Caught in the middle
Last week the Mary R was a cherished fishing boat at anchor in a village bay on the east coast of Harris. This morning the Mary R is a wreck, torn from her mooring by last night’s Force 9 gale and tossed like a child’s toy across East Loch Tarbert. Somehow she survived, past reefs and islets, to fetch up at last on a skerry off Scalpay.
"The coastguard won’t go near her," sighs a friend, "because there’s no one on board, no one at risk. Now Finlay Ewen and his family, they’ve been talking about going out, seeing if they can do something, but Kenny’s in the coastguard, and all the coastguard boys, they’re telling them not to be so daft, not to endanger their own lives."
You look out east. East Loch Tarbert, largely sheltered, is sulky molten lead; CalMac’s Hebrides, stormbound last night, is stormbound still.
You look west, to West Loch Tarbert and the Atlantic beyond. What is momentarily visible resembles a bowl of whipped cream.
But the man who retrieves the Mary R is entitled to her full salvage value. Effectively, he becomes the owner of the Mary R, which is worth, according to the friend, about 55,000. If Finlay Ewen and clan are presently minded to put safety first, it’s likely they will not be so minded for very long.
While the fishermen of north-east Scotland, who have been so vocal in the press over the last few months, believe in a national Scottish fishing industry, to those living on the west coast there is no such thing. To Hebridean fishermen, entrusting Scottish fishery policy to north-east dictates is as sensible as putting Count Dracula in charge of a blood bank. To them, east-coasters have already done very well, building ever bigger and faster ships to catch ever more fish by ever more industrial fishing methods to sell for ever larger sums.
The distrust of anything connected to the east coast affects more than just the fishing. It has traditionally been an SNP heartland. (Alex Salmond had been MP for Banff and Buchan since 1987.) This plays straight into the hands of Western Isles MSP Alasdair Morrison. He cannot be complacent about re-election for Labour in May. The Nationalists notionally carried the Western Isles in the last European poll, and in June 2001 they gave Morrison’s Westminster colleague, Calum MacDonald, a wake-up call.
But Morrison holds the fishing card, and is working hard to protect the islanders from "mass diversion of effort", which they believe would happen if the east-coasters had more legislation piled upon them by Europe, took up prawn fishing wholesale and sailed round to the Outer Hebrides. And Morrison can expect to be given every freedom to manoeuvre by his party. The argument also enjoys a shove from history.
There is a historical dislike of the east-coaster in the Hebrides, and the term has unfairly become a byword for a man ruthless, unfriendly and on the make. It all started over herring. In their heyday, ports such as Stornoway, Lochboisdale and Castlebay throbbed with activity and laughed with easy money. Traditionally, islanders secured herring in great drift-nets. Good herring were secured by their gills; little herring swam through the nets and escaped to grow, breed and prosper. But there was also a significant trade in white fish, caught on baited long-lines laid from little boats.
Then the trawlers came. By the 1930s their depredations were a serious problem. They regularly and unlawfully flouted the three-mile limit; their bosses - not from Buchan, but from big English ports like Fleetwood and Hull - lobbied successfully to block the creation of exclusive fishing zones for island men. Things became so bad that Compton MacKenzie, novelist and Barra resident, joined forces with John Lorne Campbell - later Laird of Canna - to form the Western Isles Sea League. This sought to protect the "crofter-fisherman", who was not only seeing his fishing grounds laid waste but whose tackle, drift-nets and long-lines were being destroyed by passing trawls.
It was 1964 before Parliament finally acted, but by then the damage was done. Within living memory, the haddock of Broad Bay kept scores of men in gainful employment. It is doubtful today if there are enough haddock in Broad Bay to fill a single box.
The road from Tarbert to the Kyles of Scalpay is only six miles long but it is winding, precipitous and at times terrifying. The wind shakes the car on every other bend, and the Minch, below, looks like something out of The Perfect Storm. There was a day when, to get to Scalpay you had to dash to be in time for the ferry and, at the top of the brae, you would flash your headlights in case Umag and the boys backed the Canna out of the slip without you.
But the bridge was opened in December 1997 by Ciorstag Ruaraidh, Scalpay’s oldest resident, and the Canna sailed off to another corner of the CalMac empire. A few months later, Tony Blair arrived to open the bridge "officially". He wanted to see Ciorstag Ruaraidh. She politely declined. Ciorstag Ruaraidh is still living, still bakes her own scones, still chivvies her octogenarian offspring and, at the age of 107, still has no intention of meeting the Prime Minister.
