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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 3. Four 19th Century Storms

December 1806

The lovely Hythe cove lies just below the Moray Golf Club today, and is used by windsurfers and small yachts. The cove faces the inner Moray Firth which extends west to Inverness and Cromarty, and north to Wick and to the Pentland Firth and Orkney Islands beyond. As boys we knew its every rock and pool which we would explore to find crabs, small fish and sea anemones. Anglers still dig lugworms out of the rich beach sand at low water. We sailed our model boats in the cove, and often paddled about it in the summertime. A mile offshore lie the Halliman Skerries, home to a small family of seals, and a mile and a half to the west stands the magnificent Covesea lighthouse, designed and built by the Stevenson family from whom came Robert Louis. The west beach as it is called, continues for 3 miles from the Hythe cove past the lighthouse to Primrose Bay, once a haven for smugglers. Under the Covesea cliffs are caves it is believed used to connect to tunnels underground to Gordonstoun where the Duke of Gordonstoun was reputed to have dabbled in both witchcraft and contraband. His home later became the core building of the school where Prince Philip and Prince Charles were educated. Superstiton and occult beliefs survive to this day in Burghead where they burn the “clavie” barrel each new year, - an old Norse custom, - and farther west where there is a mixed group of ‘new age’ followers at the Findhorn Foundation.

In 1670 the fishermen of Stotfield were cited before the Kirk Session of Kineddar for “the idolatrous custom of carrying lighted torches round their boats on New Year’s Eve”. This rebuke probably referred to part of the clavie barrel ceremony.

Two hundred years ago, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Hythe cove beach was used as a haven for the few boats that fished from the local village. A small row of fisher cottages overlooked the dunes that became the golf course. The cottages, now modernized, are in a lane called Paradise Row. Today they are surrounded by larger houses, hotels, and bungalows. The area then as now was known as Stotfield. In 1806 there were 17 families in the tiny fishing community. In addition to the 34 parents, there were 42 children, 4 teenagers, and a small number of elderly persons. A few miles to the east, two smaller boats were operated by the fishers of Seatown village at the mouth of the river Lossie, (a small Moray shire river called ‘Loxa’ in old Roman maps of Caledonia).

For around 15 years there had been three boats based in Stotfield, and another three at Covesea to the west. The small haven at the river mouth in old Lossie then had one sloop and two small fishing boats. At that time the fishermen each paid an annual rent of £5 to the proprietor of their village fishery, who in return was obliged to furnish them with a new boat every seven years. The boats cost about £18 including their sails and fishing gear. The fishing gear was chiefly baited lines which caught cod, skate, halibut, haddock, whiting, and saithe. The Stotfield fishermen operated “scaffie“ boats. These were small open vessels, 20 to 25 feet long, with rounded stems and raked sterns. They carried one mast and a sail, and were equipped with oars. Relatively light and manoeuvrable, they were easily launched and hauled up on to the beach.

The women folk would assist the men in baiting the lines with mussels and lugworms from the shore around the Hythe. The town of Elgin, 6 miles inland, was a good market for fish, and the fishers’ wives would carry the catches there on foot for sale at markets or from door to door. Often the fish were bartered for farm produce, - oatmeal, potatoes, milk, cheese or vegetables. Large fish were often split, salted, and dried in the wind, and as such could be stored and either used later or sold when demand was good.

That calm morning, Thursday 25 December 1806, Joe Young, skipper of the lead boat, rose before daylight and shook his sons, young Joseph and Alex. They pulled on their leather sea boots and heavy home-knitted woollen ganzies (jerseys). Joseph stepped outside the cottage and gathered the scow baskets of lines that his wife had baited the evening before with lugworms dug up from the beach which was littered with the worm casts at low water. Other bait used included the flesh of mussels and limpets from the rocks below. The women had carefully coiled each line in its scow or half-basket, with the hooks laid flat on their sides so they would not snag on the line below.

Young Joe knocked on the other cottage doors and called the crewmen. There were four other men on the Young’s scaffie, - William McLeod and his son John, and two Edward’s brothers, Alex and Robert. The McLeod’s were descendents of two Highlanders from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army who took refuge in Stotfield after the battle of Culloden. The first Edward in the community was a Welshman, a crew member of a sailing ship that had landed merchandise at the river Lossie. He had left the ship to settle near Stotfield where his sons became fishermen. All seven men carried the lines to the boats beached in the sheltered Hythe cove.

