Life of a Scottish Sailor

The writer of the following Reminiscences, Captain John Bain, well known in Glasgow as master mariner and nautical assessor, was born in 1839 and died in 1895. He was one of the most active and estimable men whom the town of Nairn has sent forth into the world. It is difficult for those who knew him well to speak of Captain Bain in language which may not seem to others to savour of exaggeration. No man was ever associated with him, no man, it may be said, ever met him, without feeling the fascination of his personal character. In manner he was unassuming and undemonstrative, but at the same time bright and genial, mentally alert and observant. He was interested in every aspect of human life, disposed to recognise what was best in his fellows, and to meet them in a spirit of friendliness and good will.

A more companionable man never lived. In course of his career, from apprentice boy onwards, he associated with men of all classes and conditions, and left the same favourable impression on every person with whom he came into contact. The old fishermen at Nairn rejoiced to see him, and enjoyed a chat with him about the sea ; while the most accomplished men of the world found him to be an acceptable acquainance, well-informed, sparkling in conversation, and full of anecdote and varied experience. His attainments, which were of the most solid character, never sat heavily on him because they were enlivened by his good humour and sense of proportion. He possessed in rare measure the qualities of a cool head, a well-balanced judgement, and a warm heart. While fully versed in the ways of the world, he was singularly free from any tendency to harsh or intolerant criticism. His whole outlook on life was generous and cheerful. When the news of his premature death arrived at Nairn, every man and woman in the town felt as if a personal friend had departed.

John Bain was educated principally at the Free Church School in Nairn, at the time one of the best educational institutions in the place. He enjoyed a religious upbringing from his much respected parents, and was surrounded by the healthful and stimulating influences of a happy home. In those days boys had to begin work early, and John, who was quick-witted and well advanced for his years, entered an office at the age of eleven. His employer was inspector of poor and collector of rates, and his young assistant was entrusted with the duty of serving the notifications and obtaining the money. His experiences are touched upon in the introductory pages of his autobiography. Even at that time the boy’s heart was set on the sea. He had no relative engaged in a seafaring life, but he doubtless acquired his tastes at the old pier at Nairn, where a considerable trade was carried on partly by coasting vessels, partly by steamers, which passed up and down the Moray Firth, landing goods and passengers by means of boats. His translation to a shipowner’s office served to quicken his desires. His new employer was an enterprising, speculative man, engaged in ventures both at home and abroad. There must have been something in the boy to command confidence, for he was again entrusted with responsible work. It must have been a curious sight to see this youth of twelve or thirteen following the ships from port to port and transacting business with all the gravity of mature years. He tells us how on one occasion he appeared as a witness in a case at Dublin, At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed on board a schooner plying on the Moray Firth. He was so anxious to be off to sea that he took the earliest opportunity that offered rather than wait for a better class of ship about which negotiations were going on. He went to sea with the sanction of his parents, though their consent was only given after it was seen that nothing but a nautical life would satisfy him. The first voyage brought him face to face with the hardships of his new mode of service, but they did not impair his resolution. He had a natural passion for the sea which never left him.

John duly served his apprenticeship, and then returned for a short time to school, to prepare himself for eventually rising to the higher ranks of his profession. He has related a curious adventure into which he was led by a daring comrade before either was out of his teens. His own ambition, however, took a wider scope. On leaving the Moray Firth trade, he served as a sailor before the mast on an Australian clipper. By-and-bye he went up for examination and passed as second mate. His first term as an officer was passed in an American ship, and his second in a British emigrant vessel. As he says himself, “In good ships sailing from one part of the world to another, I served my time as second mate, then took first mate’s certificate, and finally passed as master and got a command.” His master’s certificate is dated in 1864.

For over twenty years after this time, Captain Bain was in command of large vessels engaged in the foreign and colonial trade. At an early stage of his career he became commodore captain of the County Line sailing from Glasgow. The trade was chiefly between Java and Holland, carried on in splendid vessels. Captain Bain was proud of his last sailing ship the “County of Nairn,” which was acknowledged to be one of the smartest sailing vessels of the time. His first steamer was the “County of Sutherland,” which was intended to be the pioneer of a line to be also employed in the Java trade. “Standing,” he says, “on the bridge of this magnificent steamer of 3000 tons, as we proceeded down the Clyde on the trial trip, I could not help recalling my first voyage in the little smack ‘Mary’ and wondering what my dear mother thought of it all now.” His mother, a sagacious, gentle, and well-informed woman, lived to a good old age and rejoiced in her son’s success. He had been for years  command of steamers before she passed away. It is unnecessary to follow Captain Bain throughout his career as a master mariner; it is sufficient to say that he commanded in all seas, often in circumstances that tested his nerve and skill, and that he never met with a serious misfortune. His last experiences at sea were as captain of a vessel of the Clan Line. While occupying this post, he carried the 2nd Regiment of Beloochees from Kurrachi to Suez to take part in the Egyptian Expedition. On that occasion he received the thanks of the military authorities for the expeditious and efficient manner in which he accomplished the transfer of the troops.

