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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 5. A Personal and Family View

My family has known its share of sea sorrow and personal sacrifice over the past 150 years. Their particular branch of the Thomson clan hailed originally from Skagen, Denmark. They moved to Lossiemouth via Macduff and Buckie. The patriarch on my father’s side, ‘Sanny Caccie’ a nick-name from his Catholic faith, was Alexander Thomson, 1845 – 1910 whose own father, William Thomson was drowned off Buckie in 1871, off the sail boat Henrietta. Alex ‘Sanny’ Thomson skippered the sailboat St. Kilda INS 472. They were fishing off Barra in the summer of 1875 when his brothers John and Joseph set out in a small boat in Vatersay Sound to obtain provisions for the St Kilda. The gig overturned and both brothers were lost. That was on the 22nd of June. Joseph aged 25 was buried at Vatersay. John aged 27 was buried at Branish in Uig some 60 miles away where his body was recovered. Their bereaved mother had a memorial stone prepared and shipped to Barra where the people of Castlebay, had it placed and maintained out of their love and respect for Alexander Thomson. The stone is there to this day, cared for by the fisherfolk of Barra.

28 years later, Sanny was to lose his own son John from the Glenfield off Tarbet Ness in the Moray Firth in 1903. Another younger son, James, was lost in the Humber estuary when his vessel the Amaranth was struck by a Russian steamer. This was in 1912, two years after Sanny’s own death.

We also had some forebears, one Baikie and one Mitchell who were lost in the Stotfield disaster of 1806 when all of the boats from that little village were lost, together with all of the able-bodied men on that tragic Christmas Day. My maternal grandfather John (Jock) Baikie was descended from the family of William Baikie. My cousins John and Campbell are descendents of James Mitchell on their mother’s side. A lovely memorial to the Stotfield fishers has been erected on the promenade above the cove from which they sailed on that last ill-fated voyage.

In my own lifetime, scarcely a year went past without some loss of life. Several of the young men lost from our fleet were close friends, shipmates, and family members. I was to experience a number of sudden bereavements in my first few months at sea. My initial year as an apprentice deckhand, 1955 to 56, was spent fishing around Ireland. Memorable as it was, it also brought 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. Johnny was one of the finest of men as all who knew and sailed with him readily affirmed. His eyesight was poor, but he was an expert net mender, and worked as mate to my uncle George on the Kittiwake. She was a sixty-foot seine-netter, built in Macduff, and was fishing on Stormy Bank, just west of the Orkneys. They had hauled the net and the crew were scooping the fish into boxes while Johnny re-laid the net on the platform aft for the next set. The crew heard a shout and realized he had slipped over the side. George spun the boat around and as they approached the place, one crew member started to strip ready to dive into the cold water. But before they reached him, the current pulled Johnny down into the deep and out of sight. His body was never recovered. He left a fine lovely wife and three teenage boys.

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. He was the only son of a widowed mother, and had a berth on a 50 foot boat operated by Skipper Georgie Buchan of Killybegs. They had gone to the south coast to fish for herring through the winter months. During south-westerly gales an enormous sea built up at the entrance to Dunmore and the Waterford river estuary. Benny’s skipper decided to leave the exposed harbour at Dunmore East and to head up to sheltered Waterford for the week-end. Watched by horrified onlookers from the cliffs above, the little boat foundered in the heavy seas shortly after it left the port. All aboard were lost.

My other Killybegs chum, Anthony McAllig, was washed overboard two years later. He was working on his brother’s boat. Skipper Willie had served on my Dad’s boat before getting the Shevaun built. He told me later how much young brother Anthony loved the new boat. They were fishing for haddock in Donegal Bay in weather that was choppy but not necessarily dangerous. But Anthony fell over the side and was lost, to the distress of the large Mcallig family and all who who knew him.

My best personal friend in Ireland was Sean Cotter of Castletown Berehaven in County Cork. Along with myself he was an apprentice deckhand on my father’s boat in the mid-1950’s. A gem of a fellow, Sean (Johnny) had a rich store of tales from that wild and remote south-west part of Ireland, which he would relate with appropriate colour and exaggeration. He was as cool as a cucumber when encountering more sophisticated society. I will never forget him bargaining with a draper in Dun Laoghaire for the purchase of a suit. No bargain shopper in Casablanca could have beaten the price down better or gotten more extras out of the draper than Johnny did. He was a fine seaman, and later went on to become a successful skipper of a French-built trawler fishing on the wild Porcupine Bank in the Atlantic, west of the Arran Isles.

After a gap of forty years I had an opportunity to go to Castletown and look him up, and found him aboard his vessel in the harbour. He did not recognize me at first. When I said I was “one of the Thomsons from Scotland”, he responded, “do you know David?, - how is David these days?”. Within minutes I was given the royal treatment, and ended the evening in his bachelor house round a roaring fire while his crew brought up huge fresh Irish ham sandwiches from the shop and Sean poured mug after mug of hot steaming tea. He had given up drinking for health reasons some time before, but had never married.