Alex Edward, skipper of the second boat had risen and wakened his brother William, and William’s son of the same name. Their cousin, John Edward was also called, along with the boatswain James Edward, and his son, James. The seventh member of the second boat, William Baikie was a forebear of mine on my maternal grandfather’s side. He was believed to have belonged to Covesea, and his forebears to have come from Wick. The third vessel skipper, James Mitchell, ( a 4 times great grandfather of my cousins John and Campbell),had a cousin-in-law, William Crockett, two men from Nairn 20 miles west, Alex Main of Petty village, and James McLeod as crew. Three other crewmen were John Young, John Edward senior and John Edward junior, nick-named “Fixie”.

Altogether the three boats carried ten Edward’s, four Young’s, three McLeod’s, and one man each named Main, Crocket, Baikie and Mitchell. The Mitchell’s were believed to be descended from a survivor of a wreck of a French or Spanish vessel on the Halliman skerries rock. At the time of his rescue he spoke no English, but indicated that his name was Michelle. He had Mediterranean features and his children and grandchildren all had slightly swarthy complexions. Each of those family names was to continue for two centuries in the fishing communities of the Moray coast, and several of their descendents were also to lose their lives in the pursuit of their calling. On another stormy December day, 184 years later, three sons of an Edwards family were to perish in a foundering off the Shetland Isles of the seine netter Premier of Lossiemouth.

The 21 fishermen of Stotfield set out in their three open boats and sailed to a fishing area 2 to 3 miles offshore, past the Halliman rocks where seals honked and bleated, and occasionally swam past the boats. Herring gulls, cormorants, fulmars and ‘baggies’ (guillemots}, indicated the presence of fish schools below. For an hour after daylight the weather was calm and mild. The baited lines were set out with good catches expected from the promising “appearance” of the seabirds. The three boats then hove to, and the crews took a break before the skippers reckoned it was time to commence hauling.

But before the lines could be retrieved, a south-westerly breeze had sprung up. It quickly veered to the north-west and strengthened to gale force and beyond. By eleven o’clock it had reached hurricane force. On land many thatched houses and barns lost their roofs, and thousands of trees were uprooted. A Kirkwall schooner, the Traveller, had almost reached Aberdeen when it had to turn around and was blown all the way back to Orkney where it was wrecked on the island of Flotta with the loss of several passengers and crewmen. The Stotfield men started to haul their lines but had to let them go and concentrate on weathering the storm which was increasing in ferocity.

The hurricane force winds and waves were much too strong for the little scaffie boats which were driven offshore and swamped, sinking without trace, along with every one of the 21 men from Stotfield. They represented the entire working-man population of that tiny village. There were 2 bed-ridden old men left behind. A 12-year-old boy was the oldest active male left in the row of fisher cottages that comprised Stotfield then. The widows bravely endured their loss and somehow managed to feed and raise the surviving children.

The fishing town that grew from amalgamation of the villages of Seatown, Branderburgh, and Stotfield, was to experience much sad loss of life over the next 200 years. In my own lifetime the community has been subject to such grief more times than I care to recall. On several occasions boats were swamped at sea or wrecked on shore with the loss of all on board, but the loss of a whole village fleet and all its men, must have devastated the tiny community of Stotfield in 1806.

Similar boats were lost from other ports on the inner Moray Firth coast, - Portessie, Burghead, and Avoch, leaving the local villagers to care for a total of 31 widows, 89 children, and 56 aged persons left totally destitute and lacking a breadwinner in any of their homes. Farther up the coast there were additional losses of boats and men off Caithness and around Orkney.

This sea tragedy, typical of innumerable similar fishing disasters, has remained in the memory and folklore of the people of the Moray Coast for two centuries.

Since that fateful morning, no local boat has ever gone to sea on Christmas Day.

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August 1848

It took many years for local fishing to recover after the Stotfield disaster, and one result was the abandonment of the open beach at the Hythe, in favour of the more sheltered river entrance to the west at Seatown. The new generation of Stotfield men moored their boats there on the other side of the Coulard hill. A large family of Stewart’s resided in Seatown, in addition to some of the sons of the men who had died in 1806, - Edwards, MacLeods, Mains, Mitchells and Crocketts. The original Stewart had been nick-named “Press-Gang” from his having served in the navy following that experience. He was eventually allowed to leave his naval vessel at Spey Bay, where he married, and from where he and his wife moved to Seatown where they raised 12 sons and a daughter. As the fishers increased so also did the fleet of boats, in number and size. Boats of 35 feet and more in length were added to the fleet, most of them constructed locally by boatbuilder families who established small yards on the land east of Seatown beside the river.