The compliment was enhanced to him by the fact that it came through a distinguished countryman of his own, General Sir Herbert Macpherson, who at the time commanded the Indian Contingent, both being connected with the town of Nairn. Captain Bain brought back the 4th Madras Native Infantry to India, and was presented by the officers with a handsome set of bronzes as an acknowledgement of his great kindness and attention to all the troops on board his vessel.

Captain Bain’s acquaintance with the life and work of a seaman in all its departments made him a sympathetic and considerate commander. By nature he was as firm as he was courteous. If it was necessary to reprimand he did not hesitate to discharge his duty but his words left no bitterness. His idea of the duty of a commander was to maintain strict discipline in every department of the ship, and to be ever on his part against the tendency to laxity or overconfidence in navigation. In difficult situations he was conspicuous for readiness of resources. In the autumn of 1883, when a slight mishap occurred through the blunder of a pilot, a Ceylon planter took occasion to write a letter to the newspapers respecting the

“Clan Macintosh” and its captain. “I had the good fortune,” he said, “when a sailor, to serve many years under Captain Bain’s command, and I would rather trust myself with him in charge of the ship than all the other captains I served under put together. Everywhere he went he was a favourite with children and grown-up people. I have weathered many a gale with him, and never once did he lose his presence of mind  even when all on board thought their last hour had come, his voice was heard clear above the gale giving his orders as cool as though nothing was wrong. This is the sort of man that sailors have full confidence in. If the Clan Line have many men like him in command of their ships, they are to be congratulated. If I had always had the good luck to have sailed under the command of gentlemen like Captain Bain, I do not think I would ever have turned planter even with (at that time) the tempting offer of a coffee estate if I would leave the sea.” About the same time as this letter was written, the passengers on board the “Clan Macintosh” presented an address to Captain Bain expressing their high esteem and their desire in future to travel, if possible, under his friendly care.

In 1885 Captain Bain, having been married for some years, retired from the sea, and along with his friend Captain Stobo opened a surveyor’s office in Glasgow. Soon afterwards he was appointed one of the Nautical Assessors in Board of Trade inquiries throughout the United Kingdom. He was the first Scottish sailor who had ever been appointed to the office. On the passing of the new Nautical Assessors (Scotland) Act he was appointed an assessor in maritime causes in the Court of Session, and held appointments in the Sheriff Courts of Lanark, Renfrew, and other counties. These positions he was eminently qualified to fill by his varied experience and his sound practical judgement. During his residence in Glasgow, Captain Bain took an active part in much useful public work. He was one of the leading organisers of the Lifeboat Saturday Demonstrations, and lectured on behalf of the Institution in various parts of the country. A conspicuous feature of his character was his disregard of self-interest, and his eager desire to help other people, especially young men from Nairn and its neighbourhood. When in command of a ship he was alway ready to advance the interests of promising lads, and in Glasgow he put himself to no end of trouble for the same object. 

The case of a young man from his brother’s newspaper office in Nairn, who went to the great city in search of work, may be mentioned by way of example· Writing on the occasion of Captain Bain’s death, this young man said :-. “Captain Bain was always my ideal of what a Nairn man away from home should be. I cannot forget his great kindness to myself. When I went to Glasgow six years ago, and had to make the round of the offices in search of work, I faced the situation with that shivering sense of smallness and incapacity which affects most countrymen when first they find themselves on the steps of a daily. Captai Bain went round with me and introduced me everywhere. I was never more grateful for anything.” The Rev. Mr Martin, Nairn, supplies another instance that came to his knowledge. “A Nairn lad had enlisted Captain Bain’s help to find him a place as a clerk, and while they went the round of the offices in quest of a situation, he casually remarked that he had a brother serving as an engineer whose time would be up a year later, and who would then be looking out for a place as a journeyman. You may judge of that lad’s feelings when a few weeks before the year was up he received a letter from Captain Bain telling him he had been kept in mind and that a situation was ready for him.” Hundreds of other young men have similar stories to tell.

