Fisherman, lifeboat coxswain [Mallaig] and author, Tom Ralston’s remarkable understanding of the lives he has led and of the rhythms of their times always finds expression in his authentic voice. Here he sets the perspectives of another against those lives and learns from it – to the point that he is driven to share those insights.
On An account of the present state of the Hebrides and Western Coasts of Scotland
I first read the book An account of the present state of the Hebrides and Western Coasts of Scotland when I was given a short-term loan of it – more years ago than I care to recall, by the late Archie MacLellan, who then owned the West Highland Hotel in Mallaig.
It was an original copy, published in 1786 and was, in my opinion, rather too valuable for me to keep for more than a few days. It had been written by James Anderson LLD, an Edinburgh lawyer, was submitted to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, and was given as evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons appointed to ‘enquire into the state of the British Fisheries; and into the most effectual means of their improvement and extension’, on 14th July 1785.
I asked one of Archie’s sons, Ewan, about this book and with his invaluable help, traced and bought a modern copy which has been reprinted by Amazon – who acknowledge the support of their efforts by a ‘Kessinger Legacy’.
It is not an easy book to read – in it the letter ‘s’ is replace by an ‘f’ [as was the rendering of its day] – the exception, I think, being when it is used to signify a plural; e.g. possesses becomes ‘poffeffes’ but as one reads, it does become somewhat easier.
It would not be an exaggeration for me to say that I was amazed by some of his statements; they certainly caused me to review many of my lifetime held beliefs on the way of life and, more especially of fishing, in areas that I thought I knew well.
There was, in my young days a commonly held, but totally incorrect belief held by some people that the inhabitants of the western islands and western coast in general were inclined to be somewhat lazy. This belief, stemming from the complete ignorance of a way of life, was not one that I personally subscribed to for very long. If I had read this book in my school days, this misunderstanding would certainly never have occurred; and so by way of explanation of this statement, I would offer a few short excerpts frm the book, verbatim except for the aforementioned substitution of ‘f’ for ‘s’. I have tried very hard not to alter anything else, including punctuation and spelling.
- ‘The natives of the Highlands and Isles are at this present moment as much civilised in their manners, and under as just a subordination to the laws, as any people whatsoever; so that in no part of the world is property more secure, or lawless violence more rare among the body of the people, than there. – – -‘
- ‘A stranger also in these regions, may go where he will, in perfect safety; and if he behaves with decent politeness, he will not only not be insulted, but will be kindly entertained wherever he goes, with a cheerful and unaffected hospitality. ‘
- ‘On these unknown coasts, shipwrecks must sometimes happen. And in all cases of that nature, the mariners are not only saved, where it can possibly be done, but their property is secured and preserved with a degree of care that reflects the highest honour of the natives. Many instances of this kind I heard of incidentally when on that coast; a few of which I shall beg leave to mention, in confirmation of the character I have given of the people.’
- ‘During the late war, a ship from Liverpool, which had received considerable damage at sea, put into the harbour of Loch Tarbat (sic) in Harris, and as the master found that it was not safe to proceed to sea without receiving considerable repairs, which could not there be had, he found himself obliged to leave the ship and cargo, till he could go to Liverpool, to receive instructions from his owners. All the hands went with him except one whom he prevailed on to stay in the ship, to take care of the cargo. There she lay for nearly the space of two years, under the care of this single man, without sustaining the smallest loss, either by violence or pilfering.’
- ‘During last winter a vessel navigated by Danish seamen (I think), who were entire strangers to the coast, having touched a rock west of Icolmkill, afraid of sinking, took to their boats and made for that island, leaving the vessel, with sails set, to drive with the wind and tide. Some of the natives, seeing the vessels rolling without being under proper management, put off to the ship, and, finding nobody on board, took possession of her, and took her safely into Loch Scridan in Mull. The mariners, seeing their vessel safely moored, went and claimed her, and without hesitation or dispute obtained full possession, without any salvage or charge being made, save a few shillings to the men who brought her in. The ship and cargo were then entrusted to the farmer of the land adjoining to the port she lay in, who, for a very trifling consideration, insured the whole cargo to the owners, and delivered it over to their orders, several months afterwards, entirely compleat, and in good order. Another vessel was put ashore about the same time, on the island of Coll; the cargo of which was in like manner saved and preserved without any pecuniary gratification, by Mr. McLean, the hospitable chief and laird of that island.’
