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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 4. Five Shipwrecks

The Resplendent, March 1948

In the days before the depletion of our fishing grounds, the Firth of Clyde teemed with fish that appeared at different seasons and spawned on the sea bed in dense schools. Cod were first to appear in the spring, followed by whiting and hake. Herring arrived in the autumn, along with mackerel, both species providing sustenance for the numerous seabird colonies of the west coast. Nephrops prawns (Norway lobster or ‘scampi’) were abundant throughout the year, along with smaller and more seasonal quantities of crab and lobster. In addition to the local fleet, many boats from the east coast came to the Clyde to participate in the cod fishery from February to April each year. Most of the fleet operated from the port of Ayr, but Cambeltown in the Mull of Kintyre peninsula was also used as were Girvan and other smaller harbours. The Ailsa Craig, “Paddy’s Milestone”, dominates the Firth, and boats 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”, was a 60 foot seine netter, powered by a Gardner diesel, and carrying a crew of six including my father, his brother Campbell, engineer John Crockett, Alex Cowie, Johnny ‘Monk’, and a cook. It replaced my father’s previous vessel, the 55 foot Amaranth, INS 87, which had been handed over to the Admiralty for fleet service duties in Scapa Flow. The boat still carried its coat of grey paint used in wartime when on at least one occasion it was circled by a German submarine, but allowed to continue to fish in safety. It operated around the North Sea, the Moray Firth, the west coast and the Firth of Clyde following the fish schools in their seasonal migrations. The previous year it had rescued the crew of an Aberdeen trawler, the Newark Castle, which it came upon in distress in the North Sea. The crew was landed safely in Aberdeen, along with a net that was salvaged from the sinking vessel. The trawler owners sent a truck down to collect the net, but issued not a word of thanks to the Resplendent for saving the lives of the trawler crew. That was rather typical of deep sea trawler companies.

On the morning in question, the Resplendent had sailed from Campbeltown on the west side of the Firth at 4.00 am, and reached the fishing area before dawn in the middle of a light snow 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 a few 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. Later 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. Once they had recovered, the Resplendent crew were generously provided with replacement clothes, and funds for their bus and train fares home by the Shipwrecked Mariner’s Society, a charity my father had supported all his life.

The Caronia, January 1953

At the start of the coronation year of Queen Elizabeth, the British Isles were hit with what has come to be known as “the great gale”. It caused abnormally high tides which brought serious flooding to the south and east coast of England. In the Irish Sea and North Sea several vessels foundered in the severe storm. Ashore, thousands of trees were blown down all over Scotland. Many trees were later sawn up and used for boat-building, but being somewhat green and damp, and never properly dried out, they developed spores of fungi that caused serious dry rot in the timbers of the boats 15 to 18 years later. The beach at my home was flattened by the force of the extreme wind, and the edge of sand dunes shaped like a wall as if a huge giant had cut them with a knife. Beach huts were destroyed, some blown over the golf course like paper bags.

A fishing boat from my home town, the “Caronia, INS 276”, was caught in the gale as it headed south through the Moray Firth, and was disabled when the net became wrapped around the propeller. Unable to manoeuvre, the boat lay broadside to the wind and was pounded by the heavy seas. Skipper John Campbell sent out an SOS message by radio-telephone. The wives at home, with much concern, were able to follow the distress messages and the responses on their radio sets tuned into the fishing vessel frequency.

An Aberdeen steam trawler, the Loch Awe had just made Wick harbour to shelter. On hearing the SOS on his radio, from the stricken Caronia, Skipper William Imlach set back out to sea immediately, after offering any of his crew who did not wish to go, the chance to remain ashore. Despite the obvious danger, all the crewmen agreed to stay on board for the rescue voyage. By the time they reached the area some 15 miles away, the Caronia’s wheelhouse had been smashed by the heavy seas. Skipper Imlach told Skipper John Campbell to keep transmitting on the radio-telephone and he would try to determine their position from his by radio direction finder. Twice the Loch Awe sailed past the Caronia but missed it as sea and sky were together in the storm, limiting their vision. On the final attempt the boats came alongside and the crew jumped to safety. All seven men survived. I knew each of them, and their subsequent boats, a second Caronia and the St Gerardine.

