Crystal Sea OB104 on sea trials in 1963

Back to the west with ringers in the ‘North fishing’

I should probably have pointed out in an earlier yarn that unlike the bulk of the big trawlers, which were usually owned by a company, the vast majority of the ring net boats were owned by their skippers. Very few of them belonged to ‘shore owners’ as we called them; I can only recall one Campbeltown boat that was owned by a non-seagoing man. Ringers were then just about invariably varnished and were generally agreed to be probably the most beautiful fishing boats in the world.

Back to the tale.

When we arrived back in the Clyde, probably in mid-September, we joined the boats that had not taken part in the Whitby fishery but had remained in home waters. I was never really happy fishing in the Clyde, although for the life of me I could not explain why. I only know that I longed for Hallowe’en – the traditional date of the beginnings of the ‘North fishing’ – to come round. Robbie Hepburn and Ian MacLennan, the fish salesmen in Mallaig, were under instructions to call their opposite numbers in the Clyde informing them of any landings from the grounds on the eastern coastline of the Outer Hebrides. When the herring showed up in any real quantities there, usually around Hallowe’en, we were off.

Tommy Ralston on Crysta; Sea Mallaig Preparing for the North fishing meant that a great deal of thought had to be given by young cooks, to the ordering of stores. We were heading now to a region where even basic things like bread or potatoes were not readily available. It was understandable that the wee shops in remote areas only carried stocks that supplied their regular customers and could not be expected to be able to supply intermittent callers.

A glance at a map of the area will show you that Castlebay in Barra and Lochboisdale in South Uist were the only ports in the western part of the South Minch where we might be able to buy food. One would have to go as far north as Lochmaddy, in North Uist, to find another source of stores. The mainland ports such as Mallaig and Oban where catches were usually landed were, of course, able to carry stocks of food to fulfil our needs and if fishing was slack, any boats that did get some herring to land would be inundated with orders for stores – and mail – to take back out to their mates.

Imagine, if you will, being told, at the age of fifteen, to get stored up with a month’s  stock of tinned food, enough to feed six mouths.

I was fortunate that at this time there was a very kindly man in the Co-Operative Store in Campbeltown who was sympathetic to the dilemma I found myself in. Sadly I cannot recall his name and the only clues I have are that he came, I believe, from Stranraer and that he lost a brother when the Princess Victoria sank in a storm in the Irish Sea. Without this man’s assistance I would have struggled! We had to order tinned milk – condensed and evaporated – tinned meat, vegetables, soup and custard or rice, food that would, of course, remain edible for a long time unlike the eggs, bacon, bread, meat, potatoes, vegetables, cheese, butter, flour, sauces, salt, pepper, tea, coffee – food with much shorter shelf lives, especially in the damp atmosphere they were going to be stored in. I very soon learned that the only biscuits I was allowed to take aboard were tins of the dry-tasted water biscuits – the sweet variety were considered too expensive. They lived, in an usually vain effort at keeping them dry, in a tin box underneath the stove.

All of this food would be packed into big cardboard bread boxes in the shop, then wheeled down the pier on a barrow, manhandled aboard the boat and down into the forecastle where it had to be stowed away into lockers. These cardboard bread boxes were treasured as they were used to give a welcome, if temporary, dry lining to one’s bunk for a few days until they too became soaked and were dumped! Both of the aft-most seat lockers on the starboard side were filled with coal and we often had a couple of bags in the hold, also.

Golden Fleece low in the water clming in to Mallaig c1953As the Golden Fleece carried only 80 gallons of fuel in each tank, we took on board a 45 gallon barrel filled with diesel. This was lashed on the starboard side, alongside the wheelhouse where we cursed it every time we went aft, as we had to climb over it! We also had to live with the fact that we had quite a small fresh water tank. As the entry hole in the deck through which we filled the tank was not directly above the filling hole on top of the tank, a short length of hose was attached to the filling funnel. At some point in the life of this tank, the bit of hose had become detached from the metal filler and had disappeared into the tank. There it remained, quietly disintegrating into wee black bits. This was not too bad when the boat was lying in a quiet harbour, but when she rolled, this muck was stirred up. We tried makeshift filters made from old bits of cloth that we tied over the tap but even so, I cannot recommend a cup of tea that has been made from water that has bits of rotten rubber in it! Elf ‘n safety?

