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Shona McMillan reflects on the rich cultural inheritance left by East Lothian’s ‘people of the sea’


ast Lothian enjoys a scenic coastline of 43 miles, and to travel from Edinburgh to Eyemouth is to pass through many small towns and villages of great picturesque beauty. As summer’s golden corn fields give way to autumnal colours, hedgerows hang heavy with red hawthorn berries on which wintering birds will shortly feed. As temperatures drop, still many sunshine days remain

arrived. Many from Berwickshire heeded them but for Eyemouth, it was too late – the fleet of 41 had sailed. With noon approaching, boats reached their furthest point from the land and lines were cast. It was now that the weather turned – grey clouds enveloped them and swirling winds struck. Eventually, after many relentless hours, the storm subsided but by then, 189 fishermen were lost. Beyond Burnmouth in the Borders,

rescue, people tried so hard to reach the outstretched hands. Some were saved but losses were greater. In the entrance to Eyemouth East Bay harbour, 19 lost their lives in front of their families. In the wake of the storm, when days passed and no more boats came home, records showed 93 women widowed and 267 children left without fathers. Not until the centenary in 1981 did Eyemouth achieve again the population

“By Saturday morning, Eyemouth was a town of the dead. The known fatalities were bad enough but the lack of information about the men and boats unaccounted for was just plain torture.” Peter Aitchison, Black Friday and produce crisp, clear blue skies which award sharp coastal views across the sea to the ‘Paps of Fife’ and rolling farmland. On such rare days of perfect clarity fishermen must remain alert, as these can be the very times when a moving in weather front can blow up a gale and whip the sea into a terrifying frenzy. 125 years ago, on 14 October 1881, it was a strangely still day and the air hung heavy. Along the east coast, fishing boats headed out to sea, but many on them were uneasy. That morning, barometer readings had dropped dramatically but under financial pressures, men felt compelled to put to sea. The weather seemed ‘okay’ and ‘if’ a storm blew up, they could always turn back. As morning wore on, warnings from down the coast From the tapestry in Eyemouth Museum

Fishing boat at Eyemouth Harbour today

past Newhaven in Edinburgh, all along the coast communities experienced the loss. In fishing-dependent Eyemouth, ‘Black Friday’ was catastrophic – 129 men were gone. The storm had arrived with such speed, even precious fishing lines had been cut in a desperate attempt to run for safety. The hurricane dragged the sea into mountainous waves; some boats were even lifted and thrown down onto others. In such a sea, from wildly pitching boats, men were flung overboard. Others capsized to be pounded by the waves and sunk. Some tried to steer for land, others out to sea in any direction to escape, but for those who got to Eyemouth there was little mercy. Tidal position and sea swell combined to render impossible the careful navigation required to avoid the jagged rocks close to shore. In driving rain and wind, frantic onlookers peered into the gloom, desperate to see boats returning. How cruel and difficult to comprehend then, that when the boats of those who had fought so hard for home came into view, three were thrown onto the rocks. The Harmony, Radiant and Press Home, had their timbers split open. Fishermen’s cries for help mixed with onlookers’ screams, to be carried away by the howling winds. In hopeless desperation, ropes were thrown out and others cast aside their safety to plunge into the sea. Arms linked in human chains of


it had known before the tragic loss of a generation of its men to the sea. The worst tragedy to strike Scotland’s fishing community, its story has passed down through generations. Along a coast where geography divided, tragedy united. From Newhaven 15 dead, Fisherrow 7, Cove 11, Coldingham and St Abbs 3, Burnmouth 7 and so the list continues. In such closely related communities the pain was great, but from Eyemouth, 129 men!

There was weeping on every side, there was na a hame unbereft; Fathers and brothers and lovers – There was hardly a man of them left This mind-numbing social and economic catastrophe was so great it was considered an indicator of the people’s resilience that they did not succumb to madness in the weeks which followed. Yet, for a community so dependent on the sea, there was no alternative but fishing. The last to make it home, the Ariel Gazelle, rode out the storm at sea and later limped back to harbour. Just over two weeks on, the Ariel Gazelle led out the remains of the fleet, back to the fishing.

Hugh and Jean McMillan

In 1981, a teenager at the time of the disaster’s centenary, I went to Inveresk cemetery in Musselburgh. With my family, we paid our respects to the fishermen lost from Fisherrow and beyond. Later, visiting Eyemouth museum, forever was imprinted in my memory the beautiful, lovingly constructed tapestry depicting Black Friday. My sister Iris and I were born in Edinburgh but my mum Jane Ritchie Thorburn (Jean, now 80), had told me of her Fisherrow grandfather’s lost boats. From my dad, Hugh McMillan (84), I had heard of his Musselburgh grandfather’s recollection of the loss to the town. Recalling stories of the ‘great storm,’ I was shown the fishermen’s ornate memorial. Then as now, I could not imagine how traumatic such a devastating event would be. Yet, I connected with these stories and when some childhood mishap befell me and mum would say “never mind, there are bigger losses at sea,” I understood that there were. In connection with the 125th anniversary, it is a Fisherrow story told to me by my granda’ Billy (William

