George William MacKay

It was early morning, 12th April 1912.  The house was slowly coming to life and George was wide awake, in his excitement he had hardly slept. Some last tearful farewells to the early morning maids, a final check that his tickets were secure in his pocket and quietly he slipped the safe moorings of 11 Queens Gate, Kensington and his life as a footman.  Emerging from the collonaded porch, he touched the iron railings one last time, turned left and then right onto Prince Consort Road, heading for Waterloo and the 07:45 train to Southampton.  He was dressed in his Sunday best suit and wearing a Sunday smile, he did not look back.  The city was already bustling with the clatter of hooves and the too familiar smell of horse manure, soon to be replaced by the salt sea air he had known as a boy.

The young George had only just turned twenty but already he had travelled far from his humble beginnings on a croft near Tongue, in Sutherland.  One of twelve children to William and Christina MacKay, he was determined to better himself.  Too often he had heard tales of regret, of lives half lived in the bitter north. George, the Heilam Ferryman, spoke of nothing else, his plans as a young man to travel to Canada and how he was persuaded to stay by the Duke of Sutherland – this George would not make the same mistake.

The third class boat train from Waterloo pulled into Southampton Docks at 09:30, stopping at 43/44 berth. Clutching a small brown suitcase and ticket 42795, George alighted into the Dockside sheds, crossed the road, controlled by a man with a red flag and momentarily stood awe-struck by the sheer overwhelming size of the ship – it was beyond anything he could have imagined. Nothing like this was ever seen in the Kyle.

As a third class passenger George had a simple berth, shared with six other passengers.  Keen to escape the claustrophobia of steerage and the company of strangers, many of whom could not speak English, he quickly found his way to the open decks.  He was there when the ship cast off and was towed into the River Test by tugboats, there for the near collision with USMS New York, there when Cherbourg appeared on the French coast and there when the ship set sail for Cobh in the dim light of an April evening.

All the while he grasped ticket 42795.  It had cost £7 11s, all his savings, but he was bound for Rochester and a new life in Detroit. Of one thing he was certain, he was never going home.

… the memorial at Torrisdale Cemetery, Skerray, Tongue


George’s body was never found.

This imagined story is based on information kindly supplied by my friend and researcher Gillean Ford.  The details are gleaned from various sources including, (National Museums Northern Ireland), and – Third Class Life on the Titanic.


  1. easyweimaraner · May 13, 2017

    I had a bad feeling as I’ve read the date…. this disaster caused so much tears and broken dreams….. Thanks for a great story, I love to read about the real people of the titanic… that’s much more touching than all stories james cameron told…

    • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

      Many thanks for your ever-generous comments. I have not been influenced by the film, being one of the few people on the planet never to have seen it.

  2. The Cheesesellers Wife · May 13, 2017

    Great piece — yes the date gave it away a bit! 🙂 So many dreams died in that sinking….

    I live not to far from Southampton, where most of the crew came from. The City had to set up several orphanages after the disaster for all the children left behind.

    • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

      Many thanks for your kind comments. The information about the orphanages is interesting – the consequences of events are often more telling than the events themselves.

  3. sustainabilitea · May 13, 2017

    Even though I suspected the ending, I enjoyed the story greatly. I’m sure it’s representative of so many of the true stories. And I’m keeping you company in having never seen the movie and having no plans to do so. 🙂


    • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

      Many thanks Janet, glad you liked it – not seeing Titanic has now become a point of principle 😉

      • sustainabilitea · May 13, 2017

        My husband hasn’t seen it either and neither have my parents, so there are at least five of us. 🙂

      • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

        And my wife too, so that’s six 🙂

  4. Cate Franklyn · May 13, 2017

    Robin, I read this over twice and just love it. I’m going to read it again.

    • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

      Many thanks Cate – very pleasing to get that sort of reaction – makes all the thinking about it worthwhile.

      • Cate Franklyn · May 13, 2017

        It made me want to believe in reincarnation so I could believe George did indeed have a new happy an prosperous life, somewhere in time.

      • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

        Indeed, it would be good to think he did.

  5. J.D. Riso · May 13, 2017

    A sad tale, beautifully written. This one really got to me. Such an unfair end for someone who had the courage to venture away from the known. RIP.

    p.s. You’re wise to avoid the film. Wish I had.

    • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

      Thanks Julie – always good to receive praise from someone who writes so well. The only solace that can be taken from this sad tale is that George may have a had an even worse ending had he found himself in the trenches. On a related topic, I found this in a local graveyard last week – I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time in such places:

      • J.D. Riso · May 14, 2017

        Great photo there, Robin. I tend to gravitate towards graveyards, too. I think because they’re quieter than parks, but strangely, in Prague there are lots of parents with strollers wandering amongst the tombstones. Regarding George, I suppose his end was more dramatic than it might have been had he gone to war. He was still a casualty, but at least it was from defiance rather than blind obedience.

  6. restlessjo · May 13, 2017

    Oh, God love him! How very sad. The boater comment seems somewhat inappropriate now, Robin. 😦 How many tales not unlike this must there have been? You told it well.

    • northumbrianlight · May 13, 2017

      Many thanks Jo – don’t feel bad about the boaters 🙂 I am sure George had a grand sense of humour – his friends obviously thought very highly of him.

  7. Su Leslie · May 15, 2017

    “Knowing” that the story probably wouldn’t end well didn’t diminish it’s power for me at all. I’m a Lowland Scot with family spread across the globe — many of whom emigrated around the same time as George. I realise we’re just lucky that none of ours were aboard the Titanic.

    • northumbrianlight · May 15, 2017

      I am pleased you made a connection with this Su. There must be many stories wrapped around the memorials on the north coast if only I could find them. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      • Su Leslie · May 16, 2017

        Your story has got me thinking about much the same thing. I have found myself drawn to a particular name on a memorial, or sometimes a specific headstone and just had to research the person. Usually it’s been quite easy because the name was unusual, or there was something odd that caught my eye. I’m glad you have told George’s story; too often the “ordinary people” disappear with memory because they leave such a light trace on written records.

      • northumbrianlight · May 16, 2017

        Lovely phrase – “ordinary people” disappear with memory because they leave such a light trace – I may use it but I will acknowledge if I do.

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