Fascinating story of ‘Arran Stowaways’ told in new graphic novel

The story of young Scots who smuggled themselves onto a boat bound for Canada in a tragic misadventure involving torture, bullying and ultimately death is told in a new graphic novel, The Scotsman reports.

On April 7, 1868, a group of boys who came to be known as the “Arran Stowaways”, managed to smuggle themselves onto a ship at Victoria Dock in Greenock to begin a journey that would result in a national scandal, charges of murder and a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, resulting in the imprisonment of Captain Robert Watt and his cruel mate James Kerr.

John Paul, 11; Hugh M’Ewan, 11; Peter Currie, 12; Hugh M’Ginnes, 12; David Brand, 16; James Bryson, 16 and Bernard Reilly, believed to be 22 all boarded the Arran in the hope of becoming sailors.

But the boys were to be lashed, starved, beaten and on other occasions handcuffed for 24 hours.

They became the “Boys on the Ice” after being thrown off the vessel, three months into the journey to Quebec – in the ice fields of Newfoundland. The youngest, M’Ginness and M’Ewan, who were nearly “hysterical with fright”, were to die on the ice.

Paul Bristow, a writer at Magic Torch, said The Stowaways: The Story of the Boys on the Ice is based on a 1928 account of the story by historian John Donald.

Mr Bristow said: “This was a very notorious case but there wasn’t an awful lot written about it.

“I have read a lot of books that focus on the history of this area, and a lot of John Donald books, but the Stowaways was not something that was really mentioned very much. It was quite strange.

“After finding John Donald’s account, it was clear that it was a big scandal and a very tragic story.”

In preparing the graphic novel, Mr Bristow worked with schoolchildren in Greenock. He said: “Traditional methods of learning history can be off-putting for some people but telling it in a visual way can cut through the dates to get straight to the story.

“We really believe in the principle that you dig where you stand, that every community has more than a lifetime of beautiful and tragic stories to share and inspire. We’ve found comics to be a really effective way of engaging less traditional audiences in that process.”

The remaining five stowaways were rescued after a woman on the shoreline saw them.

Their families back home, anxious about the boys’ whereabouts, received a letter from Quebec detailing their ghastly experience.

After word spread that the Arran was to arrive on the Clyde on July 30, a large crowd gathered to meet Watt and Kerr. The pair were arrested and charged with murder. Watt was convicted of culpable homicide and jailed for 18 months.

Kerr was jailed for four months after pleading guilty to assault charges.

The Greenock Telegraph published an editorial after the trial, stating: “The punishment in each case appears very light, and those in Court who had listened to the evidence heard the sentence in astonishment and greeted its delivery with hisses.”

Four of the boys made homes for themselves in North America, Canada and Australia. One of the stowaways, Currie, returned home to Scotland while the disgraced captain and his mate returned to the seas upon release.