Interview With A Fisherman (My Uncle)

Dear blog reader

A full quarter of my family tree is based within the fishing community of Banffshire and so I am very aware of the tradition history of the Scottish community, both boats moving from As far as the Orkneys and the Shetlands down to the English fishing grounds in the Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft area along with the females of the community following to gut the fish.

However it stopped me in my tracks when I spotted an interview with my 3 x great uncle in the newspaper sharing my ancestral family’s experiences and opinions on the fishing trade.

As an explanatory addition, the suffix Farmer after the surname of Murray is a local tee or by-name. As there are often so few different surnames in Scottish fishing communities different families of the same surname have different tee-names to differentiate themselves. Also, the Buttercup boat mentioned in the article was owned by my great, great grandfather John Murray. Finally, there are places local to Buckie named in the attached interview: Buckie is a big fishing town on the Moray Firth coast and Buckpool and Portessie are smaller areas attached to Buckie.

I do hope you find this as fascinating as I do.





The important place which the English herring fishing now takes in the yearly round of the Scotch and above all the Moray Firth fishermen, has caused more and more public attention to be drawn to and concentrated on that industry within the past year or two. Not that the taking part in the English coast is anything of recent birth in the Scotch fisherman’s almanac, because in a humble and unassuming way the Moray Firth fishermen have been a factor in the Yarmouth fishing for over twenty years now. But it is really only within the past four or five years that the English fishing has come to be the all-engrossing subject in the fishing towns and villages during the months of October, November, and part of December. Prior to the year 1876, that is 25 years ago, the period of the year between the end of the east coast of great summer herring fishing in September and the opening of the west coast fishing in May, the Scotch fishermen looked to the white fishing to provide him with a living. He enjoyed the success that attended the small lines till Christmas, and then used the great lines till the time for preparing for the west coast fishing. At that time the white fish were not so scarce in the adjacent waters as they now are, and the boats were half the size of the present ones. Altogether the industry had not assumed the importance it has done since.

While possessing a fair amount of fishery questions, both local and national, through an extended period of residence among and personal contact with fishermen, still the representative of the ‘Aberdeen Journal’ who was detailed to glean information for this article considered that there were matters of common knowledge to the practical seagoing fisherman which were not likely to come within the purview of a landsman, however long he might have been resident among fishermen. Acting on this conviction, the ‘Journal’ representative successfully cornered a fisherman whom he knew possessed the necessary knowledge and experience, as well as a good measure of all-round common sense to balance his particular qualifications in this respect. This fisherman was Mr George Murray (‘Farmer’) of the Buttercup, BF1981, one of the hardy race of Buckie fishermen. As a full-fledged storm was whistling through the streets at the time, it was advisable to get under cover, and, seated by a comforting fire, the pressman, by means of a series of questions, was able to elicit from Mr Murray the information of which he was in search.

To begin with, Mr Murray recollects that, in 1876, there were three boats from Buckpool and about the same number from Buckie that went to the English fishing for the first time from this part of the coast. At that time the decked boats were beginning to find favour among the fishermen, and they required a decked boat for the south voyage which then took some weeks to accomplish compared with a couple of days in 1901. The boats then made direct for Yarmouth, and did so for many years afterwards, the idea of fishing at Scarborough and Grimsby en route being one which has been put in practice only within the last few years. Three years late (1879) the number of boats leaving Buckpool for Yarmouth was 13, and from Buckie a like number, but still, although the attention to the English fishing was increasing on the part of the Scotch fishermen, that fishing was not what might be called a popular one with the Moray Firth men for several reasons. These were that it was performed at a time of the year when frequent storms might be expected, that the voyage was a long one, that the navigation of English waters not only differs from the conditions which obtain at home, but is more difficult on account of shoal sands, greater sea traffic, and a low-lying coast, generally of a sandy colour, so that, as Mr Murray tersely put it, you could not see it till you were on to it. Mr Murray, however, admitted frankly that the English coast was well lighted, and that in foggy weather the fog signals were kept going.