The Sapphire and the Arcadia, 1977 and 1981

James “Coolie” McLeod was the skipper of the Lossie seine netter Sapphire UL 194 that fished out of Lochinver on the west coast. ‘Coolie’ was well-liked by all in his home town and in the fishing fleet. He was married to Isa from Hopeman, a fine young lassie with the sharp wit and good sense that characterizes most of the womenfolk in her village of Hopeman. I recall meeting the two of them in Dublin, at a fishing exhibition they attended in 1971 along with skipper Benjie Scott of the Scotia and his wife, Anne. Benjie was also one of the Lossie fishers who operated successfully from Lochinver.

Another of our boats to use Lochinver was the Arcadia INS 207. Her owner and original skipper was Alex Flett, a fine seaman whose father Andrew had been tragically killed during the war when a prisoner aboard a Japanese ship that was sunk by U.S. aircraft. Alex was married to Marie Stewart, a woman of strong character who suffered from painful arthritis. Due to failing eyesight, Alex decided to bring a second skipper on board to assist the Arcadia operations. The second skipper, Lewis Smith had been a classmate of mine at school. He was an energetic fisher who had worked in fishery projects abroad as well as been skipper of boats at home. As teenagers, Lewie and I sometimes helped to pack fish on Friday nights and Saturday mornings for local merchant John West, when landings were heavy.

The Lossie men had pioneered Lochinver as a west coast base of operations since the end of WW2. My uncle Willie had been one of the men to support that harbour which then had little in its favour, just a dilapidated old pier. But it had a local man with a fish lorry and a lot of vision, Hector MacKay, had promised the east coast boats all the support they needed if they would give the unpromising port a try. He would personally arrange for all their needs, - fish boxes, ice, fuel, fresh water, groceries, and transport for their fish. By the late 1950’s Lochinver was flourishing, and by the 1970’s it had a modern pier, a fish market, an ice plant, a fuel depot, and a comfortable Fishermen’s Mission station. Most of these developments took place in the teeth of resistance from the Lord Vesty family that owned the huge Sutherland estate. (Except for the ice plant which was Vesty-owned). By 1971 fish landings at the now prosperous little port had risen to 11,000 tonnes a year. Hector MacKay’s son George had taken over management from his father and continued the excellent tradition of fleet services until his tragic death in a car crash in 1980.

Although I never fished out of the Sutherland port, my extended family did so for years. Uncle Willie based his Moravia there, and uncle George, the Kittiwake. Cousin Campbell had his first vessel the Kiloran, use the port, and his brother Johnnie fished very successfully from the harbour in the Caledonia, and then the Horizon and latterly the St Kilda. Another cousin, Thomson Fiske, operated the Diadem from the port, his brother Eddie had the Amaranth there, and their other brother Alex fished the Emma Thomson as well.

Despite its location in the North Minch, and its proximity to most of the west coast fishing grounds, and the facilities and services available to east coast boats, many of the seamen were uncomfortable making a landfall at Lochinver, or proceeding to sea from the harbour, in rain or in darkness or in bad weather. There are two entrances to Lochinver harbour, their channels lying on either side of a fairly big island. The main channel is the South one which is wider and used by vessels approaching from the south. Most of the fishing fleet arrive from the north or north-west, and therefore use the narrower North Channel. The Stoer point stretches out to sea for some miles from the port. The coast behind it is characterized by steep cliffs with rocks below, but the water is deep close to shore. Tides around the Point can affect passing boats, but they do not compare to the powerful currents of Duncansby Head at the eastern entrance to the Pentland Firth. When wind and tide are contrary, the approach to Lochinver suffers from short sharp seas. Vessels must navigate with care while proceeding along the rocky southern coast of that promontory, whether entering or leaving from the harbour. Due to the depth of water, and the absence of a shallow beach, any boat grounding on that shore would have little chance of being refloated unless the incident occurred in very fine weather.

Both the Sapphire and the Arcadia were to be lost with all hands off Stoer point when heading out to sea at night from the Sutherland port. They were wrecked within 6 years of each other, in 1977 and 1983. There has been no obvious explanation for either loss, but it appears that unusual tides around that headland may have sucked both boats on to the rocks, or that the helmsmen were confused by rain or poor visibility.

