Posts tagged ‘Downies’

Nov 29, 2022

This was once such a brisk little village: the northeast’s lost communities

The window is nailed and boarded through which I saw…

and will strike the deer that goes dizzily, sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes…

(Hallaig, Sorley MacLean)

One by one northeast Scotland’s wee fishing communities gave up their struggle to eke a living out of the sea for the battle was proving hopeless – up against bigger, better equipped vessels that encroached on the waters off their townships. A separate battle, too, of the young’s discontent with their parents’ and grandparents’ way of life. A life of constant danger that gave little back in return.   

Before the days of the northeast’s millionaire trawler dynasties thousands of northeasters were dependent on the sea for a modest living. Their little brown-sail vessels were a common sight, bobbing up and down on the German Ocean (now north sea) fishing for skate, ling, turbot, whiting, flounders, cod and haddock.  But come the twentieth century those days were numbered. The old were left to maintain the tradition as best they could but penury drove many of them away from the place that had been home for generations. So, they stood to look out one   last time through the windows to the sea and sky not fearing the stirring of a storm, that harbinger of death, but to a capture a memory of times past. Those tiny windows in a wall of stone that engaged a stranger to peek into from outside when walking by deserted home after deserted home.

There was still hope in the 1920s among some in fishing communities that their decline might be stalled. But no. The family fishing boat crewed by fathers and sons and brothers and nephews and cousins could not compete with the big boys from bigger ports. Women were essential, if unacknowledged partners (junior, of course), in the family enterprise through their roles scranning for bait, baiting hooks on fishing lines, cleaning, curing and selling the fish – hard, hard work. Younger women increasingly chose to look for jobs elsewhere, with better pay and didn’t involve being half frozen to death. Women’s work. Traipsing mile upon mile over rough country, back straining under a wicker creel heavy with fish that had to be sold – to country folk. Little wonder, then, given a choice of a different life, there were women who opted for that – emancipation became a dirty word in the opinion of their older menfolk despairing over their lost source of cheap labour.   

Young men, too, were off. Some with a mind to carry on fishing lacked the disposable income needed to buy a share in a boat with gear constantly needing replacing. They also moved to towns, perhaps to the monotony of industrial labour or learn new skills such as quarrying.

Simple, tiny cottages with hardly a stick of furniture, their inhabitants bearded men in blue ganseys, caps and long boots and women in coarse skirts, long aprons, shawls and bonnets – as poor as church mice – yet so appealing. So picturesque. So quaint. They created a charming scene that was a novelty to toonsers from Aberdeen; day-trippers who would come to gawp at these curious natives. As more homes emptied some of the richer folk even bought up a former fisher’s cottage going for a song as a holiday home.

In the gran’ hooses in th’suburbs o’ Aiberdeen ye’ll find th’ money that should ha’e gaunt ae th’ line fishermen.

Bonnie Muchalls (formerly Stranathra) became a popular weekend resort – and Skateraw, now Newtonhill. From fishing villages to holiday resorts and in time they became dormitory towns for Aberdeen. In 1855 twenty-six Skateraw families fished out of the village. Thirty years later the decline set in. Findon, too, suffered the same fate. Findon where smoked haddock originated, Finnan haddies.

Nearby Downies perched above the cliffs with its tiny rocky shore once sent forty fishermen to sea in seven or eight boats but by the start of the twentieth century that life faltered and soon ceased entirely. Portlethen rubs up against Downies and here crab and lobster catches lingered after the village’s ten yawl fishers were forced to turn their backs on the sea.

Cowie, now absorbed into Steenhive (Stonehaven), operated twenty-three boats including nine herring vessels in 1855 but by the 1930s this has dropped to a single yawl. Stonehaven with its substantial harbour was the area’s centre for landing catches -boats from Cowie, Crawton, Skateraw, Shieldhall and Cove landed and sold their catches there, sometimes having them processed in the town before being sent to be sold in the south. Up to two hundred boats landed at Steenhive in the mid-eighteen hundreds providing plenty work for the town’s eight curing businesses. Stonehaven’s own fleet of fishing boats included sixty line boats in the late nineteenth century before the coming of steam trawlers put a lid on that.