But a fishing which, practically year in year out, unfailingly spelt success, and could be counted on to average £200 per boat, was not one that would be allowed to slip out of the fishermen’s diary, as fishings such as the Islay fishing have been allowed to do. With the vast increase in the size of the boats and the additional comforts provided in them, as well as the knowledge that comes by experience and tends to breed self-confidence if not contempt, the English fishing has now largely lost its terrors for the moray Firth fishermen, and it may be assumed that with the annual training of the rising generation of fishermen those terrors will never exist as they once existed to their fathers. The Moray Firth fisherman is now ready to go anywhere and everywhere that offers a reasonable prospect of filling his nets with the silvery king of the sea. Season herring fishings, in fact, are growing so numerous – there are five of them already – that they endanger the success of each other to a considerable extent by producing a feeling of restlessness on the part of the fishermen who have been, and are now, rather apt to chase about from one fishing to another on the strength of daily reports of doings at other ports. Very often the best days of a herring season at any particular fishing come at the very end, but by that great time a great part of the fleet has left for some other fishing. The Shetland fishing treads so closely on the west coat or Stornoway fishing as to have this effect, and similarly the Shetland fishing, as in the present year, often extends into the time usually devoted to the east coast fishing, and so on. When one considers that half of one year’s grossing is frequently made in a single night by a boat, it will be seen how important it is to a fisherman to give the fishing grounds all the chances possible, even although they may for many weary days be soured by the disappointing process of hauling in ‘black yarn’, ie empty nets.

Buckie harbour entrance

Half a dozen years ago the number of boats leaving Buckie for the English fishing was about 60, and up to this time Grimsby was unknown as a herring port to the Scotchmen, and Scarborough had not yet been paid attention to. By leaps and bounds, during the past year or two, has the English fishing sprung up, till it occupies the completely absorbing position it does today along the Moray Firth coast. This year there was the most complete desertion of Buckie and the neighbouring coast towns on record. The Cluny and other harbours presented for a couple of months the appearance of ‘harbours to let’, there being only four or five big boats and a dozen to twenty small boats left to prosecute the white fishing from the Cluny Harbour.

The approximate number of boats that left Buckie for the English fishing this season were 30 boats from Buckpool, 50 from Buckie, and 40 from Portessie – a total of 130 large boats of the first class. At the close of the east coast fishing the hired Highlanders are dismissed, and the Moray Firth men proceed to make up crews among themselves for the English fishing. The fisherman, Mr Murray, informs me, who has a good boat in trim for the voyage south does his best to make up a crew. Should he not succeed, he himself just joins a crew being made up for some other boat. This, of course, necessitates many of the boats being laid up on the beach, and in the dividing of the English gold, one share out of the nine which the net proceeds are parted is earned by the boat. The expense for the English fishing amount to about £60; the balance of the grossings is divided into nine shares apportioned one share to each of the seven men who go to form the crew of the boat, one share to the boat, half a share to the cook, who is a boy, and a half share in respect of the steam engine.

As to the conditions under which the Moray Firth fishermen prosecute the English fishing today, I have Mr Murray’s word for it that there is no comparison. In former years the boats were so small that the men could not live steadily in them, so they were compelled to have lodgings ashore. Now all that is changed, and the 80 ft. over all boats are furnished, in many instances, much better than on shipboard. The large cabin aft has about seven feet of headroom; bunks of the most comfortable design are placed all round, and presses for everything are handily arranged. The cooking is the hands of a boy, who does nothing else but attend to the culinary department, and the table is furnished fit for a king – but my readers must not conceive too glorious an impression of a fisherman’s life from such a remark. I mean by it that the standard of living aboard the fishing boat has improved with the other improvements effected, for although the modern fisherman may not at the end of a year be able to show a large or any, balance in £ s d, yet in the very nature of things he goes through and handles a bug lump of cash in the course of a year. Today, therefore, the fishermen live aboard the boats.

The steam engines for hauling purposes,which are an innovation of a few years, and then cost £80, have been enlarged and made more powerful, and they now cost £120 each. Against this expenditure, as I have already stated, one-half share of the earnings is placed.

Buckie harbour.

