NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

The woman who saved 15 sailors from drowning

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Jane Whyte Image copyright Rennie Photos Macduff/Whyte family
Image caption Jane Whyte carried out the rescue in stormy conditions in 1884
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The tale of a woman walking her dog on a beach who ends up saving 15 sailors from drowning in a storm could be from the pages of a dramatic novel.

It is instead the true story of Jane Whyte and her heroic actions on 28 October 1884.

Mrs Whyte - who was a 40-year-old mother-of-eight at the time - was on New Aberdour beach in Aberdeenshire when she saw the Dundee steamer William Hope drifting towards rocks after its engine failed.

The anchor cable had snapped, leaving the crew at the mercy of the terrible conditions.

Recognising their plight, she waded into the cold North Sea waters and caught a rope flung by the desperate crew.

She wrapped the rope around her waist and struggled back to shore to give them their only lifeline.

The weather at the time of the rescue was described as "blowing a hurricane".

The farm worker's wife planted her feet in the gravel beach, then one-by-one the crew used the rope to clamber to the safety of shore.

Image copyright Whyte family
Image caption The William Hope, a Dundee steamer, got into difficulties off New Aberdour

Mrs Whyte then gave them shelter in her home as they recovered from the ordeal.

One of the grateful rescued sailors later wrote about Mrs Whyte in the poem 'A Brave Woman'.

She beckoned us each to come quickly

We thought that would be but in vain

'For no woman alive' we murmured

Could stand such a terrible strain

The poem tells how the crew had barely a "glimmer of hope" as the rope was thrown and fell short of Mrs Whyte.

But she is said to have dashed into the "boisterous" sea to retrieve it.

The poem said the men faced a "terrible death" but Mrs Whyte stood "firm as a rock" while they clambered ashore.

'Bravery commemorated'

Mrs Whyte - who was honoured for her bravery at the time - died on 3 August 1918, 34 years after the incident.

This weekend, 100 years after her death, her actions are being commemorated at the scene of the rescue.

The ceremony will see a permanent storyboard unveiled on New Aberdour beach.

Image copyright Billy Watson
Image caption Jane Whyte's great great grandson Robbie Kelman - photographed at the scene - wants her to be remembered

The event will also see flowers sent out to sea, the sailor's evocative poem read aloud, a specially-written piece of music performed, and a ceilidh.

The project has been supported by New Aberdour, Pennan and Tyrie Community Council.

'Natural impulse'

Her great-great-grandson Robbie Kelman told the BBC Scotland news website: "In my family, Jane Whyte has always been synonymous with bravery and courage.

"She single-handedly saved 15 sailors from drowning - she was a heroic lady.

"My dad told me all about her heroism from an early age, and I begged him to tell the tale over and over again.

"Her immense bravery, whilst never stopping to think of her own safety, despite having eight hungry mouths to feed - later nine - must be seen as natural impulse, unselfishness, and an example to contemporary fellow man/woman that there should always be place in our hearts for old fashioned gallantry.

"She was awarded a silver RNLI medal for outstanding bravery."

Image caption A poem was written by one of the sailors

He said: "In 1884 her heroic deeds of bravery were highlighted.

"Today she is pretty much unknown and forgotten, except by myself, other family members (spread around the world) and the local surrounding area.

"Myself and other descendants, many from overseas, will commemorate the centenary of her death on the beach where the ruins of her house still stand.

"It's a beautiful spot."

Image copyright Whyte family
Image caption Jane Whyte received a RNLI silver medal
Image copyright Rennie Photos Macduff/Whyte family
Image caption Jane Whyte (seated) is photographed in her later years

Mrs Whyte, who was born in 1844, also received a reward for gallantry from the Board of Trade.

The William Hope could not be saved and was sold as a wreck to be broken up.

Mr Kelman added: "This heroic lady was ahead of her time and it is fitting that the anniversary falls on the same year as the centenary of universal suffrage for women.

"She is reputed to have spent the £10 reward buying her rented croft and giving a better education to her many children."

Of the ceremony, he concluded: "Jane Whyte will finally have a deserved place in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people and beyond."

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