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When Raith Rovers were shipwrecked

Almost a century ago the Stark’s Park team were on their way to a summer tour of Spain when their steamer hit rocks off Finisterre. It was not enough to scupper their matches, though.

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This article first appeared in Issue 22 which was published in December 2021.

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Scotland had helped give the game to the rest of the world. Now its clubs were popping by like monarchs inspecting their empire.
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By now, the Spanish people and press had come to deeply admire this travelling troupe. Raith players were awarded that great Latin literary garland – the nickname – in newspapers; Collier became ‘El Rubio’ (the Fair One) and James ‘El Niño’ (the Baby).

Late June 1923. George V on the throne, Stanley Baldwin in Downing Street and Raith Rovers at Tilbury Docks. Thirteen players, their manager and five directors stand at the harbour, all tatty suitcases and tobacco. That sorcerer Alex James is there, shivering as ever. Tom Jennings, Peter Bell and several other princes of Stark’s Park wait, hands in baggy pockets, too.

They are to board the SS Highland Loch, a steamer of 7,493 tons belonging to the Nelson Steam Navigation Company. She is bound first for Spain, where the Fifers will disembark, and then Argentina. Her other cargo is a consignment of chilled meat.

Rovers plan to stay for a night in Vigo and watch a bullfight while the Highland Loch is replenished. Then they will board again and sail to the Canary Islands, where half a dozen matches have been arranged. At the end of their visit, sometime in late July, the players of Third Lanark, homeward bound after a tour of South America, are to stop in the Canaries for a match. Then both squads will travel to Scotland together in good time for the 1923-24 Division One season.

The Highland Loch slithers along the grubby Thames and our heroes settle down to games of cards and tales of old, which all men tell and tell again when they are together at sea. James – like most of his teammates well-travelled if you count Largs as abroad – tells a pressman of the gleeful mood in the camp, and how he is looking forward to “a rattling good time with deck-games”.

Footballing safari was becoming something of a mania for Scottish clubs. There had been odysseys to Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, Argentina and Uruguay. That very summer, while Thirds were playing in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Queen’s Park had matches in Stockholm; Dundee in Barcelona, Madrid and Bilbao; and Rangers in Paris, Bern and Geneva. Scotland had helped give the game to the rest of the world. Now its clubs were popping by like monarchs inspecting their empire.

There existed a feeling, too, that profit could be made from these voyages. That could have been a motivation for Raith Rovers. Earlier in June, the board had announced a yearly loss of £632. Added to the club’s existing arrears, this left a deficit in the accounts of £943. Reasons offered for those troublesome figures were an increasing players’ wage bill and declining attendances at Stark’s Park “owing to trade depression”.

That, though, was for others to worry about. For now, the Rovers players had left behind their town of reeking linoleum and festering unemployment. They were on their holidays. A week into the ship’s passage, there was a buoyant cub camp mood among the squad. “Practical jape-mongers all of them,” James said. Early on Sunday July 1, James ran himself a bath while some squad members remained asleep in their bunkbeds. Others lounged around on deck in their pyjamas and tried to spot Spain – Galicia, to be precise – rolling into view behind a wispy Atlantic fog.

‘A tremendous smash!’

The Highland Loch was cruising towards craggy Cape Finisterre. Romans had presumed this to be the edge of the world. At 8.29am, the boat chugged along as usual. Its hisses and gurgles had become background music to all who sailed. A minute later, there was an almighty bang. The soundtrack stopped flat dead and the boat fell still. “What a commotion,” wrote captain Bill Inglis in one of his regular postcard diaries in the Courier, “What an experience!” Tom Jennings called it “A tremendous smash!” Alarm bells were sounded and the crew ordered passengers to don their lifejackets.

Inglis described how he and his teammates struggled to put them on, having never worn such a thing before. The exception was goalkeeper James Brown, who had been a “gallant” able seaman during World War One. At least two players – Jennings and Alec Cowie – found the time to grab their money and purses (“Being good Scotsmen…” Jennings said). James presumed the commotion was a practical joke at first and continued with his bath – “But slowly it dawned on me that there must be something wrong. Whistles were being blown on deck. I could hear folk running about and shouting.”

Water began to infiltrate corridors and cabins. The squad mustered on deck and helped other travellers towards the ship’s rescue boats, women and children first. Then players and directors, most of whom were still wearing pyjamas, clambered down ropes to join them. Those boats were handed over to local fishermen who sailed the Rovers squad and their fellow passengers to safety. One set of players docked in a port village named Currubedo, another in Vilagarcia de Arousa. Remarkably there had been no significant injuries suffered, for this was no minor bump; investigating divers later found that the Highland Loch’s bow had been badly ruptured, a bulkhead wall torn by a length of 18 yards and its portside bilge keels ripped clean away.

James was unimpressed by his impromptu holiday resort. He referred to Vilagarcia as Cannibal Island, “for a few of the fishermen on it seemed hardly civilised.” He and his starving teammates found little interest in their British currency when they tried to buy food. The Currubedo portion of the squad were conveyed in a small motor boat to Vilagarcia and finally, late in the afternoon, the Rovers players ate their first meal of the day. Not that Galician cuisine was to James’ taste – “The food was cooked in olive oil and I couldn’t fancy it.”

Beds were found for some players. Others loitered and dozed. On Monday evening, word came through that the Highland Loch had been patched up sufficiently enough to be towed to Vigo. The Raith Rovers party and other evacuees trudged down what Inglis called a “treacherous goat track” towards the small boats that would transfer them to the stricken steamer. “Sailor Brown was most attentive to a lady of 80 summers or so, while Tom Jennings was particularly gallant to a most attractive young lady,” Inglis wrote.