Sean lost his life a few years ago, sadly, but somewhat appropriately, at sea. He had semi-retired to a one-man boat, the Kyle Mhor, which he fished with skill, but something went wrong that last morning, 31st May 2000. The vessel capsized south of Black Bull Head, and he was drowned. The fishermen of Castletown called me and gave me a moving account of how they bid Sean their last farewell. His sister and brother-in-law in England, also wrote of him with deep affection and admiration. Sean was the third of three young Irish fishermen I knew in 1955 who all lost their lives at sea.

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 dreadful loss of boats and men year after year. If we add the toll of lives lost from neighbouring Buckie and Banffshire over the same period, our short stretch of coast lost over 80 men at sea since 1950. Scarcely a winter passes without another major fishing vessel tragedy occurring.

The most horrific losses from my home port were those of the Devotion, the Sapphire, the Arcadia, and the Premier. Only from the Devotion did three of the crew members survive. A few miles along the coast we lost the Acacia Wood from Hopeman, and the Budding Rose from Burghead. From Buckie just west of our port, the vessels Carinthia, Ocean Monarch, and Celerity, were lost with all hands. I knew the Celerity skipper, Sandy Bruce, and was familiar with the crew. His vessel went down in the dreaded Pentland Firth on 18 March, 1981

For around six years, while on my father’s boat, we would sail through the Pentland Firth twice a week for much of the year. I reckon we must have traversed its turbulent waters over 400 times while I was on board. The tide in that narrow strait between John O’ Groats and the Orkney Islands, reaches ten to twelve knots in speed at the peak of its ebb and flow. I have seen an Aberdeen steam trawler under Duncansby light, obviously at full speed, but moving backwards in relation to the lighthouse. The worst conditions occur when there is a strong NW gale blowing into the Firth. The high swell running into the powerful ebb tide coming from the east, results in dangerously steep waves that can engulf boats. The problem for any vessel entering the Firth, is that once you are in the grip of the tide, there is no way back. You have to continue. We made that mistake in 1958. It was the one serious lapse of judgment my father admitted to in his 45 years of seafaring.

We had been fishing in the Moray Firth but catches were small and there were prospects of good haddock fishing west of the Orkneys the following week. We put into Wick harbour to land the fish we had, then set out for the Pentland Firth with the first of the ebb tide that would speed us through to Scrabster. What my Dad was not fully aware of was the state of the sea on the west side following a prolonged NW gale. Darkness had descended when we entered the Firth after passing Duncansby Head. We then hit a series of mountainous seas that tested our 70 foot boat to the limit. Time and time again it seemed that the next wave would swamp her, but time and time again she rose to the challenge. Down below we were thrown about in our bunks and had to cling to the beams to stay there. In the wheelhouse, my father later admitted, for the only time in his sea career, his knees were knocking together. Our Hopeman engineer, Willie John Main, was equally concerned and stayed with Dad in the wheelhouse, giving what encouragement he could. Eventually, to our great relief, we reached Holburn Head, and sailed into Thurso Bay, then tied up in Scrabster.

Two skippers spoke to my Dad after about the serious nature of the Pentland Firth during a NW gale and an ebb tide. One was Bill ‘Pilot’ Stewart, mentioned elsewhere, and the other was Jim Bruce of the Buckie Diligent. Had my father only called them before on the radio-telephone, they would have advised him solemnly to avoid the Firth at that time. It was Jim Bruce’s son Sandy who was to lose his life 23 years later in the Celerity when attempting to sail through the Firth in similar conditions. The Horizon, skippered by my cousin John, was one of the boats that searched the Firth afterwards, but in vain. The Celerity had vanished with all on board. I often wonder if Sandy’s father had also warned him of that danger, but Jim Bruce had passed away before Sandy’s boat was built.

When I studied for my skippers papers at Robert Gordon’s Technical College in Aberdeen, (now a University), I had some interesting fellow-students who were each to become successful skippers in the industry. Among others were Terry Taylor who became one of Aberdeen’s top distant water trawler skippers, Willie Cowie of Buckie who 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. We corresponded occasionally when I went to work in Africa, and I was promised a meal of salt herring any time I could call in at his house. Sadly, Zander lost his life along with all his crew, when his boat the Silvery Sea was run down by a cargo vessel just off the coast of Denmark in 1995. Mercifully those future events were hid from us then.

In my own family and circle of close acquaintances, we lost 2 uncles and 1 cousin, as well as 6 friends and shipmates, at sea. Before our time, my great grandfather lost two brothers, two sons, and other friends and extended family members, - all at sea. Our family contributed to the development of our port and the fishing industry in lives as well as money. My father’s 8 brothers, plus 10 of their sons, and 2 of their grandsons, financed and/or operated over 23 vessels in around 60 years, giving employment to 140 fishermen plus fish workers, boat builders, net makers, and engineers, and yielding a total of some 22,000 tons fish, - enough for 1 fish meal for each of the whole population of Britain. Today, not one remains in the industry, - no men, and no boats. They did not leave willingly. They were forced out by wave after wave of pernicious legislation emanating from Brussels, and applied with uncompromising zeal by the British authorities. Betrayed by their own government, they saw generations of hard work and sacrifice disregarded in a sell-out to corporate Europe whose fleets proceeded to diminish stocks to unprecedented low levels. .

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