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.
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 www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005BJ3GNI