Tommy Ralston: Tribute to Willie ‘The Count’ Jackson of Tarbert

Willie The Count Jackson

Willie ‘The Count’ Jackson of Tarbert died in Oban after a short illness on the 14th of July this year (2012).

He was born in Tarbert on the 24th of March 1923, the oldest male of a family of 13 boys and girls.

His father, also Willie, whose nickname was ‘The Baillie’, was, with his brothers Tommy ‘The Bear’ and Alec ‘Calabour’, among the top ring net herring skippers in the Clyde.

Willie went to the herring fishing as soon as he left school and in time, with his late brother Neil, ‘The White Fella’, assumed the proud mantle that their father and uncles had worn for so long, and carried it with distinction

Between them they owned and skippered a number of boats including several who shared the names of the Village Maid and the Village Belle – but I am of the firm belief that his first command, the Oak Lea, was his favourite.

I will forever regret sending him – at his own request – a photograph of the Oak Lea as she was a few years ago, lying derelict in a field just south of Kyle.  He later told me that he wished he had never seen it.

Willie, whose nickname, ‘The Count’, stemmed from the fact that he was always very smartly dressed in his young days, served his country in the Navy during the ’39-’45 war and, on his demob, resumed his fishing career.

Along with Robert Ross and several other Tarbert fishermen, Willie spent some time on Prince Edward Island in the 1970s, teaching our Canadian cousins some of the arts of ring net fishing.

He leaves a son, Simon and a daughter, Sylvia.  His elder son, Willie, was sadly drowned in Tarbert harbour at quite an early age.

‘The Count’ did not suffer fools gladly and I personally experienced his plain talking when I called to see him some years ago.  He was busy laying road chippings in his car’s parking spot. When he asked what I wanted, I replied that I had just stopped for a wee yarn.  He looked at me for a moment and then, before turning away to resume his task replied, ‘Well, ah’m busy. Ye’ll get nae yarn here, so ye can just ‘go away’.’

I am sure that some readers will be able to figure out what Anglo-Saxon should be substituted for ‘Go away’.

The small village of Tarbert is generally accepted as being the birth place of the Scottish ring net fishery. It strikes me as being particularly poignant that one of Tarbert’s most successful sons, Willie Jackson, who is generally accepted as being the last of the masters of the ring net profession, should be buried there, where he worked.

His death puts a full stop to the glorious days when these men fished within, and obeyed the rules of nature.

We will not see his like again.

Tommy Ralston

Editor’s Notes

Tommy Ralston, from Campbeltown, spent a working lifetime on Scotland’s west coast – as a fisherman, as a fish buyer and as coxswain of the Mallaig Lifeboat, having been a crew member for 34 years. He is also a published author, specialising in accounting for the detail of his own life that is of interest both to historians and to those interested in the nature and character of specific places and professions.

Amongst his books are:

  • My Captains – introduced with the poem by that name written by his Kintyre cousin, the revered Angus Martin – dealing with skippers he served under in his fishing career.
  • Captains and Commanders – covering the same sort of territory but more widely, published in 2010 by the Mallaig Heritage Centre. 
  • To the Edge: Confessions of a Lifeboat Coxswain – which he says ‘did not go down well with the authorities of the RNLI because I dared to tell the truth.
  • Son of a Gun – a booklet
  • Silver Threads – published by PlashMill Press in 2008

He has also written for For Argyll on the work he did tracing the history of Kntyre’s lifeboats: Tommy Ralston and Kintyre’s Lifeboats: it began with a camera.

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