James was similarly unimpressed by lodgings provided in Vigo. “It was a stable, more or less,” he claimed. “We went up the stairs but it was one of those rooms with a hole in the middle of the floor, with a barnyard and animals just below. We took one look and left.”

The next morning, this intrepid Brit abroad and his shipmates were on their way to the Canary Islands again. Rovers boarded a P&O Liner and would belatedly reach their destination after a stopover in Lisbon. En route, they were invited to dine at the captain’s table owing to their bravery during the crash. There are no reports of what James made of the food.

In Las Palmas they stayed at the Hotel Metropole. “Great interest has been aroused” by their arrival, The Times reported. Inglis wrote: “The town itself is all right and it is a treat to see the boys bartering with the Spanish shop keepers.”

Let the football begin

With calamity in the Atlantic now merely a tale to tell, their sunshine football tour could begin. A week after the collision at Cape Finisterre, Rovers contested their first game against, of all teams, Vigo. A crowd of 8,000 islanders saw the Fifers win 3-1 on a sand pitch that had been watered prior to kick-off in order to prevent airborne grains temporarily blinding players.

The Vigo team were accused by Inglis of toe-poking the ball and not being “particular as to how they use their feet”. With no referee and rules more “continental than Association”, the captain had taken charge of the game to clamp down upon the Spaniards’ “knee-trick”. The game, he wrote, “was not artistic from a Scottish supporter’s point of view… Vigo’s style would not have been tolerated at home.”

Soon afterwards, they faced Vigo again and were victorious once more, Jennings scoring the tie’s only goal with “one of the loveliest’ headers”, and ‘Alick’ James “treating the crowd to a firework display”.

Between matches, the itinerary included a tour of the local cathedral and a “Smoking Concert”, where Rovers chairman Mr Adamson crooned songs of the day including ‘My Old Shako’ and ‘Tommy Lad’. The players took on a team of English expats at cricket and won by seven wickets, before retiring to the Regina Hotel’s smokeroom for what Inglis called “the usual concert”.

A fixture with Victoria Las Palmas wrought another triumph, 4-0 this time, which was followed by a 5-1 savaging of Gran Canaria in which Jennings scored all of Rovers’ goals. His first was the gilding on a move straight from kick-off in which Raith’s opponents failed to touch the ball. Soon afterwards, locals began to hail and olé their visitors. A corner of the Canaries had turned dark blue.

Boots of Spanish leather

Inglis attributed some of their starstruck behaviour to a textile difference – Spanish football boots were “of the finest material, soft as a glove” and therefore could not conjure the powerful attempts on goal of their British equivalents. “As such, the powerful shooting of Jennings electrified the Spanish crowds… Plus, Rovers taught them not to kick with their toes, which was their invariable custom.”

Then came more drama in the Atlantic. A number of Raith players had taken to frittering away their days with excursions into the mountains and strolls among banana groves. Others enjoyed wallowing on the beach and swimming in the sea. On the morning of Thursday July 17, one such player – unnamed by the press – became entangled in waves and began to drown. Teammates Bill Collier and Johnny MacDougall came to the rescue. “If there is any trouble going, I am always sure to get my share of it,” Collier said. PLUCKY RESCUE BY RAITH PLAYERS exclaimed the Courier’s headline, EXCITING BATHING INCIDENT AT LAS PALMAS.

James, meanwhile, was typically unenthused by island life. The Lanarkshire genius found he had run out of funds. “I had to hand out tips pretty freely as we went along… That is what footballers always discover when they go abroad. The money just runs away in odds and ends… After a couple of days in Las Palmas I didn’t know what on earth to do with myself.”

For Rovers’ penultimate game, there would be another encounter with Victoria Las Palmas. Prior to kick-off, in the centre of the pitch, the home captain and his counterpart, Inglis, presented one another with bunches of flowers in club colours. Then, the custom was for them to link arms and offer the bouquets to female crowd members that caught their attention. “Now I am a married man, and I reckoned I was in a hole,” Inglis wrote. Raith manager James Logan offered a solution that would prevent Mrs Inglis’ ire: his captain should simply hand the flowers to the wife of the tour’s organiser as a gesture of gratitude.

Jennings lashed home both goals in another victory, 2-0 this time, although his first induced indignation from local fans who thought it offside (“Their idea of the offside rule is vague,” Inglis felt). Such was the abuse detonated at the referee, he was given an escort home by the guardia civil.

Late in July, Rovers battled Marino in the most keenly contested fixture of their Canary half-dozen. The Fifers conquered them by two goals to one in front of what Inglis termed a “huge crowd”. By now, the Spanish people and press had come to deeply admire this travelling troupe. Raith players were awarded that great Latin literary garland – the nickname – in newspapers; Collier became ‘El Rubio’ (the Fair One) and James ‘El Niño’ (the Baby).

Six weeks after leaving, the Kirkcaldy globetrotters returned home, arriving back on August 6. “The players are in the best of fettle for the coming season,” insisted manager Logan. On the 18th, in their first league game of 1923-24, they defeated Dundee 3-0. That year, James ran the First Division ragged, turning defenders cross-eyed with his mesmeric talent. Rovers finished fourth of 20 teams.

The following summer, they stayed in Fife.

This article first appeared in Issue 22 which was published in December 2021.

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