The Stornoway RNLI volunteer crew in action as they set off on a shout.

By Eilidh Whiteford

Thursday, December 14th, 2017, saw the volunteer crews at the Outer Hebrides’ oldest and newest Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) stations drop everything to head out to rough seas in gale force winds to the aid of those in danger.

Stornoway RNLI, established in the islands in 1887, and Leverburgh RNLI, founded in 2013, launched at 6pm that night in response to a Pan Pan call – one level down from a full distress Mayday – sent from 54m cargo vessel ‘MV Fame’.

With five persons on-board, the ship found itself in difficulties having lost propulsion power and was drifting 1.2nm offshore west of Scarp, on the west side of Harris.

For the volunteer crew of Stornoway RNLI, it was a shout that would see them at sea for 21 hours; and for two of the newly established Leverburgh RNLI volunteer crew, it was to be their first ever shout.

Drifting towards a rocky shoreline with no means of power amid Force 8-10 winds and a sea swell of up to 6-8metres, the ‘MV Fame’, which had five persons on-board, had anchored in a bid to slow the rate of drift and stop the vessel from grounding.

Both Stornoway RNLI and Leverburgh RNLI stood-by the cargo ship as all three vessels awaited the arrival of the Coastguard Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV), which had to travel across the top of Scotland from its base in Orkney.

Arriving in the early hours of Friday, December 15th, 2017, the ETV relieved Leverburgh RNLI, allowing them to return home to base, as Stornoway RNLI remained on scene to provide assistance in establishing a tow-line between the ‘MV Fame’ and the emergency tug.

And it was just before 3pm on Friday 15th that the exhausted volunteer crew of Stornoway RNLI arrived back to berth in Stornoway harbour – 21 hours after launching the day before.

Now nearly 200 years old, the RNLI was founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck by Sir William Hillary; later renamed the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1850.

Independent of Coastguard and government funding, and reliant on voluntary donations and legacies, the charity that saves lives at sea provides 24 hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland from its 230 lifeboat stations, manned by volunteer crews, and more than 160 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK.

The Outer Hebrides are home to three of those 230 stations – Stornoway RNLI in Lewis, Leverburgh RNLI in Harris, and Barra Island RNLI on Barra.

Stornoway RNLI's fourth lifeboat - and first motor boat - was the Barnet class 'William and Harriot', on station in 1929 at a cost of £10,469. Petrol engine, 51ft, with a top speed of 8.5 knots, the vessel made RNLI history as the first of the charity's fleet equipped with radio telephone.

Stornoway RNLI is the oldest lifeboat station in the Outer Hebrides, established in 1887 with the arrival of lifeboat ‘Isabella’; and has seen a number of ‘first’ during its history – its first motor boat, the Barnet class ‘William and Harriot’ which came on station in 1929, was the first vessel in the RNLI fleet to be equipped with radio telephone.

And in 1955, Stornoway RNLI’s fifth lifeboat the ‘James and Margaret Boyd’ was named by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent and then President of the Institution, during her first visit to the Hebrides – with the helicopter which landed at Stornoway to collect her baggage being the first seen in the Isle of Lewis!

The current Stornoway RNLI lifeboat – the eighth in the station’s history – is the Severn class all-weather lifeboat ‘Tom Sanderson’, which boasts an impressive top speed of 27 knots and arrived on station in 1999.

Barra Island RNLI’s all-weather Severn class lifeboat ‘Edna Windsor’ next to Kisimul Castle in Castlebay.

Barra Island RNLI is also currently home to a Severn class all-weather lifeboat, the ‘Edna Windsor’, which came on station in October 1998.

The Barra station was the second to be established in the Outer Hebrides, set up in 1931 as a result of the number of casualties in the seas around the southern end of the island chain.

For over 85 years an all-weather lifeboat has launched from the Barra Island RNLI station in Castlebay, often into diabolical seas, with the only launching limitations happening in severe south westerly weather when it is difficult to get aboard the lifeboat.

The station has a particularly impressive war-time record, from 1939-1945, when the lifeboat of the time, Barnett class ‘The Lloyds’, launched on service 46 times, rescuing 2,114 lives.

The crew of the newest RNLI station in the Outer Hebrides welcomed their initial lifeboat, ‘The Royal Thames’ in 2013.

The Outer Hebrides welcomed its third RNLI lifeboat station this century, with the establishment of Leverburgh RNLI in Harris after a long campaign by locals to ‘fill the gap’ between Stornoway RNLI and Barra Island RNLI.

The Leverburgh station was founded in May 2012 on a trial basis and, following a successful year of training and familiarisation for the new volunteer crew, the decision was taken to make the station permanent in Spring 2013.

Initially home to a Mersey class lifeboat ‘The Royal Thames’, the Harris station welcomes a brand new Shannon class, the latest class of all-weather lifeboats to join the RNLI fleet, the ‘Stella and Humfrey Berkeley’ in April.

Receiving the Shannon class lifeboat is a real honour for the station and is testament to the Leverburgh volunteers’ commitment and dedication over the past six years of service, its volunteer crew having answered 85 calls for help since established.

The new Shannon class lifeboat at RNLI HQ in Poole. The latest vessels to join the RNLI fleet, the Shannon class lifeboats are propelled by water jets instead of traditional propellers.

Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,200 lives – and last year RNLI crews across Scotland launched a total of 1,159 times, assisting 1,278 people.

In the Outer Hebrides, 2017 saw Stornoway RNLI launch 15 times and aid 10 people; which newest station Leverburgh RNLI launched nine times and aided five people, and Barra Island RNLI crews launched 11 times, aiding 17 people.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been keeping the seas around the Outer Hebrides safer for over a century – and with your help the island volunteers will keep heading out to sea to help those in trouble when all others are battening down the hatches against the wild weather and winter storms.

To find out more information about the RNLI, and make a donation, please visit

Stornoway RNLI take yacht Elinca under tow amidst big seas off the west coast of Lewis