The English fishing is different from the Scotch fishing in respect that the herring are smaller and harder than the west coast fish. For this reason the Scotchmen prosecute it with old nets. A new net is practically useless, Mr Murray says, because it breaks and destroys the appearance of the fish for market. A net is considered old and fit for the English fishing when it has been four years in use, and these old nets are specially laid past and reserved for the English fishing. The destruction of them at the English fishing is, however, frequently very heavy, but as they are not of great pecuniary value, the loss is not great.

In the opinion of Mr Murray, Yarmouth is by far the most favoured port to conduct fishing operations from in the estimation of the Scotch fishermen, and no fewer than 470 Scotch boats were there in the season just closing. Lowestoft comes next, Grimsby third, and Scarborough a bad fourth on account of its harbour being tidal. The average distance the fleet have to go to the fishing grounds is from 15 to 18 miles off the coast in an easterly direction.

As to grievance, well, with such a large fleet making a sudden descent upon a seaport, it is little wonder if the pinch of deficient harbour accommodation be felt at the English ports. That want probably stands a better chance of remedy in England, as the richer place, than in Scotland. The greatest grievance the Scotch boats have is the system of charging them harbour dues for their registered tonnage. A good deal of correspondence has taken place over this matter, but the official coach lumbers along but slowly. The case in a nutshell is, that the Scotch zulu boats which have a registered tonnage of 40 tons or so pay upon that as against a registered tonnage of 15 tons or so for a steam drifter, one-half larger deduction being made in the case of the latter for engine, etc, space. There is an opinion entertained by some that the zulus could claim exemption for the cabin space at present, but this has not been done, as far as I am aware. The Board of Trade have suggested that the remedy is to put the fishing boats under the Merchant Shipping Act, but that remedy Mr Murray and other fishermen hold is worse than the disease. Indeed one Lossiemouth boat tried it – and repented. Fishermen don’t want the trouble of having to keep a log, carry lifebelts, when they having fishing buoys, carry a small boat, pass Board of Trade examinations for charge of a boat – which some existing skippers could not do – and furnish periodical reports to the Board of Trade.

With the great falling off in the landing of white fish in the winter months, and the increased attention paid to the English fishermen by the Scotch fishermen, it was the most natural thing in the world that the scotch curers would also turn their eyes to where the fleet went. The Scotch curer has, within three years, become an important factor in the English herring market. The Yarmouth curers admit not only this, but that there is a likelihood of the number of Scotch curers increasing. Their importance was indicated at the roup of Yarmouth curing stations last Tuesday, when 66 stances, which three years ago were waste land, fetched nearly £1800 of rent, or £500 above last year’s returns. Scotch curers were mentioned as lessees in the English correspondent’s telegram from almost every fishing town round about the Moray Firth but Buckie, but, I think, the Buckie curers would be there too, for they have been taking their share of what has been going with the others.

A word is also due about the position occupied by Scotch fish salesmen. Finding business also slack at home, the fish selling firms began to send representatives south last year. They ventured as far as Grimsby, but this year they became more ambitious, and invaded Yarmouth itself. So far as I have been able to gather they have met with a success which has quite come up to their expectations. It must be recollected that Scotch fish salesmen do business in the south under manifest disadvantages as compared with their English confreres, but no doubt in years to come they will be able to hold up their end of the plank. The English salesmen send north representatives to canvas the Scotch boats before they set out for the English fishing, and they can offer better inducements to the fishermen than the home salesmen in the way of storage for nets, etc. It is even said that if the Scotch fish salesmen are tn enter into serious competition with the English firms on English ground, the English salesmen will retaliate by competing with the Scotch firms at Scotch ports during the Scotch fishings. But of this I cannot say more.

So as far as the Buckie boats are concerned, not more than two-thirds of them have already returned home, and indeed the people here have no special anxiety to see them home. There is only an average fishing of somewhat over £200 per boat, and as the boats that remained have had heavy shots almost daily, the return of the boats so soon is almost a misfortune. It is, however, considered that the recent storm and the disastrous effects in its wake made the fishermen anxious to square up and get home.

Sources: British Newspaper Archive website and postcards of Buckie in personal possession of Jacqueline Hunter.