A proper stone harbour was built at Branderburgh in 1837, and a lighthouse constructed at Covesea in 1846, by Thomas Stevenson, an uncle of Robert Louis. One hundred feet high and standing 150 feet above sea level, the magnificent light was able to be seen over 26 miles away at sea. By that time, the fishermen were beginning to use drift nets for herring in addition to their traditional lines for white fish. Landings of herring attracted merchants and curers, and the completion of a railway line made it possible for them to ship their barrels of salt herring to other parts of the country. This was typical of the developments taking place along the north-east coast of Scotland when another severe storm struck in 1848.

The storm occurred in the month of August during the summer herring season. Scots boats had adopted the Dutch method of catching herring in large long nets of cotton which were ‘barked’ or steeped in a warm solution of suitable resinous tree bark, giving the nets their deep red colour. The treatment preserved the cotton and protected the nets from a range of microbes. Dutch fishers had built up a huge herring industry in the North Sea since the 15th century, operating the drift nets from full-bodied, beamy ‘busses’ as their large capacity boats were called. The Dutch also perfected a range of salt-curing methods to preserve the herring, the bulk of which were sold in barrels to the huge markets in Germany and Russia, where they became a major winter protein food for centuries. Scots herring fishers began to use the Dutch drift nets from the early 18th century and by the 19th century had built up huge fleets of drift net boats.

On Friday 18th August, 1848, the year and month of the California ‘gold rush’, 800 boats set out from their harbours on the east coast of Scotland, from Wick to Stonehaven, to set their drift nets in what appeared to be fine weather. Mostly luggers with considerable sail for their size, each of the north Scottish boats also carried a number of ‘hired’ men, from the highlands, to provide the extra labour needed to haul fleets of drift nets. It was normal to shoot the nets in the evening and to haul them before daylight next day. But by midnight on the 18th of August, a south-easterly wind was increasing and the weather began to deteriorate. The skippers then decided to haul their gear early and to make for the nearest safe port, Peterhead and Wick being favoured for shelter. South-east winds that sweep into the firth from the southern North Sea, are notorious for bad weather and heavy seas in the Moray Firth to this day, and were dreaded by local fishers for that reason.

Before the vessels made it to shore, the seas had become mountainous and some boats lay offshore rather than risk an attempt to enter the harbours. Many were smashed against piers and rocks. The heavier boats carried large sails which were unmanageable in the storm. The smaller, southern boats that carried less sail coped better in the storm. They approached Peterhead from the east and south, but few of the vessels could enter the harbour due to the strength of wind and wave. Those that were not thrown on shore near the port, were driven along the coast to Fraserburgh.

A large crowd of men and womenfolk at Peterhead, watched the distressed vessels from shore, the cries and wails of the women being heard above the noise of the wind and surf. Some of those on shore managed to throw lines to fishermen attempting to swim ashore through the surf. Their efforts resulted in scores of lives being saved. Several fishermen were able to make the shore by clinging to bladder buoys and floats of cork or wood.

Amazingly, many fishers survived and the death toll from 124 wrecked boats was just over 100. At Wick on the north-west shore of the Moray Firth, 41 boats were lost and 37 men were drowned, leaving 17 widows and sixty children fatherless. Some of the Wick fleet made for the Wick water estuary instead of the harbour and thus survived. A number of the Peterhead boats that lay offshore eventually foundered, around daylight Saturday morning, but at least two of them made it safely in to harbour after the heavy sea had subsided somewhat.

Captain John Washington of the Admiralty who had responsibility for Peterhead port, described the tragic events in a report to the Commissioners at an enquiry in Aberdeen. The report was presented to Parliament the following year. He made recommendations in favour of harbour improvements, decked fishing boats, and the stationing of lifeboats at the main harbours. Captain Washington had requested a steamer, the Dorothy, to go to the aid of the stricken boats, in the absence of a lifeboat, but the steamer’s master, Captain Brand, refused out of fear for his own vessel’s safety, despite the offer of a £ 50 reward from Captain Washington who sought every possible means of rendering assistance to the storm-struck fishing fleet..

Altogether 124 boats were lost in that August storm, with the lives of over 100 fishermen. This left 47 women widowed, and 161 children fatherless.

Despite initial and characteristic government reluctance to spend money, one result of the tragedy was the adoption of some of the Captain’s vessel safety recommendations which led to several harbour improvements, to a gradual abandonment of open-hulled boats in favour of decked vessels, and to the funding and stationing of lifeboats at Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Buckie and Wick. It should be noted the Royal National Lifeboat Institution which later provided and managed the lifeboats, is a charity, and receives only limited amounts of government money for that service.

