The fishing villages and their people
Along the stretch from The Moray Firth to Aberdeen the coastline is crowded with small fishing villages. In this north-eastern corner of Scotland - called Buchan or the "Knuckle" - fishing has been the primary source of livelihood for generations. My Great grandfather David Gault and his forefathers grew up in Portknockie, but later on moved east to Banff, where he settled down with his family. Other members of my family settled down in Portsoy, Buckie, Whitehills and Macduff. The houses were usually built in rows, close to the sea, and tucked against the raising braes behind. This closeness to the sea had a purely practical aspect. In older times, before the establishment of production units, the families - litterally speaking - had to carry the load all by themselves. The nets and fishing gear had to be carried from the boats and stored in the houses between each catch. The houses were usually single-storied, with a loft for the storage of gear and the drying of nets. The houses were small, and must at times have been real crowded, as this 1841 Census of Rathven shows :
Address : Portknokie (2 rooms with one or more windows)
Margrete Galt, aged 45
The head of house, James Galt, was away fishing when this census was taken.
My mother grew up in such a house in Banff. At the top of the steep Campbell Street, where it enters into St. Catherine Street, my Grandfather bought a nice house, and baptised it"Primrose Hill". In the summer of 1999 I was shown inside this house for the first time by the nice old couple living there. They also showed me the loft where grand-dad used to store his nets and gear, but now it had been turned into extra bedrooms. The backgarden was spacious, and when strolling around in it, it brought back memories of stories my mother had told me. Here she kept all the strange objects and animals her father brought back to her after weeks at sea - once he brought with him a baby seal. My mother kept her pet seal in a tub in the backyard, and carried him down to the seaside every day for a swim. She also had a monkey and a dog. I presume her elder brother - Sandy - accompanied his father to sea, so it must have been a hearty welcome every time they returned back home.
The rhythms of life in the fishing communities were highly dependant upon the the annual migrations of the fish shoals. The weather was also of course unreliable, and many a hazardious and dangerous journey was carried through in the pursuit of the "silver darlings" (herring). Many fishermen lost their lives. Here are the destinies of some of my own family members :
My mother's Grand uncle (?) James Goodbrand :
My mother's uncle John Goodbrand (born 1875) :
John George Blair, husband of my mother's cousin Jessie (born 1901) :
Deaths at Sea :
One of the worst fishing catastrophes in Scottish history occurred in the Moray Firth in August 1848. Over 800 boats put out to sea from Wick on the afternoon of Friday 18th , stood out some ten miles to sea and shot their drift nets. By midnight it was evident that the weather was changing for the worse - the wind increased and the sea turned rough - and many skippers decided there and then to haul their nets and make for shelter. These were the lucky and wise ones. In all, along the east coast, that storm accounted for 124 fishing craft and 100 men, who left 47 widows and 161 children.
This unpredictable way of living through centuries led to a deep closeness and feeling of solidarity among the fisherfolk, developing distinctive "tribeslike" manners of coping with daily life. Intermarriage was almost a rule in the fishing communities. Boys usually married in their early twenties, girls even earlier. Women had a very special place in these communities. They participated wholly in their husbands trade and led a laborious life. No woman from "the outside world" was considered physically or psychologically fit to cope with the stresses and the workload involved in the standard practice of line fishing - gathering bait, sheeling mussels, working with sharp hooks, gutting and trudging miles with her creel to sell her husband's catch day after day. Children of fishermen were known to almost invariably follow the occupation of their fathers.
This practice of intermarriage led to the people in these fishing communities sharing a small stock of surnames. Certain names have been associated with particular places for generations : for instance Burgon with Eyemouth, Patience with Avoch, Coull and Tate with the Buchan area. My Grandmother's family and ancestors - the Goodbrands - were associated with Whitehills. In the village of Downies, to the south of Aberdeen, 236 of the 249 inhabitants in 1870 shared four surnames - Wood, Main, Leiper and Knowles - and the other thirteen households were not connected with the fishing. In this situation the use of nicknames was widespread - and really a necessity to be able to communicate at all. It was common for men to be known by the name of their boat, but many more nicknames were more imaginative. One of my mother's cousins - James Bruce - everybody knew as "Cackie", and my Great Grandfather's tee-name was "Old Daisy".
