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Lewsiana
Lobster-Fishing


IN certain rocky districts this is generally a most remunerative fishing to the Hebrideans. It is prosecuted in stout boats of 15 or 16 feet keel, carrying a lugsail, and costing the fishermen about £15. The most successful, because most assiduous, bold, and energetic, followers of this branch of marine industry, are the inhabitants of the Island of Bernera, Loch Roag, whose boats may be seen beating up amid the dangerous islets at the mouth of Loch Roag in the most tempestuous weather. Each boat carries a crew of four men, supplied with from twelve to twenty lobster creels, which completely occupy the boat, and give scant room for working, thereby much increasing the danger in rough weather.

But our boat is swinging at anchor in Carloway “harbour,” and as the sea is good and the wind favourable, we shall run down the rugged, dangerous, rocky coast beset with sunken “boes,” and see what Neptune will send us to-day. The creels are shipped under the thwarts, about the bow, in every conceivable part of the available space ; the mast is stepped, and, as the sail is set, we slide round the rocky point, and are soon running out the well-sheltered inlet known as Carloway Loch.

As we approach the mouth, a halt is made to raise the spiller line set overnight, in order to secure bait for the creels. Anxiously hook after hook is watched as the line comes in handover-hand, with an occasional gurnard or flounder to repay hours of trying labour.

Sufficient bait is now secured for the day’s fishing, sail is again set, and we glide past the “bo” at the entrance, and so through the Sound of Cragum—that sound through which the sea seems always rushing like a mill-race, and where so many stiff pulls on a lee shore, against wind and tide in trying weather, have

tested alike our muscles, our endurance, and our tempers. But we leave these adjacent grounds for fishing in rough weather, and our boat dances merrily past the Raven’s Cliff, the Rock of Scarts, and the many other beetling precipices and breaker-haunted “boes” that fringe this savage coast. At length we reach the entrance of the open, unprotected sea loch of Garnin, having baited our traps on the way by fixing half a flounder or a gurnard in the centre of the trap, so as to swing in an enticing manner in the haunts of the aristocratic Mr. Lobster.

The boat is now brought as close as possible to the rocks by the aid of the oars, and a spot chosen where a forest of thick-stemmed tangle waves its broad leaves to the rocking of the sea. The trap is lowered by a stout cord about fifteen fathoms long, supplied with pieces of cork at intervals of four or five feet along its whole length, so as to keep it clear of the seaweed, and a large cork buoy at the end with some distinguishing mark, so as to be readily recognised amid the ever-tumbling Hebridean sea.

Care must be taken to watch the state of the tide, so that the creel may be reached at all times. The very nature of the occupation directs the fishermen to the most dangerous localities, where, in the event of a heavy sea, which may get up at any moment, it is a matter attended with great peril to lift the creels, brought still closer to the breakers at low water. But our creels are gradually extending round the loch, one after the other dropping among the inhabitants of the submarine flora, like a cage through a skylight, leaving us at liberty to pass a short time as we please until their cautious and highly sensitive lordships have time to examine their repast.

Here, close by us, is one of those extensive caves hewn out by the ever-toiling sea in the gneiss cliffs, and colonised by myriads of blue rock - pigeons — the strongest, swiftest, most active, and, let us add, most beautifully marked of the British Columbidae. The clip, clip of their wings is ever sounding in our ears as we lie on our oars beneath the cliffs, and occasionally send a shot among them as a larger flock sweeps past at racing speed and disappears up the dark entrance. Ever-watchful sentinels are posted on the adjoining rocks to give notice of the approach of suspicious characters, and the whole community gives one the notion of a vigorous, sustained, regulated animal life. No ordinary attack will deprive them of their lives, as often they fly to a great distance with wounds severe beyond description.

What has come over the blue beauties ? How silently they drop from their stations and skim along in hot haste, close to the water, towards the nearest rocky shelter ! See that flock, borne on the wings of fear, pass by us like the wind. “ Coming events cast their shadows before,” and the taper wings of the bold blue hawk—the peregrine falcon—cast their ominous shade from cliff to wave and wave to cliff. Now floating in circles—now chasing, with silent, pertinacious speed, that unlucky little scapegrace from cliff to sky, from sky to wave, skimming round every projecting rock, or shooting suddenly aloft, the victim finds the dread tyrant, with claws clasping in anticipation, outstretched beak, and eager, bloodshot eye, ever following with that steady tenacity of will and unflinching ferocity that does more to keep the tyrant “lord” than strength of talon or speed of wing. Panting more with fear than hot haste, subdued more by terror than overmatched in strength of wing, under the shadow of the projecting cliff the victim crouches with half-closed anticipatory eye, and in a moment is borne aloft in the clutches of the foe.

Above us, on those rocky shelves, sit the cormorant and green shag in pairs, their long backs towards us, while their heads are twisted round in careful attention. Back the boat quietly till we get a shot; fresh meat is scarce among Hebrideans, and, when skinned, the “skart” is a most welcome titbit, the fishy taste being withdrawn with the oily covering, leaves a good-sized body to the consideration of a native fisherman's boisterous appetite.

