Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Price of Fish

The fatal accident rate for commercial fishermen between 1996 and 2005 was 24 times higher than for the construction industry and 80 times higher than manufacturing industry. Over the last 30 years the rate has remained about the same, wheras for other sectors it has declined sharply making commercial fishing a progressively more hazardous industry.
     These numbers, horrific as they are, pale in comparison to the carnage visited on herring fishermen in the 19th century in Caithness and along the east coast of Scotland.
     A storm on August 21st 1845 destroyed 30 boats along the Caithness coast and took the lives of four fishermen. Most boats were tied up in exposed coves, like the Haven at Clyth shown below, limiting the death toll. This was but a trailer for the big storm on 18th August 1848. A severe easterly gale blew up quickly, catching most of the east coast herring fleet at sea. Many boats were swamped and lives lost from the Northern Isles to the Firth of Forth. Worst hit was Wick, where 37 men were drowned as their boats attempted to return to harbour, leaving 17 widows and sixty children. A subsequent inquiry concluded that the harbour entrance was not deep enough for boats to pass to shelter even at half-tide. Lack of already agreed safety features such as a lighthouse and appropriate lifeboat contibuted to the high loss of life.
     Further down the coast, the fisheries around Helmsdale and Dunbeath lost a further 13 men leaving 9 widows and 25 children.

Soon after in 1855, 13 boys from the Clyth area, five miles south of Wick, were drowned on a mussel gathering foray, when their overloaded boat was swamped by a freshening sea. Clyth was unduly affected by fishing tragedies. Over a 30 year period, 60 of their men were lost and the area suffered a rapid depopulation. The Haven at Clyth, was used as a natural harbour for generations of fishermen, including my GGGG Grandfather, before safer harbours were constructed at Wick and Lybster.

     Wick Bay stirred up by an easterly gale is still an awesome sight as the above picture from the autumn of 2008 shows.
      Next time you eat a herring or a kipper, cod and chips or a crab salad, think of the men of Clyth and their widows and the men who still toil at sea today, risking their lives to fish for our tables.

     I am indepted to local historian Iain Sutherland for the above information and the Wick Society for permission to reproduce the Johnston photograph of sailing herring drifters about to enter Wick harbour in a stiff south easterly breeze.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. eBook and paperback from all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Friday, 10 August 2012

Trews, Crab and Mackerel

Tartan trews are currently highly fashionable as a more convenient and less formal alternative to the kilt. Many kilt wearers now also have a pair of trews. The origins of trews go back into the mists of highland culture but they were certainly worn by the aristocracy confirmed in the above picture of Sir John Sinclair, painted by Raeburn in 1795. Tartan trews were however banned by the Dress Act of 1746 that outlawed the wearing of any kind of Highland dress following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745/6. It was not repealed until 1782.

Recently we helped two Wick friends, cousin Eric Farquhar (left) and Tom Allan (centre) to acquire tartan trews from a company in Yorkshire where I had mine made. The acquisition was celebrated at a dinner on the night of Friday 20th July in Wick. The menu was based on dishes that we tasted at the Creel Inn, St Margaret's Hope, Orkney, the previous week.
After smoked mackerel pate on small home made oat cakes, the starter was white and brown crab, accompanied by apple mayonnaise and avocado salsa on a bed of pickled cucumber (bottom photo). The crab was obtained at Lybster harbour the previous Sunday. Mackerel featured twice on the menu. I caught them off the rocks at Longberry in the shadow of the haunting ruins of the Castle of Old Wick, where generations of Wickers have cast flies into the sea to get the blue and silver beauties. As a boy I fished there with a long heavy bamboo cane and nylon string line attached to a heavy lead weight and a cast of six white flies. Nowadays we have more elegant spinning kit which does the job with much less effort.  Earlier in the week the fishing was easy as evidenced by the picture of mackerel being smoked by cousin Eric ( below left). By Friday when I needed really fresh fish, the going got tough and I had to spend about three hours getting the required four fresh fish. The fish were carefully filleted to remove the central line of pin bones then grilled for about five minutes. Two fillets were set on a bed of Tuscan salad over sourdough bread, accompanied by mustard mayonnaise potatoes. Yummy!
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. E-Book and paperback all amazon sites. Reviews at