My limited family reseach has brought up 10 Alexander Gaults and 6 Davids, and on the Goodbrand side : 6 Alexanders, 7 James' and 6 Johns. Men named Alexander were either known by the name Sandy or Alick, and if there were too many Sandys, my mother used to keep them apart by emphasizing that "I mean oor (our) Sandy". "Doddie" was a tee-name for George.
Some of these fishing villages were in existance before 1500. In 1677 Portknockie was founded by men from Cullen. In 1716, Thomas Ord created Findochty by settling it with thirteen fishermen and four boys from Fraserburgh. Macduff grew from a small place in 1732 with only a few fisher houses to a large village of 1000 people by 1790. There are also plenty of tales about the stranding of foreign vessels in the past, and the shipwrecks building up new communities, for instance Newhaven (dutch) and Rosehearty (danish). Partly due to the large scale immigation of fishing people from the eastern regions to the Kintyre area in the west during the 17th and 18th centuries - Gaelic almost became extinct as a practising language. My mother's hometown Banff have preserved records dating back to hanseatic times in the 12 century, and probably was a trading center for northern Scotland, like Bergen was for the western part of Norway.
Fisherfolks were easily recognised by their way of dressing. It was important with warm,
weatherproof clothing going out to sea. In many places with no proper harbours it was a
custom womenfolk carrying their men out to their boats to prevent them from getting wet
on their first working day. The fishermens garments were treated in various ways to make
them waterproof. Before the advent of oilskins in the 1920s, fabric might be coated with
linseed oil or an oak bark mixture (barkit). Thigh boots made from leather were obligatory.
The leather was also often treated to keep it waterproof. In some places cod liver was
melted down and mixed weith tar or lard for this purpose. Flannel undergarments, waistcoats,
thick jerseys or ganseys, thick blue trousers and heavy jackets were worn. Scarfs kept
water from running down the neck. Sea-going wear often had no buttons lest the fishing
lines would catch in them. Rubber boots made their appearance in the 1930s, and by this
time oilskin smocks - usually bright yellow - were also common.
The fisherwomen were easily regognized in their distinctive striped skirts, dark capes
and headscarves, wearing white stockings and shoes like slippers - and displaying the
creels of their trade. The women of Newhaven had particularly colourful costumes of white
flannel skirts with red stripes under an outer petticoat with yellow stripes on the inside.
The shawls and blouses were elaborately patterned. They were nicknamed the
In the north-east the fishwives from different villages had distinctive patterns for
their plaids : red and black dice in Inverallochy and Cairnbulg, blue and black in
St. Combs, black and white in Broadsea, grey and white in Pitulie and natural brown in
A large repertoire of taboos and superstitions were observed in the fishing communities.
Some beliefs were local, but many were common to all European seafarers.
A sense of religion was also very strong in most of the old communities, and the scottish
fisher people held steadfastly to their faith. The nineteenth century was generally a time
of strong religion - the break from the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church in 1843
affected all sections of society - but the fisher people were often particularly noted for
their observance of the Sabbath and attendance at worship. Around the coast, the Sabbath
was generally looked on as a day of rest for fish as well as men, and no fishing was carried
out. The Salvation Army became a respected, prominent institution in many fuishing towns,
along with the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen, founded iin 1881.The Babtist
church was also strong.