The reader may well wonder why I have not mentioned a first-aid kit. Quite simply, there was no such thing aboard the Golden Fleece. Much too expensive.

We carried an old milk churn which, filled with fresh water, was lashed in place on deck beside the forecastle entry hatch. This container was used to carry fresh water to fill the main tank in places where a hose was not available and if we wanted a drink of relatively clean fresh water, we went to this container.

Eventually, we were off north. If the weather was bad, we would go through the Crinan Canal, otherwise we went south round the Mull of Kintyre then north, inside Islay and Jura, then through the Sound of Mull to Ardnamurchan Point from whence we headed, usually via the Oigh Sgeir lighthouse, to our goal, the eastern seaboard of the Hebrides.

I felt, I still know not why, at home in this area. The last time I visited Canna [on a day trip from Mallaig] I felt the same feeling of peacefulness just sitting on the pier. Canna, for me, has a feeling of great age that is absent in any of its neighbours.

Not many of my compatriots felt that way. There was the famous comment expressed by a fellow fisherman who, headed home around Ardnamurchan Point after a long, unproductive and very stormy spell in the Minch, stated loudly and bitterly: ‘Ardnamurchan Point eh? Aye, there’ll be f—–g palm trees growin’ roon ye afore I see ye again.’

The habour that was used more than most in the islands was Lochboisdale, in South Uist. There were, within this loch, several good anchorages and the pier, at which we could get fresh water, had a hotel and a reasonably well-stocked wee shop close by. There was also a telephone kiosk although if you wanted to call home at the weekend, it was necessary to book ahead if you thought that there were going to be a goodly number of boats lying over the weekend.

I believe that we would all have been happier being in Castlebay, in Barra, which was much more welcoming and also had a greater variety of shops; but it lacked the safety and shelter afforded by its northern neighbour. Several boats’ skippers, particularly the MacDougall family of Tarbert who owned the Fionnaghal and the Mhairead, preferred lying at the sheltered pier in Loch Skiport. There was a wee shop there owned by the MacLeod family and the MacDougalls, were made welcome in the MacLeod family home at the weekends.

Weekends in Lochboisdale were usually marked by ceilidhs on some of the boats where the fun – and noise – continued long after the pub had closed, so, if you wanted a quiet night, you either went to anchor or made certain that you didn’t lie alongside one of the boats that were inclined toward fun and games.

With hindsight, we trainee fishermen were taught, particularly during our spells in the North, a great deal that would stand us in good stead later in life. Repair facilities of any kind were thin on the ground there, apart from Stornoway and, if you discount the mainland ports as being equally far from our usual fishing grounds as was Stornoway, it was all very much a DIY. situation. Net mending and rope splicing were the norm in any fishery but the smaller electrical, mechanical and woodworking repairs also had to be tackled by the crews whilst working in the more remote islands. As our electrical system was 24-volt it didn’t pose any danger to life but I didn’t care for the sensation of being shocked, even with that low voltage, so I had an education that served me well when, at home, I occasionally worked with 240 volts.

We learned basic repair and maintenance of the diesel engines on which our lives would depend and one of the lessons I still adhere to is that if something shows signs of going wrong it should be investigated and, if necessary fixed – now. The rule that: ‘If something is going to go wrong, it will do so – at the worst possible moment,’ is well worth remembering. Ignoring it meant that tasks that should have been undertaken while lying quietly at a pier, or at anchor, would now have to be carried out at sea whilst the boat was ‘standing on end’.