Even at Steenhive the young looked to alternatives to the fishing. When unemployment benefit was introduced in 1920 older men in the town complained that the ‘cursed dole’ provided an alternative to youths otherwise compelled to carry on the fishing tradition. Steenhive’s line fishers were making between £2 and £5 a week – hardly a king’s ransom and while the ‘cursed dole’ was little enough (15 shillings a week for men, 12 shillings a week for women for a maximum of 15 weeks) it didn’t involve risking your neck every time you launched a boat into the north sea.

Most older folk had few expectations beyond scraping by on a paltry living. Days when prices were good were welcome bonuses. Sometimes catches exported to England made ‘a fabulous price’ – ten shillings a stone and for a year or two around the turn of the twentieth century. Stonehaven could probably have absorbed more fishers from its neighbouring villages where the trade was dying fast but for a shortage of housing in the town, but even here by 1928 the port was home to a mere twelve boats, providing work for about fifty men. Twenty years earlier there had been thirty-two big yawls each crewed by five men, eight small yawls and twenty-five herring drifters. Then they were gone.

The Great War of 1914-18 that changed so much in the world accelerated the decline of northeast fishing and the stagnant state of European markets pushed more men and women away from fishing and away from fishing villages. Echoes of the dead hand of Brexit.

The foonds of once thriving Crawton survive battered by a coarse wind off the north sea. The stones howked from the land to make homes for fisherfolk sink slowly back into that same ground. Crawton, about four miles south of Stonehaven, a waterfall dropping down to the sea on one side and a steep path leading down to the water’s edge at the other end of the ghost village. In the best of times Crawton provided a living for forty fishermen and their families with about twelve boats pulled up on its tiny shore but by 1900 the fleet was no more than six or seven yawls and three herring drifters for now larger vessels sailed into Crawton’s ‘turf’. By the 1920s the last of Crawton’s fishermen left, taking themselves off to Steenhive to live out their lives at Dawson’s Buildings. And the village fell into ruin.

The tiny village of Catterline with its white washed cottages strung out in a line along the clifftop, high above the small harbour, became home to farm hands not fishers by 1928. As with Crawton, being a distance from the main road became a costly stumbling block when adding transport costs to the margins made from selling small amounts of catches with boxes of fish and shellfish having to be sent for processing to Stonehaven (6d a box of fish, 4d a box of crab and lobster) and then to England by rail for marketing. Catterlines’ rocky coast made it ideal for lobster and crab fishing but the village also had fourteen line boats and seven herring vessels supplying work for forty men and innumerable women at one time.  But in common with other fishing villages the tradition died, the boats were sold and villagers left and the population dropped from about 100 at the start of the century to about thirty people in 1928, and the bulk of those left were aged over fifty.

Farther north lies Newburgh. Now a bird and seal sanctuary, famous for its long stretches of sandy beach, Newburgh once was a thriving fishing port at the mouth of the river Ythan. The river provided fisherwomen with plentiful supplies of bait for line fishing and the Braidsands a good source of mussels and lugworm. In the late 1880s a dozen boats each with a crew of five fished out of Newburgh, their catches carried deep into the countryside by women, to sell to cottagers and farmers around the area of Tarves, Belhelvie and Dyce, some fifteen miles away and buy farm produce, butter, eggs etc in return. Newburgh’s fishers complained about the encroachment of large vessels sailing in close to their village for its decline that begun around 1880 before a three-mile limit was introduced so there was nothing to prevent trawlers from as far afield as Hull gathering ‘like a forest along the coast.’ Large scale fishing by wealthy skippers was blamed for destroying Newburgh’s fishing grounds and lines and several legal disputes were fought between locals and English fishing companies. The imposition of a three-mile limit and ‘exclusive right to fish’ was enacted in 1883 and expanded in 1889 to ban trawling within three miles off the coast over concerns about dwindling fish catches, not declining villages.  However, next along came seine-net fishermen from Aberdeen, Gourdon and Montrose, again encroaching on inshore fishing.  