The fishing crews used a range of methods to ensure a fair division of the catch. In Golspie, for example, there were two ways of doing this. In the first, the crew, usually four men, would make four equal piles of their catch, turn their backs and ask a neutral passer-by to call out "Co leis seo ?" (Whose is this ?) while pointing at one of the piles, to which a crew member would respond, and this calling was repeated until each man had claimed a pile. The second method, a refinement of the first, involved the use of tokens, in which the passer-by took the tokens of the crew members and put one on each of the piles. The ownership of the tokens - a stick, a cap, a stone, a knife, any small unique object - would be known only to the crew, and different ones were used at each share-out so that no man could come to be known by his token. The use of sticks as tokens was widesoread and has a long history, the Scots word for this special stick being "cavel" or "kevill", and the whole selection process being known as casting the cavels.
Fishing has been going on in Scotland since prehistoric times. Fishbones from archaelogical sites proves that even off-shore fishing from boats must have taken place. It is uncertaiin what kind of vessel they may have used, but probably they were partly made from hides. The Norwegian professor Sverre Marstrander and Paul Johnstone tried to reconstruct such a hide-boat in 1971, based on a rock drawing at Kalnes (in the vicinity of Sarpsborg - my birthplace). The boat was made from eight cow hides over a frame of alder and lime, and proved to be seaworthy in at least inshore waters. The replica hide vessel "Brendan", built by Tim Severin in 1976, was strong enough to cross the North Atlantic via the Faroes and Iceland.
Researchers reckon that the prototypes of the Scottish fishing vessels originates in old
Scandinavian designs. The Norse heritage seems very clear in all the old forms of Scottish
fishing boats - in the clinkered planks or strakes, in the double-ended design of the hull
with similar stem and stern, and in the method of building whereby the keel and the lower
strakes are put in place before the strenghtening ribs. There are records of Norwegian
boats being imported to Shetland in paast centuries, for example, in 1566-67 when seventeen
boats were carried from Bergen, in 1620-21 when another seventeen arrived, and in the
mid-1740s when a Shetland cargo vessel brought home from Sørøysund in Norway eight
six-oared boats and twenty-four four-oared boats as well as timber and tar. From old
accounts it seems the boats arrived in kits - ready shaped and dressed - and put together
By far the most common type of vessel along the entire east coast of Scotland in the
early nineteenth century was the "Fifie". The name indicates that it was designed in Fife.
The fifie measured originally from 25 to 30 ft in length, but grew considerably in size
througout the later decades of the century as crews ventured further from land in pursuit
of larger catches of herring, until some touched 75 ft and were registered at 25 tons.
With a vertical or only slightly raked bow and stern, they preserved traces of their Norse
heritage in the clinkered planking, although later carvel-built vessels became common.
As the boats grew steadily larger the need for proper harbours increased. In the north-east Fraserburgh was reckoned to have thr best harbour in the region, with 10 ft of water during neap tides. It was built about 1546 as part of the development of the town by the Fraser lairds of Philorth from the original earlier village of Faithlie. The town has the distinction of having Scotland’s oldest modern lighthouse, established in 1787. The building of a harbour at Aberdeen had begun in the early seventeenth century, and to the north, Peterhead's original harbour, known in the early days as Port Henry pier, was first built in the 1590s shortly after the town was granted Royal Burgh status. Portsoy harbour was built in the late 1500s and the town had a lively trade. Banff traded with the Hanseatic League in the twelfth century, and the harbour was built in the 1770s and a fishing communikty grew up in the suburb of Scotstown. Scotstown was the home of my Grandfather in the late 30s and 40s, and it was here me and my mother went to live during our visit in 1948-49.
Herring has played an important role in Scotland's fisheries for many centuries.
The migrating herring shoals off the coast of Scotland were first caught and exploited
by the Dutch in the twelfth century, and the method of gutting, salting and packing of
herring seems to be a dutch invention. There were traditionally two ways of preserving
the herring : "red" herring were made by smoking whole, salted fish above wood fires for
four to six weeks in specially built smokehouses; "white" herring were preserved by
gutting them and packing them tightly in barrels between layers of salt.
