A tattoo with a harp below it
John Tantalon tells us the story of a man with a ‘good health’ tattoo and a lot of bad luck
I grew up close to Granton Harbour. The location, now known as Wardie Bay, is steeped in fascinating historical tales. Granton first appears on maps in the seventeenth century in relation to the now-demolished Granton Castle. The name is presumed to come from Grant’s Town or Grant’s Dun (hill).
In 1834 Edinburgh debated the need for a more significant harbour. As President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, James Walker oversaw a committee, including Admiral David Milne, to choose between three options: an extension to the existing Leith Docks, a new harbour at Trinity or a new harbour at Granton. The initial bid for Trinity did not receive parliamentary consent, and in 1836 local government decided on a second Bill promoting Granton, receiving Royal Assent on 21 April 1837.
During the First World War, The Navy used Granton harbour as the base for minesweeping manoeuvres. Many Scottish trawlers and their crews were called into active service and conscripted as part of the Royal Navy Reserve. During this period, the harbour was officially renamed ‘HMS Gunner’. In military documents, this was the name of the largest trawler in the fleet.
As a youngster, I spent much time with my grandparents and was fortunate to hear many stories from various parts of the world. My Grandfather was a great storyteller. He served in the Royal Navy and achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer. During World War 2, he took part in minesweeping duties across the Forth Estuary. When the war ended, he commenced a career at sea as a trawlerman. It is here that the story begins.
During his years working for HMT (His Majesty’s Trawler), my granddad sailed on many trawlers out of Granton and the Forth. Going far as Iceland and The Faroe Islands. During one voyage, the crew of a vessel called the Alma witnessed something unusual. In his words, “the fish in those seas were monsters of the deep.”
Depending on distance, the crew could amount to as many as 13 men on a voyage. One of the crew members, Geordie Walker, was situated at the rear of the Alma working on maintenance. From out of nowhere came a substantial wave. The torrent battered the unaware trawlerman, sending him over the side of the boat and into the icy depths of the water.
The crew members immediately ran to aid their colleague from the sea. Before they could, Geordie Walker returned, catapulted from the water, back onto the deck of the Alma but on the opposite side. The fortunate Geordie travelled beneath the boat and back onto the deck in some miraculous twist of fate.
The crew took him below and resuscitated the shivering man. After a while, he regained composure and was ready to discuss the incident with the team. The Captain could not comprehend how Geordie came to go overboard for he was a hardened naval man who had sailed many voyages. A wave of that size would rarely catch a crew member off guard.
Geordie then relayed a very different version of events: He claimed that when the tide arrived, so did another crew member, one he had never seen before and had not recognised. The man either attempted to push him overboard or tried to grab him to save him. The captain said this was impossible, saying he must have imagined it in the shock of finding himself in brutally icy waters.
However, Mr Walker was adamant that this mysterious 14th man man had stood before him and described him right down to the tattoo on his left hand, which was the word ‘SlangeVar’ with a harp below it. He remembered the design as clear as day.
At this point, my Grandfather paused and returned to his duties.
The rest of the trip went without incident. The crew landed a successful catch and returned home making good time. The Alma docked at the middle pier of Granton Harbour and the crew made their way to the Granton Tap pub. While in the nearby pub, my granddad took Geordie Walker aside and told him a story.
Now, so shall I.
The previous year the crew of the Alma returned from a successful trip to the waters around the Shetland Isles. The weather was good for that time of year and the vessel packed with a substantial catch. The voyage home was smooth, with calm sailing conditions.
They docked again at middle pier and, after unloading the boat, the crew departed the vessel one by one. A local man called Mr Ross began to climb from the ship when something unexpected happened. He lost his footing on the steep metal ladder and, in a split second, lost his grip on the rusted handrail.
The man crashed head-first onto the stern wooden deck of the Alma. The force of the impact was so severe that his head split in two.
My Grandfather tried to hold the terrible wound together and called out for help as the life drained away from his fractured body. When aid finally arrived, they attempted to find a pulse on the dead seaman’s hand.
A cold, dead hand, with the word ‘SlangeVar’ tattooed on it. ■
The Alma docked at middle pier Granton