We also learned the rudiments of cooking. As the cook’s job was not one that was sought after, it was generally the case that the latest recruit – usually a young lad newly left school – was given the post. The learning curve was steep, I can assure you, especially if one suffered from sea sickness.

I did.

There was plenty of advice forthcoming, but not a lot of help. I still meet men today who, almost proudly declare that they, ‘can’t even boil a kettle of water’. Mebbe not – but in my opinion, they’d very soon learn if they were hungry enough’.

Navigation was not taught as such but pilotage, much more important in our chosen career, was learned [and retained] from one’s older shipmates. It is certainly not the case that someone who has a master’s ticket would be capable of taking charge of a fishing boat; they are masters of a totally different profession. I remember the case of a well-known Tarbert fisherman’s reply to an examiner when asked to sit an examination on engine maintenance: ‘Listen, Jeck, I’ve been in charge o’ engines for twenty years noo, an’ I’ve nivver needed a bit o’ paper tae start wan o’ them yet’.

I well remember being told by old Dennis MacKay that I had to be very careful when tying knots that I didn’t accidentally make a ‘snowball hitch. It took me a wee while to realise that he was referring to a knot which, being carelessly tied, would slip or, as he would have it, melt away.

Another risk we ran was getting herring scales in your eye. It was quite a common event and could be quite painful. There were several men in the fleet who would remove them by using their tongues. Although I never did have it done, it made sense to use the most sensitive part of their anatomy to lick around one’s eyeball.

To coin a well known, weary, but sarcastically correct comment on the ability of shore-based experts who had never experienced the sort of training we got: ‘Aye, what dae they know?’

What indeed?

So, to sum up, your young fifteen year old learned to cook, to mend nets, to maintain engines, to do minor repairs to the boat and to its electrics, learned the rudiments of navigation [or pilotage] and absorbed the age old wisdom required to be a herring fisherman of that era. We learned to respect the sea and how to nurse our small craft safely through the roughest of weather.

A tough apprenticeship – but a bloody good one.

I do not really subscribe to the often stated view that the Minches were more dangerous waters than, say, the North Sea. It would be fairer to say that because we mainly fished there in the winter months when the weather is seasonally worse, it was a dangerous time for us.

However, there are a myriad of islands where shelter can be sought in a time of need. This is not so in other waters where many men have been lost whilst seeking entry to the few harbours they have access to. There are, on the other hand, more offshore dangers in the Minches from the many unlit rocks and reefs that abound there.

Very many uncomfortable [now that’s a euphemism] hours were spent crossing the open waters of the Minch, when either headed, loaded with herring, for one of the markets or trying to get back to the fishing grounds. The seas have a long, long fetch in which to grow in a South Westerly gale.

Another vivid, but not fond memory, is of the times when, because of the strength of wind, we had to shackle the ‘heavy weather’ chain – around 30 fathoms long – to our anchor. The anchor was usually shackled to around five fathoms of chain which, in turn, had a heavy rope spliced into it. This short chain was mainly there to try to avoid the rope chafing on the rocky bottom as the boat veered around, though its weight also helped to keep the anchor properly aligned on the ground.

The anchor was usually positioned on the port side, close to the stem. I was led to believe that this was to prevent a recurrence of the time when a ringer went into Loch Eynort, on the west coast of Skye, for shelter on a wild, black night. The crew rigged the chain and dropped the anchor – which was stowed on the starboard side – and turned in. They didn’t get long in bed because the anchor had never reached the water never mind the sea bed, it had hooked itself on to one of the tyre fenders that protected the starboard side and the chain rattled its way out over the stem head as usual but this time carried downward only by its own weight.

A pair pf ballantrae ringers brailing their catch and fgending offI am smiling now as I recall that in these waters another item had to be added to the tools you carried if you were not a smoker – a box of matches. If, for any reason you wanted to go on deck from the forecastle on a breezy, dark night, you would light a match and throw it up the hatch. This was the signal for whoever was steering, to slow the boat down so you could hopefully get up without being soaked.