The herring fishery evolved as a great annual event. In 1848 - the year of the great
disaster - it was reckoned that about 3500 boats were active along the east coast of
the mainland, crewed by an estimated 17 - 18 000 men. In addition came the number of
shore jobs as gutters, packers, coopers, chandlers, carters, shopkeepers, boat-builders,
sail-makers - all dependent on the herring. The barrels were made by an army of coopers
from spruce staves imported from Scandinavia.
In the 1830s, in the Firth of Clyde, men began to use driftnets in a new way. Instead of
shooting the curtain of net and passively waiting for a shoal to blunder into it, they
dragged the net through the water and entrapped any herring they encountered. The first
ring net was made by sewing drift nets together to make a trawl. Ring nets were in use
in Norway in the 1760s for the taking of herring. This type of fishing was often called
trawling, but came to be distinguished, especially in relation to herring, by the more
specific term of ringnetting. Ringnetting was to develop into a sophisticated method, a
forerunner of the efficient - some would say deadly - purse seine that made its appearance
in Scottish waters in the 1960s. The boats worked in pairs. One boat shot the net and the
partner picked up one end before the two vessels towed the net and turned towards each
other to entrap the shoal of fish.
Hardly had steam begun to displace sail than it too was challenged by the oil-fired internal combustion engine - first installed in the old fifies and yoles - and then by the Kelvin petrol/paraffin engines and eventually the diesel motor. By 1919 - the year my mother was born - the number of motor boats had risen to 1844, representing 23 per cent of the registered Scottish fleet.
For many North-east folk the lure of the sea is a powerful force, and for Banff man Mr. James Bruce, the sea and those who sail on it are at the centre of a long-running fascination. Erstwhile fisherman Mr. Bruce has made a life's hobby of collecting photographs, books and documents featuring the stories, characters and facts of the area's maritime heritage.
Today, over 30 years since he left his seafaring days behind him, Mr. Bruce and his wife Audrey still live a stone's throw from the sea, in Fountain Park Street, Banff, and the evidence of his family's maritime history is all around. Covering one wall of the sitting room, a fleet of boat pictures offer an illustrated history of the changing face of fishing over the years. Sepia photographs, etchings and paintings reveal the transformation of fishing vessels from the tiny open sail boats through the steam and sail Zulu boats which replaced them, to the steam drifters which crowded the North-east's harbours until they themselves became obsolete in the 1950's.
For many years his father was harbour master at Banff, and when the harbour closed to commercial operations, Mr. Bruce salvaged account books dating back to 1888, in which catches of fish landed at Banff are recorded in the old ink and immaculate copperplate of a previous era.
Mr. Bruce can trace his family's association with fishing in the area back to 1875, when his grandfather, drawn by the lure of the then renowned Banff Harbour, left Portknockie to build a new home for himself and his family in the town. He had his first boat built at Green Yards shipyard in Banff, and named it the "Jessie Mair Bruce" after his wife.
By 1910 it was time to trade up, and Mr. Bruce commissioned the steam boat the "Inverboyndie", which went to sea skippered by Mr. Bruce's uncle (my grandfather George Gault), and manned by the other brothers and two highlanders resident in the Bruce home. Some years later the crew decided to buy a still larger boat, which they christened the "Inverboyndie 2". For the Bruce family, the "Inverboyndie 2" was a lucky boat, but in time its luck must have run out. Mr. Bruce's efforts to trace what became of it after the family sold it, revealed that her remains lie on the ocean bed off Dell Rock, where she went down in 1932.
After selling the "Inverboyndie 2", Mr. Bruce's grandfather and his crew hired the "EJM" (Eliza J. Mair), and in keeping with the tradition of the times, brought it into Banff harbour for their wives to scrub out the cabin and decks. The women of the Bruce household came close to striking an early blow for women's lib, when rats swarming over the decks meant that they almost refused to go aboard the boat to clean it.