- ‘About the same time, two large American vessels belonging to Clyde, went ashore on the island of Islay;- one of them contained on board ten thousand pounds in specie. As these vessels were not under management, merely because of the sickness and lassitude of the crews, tho’ the weather was not tempestuous,- the cargoes were taken out, and placed along the shores, in the best way they could;- the vessels were then got off – and, when the articles of the two cargoes were collected together, there was not any-thing amissing, save one single barrel of tar, which had probably been hove overboard, and lost thro’ carelessness.’
I very much doubt that in similar circumstances elsewhere, the outcome of the events James Anderson describes would have been the same, particularly when one thinks on the ten thousand pounds in specie. In some other areas of our country, shipwrecks were not only plundered but their stranding was quite often brought about by the actions of ‘wreckers’ on shore.
It came as a complete shock to me as a fifteen year old apprentice in the early 1950s, aboard my father’s ring-net boat, the Golden Fleece from Campbeltown when we, whom I considered to be experts, were consistently and considerably out fished on the east coast of Harris by the Harmony, a similarly sized boat that hailed from, I believe, Geocrab. I also later grew to have the greatest respect for the ability of the fishermen of Scalpay who, though being very much newcomers to the art of ring-netting, very soon became renowned for their expertise and for their beautifully kept fleet of modern boats. Eriskay too, under the guidance of the remarkable Calum MacKinnon – a man who died tragically young – proved their ability to compete with the best.
I have chosen to highlight these few as they were the only ones I am aware of in the Islands, who took part in the catching of herring using the ring net.
Methods of fishing by means of trawling for white fish and prawns would evolve in my near future as would potting for crab, lobster and prawns.
Small communities would grow in and around the safe harbours that were built to accommodate the growing fleets of boats that would pursue these fisheries.
Roads and bridges would be built that enabled their catches to be forwarded to processing plants that had been opened nearby; and also to be exported to Continental markets.
All of these improvements had been seen as being necessary by James Anderson over two centuries earlier.
It took Anderson’s writings to reveal to me just what the real problems were that had to be faced by the inhabitants of the areas he had been charged with investigating.
Let us suppose, for example, that today someone who lives in – let us say, Rodel in the south east of Harris, invents a new and completely revolutionary method of weaving tweed, one which requires a large injection of capital but which promises a very high return. How should the inventor gain the interest of possible investors? Simple, really – he needs to advertise his inventions.
But as Anderson points out, in the 1700s there was a post office in Stornoway – but the only other one on any of the islands was in Bowmore on Islay. How would one advertise anything or indeed contact anyone quickly, in these days? I have no idea.
The writer claims that a letter from Skye to Lewis would have to travel in excess of a thousand miles before its delivery. He further describes how he accompanied a Mr. Mcdonald of Boisdale who, he states, was a proprietor of South Uist, on a visit to the Postmaster General of Scotland.
They explained to this gentleman some of the problems that were being caused on the islands by the lack of postal facilities, citing the fact that on several occasions ships in distress were, because of the damage they had suffered, delayed in harbours where they had sought shelter from the storm, often being without means to communicate with their owners for so long that they had been presumed lost and insurance paid on them.
Mr Mcdonald continued by explaining the need for ‘packets’, as he called them to be set up as soon as possible to offer quick and reliable travel for passengers and mail to and from the mainland, very generously offering to guarantee to pay any financial shortfall that such a service might suffer out of his own pocket. Sadly but perhaps not unexpectedly, this offer was not acted upon as the PMG had warned them might be the case. Everything changes but everything remains the same.