Crissie Watson and Billy Thorburn

Thorburn) which touches me personally. In 1881, Billy’s father Archie was a fisherman of 25. Married for two years, to 24-year-old fishwife Jane Ritchie, they had a one-year-old daughter Margaret Thorburn. From work as a fisherman, Archie went on to own boats and then became Harbour Master at Fisherrow. However, for him and his family, life was forever to be shaped by his experience when fishing out at sea. Buffeted by terrible winds, Archie’s boat tried to run for safety. There were no radios for help, no satellite navigation and no modern lifejackets. Bravely, his crew fought to maintain control but in a tumultuous sea they were at its mercy. Suddenly, a tremendous wave rose up and lashed the deck. Archie was knocked from his feet. He tried desperately to hold on but the boat slid beneath him and he was washed overboard. Unable to swim, weighted down by heavy boots, woollen Guernsey and thick clothes, he could do nothing. Onboard, the crew saw Archie’s plight but were powerless to help. The wave carried him away and down into the water as his lungs fought for air. Then,

at that critical moment, the sea began to rise. Like a piece of flotsam it lifted him, higher and higher until, with one almighty breaking wave, the sea flung Archie on deck. The water poured off and he was wedged onboard. Archie’s experience was never forgotten. For me the reality is, ‘if’ he had not been thrown back, he would not have fathered my granda’ and he my mum, Jean Ritchie Thorburn McMillan, to whom I dedicate this article. But for the power and direction of a wave, I would not be here and you would not be reading this story now. I recall as a child, I could not imagine how Archie went to sea again or at least, why he didn’t learn to swim. It was explained to me that swimming would not have made a difference. The moral of the story was to realise the fragility and transience of life, that ‘when it’s your time, it’s your time.’ A person should appreciate what they are given and should always strive to make the best of their abilities and extend kindness and compassion to those they meet on their journey as ‘there, but for the grace of God go I.’ After Archie’s survival, the Fisherrow

memorial was erected. Eventually, in sight of the stone, Archie was buried. He had lived a full life to 86, fathering eight more children including his son my granda,’ head of a line of over 30. I illustrate the details to indicate the difference of just ONE fisherman’s survival. In 1881, what an unimaginable blow rippled out across the world from the loss of 189 men and their future children. As I grew up, inevitably, I gained great respect for the sea and all who earned their living from this most dangerous of professions. Collecting donations around the doors in cans – as my mum Jean, brother Archie, sisters Lily, Chris and Wilma had done before – my sister and I continued the tradition to raise funds for the charities: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Royal National Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen. Born into a hardworking culture, I was taught and took on the belief to shape one’s own destiny by the fruits of their labours. For me life was easy, but in my mum’s time, each child contributed to the household. At 11, Jean earned a steady income from her ‘first job.’ The proud owner of a wooden barrow box, she delivered to the local chip shop fresh fish and mussels given to her by her father and brother. From that time, Jean recounts many funny stories.

Crissie Watson dressed in the Fisherrow costume, singing with the Fishwives Choir

Jane Ritchie Thorburn McMillan (Jean)

In one, she told me of her first experience learning to catch fish with a line. Having helped her brother bait hundreds of hooks, he tied a stone to one end and passed the other to her. A small child, she took the line but then without warning, he hurled the stone out with all his strength to the sea. Feeling the line tug in her hand, she opened it to look. How she laughs as she recalls his horrified amazement as the entire baited line flew past them.

The Fishermen's walk - Shona McMillan as a child taking part in a procession in the 1970's

Years later, no children I knew worked so young in Fisherrow but I learnt so much on my visits to my grandparents in Fisher’s Wynd. Whether trips to the harbour or to enjoy a Luca’s ice-cream by the sea at the ‘back o’ Downie’s’ – all outings were peppered by funny and educational stories which connected me to the fishing community. Indeed, some of my most enjoyable memories centre on the Fishermen’s Walk. Vividly I recall the almost overflowing excitement and pride I would feel as I joined in with the crowds. Dressed in Fisherrow colours I walked and danced along in song. Coming together to celebrate, the women reflected a brightly coloured sea of traditional costumes handed down, from generation to generation. Singing songs taught to me by my granny, Crissie Watson from the Fishwives Choir, I soaked up the music. Crissie was well known for her ability to get a tune out of anything. In their house a piano was placed, so when impromptu ceilidhs began, the door would be thrown open and all could join in. Instruments came and went, given away to admirers; accordions, an old church organ and even a banjo. Looking back today, I am a selftaught fiddle player who plays by ear and has travelled around the world through music. Was it my gran who inspired me? Before television and DVDs, how much easier it seems to have been to come together and share in the impromptu gatherings that were so often held. Selling fish and mussels landed at Newhaven, Fisherrow, Morrison’s Haven, Cockenzie and Port Seton, families mixed along the coast and were closely interrelated. At one point or another, in every lifeboat crew from Fisherrow to North Berwick, at least one Thorburn served. The sense of tradition was not lost on me. In particular, the strong attributes of the fishwives were held up as role models to aspire to. These women pursued their own careers financially independent to men. When they married, they continued

to be known by their maiden names and were highly respected for their hard work. It was the women who controlled family finances and when the men went off to follow the shoals of herring, it was the women who organised social activities. Through events, such as fisher ladies golfing tournaments and football matches, they enjoyed a form of female emancipation described as 200 years ahead of its time.

Peggy Livingstone and Shona McMillan

Still today, that strength of character exists in former fishwives such as Peggy Livingstone, now 92. A fishwife like her mother before her, I see in Peggy a formidable amount of grit, tenacity and determination, which make her highly respected by all who know her. For myself, I benefit so much from her stories. Passionate are those who seek to document and preserve this wealth of cultural information for the benefit of today’s young and tomorrow’s future generations. What an important part in Scotland’s story is held by those from Newhaven to East Lothian and Eyemouth. Working together, 2006 to 2007 could be a time to celebrate these proud coastal communities where adversity struck 125 years before.

If you have a story to tell, please contact Shona McMillan at EAST LOTHIAN LIFE 32

1/6 People of the Sea by Shona McMillan  

First People of the Sea article written to commemorate the 125 anniversary of the Eyemouth Fishing Disaster, 14.10.06 (Article dedicated to...

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