Following the fish on the annual trail around the fertile fishing grounds - from Shetland in the early months, Mallaig for March, Peterhead and Aberdeen for the summer, then down to Yarmouth, before heading home for Christmas - took the boats and their crews away from home for long stretches, but James Bruce explains that there were few complaints : for the men and their families, that was just the way it was.
For James Bruce there was never any question that his career would be anywhere but the sea, and at 14 years old he joined the crew of a drifter taking supplies and liberty parties out to boats in Scapa Flow. At 16 he joined the Portknockie fishing vessel the "Sincere" as a cook, rising to the position of fireman, for an extra ten shillings a week, when the previous incumbent left. The job of cook often fell to the youngest member of the crew, and Mr. Bruce has fond memories of his job training : “They would shove you in the galley, shut the lid on you and tell you to get on with it”, he said.
As fireman, Mr. Bruce's job was to stoke the boiler and look after the engine; it also made him one of the three crew members on a wage ; the rest of the 10-strong crew earned their money from the fish caught - no fish, no money. Often the driver would take the boat out and the fireman would bring it back in, and if anyone was off, there would be very little sleep at all.
Mr. Bruce describes the process of landing fish in Fraserburgh : "You would put some fish in a basket, then someone would run it up to the market for the salesman to auction off the catch. Whoever bought it would then come down to the boat to land the fish and salt them into huge barrels called kits."
On average the crew worked four hours on, four hours off. After a season aboard the "Sapphire", Mr. Bruce joined the "Corriedoune", again as a fireman, and it was a time that was to leave him with many adventures to recount.
During the war, the convoy routes in Scapa Flowwere no-go areas for fishing boats, and Mr. Bruce recounts how the "Corriedoune" came close to paying a heavy price for staying off limits. One night in 1943, the "Corriedoune" was fishing in forbidden waters with no lights on, when a crew member chanced to overhear the turbines of a huge battleship bearing down on the small drifter. This, Mr. Bruce adds, was in the time before ships were equipped with high-sensitivity radar; it would have been quite possible for the ship to run right through the hapless "Corriedoune" almost without noticing, The "Corriedoune" immediately put out a light for show, and the battle ship sailed on around them, ploughing right through her nets. Weeks later, they were to hear the tale from the other side. After getting chatting with a Navy sailor in Fraserburgh, the crew listened in silence as he bemoaned the hours he had spent cleaning fishing tackle out of the propellers of his boat, the "King George the Fifth", following a mystery encounter with a fishing vessel in Scapa Flow.
Following a spell in the Merchant Navy, Mr. Bruce came home from the sea for good in 1968, when hr took up his old duties as fireman again, responsible for the boilers in Chalmers Hospital.
In Aberdeen - "The Granite City" - the trawlers were having to compete for crews with
the fast growing oil industry in search of another of the sea's blessings - "The Black Gold".
George Wood relates :
Today however it seems the fishing industry is slowly growing again. The people in this area have been drawing a living from the sea for thousands of years. The salt in the blood has been passed down through the generations. It is up to us to ensure it does not cease now.
Fishing life from a poet's view.
And varied types o'lines and gear, oor men did here employ;
There is an art in fishin', and Portsoy men learnt it weel,
Tae catch fish in their season, wi'net and line or creel.
The herrin' net was in its day the main stay o'the toon,
Twa fishers nae lang fra the sea, each workin' on his line,
The sma' line fishin' in Portsoy, is lang syne oot o' date,
The few big boats, still local owned, that yet Portsoy can claim,
Some tae carry merchandise, and ithers built for speed;
Some propelled wi' sticks or oars, or sails tae catch the breeze;
Fore use in inland waterways, or on the open seas.
Lookin' at the harbour we see some sail-boats there,
At the richt hand o' this picture, and jist beside the quay,
The steam-powered drifter cam' along, tae end the sail-boats' day,
The drifter like the sail-boat, had its day and passed awa',