Looking more closely at the problems encountered by people wishing to travel between two places on the islands encouraged James Anderson to highlight the difficulties involved by quoting the example of someone wishing to travel between London and Gravesend, a distance of around twenty miles. This could quite easily – and cheaply – be accomplished twice within twenty-four hours; whereas in the Hebrides, or indeed in any other such place where very few towns are established, a trip of a similar distance could not be made without a great deal of preparation. It would also take very much longer and would incur a much greater expense.
As far as commercial – as opposed to subsistence – fishing was concerned, all I can do is to suppose that the main problems would have been similar to the ones I have already highlighted. These problems would be made even more difficult in view of the fact that the fruits of fishing efforts would have a limited shelf life. As refrigeration lay well hidden in the future ‘as were telephones and radio\ and as the weather in the West was usually too wet for drying fish, they would have only salt to preserve any catches.
Anderson not only had clear and innovative ideas on the way that the life of the inhabitants of the Western coasts and Isles might be helped. I was completely astonished to discover that if some of his written comments and claims had been properly brought to the attention of practical fishermen and had been investigated by them, then the changes and improvements in the course of herring fisheries in all of Scotland would have come about many years earlier.
The first recorded use of the ring net in Scotland was in 1840 when it was used in Loch Fyne – and I grew up believing that it had been developed there by fishermen from Tarbert.
The first successful use of a brailer – a method of taking herring into a boat from a ring net has been attributed to fishermen from Dunure in 1933, when one of them returned from a time spent in fishing in Canada – although the idea had been earlier unsuccessfully tried out by one of the most remarkably innovative Scottish fishermen ever, Bobby Robertson [The Hoodie] of Campbeltown, in 1931.
Here, to be read with consideration of the above, I offer some more of James Anderson’s writing
‘On the coasts of Sweden, where the shores are flat and sandy, the natives surround the herrings with a large net having close meshes through which they cannot escape, and draw both ends of the nets towards the shore, till it can touch the bottom. They inclose (sic) within it sometimes an immense body of fish which, when they are brought into a small space, so as to be quite close upon each other, are taken up into the boats surrounding the net, by means of small nets fixed to a handle. As the herring become fewer in number, the net is drawn closer, and so on until the whole that were first surrounded are taken, if the weather proves so mild as not to derange the net.’
Is this not a description of a ring net more than one hundred years before the Loch Fyne records were recorded – and was not his report of Swedish fishermen using the forerunner of a brailer, more than two hundred years before the development in Dunure?
More comments, even more astonishing, appears next in his book:
‘An ingenious man, one Bruce of Aberdeen, contrived a net to be employed in the herring fishery that promises to be of much use, on a principle different from either of the foregoing. A description of it was sent to Dr. Anderson, which he shewed to the principal fishermen on the coast, who unanimously agreed, that in many cases it could be employed with the greatest success, tho it could not apply in all cases. The net was proposed to be of as great length and depth as could conveniently be managed, to be shot by one or two boats according to its size: to take a circular sweep, so as to close both ends at one point. The bottom was then to be drawn close by means of a line run through open holes made for that purpose, so as to form a kind of bag when close drawn, which would effectually confine all of the fish that had been at first included within it, which, when the shoals were thick, would be an immense quantity. These might then be taken out at leisure, by small nets, fixed to a handle, like those used by the Swedes.’
A ring net – or dare I suggest – perhaps a purse seine?
James Anderson appears to me to have become a great admirer of the people who then inhabited the Western Isles and gives me the impression of ‘going the extra mile’ in his efforts to advance their fortunes. He even advises the then Government that if the fisheries were given some assistance that one by-product of their success would be, by the creation of more work and an increase in the numbers of men taking part, that there would be an invaluable source of expert seamen who could be called upon to serve their country in the Royal Navy in time of war.