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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 3 - The Sea

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
                        And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by;
                        And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song, and the white sails shaking,
                        And a gray mist on the seas face, and a gray dawn breaking.


I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
                        Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
                        And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
                        And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
                        To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
                        And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
                        And quiet sleep and sweet dream when the long trip’s over.


John Masefield


I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because … we all came from the sea.  And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.  We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.     

                    . President John F Kennedy, Newport, Rhode Island, 14 September 1962

The picture of the old salt with the tall hat and leather boots, sorting his lines, is of my great grandfather, Alexander (‘Sanny Caccy’) Thomson; (Caccy or Caukie, as he was one of the few Catholics in the community).  My forebears on both sides were fishers, as far back as we can trace.  Those of my great grandfathers’ time were line fishermen operating sailboats, Scaffies, Fifies and Zulus, [The scaffie had lines like a Viking sailboat, the fifie had a straight stem and was built to grip the water better when sailing close to wind.  The zulu incorporated features from both, and proved ideal for drift net fishing. Some books tell of the design being a compromise between a strong-minded fisherman and his equally strong-minded wife. I met ‘Dad’ Campbell, the then aged son of the zulu designer William Campbell, in Portland Oregon in 1968, and asked if there was any truth to the tale, but he dismissed it as jesting gossip.] and shifting to the drift net for herring in the appropriate season.  My grandfathers operated drifters, both motor and steam driven, and these larger boats worked year-round for herring.

The town of Lossie was built chiefly on herring.  From about 1900, merchants and farmers loaned fishermen the money to build the drifters, and the community prospered.  The fleet worked off Norfolk and Suffolk in the autumn, Dunmore East, Ireland in the winter, then the Moray Firth, Shetland and the Minches in the spring and summer. 

The bulk of the herring catch was gutted, dry-salted, and packed in barrels.  That continued till after the 1914 – 18 war when the changes it brought to the economies of Russia and East Europe, meant a collapse of the huge export market for salt herring.  So the drifters were gradually abandoned, and the fishers turned back to white fish again (haddock, cod, hake, flatfish). This time they looked for a more productive method than line fishing, and they found it in the Danish seine net.

 Great Grandfather, Alexander Thomson, ‘Sanny Caccie’   Old Scots sailboats (Peter Anson’s drawings)

The Danish seine or “snurrevod”  was a light long-winged bag net that could be pulled over the sea-bed by small, lightly-powered boats.  The net was kept open horizontally by a mile of manila rope, set in a semi-circle on each side.  The ropes were winched in slowly till the wings of the net came together, by which time any fish encircled by the warps had been herded into the net which was speedily hauled to the surface.  The Danes winched the gear in while their boat was held fast to a large anchor.  Scots fishers preferred to tow the gear slowly forward while the ropes were slowly warped in.  The Danish method suited the capture of plaice, their chief target.  The Scottish ‘fly-dragging’ method permitted the net to take faster and higher swimming fish like haddock and cod.  Along with most of the east coast fleets, our local boats adopted the gear which soon proved to be a money-earner, in place of the abandoned herring nets.  By the time I left school, Lossiemouth had the largest seine net fleet in Scotland.  The local harbour could scarcely accommodate all the boats, and many fished from west coast ports like Oban, Lochinver and Kinlochbervie. Larger seine netters were later to use Peterhead as their base.  Below : Drawing of a seine net in operation.


Above : The Moray Firth, inner and outer sections

I recall the premier showing of an underwater film of the seine net in operation, in 1953, in our home town.  The film had been shot in the shallow waters of Burghead Bay by a renowned Naval frogman Commander ‘Buster’ Lionel Crabb RNVR GM OBE whose disappearance some 3 years later has been the subject of much speculation.  His life ended mysteriously when he went swimming around a Russian Naval vessel at Portsmouth in 1956. [The Russian naval ship was the Ordkhonikidze. The previous year Crabb had inspected the heavy cruiser Sverdlosk, that was carrying Soviet leaders Bulganin and Kruschev for a meeting with the British Labour Government (at which Kruschev behaved in typical fashion).  Little information or explanation of the Ordkhonikidze incident was released at the time by the British and Soviet governments, though there was much speculation, and Prime Minister Eden later forced MI6 Director John Sinclair to resign over the matter.  (I have talked to two former RN divers who   claim that Crabb was taken to the Soviet Union where he died or was killed for his non-cooperation.) He had undertaken a number of dangerous assignments for the British Navy during the second world war, for which he was highly decorated.] Anyhow, the film he shot in the Moray Firth was shown in the local town hall to a fascinated audience of fishermen and would-be fishermen.  It was one of the first films to record fish actually being caught in a trawl-type net.  The technology however was still at a low stage of development. The nets were small and made of cotton.  Within ten years they were to be replaced with synthetic high-opening trawls, and the rope warps were also to be made thicker and of synthetic material.

Commander ‘Buster’ Lionel Crabb RNVR GM OBE who first filmed the seine net in operation under water and later lost his life under a Soviet naval ship.

