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Sketch Book of the North
A Fisher Town


Keen and strong and steady to-night in the gathering dusk, the wind is coming up the firth out of the east. Darkling clouds roll low along the sky, and, before the breeze, the waves in their un-numbered hosts, like dark hussars white-crested, ride past to break upon the beach-sands yonder inland at Fort George. The full, deep gale brings with it out of the shadowy east the health of a hundred tumbling seas, and sets the glad life dancing in lip and eye and heart; while the music of the rushing waves, like the drums of far-off armies, stirs the soul with the daring of great purposes. Little need, therefore, is there to pity the fisher women and children far out at the ebb-tide edge gathering bait among the reefs. Clear are their eyes as the sea-pools over which they bend, and while sun and wind have made their skins brown as the wet sand itself, many a drawing-room beauty would give her diamonds for such a wealth of raven hair. Even at this distance the happy voices of the children, a pleasant murmur, speak of free and simple hearts. Sport on, happy children! Rejoice in your brown brood, simple mothers! Not yours are the pale cheek and the wasted form, the lifeless eye and the languid step. Sometimes, it may be, when the winds rise and the waves come thundering upon the beach, there are anxious hours for you because of husband or father tossing out there somewhere in the darkness; sometimes, alas! a sore heart and many tears when the little knot of sad and silent men come up from the beach and lay gently upon its pillow the pale wet face that will speak to you no more. But yours, at least, are not the fetid atmosphere of cities and their weary miles of pavement; for you the smile of Heaven is not veiled by a sin-black pall of smoke; and when the dark angel does come to your humble dwellings, and the last "Good-byes!" have to be said, it is not amid the heartless roar and the squalor of city streets, but amid the sweet, salt smell, and listening to the strange and solemn "calling" of the sea.

A race by themselves are these fisherfolk, mixing little with the people of the upper town, and keeping very much by customs of their own. Danish, very likely, or Norse, in origin, their blood is all but as pure yet as it was when their forefathers landed on these shores. Only, of late years the steamship and the School Board have made some invasions upon their traditional ideas. Seven miles to the eastward along the coast, where the white sand line gleams on the horizon, in places exposed by the shifting dunes, the remains of villages still to be found—broken pottery, bronze pins, fish-hooks, and shell heaps—belonged to the ancestors of these folk, who by these tokens lived very much the same life as is lived here to-day.

At hand, spread on the bent-grass to dry, and brown as seaweed itself, lie miles of fishing-nets, with their rows of worn cork floats; for the herring fishery of the season is over, the west coast boats have gone home through the Canal, and the gear is being laid by for the winter. In the end of April it will be wanted again for the Loch Fyne fishing, but it will be the end of June before the herring nets are used on the east coast again. The good woman coming up the shore below with her creel and pail of bait—mussels, sand-worms, and silver-gleaming needle-fish--is going now to bait for the later white-fishing the "long lines," with their hundreds of hooks, which her husband and his sons will take out to set before daylight. Tomorrow morning, when the boat comes home, she will have to fill her creel with the haddocks, and sell them along the country-side; or perhaps the fish will be bought at auction by the curers, to be smoked with fragrant fir cones into succulent, appetising "speldings"

The quay head in the morning, when the fish auction is going on, is a characteristic sight, and the only occasion on which anything like business wakens in the quiet place. The boats have come in with the running tide, and lie moored to iron rings in the landing-place. Curious names they have, mostly double—the "Elspat and Ann," or the "Ann and Margaret"—probably to represent the wives or sweethearts of two partners. In the boats themselves lie together heaps of lines, ropes, and sails, with fish gleaming here and there among them; while the quay is littered with oars and spars and cables enough to make walking a fine art. The fish have been lifted out of each boat by its crew, and when the women have divided them into glittering heaps—a heap for each man and one for the boat—the skipper sells the boat’s heap, and its price settles that of the others. Here the shrewd bargaining power of the fisherfolk comes out, trained, as it is, by the narrow path they tread between means and ends; while here the women who have no man’s hand to bring them home the harvest of the deep contrive to find their bread by buying the fish they will afterwards retail. The whole transaction is primitive in the extreme, but one that sufficiently serves its purpose.

A life of which this is the busiest scene may appear monotonous to the dweller in cities, but again and again there come hours of stern excitement which prove the manhood of the race. There have been times when every boat of the fishing fleet as it came rushing ashore had to be caught, at peril of life and limb, breast-deep in the furious surf, and landed safely with its occupants. Yet men are ever most plentiful when the work is most dangerous, and never yet has the life-boat lacked a crew. Once, indeed, a few years ago it happened that the men, all but one or two, were away at the fishing when word was brought that a Norwegian timber-ship was going to pieces on the treacherous shifting sands yonder, seven miles away. A tremendous surf was beating upon the beach, and the life-boat coxswain and crew were riding the storm out, cabled to their herring-nets somewhere in the North Sea. In the upper town, however, there was visiting his brother just then the captain of an East Indiaman home upon holiday, and the message was handed to him as he sat at breakfast. In half an hour, sailor-like, he had the life-boat out, manned with a scratch crew of volunteers, and run down the beach. Then began the difficulty and peril. By strong and willing hands the boat was run out into the surf, but again and again she was caught by a huge wave and driven back. Three-quarters of an hour’s hard rowing it took to pull her out to the fourth sea. A little longer, and she hoisted her sail, and went plunging off into the howling wilderness of waters.

Would she accomplish her mission? Would she and the brave hearts on board her ever themselves come back? Old men and fisher-wives watched her from the quay-head till she disappeared among the waves, and then they waited, anxious and fearful. The day passed without tidings of her, and, at last, night began to fall. The anxiety of the watchers had become intense, when suddenly some one caught a glimpse of white bows gleaming far out over the waves. There she was, clearly now, coming like a sea-bird through the driving spray. Who could tell whether she had won or lost lives? Presently her thwarts were seen black with men. How were they to be landed? Alas! all might yet be lost in the terrible surf. There was a strong hand at the helm, however; the full tide had covered the bar, and, with a single swoop, she shot into the harbour, every man safe, amid the wild huzzas of the waiting throng. One glad heart there was too full for words. Among the ringing cheers, as the crowd made way for its hero, she could only in silence take her husband’s arm. It was the captain’s wife.


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