Monday, December 26, 2005

Memoirs of a Fisherman's Son - Part 1, Chapter 8

Chapter VIII

The Fishing

During the 20's and 30's of this century the stocks of fish in the Moray Firth had been so depleted that fisherman could scarcely make a living. My old Grandfather used to blame 'the foreigners' who used seine nets and trawlers which had ruined the spawning areas in the Moray Firth. This meant that the white fish for inshore fishermen were becoming less and less available and men like my Dad who would in earlier times have made a reasonably good living fishing from Ardersier all the year round had to resort to the herring fishing during the months from April to November. `

This meant that they had to find a place abroad a Nairn drifter leaving the Ardersier boats 'tied up' for about 8 months of the year. This could have been a good conservation procedure in relation to fish in the Firth but as I understood it, foreigners continued to trawl for fish. There were of course no E.C. regulations!

The programme for fishermen like Dad was that having secured a place with a Nairn skipper they would set off with their 'Kists' by train to Nairn. After a few days of getting the boats ready the Nairn Drifters would sail to join the herring fleet which was made up of boats from all over the North East of Scotland and comprised several hundred drifters. They sailed to various ports as far away as Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Mallaig, Oban, Barra, Stornoway, Lerwick or Wick. Fishing continued from these ports until about July when the fleet moved to Fraserburgh and Peterhead. All the Nairn fisherfolk, girls and men, came home from whatever port they were stationed at for the Nairn Games (the only free games in Scotland as they were known) in the middle of August. September saw the drifters depart for fishing grounds off the coast of Norfolk and Lincolnshire and one heard a great deal about Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and Gorlestone and sometimes, Grimsby. Fishing in these waters finished after the full moon in November and when the fishermen returned to their homes they brought all sorts of presents with them for wife and children. How I used to look forward to Dad's return from Great Yarmouth or wherever he happened to be for he brought with him the most exciting gifts. I well remember the year he brought me an air gun! I would be about ten. He held it up and showed me how to operate the lever which compressed the spring which, when the trigger was pulled, forced a piston forward; this sent a volume of highly compressed air against a dart or pellet in the chamber and so the gun was fired! Having operated this said lever Dad then pointed the gun at a picture on the living room wall and pulled the trigger. You can imagine his astonishment, my excitement and my Mother's fright when the picture fell to the floor. Dad did not realise there was a pellet in the chamber of the gun and this had severed the picture cord. That was a lesson to me! He had been a crack shot during the war of 1914 - 18 and made sure by example and instruction that his son would become an equally good shot. First lesson was 'Never point a gun at anyone - not even if you know it is not loaded' His instruction was to stand me in good stead when I was at O.C.T.U. in 1942. Of that later.

At the herring fishing Dad was a deck - hand and in those days there were no weekly wages. Money earned by the sale of herring was shared with fractions going to the boat , the gear, the owner, the skipper and the crew.

Some years my father would come home with nothing because 'the boat was in debt'. But it is fair to say that the crew were usually paid a modest sum each week during the season 'to keep them in tobacco and liquor and to send something home to the wife'.

No sooner was the herring fishing over than my father started the white, inshore, fishing. The main fishing ground was in the Moray Firth off Whiteness Head (where the Rig Fabrication Yard now is). Catches consisted of haddock, whiting, cod, saithe, cat fish, flounder, grey backs, crabs (partens as they were called) and sometimes eels and skate.

Dad and Grandfather owned a yawl, a fishing boat (about 25 feet long and 10 feet in the beam) equipped with a Kelvin engine which was started using petrol but ran on paraffin. In addition it had a big lug sail which could be used in conjunction with the engine or on its own to save fuel.

I still recall when I was sleeping in the 'big' bed in the living room wakening up at 3. am. to see my father eating his breakfast of porridge or gruel, a home made scone with 'lashings' of butter and syrup or treacle on it washed down by a cup of tea all prepared by my mother who was up and seeing to all her John's needs. Before he ever had breakfast his custom was to go around the houses of his crew in order to waken them by knocking on the window. Generally he had three or four of a crew. Before leaving the house he would remove the four engine plugs from the toaster (which formed part of the fire grate) and wrap them in paper and flannel to keep them hot until he got out to the Susan Gardner (INS 268). The boat was called after the wife of a Senior Officer at the Fort who had set up a Mission Hall for the Ardersier fishermen. They even had their own Missionary but who paid him, and how much I do not know.