But all that was in the future.  When I went to sea, the technology was fairly simple, though to me, a young lad, there were no finer boats on the sea, and none better at catching fish.  The Scottish fishing ports and fishing fleets shared a remarkable camaraderie and culture that was a world apart from sheer money-making or soul-less materialism.  It was a way of life.  Fishermen loved their profession; they were proud to be members of the sea-faring community.  As a visitor remarked perceptively, “there is an ‘esprit de corps’ about them”.  In those days there was no Sunday fishing [Here I speak only of the family-owned seiners and ringers.  Company-owned trawlers were a different matter.]  The vessels sailed at midnight Sunday, and not a minute before.  It was a great sight then to stand on the pier and watch the fleet sail “out into the darkness, and eastwards to the dawn”.  The first evening stroll I took with the lovely young lassie who was to become my wife, was to watch the fleet depart on such a night. That was after I had left the sea.  For the first seven working years of my life, I was on the boats watching the crowds wave to us from the pier as we set off on our weekly fishing trip.  The practice died out in the 1970’s. Today much of the fishing fleet works on Sunday as on other days of the week.  Yet there are still some fishermen who respect the day of rest, mainly in the Hebrides, but also among some devout east-coasters.

Once at sea, the radio-telephones were switched on, and the men on first watch, (usually the younger deckhands), began to talk and sing to each other.  It was mostly hymns and gospel music they shared.  The singers were not necessarily strong church-goers, but it was the done thing nevertheless. Often they acquired their knowledge of spiritual songs in fishermen’s missions, gospel halls, or Salvation Army meetings.  But it mattered little what their background had been, the hymn singing was a fishers‘ thing, not a church thing.  The singing and exchange of news continued till daylight or till they reached the fishing grounds and work began in earnest.          

Since my father was then fishing around the Republic of Ireland, my baptism was to take place in that fishery, and we had to voyage across to the emerald isle.  We sailed into the Moray Firth and west to Inverness from where we went through the Caledonian Canal built by the great civil engineer Thomas Telford in 1822, and on down past Fort William to Oban.  From Oban we sailed south-west, and then west past the southern end of Mull, and the famous Stevenson-built lighthouses of Dubh Artach and Skerryvore near where the brig Covenant was said to be shipwrecked in RLS’s marvelous tale “Kidnapped”.  From there we punched our way across the north coast of Ireland, in the teeth of a north-westerly gale, and then headed south to Rosan Point and Rathlin O’Birne island, then east into Donegal Bay.  Arriving at Killybegs harbour after 12 hours of rough passage, we were glad to make port, myself especially, having gone through the throes of sea-sickness most of the way.  But within a few weeks I had my sea-legs, and was working on deck with confidence, and with an appetite that rough seas could not diminish.  Over the next year we visited most of the fishing harbours in the Republic, and caught our share of haddock, cod, whiting, hake, skate, gurnards and soles.  We even spent a winter at the herring in Dunmore East on the south coast.

My father, Skipper Jimmy Thomson

Visit of the Queen to our harbour, 1956

Each December and January, huge schools of herring came to the Waterford coast to spawn.  Fleets of large trawlers and drifters fished for them offshore, ring netters and seiners worked on the schools close to land, and Dutch luggers, many with crews of young boys from orphanages, brought the herring which they salted on board in barrels and took back to Holland for additional curing.  The herring were so thick on the sea-bed at times, they could be caught with almost any gear.  We sewed small-meshed herring bags on to our seines and were soon filling them with up to 20 tons of herring a time.  Some tows there were more, but the cotton bags simply burst.  We sold some catches in Ireland, and sailed over to Milford Haven in Wales with others to obtain slightly higher prices from processors like Birds Eye.  The weather in winter on that stretch of water from the Fastnet light to the south point of Wales, was rough to say the least.  I recall the boat dipping under the green swells till the whole deck was awash, then coming up again like a whale till the next sea hit us.   The approach to Milford Haven was dangerous at the best of times.  In darkness and bad weather, and without the benefit of radar or electronic position fixing, it was a salutary experience for a 15 year old boy, taking the boat around the dangerous and exposed ‘Smalls’ rocks before the entrance to the bay and the sound.

Loading up with fish in the days of plenty

           Myself attending the winch with Sean Cotter               My father’s vessel, MFV Kincora

The year in Ireland was memorable, though not without its sorrows.  I had lost my paternal grandmother and an uncle the previous summer.  Then we got word that another uncle had been lost at sea off the north of Scotland.  His body was never recovered.  Altogether I lost three uncles and a cousin at sea, and many, many friends.  One of the first boys I befriended in the Killybegs fleet, ‘Benny’, was lost the following year off Dunmore East.  My other Killybegs chum, Anthony, was washed overboard two years later.  Strangely, despite the considerable loss of life, we did not think much of the danger, any more than I suppose miners did of their profession.  It was just one of the risks of the job.  My home port lost its share of vessels over the years.  During my lifetime, boats that were sunk or wrecked included the Resplendent, Caronia, Devotion, Trust, Palm, Briar Rose, Strathyre, Scotia, Polaris, Incentive, Balmoral, Guide On, Arcadia, Renown, Valkyrie, Sapphire, Ben Aigan, Argosy, Balmoral (2), Premier, Valkyrie (2), to name but some.  At least three of those losses involved the whole crew, and 4 crewmen were lost in another. Several individual deaths at sea also happened over the same period.  Our small harbour probably lost more than 20 boats and over 30 men in a period of around 40 years.  Throughout the north of Scotland overall, there has been a horrific loss of boats and men year after year.  Scarcely a winter passes without another major fishing vessel tragedy occurring.