When the Sapphire failed to return from sea or to make contact by radio, that mid-September week, it was Skipper ‘Coolie’s friend Benjie Scott who summoned his crew to go on a search and rescue mission. Before leaving by road for the west coast, he called my cousin John who suggested with uncanny insight that the first place they should explore might be the north side of Stoer Point. This they did, and sadly came across buoys and boxes from the Sapphire, floating off the rocky shore. In addition to Skipper MacLeod, the crewmen who perished were Robert Craig, aged 21, Raymond Bruce, 36, James Gault, 55, and George Thompson, 58. James, the skipper, was only 36 years old at the time.

The Arcadia loss was tragically similar. The men had been working long hours and set sail from Lochinver for the fishing grounds, immediately after landing their catch, with no time for sleep except the 2 or 3 hours they would get before shooting the net again. I was well acquaint with the skipper and some of the crew. Peter Donaldson, another former classmate of mine had sailed on the boat some years before and died tragically after striking his head in a sledging accident at Lochinver in 1960. He had returned to the boat after the incident, seemingly all right, but when the crew tried to waken him later he was found to have died.

On the night of the Arcadia’s loss, June 16th 1983, there were five men on board. In addition to the skippers, Lewis Smith, 42, and Alex Flett, 57, there were Patrick Devine, 27, Edward Wilson, 19, and Gordon Stewart, 18. Gordon, the young son of another dear friend of mine, Willie Stewart, was on the Arcadia, making his first trip of what he hoped would be his life’s career. His father Willie, who had undertaken excellent fishery development work in Peru and Korea, intended to return to commercial fishing with Gordon, and was planning to move north from Hull where he lectured at the fishery college.

The Devotion, August 1960

One of my chums on the local fishing fleet was Jimmy Ralph. His father Jim Ralph, was skipper and owner of the Devotion, INS 223, a fine seine net vessel of 68 feet that fished all around Scotland. Aboard of the boat were 5 crewmen in addition to Jimmy and his father. Their ages ranged from 15 to 49, Jimmy being 19 then. The average age of the Devotion crew was just over 28.

One wild night 26 August 1960, we were returning through the Pentland Firth to land our week’s catch at the home port. The NE wind increased in strength that night as we made our passage, and we were glad to get to harbour and safety. Before our arrival my father was talking on the radio telephone to the skipper of the Rival, William “Pilot” Stewart who had been relaying messages in somewhat cryptic form. My father asked if there was anything amiss. The response was “It’s not good, - not good at all”. We made the harbour in time for the later Friday fish sale and I prepared to open the hold hatch and raise the landing derrick. My colleague Joe ‘Slater’ Campbell motioned to me to be silent. On the market, the fish buyers were grouped solemnly around the first lot of fish boxes, with their heads bowed. “Pilot” Stewart was offering a prayer. It was for the crew of the MV Devotion. The boat had hit the rocks under the cliffs at Troup Head near Fraserburgh around midnight the night before. It was not certain then if any of the men had survived.

That week-end we were informed that all but three of the crew had perished. The four married men were lost, including the skipper and mate. Three young deckhands survived, including my friend Jimmy. One crewman had been married barely 3 weeks, and another’s wife was expecting their first child.

Jimmy told later how the boat was heading for Fraserburgh due to the bad weather, after fishing 70 miles offshore. The force of the following wind may have brought the vessel to land much sooner than expected. Also, due to the rain, storm, and darkness, Buchan Ness light had not been clearly visible from sea. Whatever the cause, the Devotion had struck the shore with a shock that threw Jimmy out of his bunk. Next minute he was on deck, then a wave washed over the vessel and he found himself in the sea. Somehow he was thrown by the breakers on to rocks, and from there he and two others crawled and staggered to a corner under the cliffs. Their hands, arms and feet were lacerated on the sharp mussel-covered rocks. The other two survivors were George Edwards, 22, and 15 year old John Souter. As they reached the foot of the cliffs, just out of reach of the pounding surf, they heard their vessel being smashed to pieces. Soaking wet, chilled and exhausted, and not knowing where they were, the three young men huddled together for warmth. When daylight came they realized that the rest of the crew must have perished. Slowly they made their way along the shore for some miles till they found a place where they could climb the cliffs and walk on to the village of Pennan where they were given care and attention.