Collieston with its haphazard arrangement of tumble-down cottages was once a thriving fishing community. In the opening years of the new century Collieston sent out sixteen line vessels with crews of over sixty men to provide for their families from what they took from the sea – and some fifteen herring boats. But as catches fell away the young left for Aberdeen or to live abroad. Women stopped carrying fish inland, instead most of the fish caught here was transported to Auchmacoy railway station for export to England. Soon enough that trade dried up and as was happening elsewhere, Aberdeen folk, taken by the bonnie setting of the village bought up abandoned houses as second homes.

The name Slains lives on as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Under the shadow of the old castle of Slains a village dependent on fishing for a living emerged. At one time twelve boats fished from here but only two remained by the late 1920s and the village suffered a similar fate to its illustrious castle.

Whinnyfold is perched above a little creek to the south of Cruden Bay. The railway station at Cruden Bay kept the village’s fish trade alive for a while into the twentieth century when it cost four shillings for a box or four, a substantial rate from a box of fish that might fetch ten or twelve shillings. The numbers of men willingly continuing to make a thin living from the sea waned. Where in 1900 there were eight crewed boats by the 1920s there were no more than four. The village’s young men with a taste for the sea looked farther afield, to Shetland, Lowestoft and other bigger ports.

In 1928 a fisherman from nearby Port Errol lamented the end of an era

Fishing will soon die out here . . . this was once such a brisk little village.

And so it was – fifteen big yawls manned by seventy men before WWI as well as up to thirty herring boats. By 1928 there were six motor boats with three or four crew each remaining. Aberdeen and Peterhead absorbed some families while others chose to emigrate.

If they would only give us a six-mile limit, we would make a success of it

observed one younger fisherman in the 1920s. But they didn’t. And Port Errol’s fishing paid the price.

Eighty-five herring and twenty haddock boats used to fish out of Boddam. The village supported thirteen curers. By the 1920s some twelve boats remained. Again trawling was seen as a major cause of their downfall. And what a downfall. On one day in 1928 a Boddam fisherman held up his catch for the day, he and his two crew having fished for two and a half hours – one small codling. A day’s catch usually comprised of one or two boxes of codlings worth thirty shillings – divided between three families.

A County Council report looking into the decline of fishing in the northeast’s coastal villages found that in the eleven places they investigated between 1890 and 1911 the number of fishing boats fell by about forty percent, and tonnage of catches by sixty percent. At Skateraw thirty-four boats catching 599 tons of fish in 1890 dropped to five boats taking in only 36 tons of fish in 1911; Downies eighteen boats dropped to five and fish from 133 tons to 23. At Stonehaven the drop was from 110 boats to fifty-two and about 1700 tons fish to 760 tons.

Were I but young an’ feel again –

An’ that can hardly be,

I’d like to mak’ a change or twa;

I widna seek the sea.

(The Choice, Peter Buchan)

Jul 3, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020 – a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 15

Bit of unusual activity this week of eased lockdown number 15. Nothing that would warrant much of a mention outside of a far from average year but I suppose for many people whose lives have not been personally affected by Covid19 there’s a growing sense of confidence that it’s not so bad or it’s probably passed us by. Neither impression has any logic to it. Fact is Covid 19 has not gone away. It will not be going anywhere for years and years and years. Some of us have, fortunately, not contracted it. One day some of us who mistakenly think we’ve beaten it will be nonchalantly rounding a corner and walk slap bang into the virus.