A bag of herring taken off Dunmore East

Having been at sea in times of bad weather, severe gales, and storm force winds, I am sometimes asked about the element of fear.  The truth is, it rarely is a factor.  For me, the exception would be when sailing close to rocks or reefs in strong tides, heavy swells, or poor visibility from rain, snow, fog, or darkness.  Then, one has every reason to be extremely alert, and a natural fear is a healthy step in that direction.  But to observe a storm at sea, from a reasonably stout vessel, however small, is an aesthetic experience rather like climbing a steep mountain, I guess.  One feels something like an inner thrill, - strong feelings of awe, and wonder, and amazement.  This is precisely what was said by that amazingly tough, courageous and intrepid lassie, Ellen MacArthur, of her single-handed sail voyage around the world, and her encounter with the storms south of Cape Horn.  “This is nature!”, she exclaimed.  “This is the sea, in all its power and grandeur”!  And I cannot but agree with her, though the storms I knew were much inferior to what she endured.   Over the years, I have witnessed the many moods of our seas and oceans, from the calm, but occasionally turbulent tropics, to the northern and southern latitudes with their breezes and active weather patterns, to the Arctic waters, sometimes frozen over, or carrying huge icebergs.  The sea reflects our global climate and environment, perhaps better than any land mass or vegetation.  It can be incredibly beautiful, remarkably pristine, and it can be dark and foreboding, or wild and untamed.  Yet it is the source and sustainer of most of earth’s life forms, and without its benign influence, our planet would die.  The primeval poem of Moses in the Book of Genesis, tells us that all life on earth began when, “Darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved across (or hovered over) the face of the waters; and God said, ‘Let there be light’.”.

The remarkable lone yachtswoman, Ellen MacArthur

In May 1956 we decided to return to Scotland and join the home fleet which was enjoying good fishing and reasonable prices.  The trip home was unforgettable.  We sailed north past Tory Island on a day that was as pleasant and calm as it had been rough on my first voyage around that coast.  Huge basking sharks were lazily taking their fill of plankton, and I had fun trying to sail over them which we occasionally did, but without any damage whatsoever to those large but harmless monsters.  We sailed through the Caledonian Canal in one day, which you could do in the summertime then provided you started at the first of daylight, and worked hard at opening and closing the sluices speedily.  Today the locks and sluices are electrically operated, but bureaucratic rules limit the times of their operation.  Yet the canal remains a great benefit to fishing boats and yachts, and a tribute to its builder, the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, who designed the waterway and cut the channels adjoining the lochs, and built the “Neptune’s staircase” of locks that lift and drop the boats from sea level to the highest lochs on the route through the Great Glen.

Two ‘Peters’ who wrote of Scottish Fishers

Peter F Anson, an Admiral’s son from Portsmouth, was a Benedictine monk for 11 years, yet had a life-long interest in and love for fishermen, fishing boats, and fishing communities, and founded the Apostleship of the Sea in 1921.  A gifted writer and artist, he set up the Society of Marine Artists. He wrote and illustrated 35 books, and was made a knight of the order of St Gregory in recognition of his marine work.  His books cover marine art, the church and sailors, and harbours, boats, and fishermen from Brittany to the Shetland Isles.  But it was Scotland’s fisheries that absorbed most of his attention, and for most of his working life he lived on the Moray Firth coast.  His drawings of sailboats, steam drifters and the early motor fishing vessels, are now a classic historical record, as are his descriptions of life on the fishing boats and in the coastal communities.  Among his best known publications are: Fishermen and Fishing Ways; Scots Fisherfolk; and Fishing Boats and Fisher Folk on the East Coast of Scotland.

Comments made by Peter Anson in 1971 (at the age of 82), have a strangely prophetic relevance to what we face today:  “I described what is now a vanished world, for the fishing industry on the east coast of Scotland, and everything connected with it, have undergone tremendous changes. Fisheries are now concentrated in (a few) major ports; the numbers of fishermen and vessels have dropped to half what they were 40 years ago; and many of the harbours are now empty, except for a few small yachts, and haunted by the ghosts of long-dead fishermen.  Nevertheless, (Scottish) fishermen have preserved those qualities of sturdy independence and shrewdness which enable them to fight against the forces of nature as well as London bureaucracy, always trying to tie them up with ‘red  tape’.”