Hist! what is that, Anish, sitting on the rock smoothing its whiskers like a rufous cat? An otter! an otter! Now quietly! Alas, a lobster buoy-rope stays the boat, and we only get a random shot as it trots up the shelving rock to the inner shelter of the cave.

One of these rocky caves fell in two years ago on a quiet day here, the roar being heard as far as Briersclit, ten miles off. The boats at sea were so startled by the sound that they had imminent fears for their beloved Lews, while the spray dashed over the tops of the cliffs. These landslips occur very frequently in the spring, and the whole west coast is being gradually undermined by the action of the sea. When they happen at night, according to the boatmen, it is very grand—a great display of fire and volumes of smoke, from the friction of the rocks, rising above the seething waters.

But it is time to return to our lobsters, so we shall leave the stolid-looking skarts for a time, and make an inspection of the traps. The tide is much lower, and the tangle-leaves are waving where the white breakers lately dashed. We must back the boat in carefully, and keep a sharp look-out for unexpected rocks, for the sea is a treacherous friend in the West. As buoy after buoy is caught by a hooked stick, and the heavy creels are pulled up, eager eyes are cast at them to see what may prove to be the contents. The interest taken in the high-priced, high-coloured lobster, with its formidable weapons, one snap of which will draw blood; the contempt expressed for the comparatively valueless crabs, and the wonder constantly evoked as to how they could crush their broad backs through the strong iron rings much narrower than themselves; the mirth provoked at the expense of the skipper, as the active lobster, snapping its tail, springs from end to end of the creel, are constant sources of amusement. Strange and interesting objects, too, are drawn up from the beds of thick brown tangle. Through this the minor sea-savages roam, or in its midst they lurk in search of prey. Here, curled round the rope, comes a sea-serpent, as the fishermen call the members of the harmless Syngnathidae, those marine marsupials combining the form of the snake with the maternal characteristics of the kangaroo. There is a huge star-fish, with its thousand brilliant mouths, sucking diligently at the flapping flounder.

This still exhibits signs of life, although taken on the hook two days ago, its nose and tail cut off, its body slit half across on each side, and thus fixed on the horizontal string. Now a large tangle is drawn to the surface, bringing with it a piece of the ocean bottom, round which its roots are clinging. Over this numerous minute crustacea are running to and fro, delicate acalephae are clinging in the hollows, and marine architects have covered it with buildings, formed from materials brought by the sea itself for the use of its diligent inhabitants; then greedy molluscs, huge-headed cotti, or perhaps a savage conger, or even a daring cormorant descending from the regions of air has plunged to a hopeless death in that element, where it is almost equally at home.

What are you laughing at ? Lift the creel in quick, and take your oar; don’t you see we are almost on the spray-girt rocks ! In comes the creel, and a strong effort shoots the heavy boat out of immediate danger, and gives us liberty to examine the inhabitants, crouched one in each corner, with others clinging absurdly to the netting—huge crabs every one of them, disgusted with life and with one another, looking intolerably stupid and ashamed of themselves for being so “taken in.” Not one of the lot is small enough to force at any angle through the hole it had entered at! Cork after cork comes slowly in as the last creel approaches the top of the water. What an eager plunge!  “I have him!” shouts Anish, as he raises his delighted face and displays a mighty lobster, his great nippers hanging like the helpless fists of a ploughboy on his way to church. Unable to crush even one of his immense claws through the doorway, he has clung to the outside of the netting, ceaselessly endeavouring to force one nipper through. We gaze with interest on the “bloated aristocrat,” who has hitherto been insured his crusty existence through the success of his aggrandising policy. Sever the muscle of his formidable nippers, and carefully wrap him in an oilskin, to keep the wind from his tender majesty! Lobsters have, to be taken great care of, as they yield at once either to a cold wind, a fresh shower, or a frost. They are pugilistic, and must never be allowed to combat with a neighbour, as both may lose their claws. One of the swiftest inhabitants of the deep, it must be carefully and rapidly secured. The bait requires to be good and well placed, as they can otherwise withdraw it cleverly without entering at all; or if the doors are not made carefully they can find their way out as well as in.

Once more the creels are all on board, the mast again stepped, and as November nights are long, and the wind is low, we must hurry from this inhospitable shore ere darkness come down upon us. The Bernera boats are returning home in hot haste all along the coast northward, from seaward as far as the rocky island called the “ Old Man Mountain,” and from every islet that thrusts its dusky head through the tangle beds of old ocean. Slowly we force our way through the water, amid the black, treacherous-looking rocks that fringe the coast; but ere long we are flying, close-reefed, through the Sound of Cragum, thanking our stars that we trusted not the wind, now rapidly rising with the falling night.

What with small lines and long lines always set for bait—creels constantly shifted with the shifting weather, from sea-exposed rocks to calmer inland bays—early afoot, so as to be first on the ground—out late, so as to watch their property—ready in a moment to row for dear life, or sit calmly by the rudder in the straining boat before the hissing wind—the life of a lobster crew in the West is no child’s play, but to claim success must be formed of able boatmen and resolute men.


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