Towards 8.00 am Mum would know if the boats were round the Fort - in other words were in the Inverness Firth and heading for the village. It was very important for the fish to be on the 8.25 am train out of Fort George station if they were to be in the market at Inverness for 9 o clock, when the auctioneer started selling.

Because of the nature of the foreshore the Ardersier Yawls had to be anchored at a location some considerable distance from the jetty and the beach and fish were transferred to a rowing boat which the crew of each yawl then rowed ashore. The rowing boats had been left anchored at that location when the yawls departed for the fishing grounds. The fish were hurriedly carried in baskets, in the case of my Dad's boat, to the old mile stone not far from the back of our house. There they were placed in fish boxes, salt was scattered on top, and the lids were nailed down. The boxes were then placed on a barrow which was pushed up the brae to the awaiting train. Fish sent to Inverness were usually sold by Hugh Stewart a Fish Salesman I came to know very well when I became a Law apprentice. Prices ranged from 3/6d to 4/6d a box but flounders (flat fish) generally fetched more. The crew all helped with the boxing and transport of fish to the station.

After this all went to their respective homes for a bite to eat before the next stage began. Each member of the crew usually had two long lines which he had to have baited before the next expedition! Each line had thirty two score of hooks (i.e. 640 hooks) and each hook was a yard (almost a metre) from its neighbours so the long line would be approximately 650 yards long. With six or eight lines to each yawl, one can imagine the total length of lines extending along the sea bed from the boat. Yet with anything from 4,000 to 5,000 hooks in the water the number of fish caught was minimal. Sometimes only one box of haddock, occasionally as many as eight.
Usually it was the crew member who went to get bait. Sometimes, in certain weather conditions, lug could be dug up using an instrument called, in Ardersier, a Kype, on the sand between the village and the married quarters outside Fort George (no longer there: now the site of a large athletics field). In other conditions it was necessary for the men to go all the way to 'the back beach' - over the Cromal Hill, down past Kirkton Cemetery and over the wasteland (then a military 9 hole golf course as well as a training area!) to the vast expanse of sand available at low tide. The lug they carried home in pails. Meantime those at home had to 'redd the line': this meant removing any debris brought up from the bottom, disentangling the line and generally making it ready for the business of placing a big worm on each hook. In our house old Grandfather did this as his contribution to the business! Sometimes mussels were used as bait (I don't know why!) and when this was the case the mussels would be gathered on the rocky foreshore to the west of the jetty where there were mussel beds. My Mother got the job of opening the mussels and removing the contents which were placed in a basin ready for use. The baiting of a line was a very skilled business as it had to be so placed in the basket hook after baited hook, that it would 'run' out smoothly into the sea behind the moving boat. In order to facilitate this a handful of 'bent' was placed below each row of baited hooks.

The hooks were connected to the line by means of a 'tipping'. This was made from hair from a horse's tail! Grandfather was the expert at making tippings. He would buy a horse's tail from a local farmer and hang it up in the shed. When new tippings were required the necessary quantity of hair was removed. A rectangular piece of soft leather was then tied to the leg above the knee. The old boy would lift a small quantity of hair - a matter of judgement by one skilled in such matters - tie a few half hitches around it at one end, then separate it into three equal 'legs' Each of these 'legs' was then rolled up the leather using the palm of the right hand on which he had spat! (My dear Mum objected to this and always provided him with a bowl of water into which to dip his fingers - but as soon as she was away he reverted to the spit). Repeated rollings caused the 'leg' of hair to twist and surprisingly, to me, it remained twisted. When the three 'legs' were completed as above they were then brought together and similarly rolled. On completion of this rolling or spinning process the loose end of the tipping (for that is what the bundle of hair now was) was bound with thread by means of several half hitches. Sometimes the three 'leg's', after being tied together at each end, were then hooked at one end to a heavy lead weight which was spun. This spinning also had the desired effect of twisting the tipping permanently. The hook, which had a smooth bare shank, was then fastened to the end of the tipping again by half hitches, and other knots known only to fishermen! I was never allowed to do anything in connection with the lines!

For perhaps six to eight weeks in December and January each winter my father, like all the other Ardersier fishermen, was busily employed in the Kessock herring fishing. At Kessock where the Beauly Firth and the Inverness Firth merge shoals of small herrings and of sprats congregated for the short period mentioned. For this the nets were brought down from the shed loft. They had all been repaired before being stowed away early in the year but had to be 'barked'. This process was designed to add a certain stiffness to the net and to prolong its life.