Peter Buchan – “Oxo” to his friends, - was a fisherman from Peterhead who served on line boats, steam drifters, and seine net boats, the family ones named Twinkling Star, and Sparkling Star.  He possessed a natural gift for poetry which he wrote mostly in the ‘Doric’ tongue, the dialect of the Aberdeen / Buchan area.  Peter Buchan is to the fishing communities of north-east Scotland, what Charles Murray of “Hamewith” fame is to the farming towns of the same region.  I was privileged to be involved in the publication of some of his poetical works which were published under the title “Mount Pleasant” after a location where he spent many happy boyhood days.

Among his best loved poems are; The Mennin’ Laft; Not to the Swift; Best o’ the Bunch; Home Thoughts at the Haisboro’; The Skipper’s Wife; and Buchan Beauty.  Peter also wrote some couthy stories, and contributed to local publications on the Doric dialect.  It is very difficult to select a few lines from Peter’s work, since each poem has merit.  But here are four verses from Home Thoughts that describe the close of the annual herring fishery off Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the late autumn of the years from 1890 to 1930. For the sake of non-Aberdeenshire people, this poem is in English !

                                November’s moon has waned; the sea is dreary,
                                   December’s greyness fills the lowering sky;
                                But we are homeward bound, our hearts are cheery
                                   For far astern the Ridge and Cockle lie.

                                The silver harvest of the knoll’s been gathered;
                                   The teeming millions from their haunts have flown,
                                From Ship to South-Ower Buoy, the sea’s deserted,
                                   And we have reaped whereof we had not sown.

                                When snow lies deep, in cosy loft a-mending
                                   Our nets, the times of danger we’ll recall,
                                The days of joy, the nights of disappointment,
                                   Each silver shimmer and each weary haul.

                                And children, sitting chin-in-hand, will listen –
                                   Forsaking for the moment, every toy;
                                For there’s a deep and wondrous fascination
                                   In sea tales, for the heart of every boy.

Fishing at home proved to be somewhat harder than in Ireland.  We went farther afield to find fish, and often worked night and day without stopping.  The longest I stayed on my feet in one stretch was two days and two nights, but even when we got some rest more often than not it amounted to only four hours per working day.  One learned to snatch sleep at every opportunity, even in the galley with our oilskins on while awaiting the call to shoot the gear.  I was in charge of the ropes and the winch, which meant that I had to be the first on deck when operations began.  That first ice-cold lash of salt spray across the eyes before daylight on a winter’s morning, is something I will recall as long as I live, and the recollection makes me grateful for a dry clean bed and 6 or 7 hours undisturbed sleep each night.  After I left the sea, more modern vessels were constructed with whalebacks or with wholly enclosed shelter-decks, but in my time deckhands were fully exposed to the elements.  Strangely, the improvements have not seemed to result in any reduction in the loss of lives or of fishing vessels in the North Sea.

Our fish market  in the days before the EU CFP depleted our fleet and restricted our access to fish stocks

Seine-net boats supplied local fresh fish markets, and their trips rarely lasted more than 5 days.  Some boats landed their catches daily.  This contrasted with the distant water trawlers from Hull and Grimsby in England, fishing off Iceland and Spitzbergen, that were at sea for up to 21 days.  It is surprising to think now that their cod catches stored in ice could stay fresh that long. Other trawler fleets operating from Aberdeen, Granton (Leith), Fleetwood and Milford Haven fished mainly off Rockall, St. Kilda and the Faeroe Isles, and would limit their trips to 14 days.  The distant water trawlers packed their fish in bulk, in ice, in compartments in the fish hold which were separated by pound boards or duck boards.  The seine net vessels placed all their fish neatly in wooden fish boxes that held 7 stones of fish plus ice. This made the fish more presentable on the fresh fish markets.

Myself on deck, approaching the harbour on a fine summers day.

We operated in waters varying from a depth of ten fathoms (60 feet) to 120 fathoms.  By present standards that would be considered shallow.  Today only prawn trawlers would bother to tow their nets in 10 fathoms of water, and few white fish boats would do so in less than 30 fathoms.  Our modern deep water vessels now fish on the sea bed as much as 700 fathoms below (4,200 feet).  This is for deep water species such as blue ling, grenadier, orange roughy, rat-tail (or rabbit fish), siki dogfish and black scabbard. In our day we thought we were exploring the deep when working grounds of 100 to 120 fathoms, such as the “skate hole” off Fraserburgh, or the “Noup deep” off the northwest coast of the Orkneys.  On such trips in the summertime, we would stay at sea for five days and return with a mixed catch of different types of skate and ray, witches, megrims, monkfish, dogfish, halibut, cod, haddock, saithe and hake.

Our regular fishing grounds were the banks of the Moray Firth, North Scotland, Hebrides, Minch, Dubh Artach and the Clyde.  On soft bottom grounds you would tend to get a predominance of whiting, especially off the west coast.   On the harder gravel or shingle you found mainly haddock, and some cod during their spawning season.  Plaice were a shallow water fish, and the more valuable species, brill, turbot, wolf-fish and lemon sole, would be found on harder bottom, or close to rocky ground.  My father preferred to go after quality fish and was for ever setting his net close to rough sea bed.  In consequence, the gear often snagged, and sometimes got very badly torn.  Dover sole, or black sole were a much prized species, and we caught them mostly on sandy and muddy bottom in the Irish Sea and on the south and west Irish grounds.  Powerful Dutch beam trawlers were later to concentrate on this species with considerable success. 