But, as I was saying, there is a feeling among some of us that it might be okay to go out a bit more. Now, I don’t mean go to a crowded beach, a crowded shop, any sort of pub or the hairdresser. I mean meet up with a handful of tried and tested family members.

Diver and Mexican on gates at Dunecht Estate

 

So, this week we did just that. Met up with our daughter and son-in-law and went for a walk – a very long walk as it transpired – through Dunecht Estate. Hot day and there were lots of exquisite damsel flies flitting about. Dunecht Estate was owned by the Cowdrays who made their cash in Mexican oil and salvage hence their arms on the gate. The body of one of the Cowdrays disappeared from the family vault at the Aberdeenshire estate. This particular wealthy Earl was fond of travelling, a hobby he carried on after his death, in Italy in 1880. His corpse journeyed across the Alps, across the North Sea, and was driven by coach up through Scotland to Dunecht – during one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit this country, it is said, so delaying his arrival by weeks. Hope he was well embalmed. Local poacher/rat-catcher led police to the shallow grave where the body lay for many months and was sentenced to five years penal servitude – as poor people often were.

Next day we travelled a little further afield to visit a relation of my husband who lives down the coast. She’s on her own and has ‘neighbour trouble.’ Boy has she got ‘neighbour trouble.’ I think that subject should be avoided for the present. During a brief visit we took a quick shufty at a track one of the village folk restored down the steep slope to the shore. A bench at the top includes names of local people who have died – a nice touch and a map of the world next to the bench so you can find your bearings between Aberdeenshire’s coast and a’wy else. The sun was shining. The day very warm and the sea was sparkling blue but it was time to leave and westwards we headed, over that marvel of the northeast, the bypass, and home.

But in the way of these things – the relief of scarcity comes in threes – like buses. Our third and final outing of last week was closer when we took our old cat to the vet. As usual our travel-averse cat threw up during the short drive there. He was handed in and duly handed back out with some expensive eye drops. He really is nae keen on eye drops.

There was also a flurry of phone calls this week. North to Strathpeffer and south to friends in Tunbridge Wells in England ( a place whose name I can never remember, Tunbridge Wells that is.) Most of the talk was Covid related, though not entirely thank goodness. Doesn’t sound like anything major is happening in either place.

We also had three deliveries this week. Our new garden chairs arrived. Well-packaged in large boxes lined with insulation that would have made perfect plant-rearing containers were they not made out of cardboard. Our self-assembly Adirondack chairs proved challenging. Between bewildering written instructions and absurd illustrations what should have been a straightforward assembly turned into an afternoon of scratching heads to the point my husband was about to drill out a larger hole for one set of screws when I suggested swapping over a couple of things – it worked. Second seat was put together in no time. We like them.

A second delivery was also due from Royal Mail. I didn’t worry when it failed to arrive ‘next day’ since where we live there is no such thing as a ‘next day’ delivery. But when it didn’t come the following day I was getting a bit pee-ed off. About tea time my husband called down from upstairs asking if I was expecting a delivery as there was a man walking about the garden. On looking out our front door in that tentatively Covid way, hoping not to bang heads with someone round the other side of the porch, I spotted the said man, large box in hand, about to go back to his car at the end of our drive (it’s a very short one.) I shouted to him and he shouted back that Royal Mail had dropped parcels at his place, they’d opened my box but they hadn’t got Covid. I thanked him for driving it to us and he dropped it where he was, at the end of the drive. Now despite my gratitude to him for taking it to us and not just arranging for Royal Mail to uplift it, it occurred to me it was a funny place to leave the heavy box, it being much too heavy for me. And open by now.

The third delivery was our fortnightly grocery delivery. We’ve never yet received an order exactly as we’ve selected but they usually come there-abouts. Substitutes are fairly normal so what was unusual was that no coffee arrived. Not even a substitute. Now I don’t drink coffee but luckily I’d ordered ground coffee from the supplier of the box in the drive so not all was lost. The perils of online shopping.

mix 15

There was a less-than-dramatic thunder storm around 5 am on the Saturday. Saturday being the day I won the family virtual quiz at night!! But before that I got up and unplugged just about everything that runs on electricity for the duration of the thunder and lightning. We’ve lost electrical stuff previously to lightning strikes so don’t take chances.

