BEEN out in the lifeboat often? Ay, ay, sir, oft enough.

When it’s rougher than this? Lor’ bless you! This ain’t what we calls rough!

It’s when there’s a gale a-blowin’, and the waves run in and break

On the shore with a roar like thunder and the white cliffs seem to shake;

When the sea is a hell of waters, and the bravest holds his breath

As he hears the cry for the lifeboat - his summons maybe to death –

That’s when we call it rough, sir; but, if we can get her afloat,

There’s always enough brave fellows ready to man the boat.

Dunbar Harbour, a card by the celebrated R.P. Phillimore

Dunbar Harbour, a card by the celebrated R.P. Phillimore

Thus wrote the eloquent old poet George R. Sims, who had never manned a lifeboat in his life, but who had a talent for creating dramatic tension in his overblown ballads, some of them with nautical content.

In Dunbar, there was a lifeboat as early as 1808, performing an important rescue two years later, but the station was closed down in 1821 and not reopened until 1864.

In 1901, the old boathouse was pulled down and a new one erected to house the state-of-the art lifeboat ‘William Arthur Millward’ that was to serve Dunbar and its surroundings for many years to come.

Walter Runciman Fairbairn was born at Dunbar in April 1864, the son of the mariner Peter Fairbairn and his wife Elizabeth. As a youngster, he became a fisherman, and in 1886 he married Marion Wood. They soon had nine children alive and lived in a fisherman’s cottage in Writer’s Court, just off Castle Street.

In the late 1880s, Walter Fairbairn became a lifeboatman and, in 1897, he was appointed coxswain at Dunbar.

‘King Jaja’ was a small iron screw steamer built at Kelvin Dock, Glasgow, in 1870, and named after an African ruler in what today is Nigeria. In spite of carrying the name of a heathen potentate in a faraway land, she was not an unlucky ship, steaming about as a coaster without any incident for many years to come.

But all this would change in October 1905 when ‘King Jaja’ left Newcastle for Methil with a cargo of rails.

Dunbar harbour in a storm, a postcard stamped and posted in 1907

Dunbar harbour in a storm, a postcard stamped and posted in 1907

A vicious northerly gale was blowing on the East Lothian coast, with a tremendous sea running, and the ship was soon in serious difficulties.

Having received a distress signal from ‘King Jaja’, Coxswain Fairbairn ordered the ‘William Arthur Millward’ to be put to sea.

In very difficult circumstances, the lifeboat reached the stricken ship, narrowly avoiding colliding with it, but by this time, the English mariners had decided to make some emergency repairs and carry on.

The lifeboat returned to Dunbar, just in time to see ‘King Jaja’ send out a second distress signal!

The ‘King Jaja’ was now drifting helplessly towards the coast off Skateraw and Thorntonloch, and Coxswain Fairbairn and his doughty crew made their way towards her under the most trying circumstances, handling the lifeboat with great skill and courage.

Again taking good care not to collide with the stricken vessel, Fairbairn made sure that its entire crew, six men strong, was taken off and rescued.

The lifeboat made it all the way back to Dunbar, the brave Walter Fairbairn hopefully getting a hero’s welcome when his weary men reached the harbour.

A stormy day at Dunbar, a postcard stamped and posted in 1910

A stormy day at Dunbar, a postcard stamped and posted in 1910

The drifting ‘King Jaja’ hit the cliffs hard at Thorntonloch and was broken up, the wreck being sold at auction on the beach on October 21.

For his brilliant rescue of the crew of ‘King Jaja’, Walter Fairbairn was awarded the Lifeboat Institution’s silver medal for gallantry. This may seem a somewhat churlish commendation for a man who had twice risked his own life, and those of his crew, to save those of six other mariners, but the lifeboatmen of those days were often niggardly rewarded for their services.

Coxswain Fairbairn remained in charge of the Dunbar and Skateraw lifeboat stations until he retired in 1931. His wife and four of his children having predeceased him, he stayed on as caretaker of the Skateraw station until his own death in 1939, from senile heart disease, according to his death certificate.

Did this Dunbar ancient mariner clutch his silver medal, won in 1905 as the main achievement of his long and valuable life, as the Magic Wand of Death charmed him away, as George R. Sims would have expressed it,

From earth to the Home of Blisses

In the Land of Eternal Day?