A large drum filled with water was set up on a low three sided wall, made of bricks or large stones. A fire was lit below the drum and 'bark' was placed in the water. 'Bark' was Burmese Kutch. When the desired temperature was reached - I think this must have been 100 C or near it - the net was placed in the water and left for several minutes. When removed it was hung up to dry on ropes slung between poles. Each of Dad's nets were treated thus as were those of his crew for the Kessock herring fishing. This was not always the same crew as accompanied him to the white fishing.

It always seemed to me that the 'Kessocks' brought rich rewards and made up for poor summer fishing.

During the period of Kessock fishing the boat remained at Inverness 5 days at a time, and the crew lived on board. Each man had with him a small Kist (wooden chest) containing spare clothing, food, tobacco (if he smoked) and toilet items such as razor, soap etc. Most of the food required for the work was supplied by local shops.
For the herring fishing each member of a drifter's crew had a large Kist containing all that was needed for the particular trip.

I should remind you that no fisherman would ever think of fishing on a Sunday and that, in accordance with Christ's order to his disciples, fishing on Lake Gallie, nets and lines were always cast from the right side (the starboard side) of the boat.

When the Kessock fishing was over the fishermen returned to white fish. In Ardersier there were six or seven yawls at that time. When the fishermen were away 'at the herring' the yawls were pulled up on to the beach where they lay all summer. In the case of the Susan Gardner my grandfather took on the job of tarring the boat from stern to stem and the whole deck. The painting, in white of the registration number INS 268 and the name was however left for Dad's return.

Perhaps I should include at this stage a reference to my Dad's only brother, Donald. After the Great war, Grandfather and his two sons clubbed their savings together to buy the boat while Mum contributed enough to buy and install a new Kelvin engine. Soon, however, Donald and his father quarrelled (fell out, was the expression used) and Donald sold his share of the boat to my Father and Grandfather. The break must have been a very serious one for Uncle Donald broke away completely from both his father and his brother and they did not speak to one another for many years. This situation always grieved my Mother who continuously tried over the years to bridge the gap. Donald was married to a Nairn lady Margaret Bochel (Margitty Bochel as she was known) and they lived in a house in Stuart Street called 'Sandakan' which had a corrugated iron roof painted dark red. Mum and Auntie Margitty had always a good relationship and when Uncle Donnie was away at the fishing, Elsie and I used to go to the house and be regaled with sweets lemonade and cakes! By the time I was 14 Uncle Donnie had 'thawed out' towards me but still he would not speak to his father or brother. Indeed he did not appear in 113 until his father was on his death bed in September 1939 and then only to visit. After the funeral he again isolated himself but in due course, when he became ill he sent for my Father and there was complete reconciliation. Indeed he literally died in his brother's arms.

How often I heard it said at home that all would have been well if my Grandfather and or father had joined the Lodge of Freemasons which Donnie had done. So from an early age I had my mind directed towards the benefits of Masonry!

I really have no idea why my father did not join the craft as most of his cousins and friends were of that happy band. Somehow I think it may have been because the local Lodge members had the reputation of being a 'boozy lot' - and if that was correct I can understand Dad's feelings. However, it was he who sought help to have me admitted to Lodge St. Ninian in Nairn in 1939 when I was a student, with the help of dear old 'Uncle Willie Barron', (of 13 Society Street and then the boiler man at Nairn Laundry!) and another fisherman friend my name was submitted; I was accepted for membership. But by the time of the meeting at which I was to be admitted (September 1939) I was embodied in the Territorial Army in Edinburgh. That put a brake on my joining the masons.

It is probably right to mention at the end of this Chapter that in my young days there were two principal grocery stores in the village; one owned by Mr James McPherson (our Sunday School Superintendent) and the other by Mr James Davidson. The latter's shop was really also a Ship Chandler's for he sold everything from the proverbial 'needle to an anchor'. Both these gentlemen treated the fisher families extremely well and in times of economic difficulty provided food on 'tick' knowing that they would be paid as soon as catches improved. To my knowledge they never had any bad debts to write off.


duncan mackinnon said...

what a wonderfull interesting write up thanks for that--regards duncan

Milky Bar Kid said...

Duncan, Thank You very much. Have you read from the beginning of his memoirs?

duncan mackinnon said...

i have indeed --now!!!! overwhelming stuff thanks