Haddocks caught off the Orkney Islands

When fishing for haddock, which we did for most of the year, there was not much by-catch.  The same was true of the whiting fisheries.  Large haddock, like large cod, were easy to handle, and a crew could gut them in relatively short time. Small haddock, or small whiting, were a different story.  There could be 150 to 250 fish to a box, and so 100 boxes would contain 15,000 to 25,000 fish.  Whiting have small sharp teeth, and ones hands would be ‘ripped to shreds’ gutting a large number.   An average deck crew of five men would have to gut 3,000 to 5,000 fish each when handling 100 boxes, not to mention the washing, packing and icing, and the setting and hauling of the gear. Small whiting and small haddock fetched minimum prices most of the time, and could be sold for fish meal in the warmer months, which was galling after so much work.  So our crew was glad that the skipper generally targeted the larger more valuable fish, even though that meant more repair of torn nets at times.

Above : The Old Man of Hoy, the towering rock off the entrance to Hoy Sound

We worked most of the year on ‘Stormy Bank’ which lies to the west of the Orkneys and near the Sule Skerry lighthouse.  The prime catch there was large haddock and my father was adept at finding and catching them.  We landed our catches mostly at Scrabster, just west of John O’Groats, except for the last two days fish which we would carry to our home port.  We spent some stormy evenings in Scrabster, and one wild, snowy December night, were called out to pull an Aberdeen steam trawler off the rocks under Holburn Head light.  If as often happened, we had to remain there for a week-end (our boats never fished on Sunday), then we would be royally entertained at the local Fishermen’s Mission by the junior Salvation Army Band and songsters from Thurso. Our fish salesman there was a fine man of considerable integrity, and a leading member of the local Salvation Army.  John Sinclair, was also Lord Lieutenant of Caithness, and a respected friend of the Queen Mother whose Castle of May was located nearby. One of the superintendants of the Scrabster fishermen’s mission later married the young Salvationist who led the songsters.  I caught up with them again many years after, in charge of a Congregational church in Alloa.  They were as bright and as enthusiastic as ever.

When fishing closer to the Orkneys we enjoyed occasional spells in Stromness harbour.  We would enter Hoy Sound from the west, past the tall and imposing “Old Man of Hoy”, the huge pillar rock in the shape of a man standing face to the sea, and once inside turn north into Stromness harbour while the famous former naval base of Scapa Flow lay open to the south.  The Orkney people were wonderfully hospitable, and it was a treat to be weather-bound there or to spend a week-end with that happy community. The womenfolk were expert bakers, producing a marvelous range of scones, pancakes and shortbreads.  It was in Orkney that my path first crossed that of the great Captain Cook.  He had charted the seas around the islands, and a plaque at the west side of the town marked where his ship had collected fresh water.  I was later to use charts in Newfoundland that were based on Cook’s survey work in Canada.  And in the Pacific, I traveled to many of the islands he visited on his epic voyages of discovery.

There was little time for activities other than work or sleep on a fishing boat, except when weather bound in a harbour, or at anchor.  Books were read at all spare moments, and the radio provided both news and entertainment. Occasionally a musical instrument would be played, usually a mouth-organ or squeeze-box (melodian).  My father was adept at both.  Playing cards were sometimes produced. Generally they were not regarded as a wise pastime, though ‘cribbage’ was popular with the older men. Draughts was the great board game in the cabin.  Matches would be observed intently by all the crew as if the contestants were top chess players.  Another game that suited the smooth cabin table with its half-inch lip of wood to keep plates and cutlery in place, was “penny-ha’p’ny football”.  It was usually played with two pennies and a sixpenny bit but any sized coins could be used.

The Kincora in the Firth of Clyde, 1960

In Caxton Hall, London, 1958 I am second from the left. Admiral Sir William Agnew is in the chair.

In 1958 I was given a surprise honour in being invited to be the fisherman speaker at the annual meeting of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, which was then held in Caxton Hall in London.  I had rejected the invitation at first as there were many fishers much more mature and more deserving of the opportunity, but the organization insisted and I reluctantly agreed.  It was only a ten-minute slot in a fairly long programme, but my contribution was appreciated by all including the senior committee member Admiral Agnew [Sir William Gladstone Agnew, Vice-Admiral, who commanded HMS Vanguard during the royal tour of South Africa.   He gave valuable and unstinting support to the Fishermen’s Mission during his retirement.] who led the applause with a loud “Bravo!”.   The long established mission was still then undertaking extensive social and spiritual work in the country’s major fishery ports.  The RNDSF had begun in the 19th century when it served Dogger Bank fishers from a mission ship stationed at sea.  The great Dr William Grenfell of Labrador fame, served as a Fishermen’s Mission worker before moving across the Atlantic.