Many preparations had to be made before setting off to market. The fenders – heavy rubber tyres that protected the starboard side from damage when putting your crew aboard your neighbour when he had shot his net – had to be lifted inboard to lessen spray, and indeed to avoid damage when going through heavy seas. Baskets were pushed down into the herring to help to avoid the catch being damaged from being washed around; the net had to be lashed down to avoid it being washed overboard and the tarpaulin that covered the hold access was also lashed into place. Then, after a quick check that anything that could move had been lashed down, a last few strokes on the hand pump to ensure that the bilges were empty, and you were fit to go.

I believe that fishing in the Minch resembled more closely the fishing that had led to the development of the ring-net in Loch Fyne. Most of the herring were caught very close to the shore, being trapped in the myriad of small bays and bights; as opposed to the Manx and Whitby fisheries where the bulk of the catches were made offshore. It was much more interesting and exciting for a young lad to be crawling quietly as close as possible to the shore on a pitch black night. We soon learned that it was easier to recognise how close inshore we were, by watching the skyline rather than trying to discern just where the rock ended and the water began! It was quite a common event to bounce off the rocks despite the care taken.

It was common practice to use our trusty Aldis lamp by flashing it onto the shore if we had detected a shoal close in on the shore and had shot our net outside it. This was done in the hope that it would scare the herring off the shore, and so into our net. It didn’t work too well for us one night when we shot outside a wee bay on, I think it was Hellesay. This bay was, unknown to us, a favourite night time roosting place for a myriad of ‘Scarts’, our name for the common cormorant. They didn’t like this disturbance and so we found ourselves being bombarded by them as they flew, blinded by our light, towards the sea and, they hoped, safety. Sadly, a lot of the poor birds were drowned when they were caught up in our net but some of us got a hefty clout when we were hit by the fleeing birds.

That is not to say that all of the herring were taken close inshore. Many good rings were made offshore at times, but I certainly preferred the close inshore work.

Many skippers had their favourite haunts, places that they were loath to leave. The MacDougalls of Tarbert as mentioned earlier, had Loch Skiport as their favourite place and it was common for them to be reported as being, ‘Away full up fae Shepherd’s Bight’. They didn’t really take part in the early evening pell-mell race south from the anchorage in Skiport, seemingly preferring the ‘softly, softly’ approach that was evident also in many of the Carradale fishing skippers. They would search slowly through the Loch, heeding the possible congregation of gulls that might betray the gathering of a shoal of herring – and then slowly heading south into Shepherd’s Bight, very carefully scanning the area around The Duff, a tiny island on the north western side of the Bight and a favourite gathering place for herring.

The Macdougalls were commonly known as ‘The Ghosts’, a nickname coined from their deliberately dimmed navigation lights and their habitual slow, crawling search habits. The lights were dimmed in order to help their night vision and, perhaps, to avoid scaring their prey. Indeed, we used to say of them that you’d have needed a torch to see their lights. They were also known collectively as the ‘Toms’, which I was told was Gaelic for a lump, or large shoal of herring.

Our fishing grounds were, in the main, rocky, so knowledge of these grounds was necessary if torn nets were to be avoided. I recall talking on this subject to Neil Jackson, brother of Willie and so part of the renowned Tarbert fishing partnership, on the subject of where it was safe to shoot nets. These brothers took a lot of herring from around Eriskay and I was surprised when Neil told me that Calum MacKinnon, certainly one of the best fisherman that the Hebrides ever produced, had asked him how he was able to ring at the mouth of Eriskay Harbour – not a mile from Calum’s house – without tearing his net. Neil then told me that he had gone out with Calum in daylight and showed him exactly where to shoot to avoid damage. Following that, Neil continued, Calum had taken quite a few shots from this haul.

