Posts tagged ‘Whinnyfold’

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)