A particular treat for us in the fishing year, was the annual cod fishery in the Firth of Clyde.  The cod used to arrive there in February to spawn, and would be plentiful until the end of April.  We liked the Clyde fishery because there was almost no night-time fishing, and the grounds were rarely more than a two-and-a-half hour steam from port, whether Ayr, Girvan or Campbeltown.  Campbeltown Bay lay inside of Davaar island which you could walk to at low water.  Inside a cave on the island was an amazing rock painting of Christ on the cross that has had a deep impression on many visitors.  In the 1950’s west highland “puffers”, - small, tubby steam-powered cargo boats, still carried coal and other cargo to and from the small coastal and island ports.  The quaint, romantic puffers were made famous by Neil Munro in his “Para Handy” tales.  We often lay beside puffers at night in Campbeltown, and occasionally exchanged a fry of fish for a basket of coal.

Dubh Artach lighthouse off the island of Mull, SW Scotland.  Right : UK 1981 postage stamp of seine net fishing based on a Kincora photo. The artist Brian Saunders added the wheelhouse front from a photo of the seiner  Success KY 211 in Gloria Wilson’s book.  Thanks to reader John Spink for pointing that out.

When in Ayr or Girvan harbour, our cook would stock up with “Land o’ Burns” bakery bread which I then considered the tastiest in all Scotland.  (One of my esteemed colleagues I was to meet later, Roger Mullin, was a son of one of the company’s master bakers).  The Ailsa Craig, “Paddy’s Milestone”, dominates the Firth, and we fished on every side of that enormous rock with its huge colonies of gannets.  One of my father’s boats was sunk to the south of the Craig.  It happened in March 1948.

The “Resplendent, INS 199”, a 60 foot seine netter, had sailed from Campbeltown and reached the fishing area before dawn in the middle of a light blizzard.  My father was “dodging” as we say, - keeping the boat’s head to wind, while he waited for the weather to clear.  Another fishing boat approached, and my father wondered if it wanted to pass a message, (not all boats had radio-telephone then).  But the other skipper had taken a momentary black-out and his vessel ran straight into my father’s boat which was holed under the port light and sunk in minutes.  All of the crew survived though one was injured. My father was the last to be picked up.  He had lost consciousness in the water but had grabbed a rope that was flung to him.  On the rescuing vessel they could not prise his unconscious hands from the rope.  It was one of three shipwrecks that my father survived.

The news of the sinking was broadcast on BBC radio that morning before my mother had been informed.  I had called at a friend’s house on the way to school and was asked rather nervously about it by his parents.  I responded with remarkable confidence that it must have been another boat of the same name.  Other chums at school approached me to see if my father was safe.  I had no idea, but, accepting by then that the boat had sunk, I told them with similar assurance that all the crew had gotten off safely.  This was the case, though my father was at that time still unconscious in Campbeltown hospital.  My mother who had not heard the radio reports was eventually given the news by lunchtime that day.

Recently I made a nostalgic trip to Ayr of which I have many pleasant memories from the cod fishing days.  We used to visit the home of the Head of the fire station, John Cooper, an extremely fine man. One of his employees then was a young Jim Sillars, the future Member of Parliament for Ayrshire South and Glasgow Govan.  John and his lovely wife May were the soul of hospitality.  He was the epitome of the “honest men” of Ayr, and she of the “bonnie lassies”. [From the poem “Tam O’ Shanter”, by Robert Burns.]  I would fillet fish for them each week, and for Tom and Ina Martin who ran a colporteur’s van and shop, as well as the Watson’s, a mining family in New Cumnock.  Anyhow, when I wandered recently down to the former pier and fish market near the mouth of Ayr river, I was surprised to see that all trace of the fishing activities had gone. The pier that once thronged with merchants and boxes of fish landed from seiners, ringers and trawlers, was strangely clean and quiet.   The area had been totally re-developed with large blocks of modern flats.  It left one with a strange feeling that a world one knew had been lost.  I was reminded of how the old Authorised Version put it, “As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.  For the wind passeth over it and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more”.

What happened to Ayr has happened to fishing ports all around Britain. Britain’s surrender of its 200 mile fishing zone to Europe, and the rigorous application of the EC common fisheries policy, has ensured the demise of our once great fishing fleets, and the industry that thrived for 500 years.  Scotland used to have over 40 thriving fish market ports.  Today there are less than ten of any consequence.  It has taken Europe only 30 years to destroy the once great industry that Scots fishers spent over 3 centuries developing.  People’s jobs and community’s future livelihoods, have been traded on the market place in the form of “Individual Transferable Quotas”.  ITQs were supposed to result in economic efficiency, but they do not produce a single extra fish, only widespread social injustice and deprivation.  In every place where they have become a major weapon of government fishery policy, - like in Canada, New Zealand, and the EU states, they have been a means of legal thievery, allowing those with money and influence to steal the harvesting rights of fishers and fishing communities, - rights that their fore-fathers toiled and invested, and risked their lives for generations to secure.

The most iniquitous consequence of that callous policy, I have personal knowledge of, from the hundreds of hard-working, law-abiding individuals and families who have lost their livelihoods, life earnings, and sometimes homes as well.  And also from the many once thriving coastal communities from the Hebrides to the Moray Firth, that now lie stagnant and bereft of any economic future, save what will come in the form of hand-outs from the Brussels and London regimes that robbed them of access to their resources in the first place.  Once thriving, self-supporting communities are now economic graveyards.