Two bodies were recovered from the shore the first day, and other two were picked from the sea six weeks later, the last being Jimmy’s father, Skipper Ralph. The deceased crewmen were buried later in our local cemetery. Most of the town turned out to share the sorrow of the bereaved families. I will never forget Jimmy, - white as a sheet, - supported by two other chums, walking unsteadily to the graveside to hold the lead cord of his father’s coffin. I guess only a mining community, after a pit disaster, can know what it is like for a fishing village to suffer the loss of a boat and its men.

Seven years later Jimmy was fishing on an uncle’s boat, the Ocean Gleaner, in the North Minch off the west coast of Scotland. He and other deckhands were gutting fish out of boxes on the side-deck when a wave struck unexpectedly. Jimmy was facing his cousin, David Ralph, just 19 years old. One minute he was in front of him, gutting the fish. Next minute he was gone over the side. His body was never recovered.

The second tragic loss impacted hard on young Jimmy. He was not long married and wondered what further trauma life ahead would bring. He left the sea and volunteered for service with the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. The Mission sent him to Hull for initial in-service training.

Hull trawlers, 1968

Jimmy had not been long in Hull when three distant water trawlers were lost in a 24 day period in January and February 1968 in Arctic and North Sea waters. They were the large steel side trawlers, St Romanus, H223, Kingston Peridot, H591, and Ross Cleveland H61. The St Romanus went down in the North Sea off Yorkshire. The other two succumbed in severe blizzard and freezing spray conditions off the north coast of Iceland. 58 men lost their lives in those three disasters, two of them due to black ice forming on the masts and superstructure. Only the mate of one of the ships survived. Jimmy and his Mission colleague were given the assignment to call at the homes of all of the crew and inform the wives and children of their loss.

The crew man who was rescued, Harry Eddom, first mate of the Ross Cleveland, was washed up on the Icelandic coast clinging to a life-raft. Doctors who attended him were amazed that he survived the prolonged trauma in such severe cold weather and sea conditions. In 2004 Harry was still around, in his seventies, but had consistently refused to talk to the media about his experience. The last words of the skipper of the Ross Cleveland, on the radio-telephone, to a nearby boat, were, “Will you come closer? We are over-icing”. Then minutes later, “I am going. Give my love and the crew’s love to our wives and families”.

The single fishing port of Hull in Yorkshire, lost more than 6,000 of its trawlermen in a hundred year period. Today that once great port is now bereft of fishing vessels. When I visited it last time, a few years ago, the Sea Fish Industry office and technical centre was a lonely building in the middle of a deserted St Andrew’s dock. Britain’s largest fishing port was dead.

Every loss of life at sea is tragic and has its own particular sorrow. Jim Ralph was to spend the rest of his life in support of families and individuals who faced loss and hardship due to the inherent dangers of a fisherman’s life. Each such occasion has its own pain. Jim told of a later incident when he received a call one Saturday afternoon from a skipper at sea to say that a young crewman had been washed overboard off Sumburgh, Shetland, and his body was not yet recovered. (It was retrieved 16 weeks later). The skipper asked Jim to inform the young man’s wife.

When I got to the house,” Jim related, “I’ll never forget what I saw; a young wife in her early twenties with a baby daughter of three weeks in her arms and eleven month old son lying in his cot. Within the space of twelve months she had given birth to two children and lost her husband. For her that day, life was shattered.”