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October 1881

The southern part of Scotland’s east coast has supported a number of fishing harbours over the last 200 years. Fife has Anstruther and Pittenweem, around Edinburgh and East Lothian there was Granton, Newhaven, Musselburgh, Dunbar, and North Berwick. Farther south lies Eyemouth in Berwickshire. These fishing towns supplied Edinburgh and much of the central belt with fish. The area has a long maritime tradition since the days of the semi-mythical Sir Patrick Spens of Aberdour who according to the old Scots ballad, was sent to bring the Maid of Norway to marry the King’s son but whose boat was lost with all on board on the return journey. The Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers built two vital lights on that stretch of coast. The Bell Rock lies off Arbroath, (the Inchcape Rock in Robert Southey’s poem), the lighthouse there being the first constructed on a semi-submerged rock in the open sea, - an amazing feat in 1807 to 1811. On top of huge 300 foot cliffs at St Abb’s Head north of the harbour of Eyemouth, a lighthouse was constructed in 1861. North of Eyemouth, off Dunbar and North Berwick stands the Bass Rock with its enormous bird colonies. Each of those great rocks and cliffs has borne the brunt of North Sea storms and tempests for many thousands of years.

A major sea disaster occurred on the coast on14 October, 1881. It has come to be known as Black Friday in fishing folklore. The fierce storm hit the south-east part of Scotland and the whole coast of Berwickshire, causing havoc inland where some 30,000 trees were uprooted, roofs and chimneys were damaged, and horse carts blown off the road. The greatest damage and loss of life to the port and town of Eyemouth that lost a third of its men. There was scarcely a single family that did not lose a relative or friend in the storm. A total of 189 men perished, - all but 70 of them from the town of Eyemouth. The others were from ports up and down the coast as far as Newhaven in the Firth of Forth. They left 93 widows and 267 children without a father.

As with the sudden storms of the Stotfield and Moray Firth disasters, black Friday morning was calm. Only a very low barometer pressure reading indicated a squall to come. The boats ventured eight miles east of St. Abb’s Head and began to fish with baited hand lines. A strange stillness descended on the area before noon, and the sky darkened quickly. The black clouds were followed by a fierce wind of hurricane force. The storm hit the Eyemouth fleet with a sudden ferocity, overwhelming some boats before they could set sail for land. The canvas sails of the fishing fleet were torn apart by the power of the wind, and masts were also blown over. Over thirty boats were lost in the storm.

Of the boats that made it back to port, 19 were wrecked on the shore or on the Hurkar rocks, with onlookers unable to get help to them through the pounding waves. The sea lifted two of the boats right over the rocks and deposited them on the beach beyond, but only two of the crew managed to cling on board. One of the fleet, the Ariel Gazelle, which remained at sea, was able to ride out the storm and make port safely next day with all of its crew.

The Eyemouth widows declined offers of places in orphanage homes for their children, and insisted on bringing them up themselves despite their difficult circumstances. A small relief fund was raised and administered, and the port slowly recovered, despite a series of disputes with government and with a local church that demanded a tithe of all fish sales from the reduced fleet. The people of Eyemouth gradually recovered from black Friday, and by determination and persistence over the next 100 years became one of Scotland’s most progressive and prosperous ports.


November 1893 Scottish sailboats in a NE storm off Bridlington

For over a hundred years, Scots boats sailed south in the autumn to fish for herring off East Anglia on the banks where the herring schools had spawned for centuries. The Scots drifters followed the herring schools around the coast year after year, season after season, from the spring fisheries off Shetland and the Moray Firth, to the summer ones around the Hebrides, and the east coast, and the winter fishery off southern Ireland. But the autumn herring fishery was probably the most lucrative, and the ports of Yarmouth and Lowestoft became the base for the Scots fleet, and for the army of gutting girls and young women who contracted with the curers to gut, salt, and pack the herring in salt in barrels which piled up in their thousands on the quays of the herring ports.

The ‘south’ fishing as it was called, ended in November, when the Scottish fleet sailed back north to the home ports on the east coast and in the Moray Firth. The fleet was initially composed of sailing drifters, - scaffies, fifies, and zulus, but steam powered drifters began to be built in the later 1800’s, - first in wood, and later also in steel. Diesel powered motor boats that could convert easily from herring to bottom fishing with lines or seine nets, made their appearance in the 1900’s.

Peter Buchan described the end of the south fishing in his poem, “Home thoughts at the ‘Haisboro’” :

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.

For one sweet year no more we’ll dread the Scroby;
No more we’ll fear the Hammond’s broken swell,
Nor shall we toil and strive in dirty weather,
Upon the tide-swept shallows of the Well.