One might put it all down to sheer incompetence or bureaucratic stupidity and pig-headedness, but I suspect worse.  Behind all of the irrationality and lies and manipulation and deceit by politicians and civil servants in Edinburgh and London, and Brussels, one senses the hidden hand of a right-wing agenda that sees control over resources and profits in fewer and fewer hands, as being economically efficient and justified by some unspoken monetarist philosophy.

More fish, - but this market has been empty now for over ten years.

The Demise of the Scottish and English Fishing Fleets

Our fishing heritage pre-dates Columbus.  He sailed on English line fishing sailboats to Jan Mayen Island in his preparations for the Atlantic crossing.  Those vessels had live-wells built into the hulls to enable them bring cod and halibut back alive from the long voyages.  Other fish were split and salted, and some boats even carried ice harvested in winter from the marsh-lands in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.  Herring fleets were built to compete with the Dutch who had pioneered drift net fishing in the 17th century.  By the 18th and 19th century, fleets from Bristol were fishing off Newfoundland for cod.  The British navy regularly burned down settlers camps in Newfoundland at the end of each year, to prevent the development of an indigenous new world fleet that might compete with the  English merchants. 

The development of steam power, and the otter trawl led to the growth of the distant water fleets of Hull and Grimsby.  These ships fished as far north as Spitzbergen, and as far west as Greenland. Fleets from Aberdeen and Fleetwood operated off Iceland and the Faeroe Isles.  Diesel and diesel-electric power led to the development of the stern trawler, the freezer-trawler, and the factory trawler. A British company of Scandinavian origin, Salveson’s built the first two factory trawlers in the world, the Fairtry 1 & 2.  These models were quickly copied by the USSR which built hundreds of similar factory ships.

By 1970, the fishing industries of England and Scotland were among the finest in the world, in technology, efficiency, and quality of produce.  Britain was producing over a million tons of fish a year, and with the advent of the new UN Law of the Sea, was preparing to claim its international right to the resources of a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone around the British Isles. 

However, in 1970, a rise in white fish prices and a resurgence in herring fishing was boosting the prosperity of fishermen and fishing ports. The country’s fishery future looked secure.  Then came Britain’s entry into the then European Common Market in 1973, negotiated by Edward Heath. 

Hours before Britain was to be admitted, the original six members drafted the notorious addition to the “Acquis Communautaire” (that applicant states had to accept in entirety).  It obliged new members to surrender the control of their waters to Europe, and to agree to “equal access to a common resource” as far as fish was concerned.  All new applicants for membership would have to accept the condition, and that has been the case since.  Despite a stream of subsequent lies and deception that this was not really the case, the government had sold the fishing industry like a pawn to gain entry to Europe.  The European Commission then assumed the authority to delegate shares of the fishery resource to member states.

Astonishingly, apart from Ireland, and the European maritime states that had nothing to lose and everything to gain, Britain was the only nation in the world to give up that sovereign right to its exclusive fishing zone, and accept the principle of ‘equal access to a common resource’ which was made a condition for all EC members. 

Year’s later, Spain’s full entry into the EU CFP nearly doubled the size of the EU states fishing fleets, and the later entry of the Baltic states brought more fishing effort.  The English and Scottish fleets had to be seriously reduced in size to accommodate the others.

What it had taken British seamen and merchants 500 years to develop, was systematically reduced and destroyed by the EU Common Fisheries Policy in the 30 years from 1975 when measures started to be applied.  No other nation in the history of the world has given up its fishing industry to foreign interests as has Britain.  No state outside the EU has surrendered its 200 mile EEZ fishing zone to another body.  Today, the vessels that reap the benefits of the UK marine EEZ are fleets from Spain, France, Denmark, Holland, and the new EU member states of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.   In consequence, much of the fish purchased by British housewives, though caught in British waters, are from Continental fishing vessels. 

I was later to describe the destructive impact of the European Common Fisheries Policy on our fishing fleets and fishing communities, in a number of publications.  Following the Kyoto Conference of 1995, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation commissioned a number of studies of vulnerable coastal communities.  The studies were financed by the Japanese government.  I was honoured to be asked to undertake the European study that was to focus on the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland.  This study was included in the FAO publication TP 401, A Key to Fisheries Management and Food Security.  On the basis of that study, I then produced a book entitled The Sea Clearances which was published in 2003.  I was also asked to give a lecture on the subject at Edinburgh University and other institutes.

However, despite these publications, and numerous letters to the national press, and submissions to the Westminster Parliament, the House of Lords, and the Scottish Parliament, our government refused to budge on its attitude to our fishing industry which they viewed as small beer, and a pawn well worth sacrificing for other benefits they imagined the European Union would bring.

 One of the fleet of beautiful seine netters which once operated from our home port.  None of these vessels remain.   Most were forcibly decommissioned.