This, you must remember, was in the days when men helped one another freely.

It was also in the Minches that I first became aware of existence of the ‘Manson Fleet’, a group which was later to play such a big part in my life. They seemed to spend most of their fishing time just a wee bit further north than we Clyde boats preferred, in the very rocky area bounded in the south by Loch Carnan and in the north, by Loch Maddy. That said, they did not ignore fishing in the same areas as we did, going as far south as the island of Berneray, a place that is often, and incorrectly referred to as Barra Head.

Unlike most of the rest of the fleet, we ventured west through the Sound of Harris now and again to try our luck in West Loch Tarbert. I don’t recall us having much success, though there certainly were herring there. I do recall some of the Scalpay boats taking good shots from the West Loch, though. They were probably the last fishing community in Scotland to embrace the ring net, having strenuously opposed it for many years, and were certainly among the very last to fish with it.

We quite often spent a weekend in the very safe and really beautiful wee harbour of Rodel, in Harris. We were able to have stores delivered to us there by bus from Stornoway. The hotel in Rodel was, I learned, allowed to stock ‘Royal Household’, a special brand of whisky, as a result of their having hosted some members of the Royal family when they called there while on their holidays cruising aboard the Royal Yacht. I did taste this whisky some years ago when my wife and I toured the area, but I wasn’t particularly enamoured of it.

There was a man who was employed by and lived in the hotel in the early 50s. A large man who spoke with a very cultured accent. He was known to me only by his first name, Oliver but I believe that he was a son of Lord Cohen and that he had suffered some sort of mental breakdown whilst studying law in Oxford, or Cambridge.

Local ringers in Mallaig

On my last visit to these parts a few years ago I asked several people if there were any men remaining from the crew of the Harmony, of, I think Stocknish, only to be told that they were all dead. The Harmony, which had certainly not been built for the ring net, had fished very well indeed in the times I was there and I really wanted to meet up with them once more. I stopped at a wee group of houses just a few miles north of Rodel and spoke to a man who was carrying a bucket of peat to his house and discovered, to my great delight that no, they were NOT all dead – he was the last one remaining. We had a rare yarn that day – what a delightful man he was. His house must have been in a dreadful mess of scales that day, from the amount we caught in the course of our tales.

As the winter wore on into February we would find ourselves catching lovely big herring much further south than usual even, on occasion, travelling west around Barra Head light on the island of Berneray, the most southerly of the Outer Hebridean islands. I believe that these herring were probably not of the Minch stock, as they were so big, but that they had travelled south on the west side of the islands, a theory that followed – many years later – my talking with Dutch trawler men who said that they had fished them there. Their appearance usually foretold the coming end of the winter herring season in the Minch.

Soon it was time to be off south again, back to the Clyde and, as some would have it, civilisation.

‘Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight:
Make me a lad again just for one night’.

Thomas Ralston

Tommy Ralston, whose life has taken him from Campbeltown to ports all around the coasts of Britain in the Kintyre fishing fleet – and to Mallaig as coxswain in the lifeboating phase of his life, is also a published author.

For Argyll has published a series of article of his – on Kintyre lifeboats and on aspects and adventures around his life in fishing.

Anyone who has read any of them them knows well how much a master of the tale is Tommy – he has a rare gift of conjuring time, place, people, incident and circumstance. You travel with him on these tales – as you will just have discovered here.

For Argyll is grateful to Tommy Ralston for the privilege of access to what he has written; and here also to Michael Craine, editor of Fishing Boats, published from the Isle of Man, in which this narrative of Tommy’s was first published [as ‘Back to the West coast’].

The uncaptioned photographs above are from the top:

  • Crystal Sea OB104, on sea trials in 1963 after being built by Alexander Noble & Sons of Girvan.
  • Golden Fleece coming in to Mallaig satisfactorily low in the water.
  • A pair of Ballantrae ringers brailing their catch and fending off.
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