measles. Nearby was Taymouth House, home of Patrick and Janet Adam who had their niece and nephew, Ursula and James Scott, staying with them for the Easter break. Further down the steep hill was Croftmore Cottage and the Wemyss Bay Hydropathic Hotel.
While Sandy Dallas delivered coal to the local farms and villages, the people of Skelmorlie carried on with their normal Saturday morning activities. Children played indoors while a few hardy souls braved the torrential rain to reach the shops. Following lunch Emily Dallas sent her daughter Lizzie to a local farm to fetch milk and eggs.
At around 2pm a loud crack was heard and a family living about 50 yards from the lower reservoir noticed that two fissures had appeared in the embankment through which water was pouring. Seconds later a 30-foot stretch of the embankment gave way and the water surged down the steep hill with devastating force, carrying off any obstacles it encountered. Within 10 minutes the reservoir was empty.
At Birchburn Cottage, Emily Dallas was in the kitchen with her two sons and niece Winnie, when she heard the noise. Opening the back door, she discovered that the water had already reached the steps. Shouting to the children to follow her, she ran out her front door and rushed to Taymouth House to give the alarm, but on turning around she found the children missing and her cottage being swept away.
At Taymouth House, 17-year-old maidservant Elizabeth Mackenzie ran into the dining room where the family were having lunch. Janet Adam, Elizabeth and the children ran out of the house, and as they saw the water rushing towards them the maid picked up James Scott and ran to safety. Sadly, 14-year-old Ursula Scott slipped and fell in the water. Just as Janet grabbed hold of the girl, the fast-moving water swept through the garden and carried them away. Patrick Adam finding himself trapped in the house, escaped through his kitchen window and went to look for his wife and niece. He saw a hand sticking out of the water and found his wife’s body caught in a tree. He took her back to the house and called for Dr Hall who unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate her.
At the Wemyss Bay Hydropathic Hotel, which sat upon a rocky cliff overlooking the Largs to Greenock road, the guests and staff were alerted by the cries of those sitting in the conservatory as the water swept through the ground floor. Everyone at the hotel managed to escape to safety as the water relentlessly flowed through the ground floor of the hotel and down the side of the cliff face towards the sea. The hotel’s basement which housed Skelmorlie’s Electric Power Station was also flooded, instantly turning off the power and plunging the village into darkness.
Several people narrowly escaped becoming victims of the flood. Gardener James Murray was on the Hydro steps near Stroove House, when he saw the flood coming and had to clamber into a tree for safety. Mr and Mrs Leitch of Croftmore Cottage and their son found safety in the mound of earth to the rear of their property. A motor charabanc (an early form of bus) travelling along Shore Road, passed below the Wemyss Bay Hydropathic Hotel just seconds before the water came roaring down the cliff face into the sea. A minute later and the death toll would have risen substantially. At Halketburn House, the owner discovered that her home had become an island surrounded by a torrent of water.
The sheer force of the water uprooted trees and swept away boulders, out-buildings, walls and bridges. It also destroyed roads and damaged houses. One of the roads in Upper Skelmorlie, running parallel to the Shore Road, was cut in two when the powerful flood created a 35-foot-deep chasm.
As the water cleared and the extent of the disaster became known, offers of help came swiftly and the local people organised themselves into groups. As teams of workmen began to clear the main roads, especially the Largs to Greenock Road which was covered with debris, tree stumps, rocks and boulders, others began to search for the missing, hoping to find them alive. Men ploughed through waist deep water, risking their own lives, in a desperate search for the missing children.
Extra police were called in from Greenock to help out. Ambulances and medical staff arrived. As news of the disaster spread, while some rushed to provide aid, hundreds of spectators turned up to view the scene and the police had to be deployed to keep them out of the worst hit properties.
Captain and Mrs Scott of Stroove House spotted eight-year-old Winifred Menhennet in the roadway near their home and rushed to rescue her from the water but found that she had died from a fractured skull. Five-year-old Fred’s body was found by gardener Thomas Bryson wrapped around a tree stump, but seven-year-old Alexander Niven was swept out to sea. His body was later found at low tide, buried in the sand, near the mouth of Halket Burn by Mr Hartley White.
At nightfall, the search for the body of missing 14-year-old Ursula Scott was called off. It resumed early on Sunday morning with Largs fishermen helping to search the seabed which was covered with debris from the flood. Ursula’s body was finally discovered around 10.30am on Monday 20th April, in the store of the Wemyss Bay Hydropathic electric power station by electrician Frank Logue.
Several roads were closed following the disaster. These included Kellybridge Road, Eglinton Terrace, Montgomerie Terrace, Halketburn Road, Back Road and Skelmorlie Castle Road. The work of clearing the roads begun by the village residents was taken over by large squads of men employed by the Town Council who worked day and night to clear the roads.
Around 2,000 people attended the funeral service for the children and Jenny Adam which was held in Skelmorlie Parish Church, after which the bodies of Janet Adam and her niece Ursula Scott were taken to Greenock Cemetery to be interred.
A relief fund was set up at the Clydesdale Bank, Skelmorlie to help the Dallas family who had lost their two sons, their home and all their belongings.
An enquiry into the Skelmorlie Disaster was held at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court on Monday 22nd June 1925 with Sheriff Principal W. Lyon Mackenzie presiding. The jury comprised of five men and two women returned a unanimous verdict that the accident had been caused by an absence of regular skilled inspection and maintenance of the reservoir.