If I was to make a serious career of the fishing, I had to acquire relevant qualifications, so I attended some navigation classes led by our town Provost and excellent mathematician, Roy Tulloch.  That enabled me to pass the examinations for Second Hand (Fishing mate).  Two years later I went to Aberdeen to study for my Skipper’s papers at Robert Gordon’s Technical College (now a University).

Among the other fishing students then were Terry Taylor who became one of Aberdeen’s top distant water trawler skippers, Willie Cowie of Buckie who also did well on his boat the Strathpeffer, and a really fine young man from Mallaig on the west coast, Zander Manson who was to become a top herring fisherman. Sadly, Zander lost his life when his boat the Silvery Sea was run down by a cargo vessel just off the coast of Denmark in 1995 with the loss of all on board.  But mercifully those future events were hid from us then.

Certificates of Competency for Fishing Skippers involved examination in the 32 articles of the ‘Rule of the Road’ as we called the International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea.  The character, colour, height and horizontal range of all ships’ navigational lights, had to be stated with precision.  One had to recognize by models or illustrations of lights, the type of vessel represented, whether it was under way or at anchor or being towed, and say within a given arc of the compass, the direction in which it was heading.  Fog signals had also to be recognised.  Eye tests had to be conducted first to ensure candidates had colour vision. There followed a number of navigational papers on determining position by sextant observations of stars and of the sun at its meridian.  Chartwork took up a morning or afternoon, and there was an oral exam at which one could be asked any question the examiner considered relevant.  Among the questions candidates expected were the local lighthouse flashing sequences, fog signals of various specialist ships, legal obligations of masters, and actions to be taken in emergency situations. One had to demonstrate ability to read and send morse code, use semaphore flags, know the main code flag signals, handle a sextant, and operate pieces of equipment like a radio direction finder.  (Today it is the use of radar and satellite navigation instruments that predominates). 

Along with the other candidates, I duly sat and passed the three-and-a-half days of examinations, (my certificate being the ‘full’ one that covered any size of fishing vessel, anywhere in the world, - now termed class 1 fishing captain). Having acquired the necessary qualification, I was then ready to take on appropriate responsibility.

But events had overtaken me.  It was the family’s intention to assist me to obtain a vessel which I would command.  Practically all the boats in our fleet were family owned, with brothers, uncles, cousins, holding shares of a quarter, an eighth, or even a sixteenth.  Financing such a venture was made easy by a generous Government grant and loan scheme.  We had gone as far as getting plans and quotations for a 72 foot 200 hp seine netter from boatyards in Buckie and Fraserburgh. The Head of Gardner’s had promised us the first of a new range of their marvelous marine workhorse engines.  I had compiled a set of fishing charts, a record of annual fishing activities, and Decca navigator readings of the position of particular fishing grounds.

But that year, the North Sea and Moray Firth were replete with small haddock which swamped the market and brought prices down.  Fish that failed to fetch the minimum price for human consumption were withdrawn from auction and sent ‘up the road’ to the fish meal plant for about ten shillings per 7-stone box.  (That would be just over a penny per kilo in today’s money).  My senior uncle counseled waiting till prospects improved before taking on the burden of repaying a new boat, then costing around ₤23,000.  Because interest on the money borrowed was heaviest in the first few years of a new vessel’s operation, it was important to maximize earnings during that initial period.  So the venture was postponed.  Needless to say I was disappointed.  But another door was about to open.

Far away in East Africa, a huge dam had been constructed on the river Zambesi at the Kariba gorge. This large undertaking was designed to provide electrical power for the mines and townships of the ‘copperbelt area’ of Northern Rhodesia.  But it also had a political motivation, to cement the ties that had created a Central African Federation out of the territories of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland.   Today such dams are being constructed with little thought for their environmental or social impact.  Despite the lack of such concerns 50 years ago, the Kariba dam was to be beneficial from both points of view.   The local tribes people were to suffer, but that was for an initial period only.

The Batonga tribesmen who lived along the river in the Gwembe valley, had to be moved upland as the water rose to form a huge lake, 120 miles long, by 25 miles at its widest points and nigh 400 feet at its deepest, then the largest man-made lake in the world, extending from near the Victoria Falls to the Kariba gorge.  To compensate the tribesmen, a fund was established to train and equip them to become fishers instead of farmers.

A Grimsby trawler skipper was hired to go out and teach the people to fish.  He was planning to take his family with him, but changed his mind at the last minute due to fears of social unrest in Northern Rhodesia as it approached the transition to independence. The Colonial Office, Department of Technical Cooperation, was contacted to find a replacement fishery training officer quickly, this time preferably, a single man.  Word was sent from London to the White Fish Authority area offices in the main fishing ports.  The number of responses was modest.  I was approached by the local officer, somewhat casually, as he did not think I would have any serious interest.  But the opportunity had great appeal, only I thought it unlikely they would take one so young and inexperienced.  The Member of Parliament for Banffshire, a fisherman’s son himself, thought otherwise, and gave me a strong reference.  I was interviewed in London in April of 1962, and left for Northern Rhodesia in August of that year.

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