Well into eating our last-minute-let’s-grow- salad crops. It is the way to eat if you can manage it. Radish contest ongoing. More on that next week, hopefully.

All quiet on the house martin front. They’re still active and so far the nests are holding up. Long may that continue. Hearing a cuckoo occasionally and owl at night (suppose it’s a night owl.) Just the one I think which is a bit sad. Those starlings that persisted in nesting in a tree hole frequented by jackdaws appear to be proven right for there are lots and lots of starlings flying around here now and quite a few are feeding off the seeds and nuts in the garden. Such striking plumage when the sun hits it. Haven’t seen the heron for ages. Don’t know what that means. Certainly whenever I look down into the burn that runs alongside our garden there are no fish – which is unusual. Think we know who to blame for that Ms/Mr Heron.

Made some pancakes half and half with banana and ordinary SR flour and added a handful of some freeze-dried raspberries which were delivered last week. The pancakes rose beautifully but were not dissimilar to shoe leather texture. Eaten fresh were fine. Left a day or two – forget it. Those raspberries are strange. Astronaut food, our son described them which I suppose they are. Like instant coffee. Freeze dried, that is, not the taste. Disappointed with the pancakes I decided to bake what turned out to be a large consignment of flapjack-type biscuits made from a huge amount of porridge oats, dark sugar, sour cherries, a handful of aronia berries, lots of chopped up dried apricots, desiccated coconut, ground ginger, cinnamon, syrup, marg – think that was about it, oh sunflower seeds. Message here is bung in what you like, mix it up, drop spoonfuls onto baking tray and bake for about 15 to 25 mins depending on how chewy or crunchy you want them. You cannot go wrong with anything that uses porridge oats. It is the best food ever.

Just time to tell you to watch the 1933 film of Alice in Wonderland with Gary cooper as the White Knight (funny scene on horseback), Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (doesn’t look a bit like him,) W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty (absolutely brilliant) and Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen (pitch perfect performance.) Alice (Charlotte Henry) is good as well. Some very funny lines. Amazon Prime or YouTube. But, whatever you do, do-not-watch  The Sinner on Netflix. Annoying and stupid.

Nearly finished biography of Walter Benjamin. It’s a tragic tale of victims of fascism in the 1930s but the guy would have driven me mad. More on it next time, hopefully.

Stay safe.

Feb 10, 2013

What have they done to Downies Village?