So it was on Friday 17 November 1893 that sailing drifters from Scotland, began their homeward journey from Lowestoft, after a successful herring season. Among the flotilla of eight Moray Firth vessels, were the boats Morning Star of Hopeman, Reids of Buckie, and the Shannon and Glide of Lossiemouth. Fatefully, four other sailboats in the group, Vernon of Hopeman, Comely of Buckie, Glide of Cullen, and the Toiler of Lossiemouth, were to be lost with all 32 crewmen, in the dreadful north-east storm encountered just over 100 miles from the Norfolk coast. The skippers of the ill-fated craft were Alex Main, James Murray, Adam Addison, and John Cormack. They and their men all hailed from the same 30 mile stretch of the Moray Firth coast, from Banff to Burghead.

The Lossie Glide, a carvel planked sailboat with a 48 foot keel, had been built at Speymouth by Duncan boatbuilders, and carried three tons of ballast in addition to her mizzen and main masts, yards, jib, sails and gear. She was employed mainly in the herring fishery, but could revert to line fishing in the off-season.

Skipper John Campbell of the Glide (not to be confused with the similarly named boat from Cullen which was commanded by Adam Addison), was apprehensive about the weather and the low glass. He thought they would be wise to drop anchor at Winterton on the north Norfolk coast, and resume their voyage when the weather was more settled. However, on reaching Winterton they found sea was still fairly calm, and the wind was light from the SSW, so they continued north up past the Wash and the Humber estuary. That decision had tragic consequences. A strong frost came down as the wind swung round towards the north, and the vessels tacked until the breeze increased and blew from the west. Sails were increased and the fleet sped along their course until Saturday morning.

The wind dropped by 8 o’clock Saturday morning, becalming the boats for a while, some 8 miles off Bridlington shore. An hour later, a light north-easterly wind allowed the fleet to continue on a two-sail tack. Then at ten o’clock skipper Campbell was called from his breakfast in the cabin. The concerned helmsman pointed to the north-east from where an awesome dark mass was rapidly approaching. He quickly shouted to the crew to let go the mizzen and fore halyards which they did with alacrity, dropping sails and yards on the deck. At that moment the storm struck. The boat and its crew were enveloped in a darkness of sea, wind, and blinding snow.

The sails were reefed and shortened by rolling the peak round the yard, securing it by tackle aft, and lashing it firmly with stoppers. The boat’s head was then turned towards the open sea offshore. From mid-day till 4 pm the little 60 footer rode mountainous waves and was battered by the fury of the gale. That afternoon resembled night rather than day. As the boat fell into each trough between the waves, and lurched violently from side to side, the crew feared the worst. Freezing spray lashed them, and a seemingly endless hailstorm of large snowflakes reduced visibility to an arms-length. The boat and crew struggled against the full fury of the storm, but even when it abated somewhat, the wind and huge seas continued to threaten their survival.

The skipper and his men laboured on through the night, and by 4 o’clock Sunday morning they caught a glimpse through the blizzard and darkness of what they believed was the other Glide of Cullen, close by them. Just after that, skipper Campbell was swept overboard from his place at the tiller aft, and amazingly was washed back on board. After he resumed his place at the helm, he saw the other Glide no more. Along with the Toiler, Venor, and Comely, it had succumbed to the storm. Of the 32 men on board the four boats, not a single crewman survived. A steamer was observed, making heavy weather of the conditions. The sea swung it around 180 degrees putting its stern where its head had been. John Campbell reckoned it never reached land.

How his little boat survived that night was a mystery to skipper Campbell. He gave some credit to the seamanship with which they reduced sail and rolled all the spare peak of canvas on the yard. But in truth he later declared that they too would have perished but for the help of a Higher Power.

From the first of daylight they turned the boat to head back towards land. Campbell had the lead line cast and from the 26 fathoms depth it indicated, believed they were over the sea bed extending east from Flamborough Head. The new day brought fresh hope, and despite the raging sea, sails were raised a little, and the vessel started to make good way westwards. The hatches had been battened down with oars, the mizzen dropped over them, and two heavy chains laid across all. This had prevented the fish hold from being flooded as the waves poured over the deck By 3.00 pm Sunday afternoon the wind had abated some. The seas subsided as the boat approached Smethwick Buoy where the local lifeboat approached and enquired for their welfare. Campbell had the crew drop two anchors on Smethwick Bank where they lay and rested till Monday when they weighed anchor and sailed into the harbour at Bridlington.

It was with heavy hearts and chastened spirits the four remaining boats of the small flotilla of eight vessels finally made port in the Moray Firth at the end of the month.

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