Government indifference to fisher sacrifices

I want to contrast these glimpses of fisher sacrifices with the callous attitude of successive governments towards the generations of fishermen and their families who have invested life savings, lifetimes of hard work, and so many lives, to build up our fishing industry to what it became by 1970 – when it was at its peak in efficiency and production. Shortly after that date, the UK government joined the EEC and in the act sacrificed most of our fishing grounds on the altar of the Common Market. Government documents released since indicate that they thought the fishing industry (and in particular Scotland’s fishing fleet) “was expendable”. The UK (mainly Scotland) had the largest and most productive fishing area in Europe as measured by the international 200 mile EEZ Exclusive Economic Zone provisions recognized by the UN. All other EEC / EU States were to be granted “equal access to a common resource” (fish, but of course, not oil). The Government then introduced licenses and quotas, which became tradable items. That meant in effect that what the fishing fraternity had laboured for over centuries, - access to fishing grounds and freedom to catch fish, - became marketable commodities to be bought and sold by speculators and any with financial resources, not just in the UK, but throughout the developing European Union. These innovations spelled the doom of most of our fishing vessels, and the demise of our smaller coastal communities.

Some years ago I sat in Noble House, Westminster, interviewing one of Britain’s senior civil servants with responsibility for fisheries. He received me politely, and while he talked I wondered what he knew of the lives of the fishermen whose futures were in his hands. His soft hands had never gutted a score of boxes of small whitings, mended a net at sea, spliced a rope in freezing weather, or tailed hundreds of prawns for market. His clear eyes showed none of the bloodshot character of seamen who spend long nights gazing at other vessel lights, or scouring the horizon for landmarks. I assumed that he had lost no family members at sea, and had never mortgaged his house to finance a boat.

Those things most fishermen undergo as a matter of course in their lives, were beyond his experience. Yet he clasped his hands on his soft round stomach and almost hissed out his opinion : “Those fishermen actually think it is their fish. It is not their fish. It is our fish. And we will give it to whoever we like”.

Who really cares most about the fish resources of the world, and who has the greatest interest in their long term sustainability? - The bureaucrats who administer government programmes? – The politicians who have to balance their value against other political and short-term considerations? – Or the people whose lives are directly dependent on the sea’s produce? It is my firm belief from life-long and intimate association with these people at home and around the world, that the historic fishing communities are the best and most reliable guardians of the wealth of our seas. They have proven this by generations of sacrifice and commitment, hard labour and investment.

Some will argue that greed and excess effort by fishers has been a major factor in the depletion of fish stocks. Having studied closely the cases of over-fishing in most of the world’s oceans over half a century, my own judgment is that behind nearly every incidence of ruthless exploitation of our seas, there is the hand of big business and / or government interventions that set the fisheries playing field in favour of corporations rather than communities.

The genuine traditional fishing communities are often excluded from engagement by authorities skilled at shuffling the cards of debate, or at orchestrating the outcome of supposed consultations. The experience and knowledge of fishers is often ignored, and their sacrifices disregarded. As an American administrator said at a fishery conference when asked about the loss of all the fishermen lore and experience, - “That can be replaced by technology”. For the last 35 years in particular, a combination of UK government and European Union policies, have had a disastrous effect in my view. Similar ruthless policies have been followed to a greater or lesser degree in countries that should have known better, like Iceland, Canada, and New Zealand. America’s fishery policies have been more cautious except for the period of reckless expansion that followed the Stratton Commission Report, which recommended foolishly large production targets. All of the governments that wanted technological and economic efficiency which they thought big business would bring to fisheries, - were blind to a basic truth. That truth, expounded by Schumacher and others, is that there are limits to growth in a finite environment, and we cannot treat living nature whether in farming or fishing, as if it was just a business sector like automobile manufacture or steel production.

Precious living marine resources, and the as-yet un-spawned bounty of the sea, have become a mere commodity on the marketplace, where the highest corporate bidder holds sway over fishing communities, and where the career civil servant has a political interest that ignores the expertise, knowledge, and collective wisdom of our indigenous industry. Fishing rights that coastal people thought were inalienable, have become mere bargaining chips at the international table.

Some readers may disagree. The destruction of fishing communities may be a price they think worth paying for a more fully capitalist or monetarist state, just as some believed (and some still believe), that the Highland Clearances, with all their inherent injustice and brutality, were a price of desirable progress in Scotland. It is my contention that the fishery changes which have taken place, are not the harbingers of progress, but the bringers of wanton and unnecessary damage to a valuable industry, and a priceless resource.

But we deal with those issues more fully in other chapters of this book. At the risk of depressing some, I would like to relate some more personal accounts of tragedy at sea.

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