The coast off Downies near Aberdeen What we do with the past tells us much about our present.   The past can be a place we wish to return, seeing the present as nothing but a moment in a downhill race to mediocrity and degeneration.   In the world of architecture and community, or claimed community, this finds its doleful and reactionary expression in the nostalgia of Prince Charles and his acolytes who wish to return to a world where everyone knows their place and architecture expresses fixity by mimicking forms from the days of pre-modernism.   The dream is of neat and ordered villages and small towns with residents abiding by the moral strictures of those who know best.  DSC02449 However, as much as we might deride the nonsense pedalled by the Prince he does make the valid point that the metaphorical and literal bulldozers of developers should not be allowed untrammelled right to build whatever and wherever they like.  DSC02423 On a recent visit to the village of Downies I was astonished to find that in the midst of this historic fishing township there had appeared a housing development which would not be out of place on the heights of Westhill.   Downies is not a planned village.   It is unlike the “model” villages which were promoted by progressive and paternalistic landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries.   No neat grid or geometric layout sits above these cliffs at Portlethen.   Prince Charles’ dream of order is confounded by the lack of a clear and obvious pattern (at least to this observer).   Cottages go off the road at either side, with asymmetric position and irregular gardens.   Prince Charles’ Poundbury it is not, although one can well imagine the new houses at Downies fitting into a Poundbury landscape with attempts at regularity within the compound of the “scheme” Its break with the feeling of community is emphasised in the developer’s own description: The development is served by a private mono blocked access road with a central court yard area.   Is this the developer attempting to create a closed community around its own square, separate and distinct from the picturesque locals?   Whatever it is the spirit of the enclosure is at odds with the openness of all else around.          DSC02426 It is not that there are many houses going up at Old Portlethen, five are in progress; rather it is the proportions relative to the existing properties and the sympathy for the landscape, the sense of place, and the present householders which is in question.   Where older houses gradually follow the line of the increasingly steep slope towards the cliff- edge the new buildings, in their bulk and their height show little care or appreciation for the historic site.   From what can be seen at the moment, February 2013, the houses seem architecturally unexceptionable.   Dull perhaps, “aspirational” even, well able to be lived in and no doubt will provide comfortable homes for those who can afford them.   The developer says: they are A select development of 5 homes in the picturesque village of Downies with some breathtaking views of the North East coastline.   Of course what it omits to say that the monster 5 bedroomed house called Isla is parked directly in front of an older, but not original, property called Bayview.   I suspect that a bay view is now wishful thinking but the owner has the comfort of knowing that the behemoth Isla has the advantage of being fitted porcelanosa tiles in its striking main bathroom.    DSC02436   But this is not the point.   The point is is there a place for these beached monsters in a village typified by low level housing following the contours of the land, and which crucially gives us some sense of the way our ancestors lived?   Please note I am not saying that Downies of today is and should be the village in which the fishermen and their families lived, not only would such a desire be unattainable it would also be unwanted, imposing as it would poor sanitary conditions and no electricity upon residents.  One of the joys of the older buildings in Downies is that, with additions here and there of kitchens and bathrooms they have managed to improve the living conditions without losing a sense of the old, much improved from the derelict village Peter Anson found in the early 20th century.   This incremental growth and improvement was organic, not keeping the village in locked in timeless aspic yet still maintaining historical continuities. DSC02428   As can be seen from the photographs this is not the case with the present development.   We can hardly criticise the developer for doing what developers do that is making the most of market potential.     There was no practical reason why a developer could not have followed the style of the single storey cottages but financially it presumably makes more sense to go for bigger is better.  We might just as well wail over investment bankers’ lack of probity or cats eating birds.     No, the real problem is that permission was given to the project.   We must ask what were the planners thinking of? – although thinking is perhaps too strong a term here.  DSC02431   The Director of Infrastructure Services at Aberdeenshire Council, wrote that the new properties were quite acceptable as they were no more than, an amendment in design to what has previously been approved.   He also stated there was no conflict between the traditional forms and the developer’s proposals, rather they new builds were said to respect the character of the old and were worthy addition to the village and would, in his words, integrate successfully.   Of course by integration what the planning officer means is the technicalities of building regulations and local plans.   When the Scottish Government Reporter approved the plan he said that the houses would unite the village’s historic core with its outlying elements.     Downies I defy anybody now visiting the site to show how the houses have brought such a unity.   There appears to be a confusion of terms here: there might be similarity with outlying elements but unity?   At the more meaningful level of historic continuities and community feeling planners have little to say.   They deal with bureaucratic regulations not the experienced lives of residents.    DSC02446 Speak to the folk who live in Downies and you come away with the feeling not that they want to remain a closed community rather they tell you that it’s a respect for the history of the area that they want to preserve; a respect for the generations who, perched above the North Sea, carved out a precarious living and managed to establish an identity through the lives they lived and the village they inhabited.   Just as respect is given to structures such as Skara Brae so also should it be allowed villages like Downies.   Sadly, and short of demolition, it looks as if this is another battle for historical integrity which has been lost.   All who put the rubber stamp to this travesty of planning should be ashamed of their actions.    DSC02458           Contribution by Textor