During his life Captain Bain kept up a close connection with the town of Nairn. In the interval of sea voyages he spent his holidays with his brother (Mr George Bain of the “Nairnshire Telegraph”)and his sister Miss Bain, at their residence, Rosebank. There too, after he had settled in Glasgow, Captain and Mrs Bain, with their two boys, passed the month of August every year. During these visits he assisted in any movement that happened to be going on for the benefit of the community, particularly any scheme to promote the welfare of seamen. On one occasion, during a heavy gale, he gallantly took out the lifeboat, with a volunteer crew, and rescued ten men from a Norwegian barque, which was wrecked on the Old Bar off the Culbin Sands. For this he received a medal from the King of Norway and Sweden, and the thanks of the National Lifeboat Institution.

On Captain Bain’s last visit to Nairn, in the autumn of 1895, the illness from which he died had made itself painfully manifest. In the beginning of that year he was seized with influenza, which undermined his strong and buoyant constitution. From this attack he never fully recovered. A form of heart affection developed, and after his return from Nairn to Glasgow, the disease assumed an acute form, and terminated in his death.

Captain Bain passed away on the 1st of November, 1895, before he had completed his fifty-sixth year. It was felt by all his friends and acquaintances that he had been prematurely cut off. Until he was enfeebled by influenza, his life had been one of constant activity ; and even after his illness had made progress, it was difficult for him to restrain his efforts within the necessary limits. He was a man of high principle and fine feeling, .and of profound though unostentatious religious faith. He was connected as a deacon with the Free High Church at Partick, and took his full share of work as an officebearer of the congregation.

The people of Nairn desired that the remains of a townsman whom they held in such respect should be honoured with a public funeral. The interment took place in the Nairn Cemetery on 6th November. The Provost, Magistrates and Town Council walked in front, and a large concourse followed the hearse. The shops and public offices were closed, and the blinds drawn on the windows along the route. The ships in the harbour hoisted their flags half-mast high. Rev. Mr Martin, minister of the Free Church, conducted the services. The pallbearers were George Bain, elder son of the deceased ; George Bain, Rosebank, brother ; G. B. Mackintosh, Seabank ; W. Mackintosh, Inverness ; G. B. Mackintosh, Rose Cottage, Nairn James Barron, Inverness ; Colonel Fraser, Redheugh ; J. D. Lamb, National Bank; and W. Lightbody, Kingillie. A number of beautiful wreaths were placed on the grave from friends, including one from Sir Robert Finlay, Solicitor- General for England, and Lady Finlay, in affectionate remembrance.

Numerous expressions of regret at the death of Captain Bain were received by his friends. Sir Robert Finlay wrote- ” I have very special cause to remember him. His high character and great capacity made a strong impression upon me, and I can never forget the great kindness I received at his hands.” His own clergyman, Rev. Dr Bremner, made special reference to him from the pulpit. “Every movement,” he said, “for the welfare of seamen, whether temporal or spiritual, had in him a warm supporter. He took a deep interest in the widows and orphans of sailors, and his labours in the Lifeboat movement – often, I fear, beyond his strength – are still fresh in the recollection of most of us. Captain Bain in his voyages round the world had seen many lands and many peoples, and nothing delighted him more than to impart to an audience of young people somewhat of his rich store of nautical experience, or to exhibit to them by means of the lantern the scenes he had witnessed in far-off countries.

Rarely have I known a more manly, more genial, and withal more Christian man and it is, I am sure, to all of us a great grief that we shall look upon his face no more.” An old friend, Mr John Mackintosh, Inverness, who had known Captain Bain from boyhood, wrote – “His career was one of great brilliancy and usefulness, and he carried his high Christian principles into daily life, which is the grand idea of our lives.” 

From many other friends, including the late Sir Thomas Brodie, and the Rev. Mr Lee, came expressions of equal esteem and cordiality. The Rev. Mr Martin, who had been but recently settled in Nairn, spoke of the impression which had been made upon himself. “As a stranger,” he said, “ I have been much struck with the unanimous tribute of affection paid by this community to his memory. Every man seems to feel that in him he has lost a friend. It is a striking proof of the power of a great and good character that, despite his long years of residence elsewhere, he was able to hold so  large a place in the hearts of the people here.”

Captain Bain was married in 1882 to Charlotte, daughter of Captain James Marshall of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who survives him, along with two boys. In his married life he was particularly happy. The Reminiscences which form the present volume were written at intervals in his busy career. They will be read wit interest by those who knew him, and, it is believed, by many others who may obtain from them some real knowledge of the nature and circumstances of a sealife.

The present writer has penned with peculiar pleasure this brief but inadequate tribute to the memory of one of the most lovable men he has ever known – one who added to the possession of a clear intellect and a firm will, the higher graces of a tender, affectionate, and upright nature.


Inverness, 20th February, 1897.

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