The cold dark waters of the Firth of Clyde are a graveyard of shipwrecks. Those of the steamship Wallachia and the MV Akka are among the greatest in Scottish waters. Rod Macdonald recalls the wreckings and surveys the remains
The steamship Wallachia was built in Southampton and launched in March 1883. She was 79m long with a beam of 11m. In 1893 she was sold to William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and was put to service on the passage from Glasgow to the West Indies. After two years on this route she was scheduled to depart on 29 September 1895 on a voyage from Glasgow to Trinidad and Demerara with a cargo of coal, gin, whisky, beer, building materials, books, stationery, glassware, earthenware and general goods. As she made her way down the Firth, a heavy fog hung in the air, and at 4.10pm a large steamer materialised out of the fog, bearing down hard on the Wallachia's starboard bow. Captain Walton was given no time to do anything other than order all hands clear of the fo'c'sle before she was rammed. The oncoming bows of the Norwegian steamship Flos sliced into the starboard side of the Wallachia, 3m back from her bows. A huge gash in her hull appeared instantly and tonnes of water started flooding in. The two vessels locked together in a deadly embrace, the bows of the Flos supporting the Wallachia while her lifeboats were lowered and the crew abandoned ship. The captain of the Flos decided to take the wounded Wallachia in tow in an attempt to ground her. Her engines were put astern but as she backed away she effectively unplugged the gap in the Wallachia's hull. At about 4.35pm, the decks of the Wallachia were awash. There was a loud explosion as tonnes of cold water made contact with her boilers. She passed from sight, and the waters of the Clyde frothed and boiled as the last remnants of air were forced from her hull. She plunged from the surface to settle on an even keel on a flat, muddy seabed in 34m of water. Her two large tubular steel masts rose to just one metre short of the surface and were an obvious danger to shipping. Accordingly, about a fortnight later, hard-hat divers blasted off the masts. She was then left to lie in her watery grave, the memory of her fading with the passing years. The last official trace of her was as a wreck symbol on an Admiralty chart of 1905, and from then on she was forgotten. For 80 years she lay undisturbed, known only by local fishermen as an underwater obstruction, until she was discovered for sport diving in 1977. Initially her identity was a mystery, shrouded by the darkness and silt, but in August 1978 the builder's plate was discovered and she once again became marked on the charts. The wreck is now acclaimed as one of the most important of the many Clyde shipwrecks. She lies about one mile to the east of Toward Point on the Cowal Peninsula at 55 51.707 N; 004 57.189 W (GPS position), not far from the main shipping lane. When the first divers found her, everything was intact just as it was the day she went down. It is quite possible to circumnavigate the Wallachia in just one dive. The only impediment to this is the Clyde's notoriously poor visibility. On the descent, the ambient light seems to disappear 5m or 10m down, and by 20m pitch blackness envelops the diver. The Wallachia is the sort of wreck you bang into before you see it. With a good torch, and on a good day, visibility is at best a few metres. The wreck has settled into the muddy seabed and the average depth at deck level is about 30m, with the highest point of her superstructure at 25m. Lying close to the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay ferry route and the shipping channel, divers need good boat cover and an A-flag. The most convenient boat access for RIBs is the RNLI slip at Largs waterfront, from where it is a journey of 15 to 20 minutes out to the site. The vertical bows of the Wallachia point roughly to the north. At the starboard side of the bow there is a gaping gash, evidence of the fatal damage from the collision with the Flos. Her three foredeck holds are well-filled with silt and the stump of her foremast can still be seen between holds 1 and 2. Moving aft with caution, divers arrive at the main piece of superstructure which houses the cabins, galley, bathroom and coal bunkers. The bridge itself sits on top with forward-looking portholes and doors at either side, and the Captain's quarters are aft. The roof has long gone, allowing easy access. Aft of this is a cavernous black hole where the funnel originally stood, which now leads to the engine room below with the engine still in place, flanked by catwalks on either side and distinctive roof skylights above. Aft of this deckhouse lie three more holds, with nos 3 & 4 full of large dark beer bottles and smaller stout bottles. All you see is the top of a huge mound with scores of bottles sticking up through the heavy layer of silt that has settled over the years. Nearly all these bottles still have beer in them with the corks still in place bearing the maker's name, McEwans Edinburgh. Hold no 5 is fully enclosed and can be entered through a small hatch. Here whisky bottles have been found still with their corks sealed in place. At the very stern is the aft deckhouse with the auxiliary steering gear, toilet and store. The stern itself still displays its fine rounded lines, sweeping away underneath the hull to the rudder, which is now well-embedded in the mud. The Wallachia is certainly a classic Scottish wreck dive, one for every diver's logbook.