Today, the trembling Scalpay bridge is officially closed. You know this because flashing lights tell you so. As there is not even a token barrier to stop you, you drive across anyway, for you never died a winter yet.
Even in this frightful weather there is an unmistakable prosperity to Scalpay, with its fine houses, immaculate gardens and sleek cars. The little island retains a considerable population and a bustling, almost suburban character. These are resourceful people, combining Harris guile with Lewis nerve, and they have made a rich harvest from the sea. Scalpay’s success is a rare Hebridean good-luck story that shows what can be done with vision and hard work.
The road to Cuddy Point comes to an end at a fish-farm base and a fine modern pier, and when you step out of the car the gale screams in your ears and East Loch Tarbert foams by in lurid, ribboned gree. The sea smashes on the rocks and up onto the road. Up ahead on a reef not too far away, wedged and forlorn, is the helpless Mary R.
You go to visit Critical, father of the intrepid Finlay Ewen, to talk about fishing. But Critical is not in. Mrs Critical is warm, but nervous. Her man and Finlay Ewen have gone to look at the boat.
"Gone to see the boat from the road?"
"They went out to look at the boat," she says. The house shudders in the wind as you catch her meaning. If your men had sailed forth to do something about the Mary R in this tempest, you would be nervous too.
Fishing in the Western Isles is a misnomer; today no wetfish are landed in commercial quantities. Little creel-boats with warm names catch a variety of shellfish: lobster, brown crab, velvet crab, and that delightful crustacean which has a host of names - scampi, langoustine, Dublin Bay prawn - but which the West Highland Free Press describes, with dull biological accuracy, as nephrops.
It is still a perilous living, wherever you come from. Though boats seldom venture far from shore, every few years there is a tragedy. Accidents are frequent. A few months ago Farquhar ‘Fachie’ MacLennan, a cheerful 23-year-old from Seilebost, was yanked overboard as his crab-boat chugged around the Monach Isles laying creels. The creels hurtled to the sea-bed, hauling Fachie with them. He went down and down and down, choking; freed his foot; tried to grab the line as it began to winch back, and finally - deliberately - let a coil crunch tight into his hand. Fachie remembers debating that last, suicidal breath when he saw the sunlight glitter on the surface.
He had been under the water for nearly four minutes; on the long flight to Glasgow they ran out of morphine. Surgeons managed to save half of Fachie’s hand; flexion may return to the two surviving fingers.
After the devastating slump of herring in the 1970s - the fish seem, presently, to have vanished - the boys of Stornoway and Lochs, Bernera and Berneray, Scalpay and Grimsay and Eriskay have worked hard to win their living from their own waters and ensure there is a trade left to bequeath their children.
Hebridean fishers have always had foresight. Not that they bow to environmentalists; the men of Grimsay, for instance, make a good trade out of scallop-dredging in the near Atlantic, but have a voluntary weekend ban and argue with evidence that the scallop beds seem as fruitful as ever.
It has also meant imagination, like the V-notching scheme for lobsters. It has long been unlawful to sell a "berried" lobster - a pregnant female studded with fertilised spawn. Still, any unscrupulous fisher could remove the eggs with a stiff brush and sell the lobster on, with no one the wiser - ta-ta, baby lobsters.
Then V-notching started. Today you store your berried lobsters separately and take them to market. You are paid for them as normal; a notch is cut out of Mrs Lobster’s tail with a tool - this takes years to grow out - and you restore her and offspring to the sea on your next outing. If you catch a
V-notched lobster, you return it forthwith, for no one will buy it.
So what will happen if, as the islanders believe, east-coast boats turn to their waters?
The West Highland Free Press offers a less than balanced opinion. Its December editorial proclaimed: "The basic principle on which the north-east fishermen and their political mouthpieces operate is that their predicament, whatever it may be at any given time, is the fault of anybody and everybody but themselves... Indeed (we are now told without a blush), they are conservationists without peer.
"The Scottish media have never understood that the fishing industry is not monolithic but a series of local or regional industries. The inconvenient fact that the greatest damage to other fragile Scottish fishing communities has been done not by the Spaniards or the Germans but by the brave boys of the north-east is ignored because it does not fit the mythology."
AT Cuddy Point the storm waxes even worse. There is rain in such rods you would not put a cat out. But a car comes. Then another car comes, and another. It takes a moment before you realise that not one but two boats are circling the hapless Mary R.
By now the shrieking sea resembles not as much whipped cream as a wild pavlova, and the Mary R is perched on a reef not three hundred yards from a very solid Scalpay. There are the Criticals on the Watchful II, and there is the Glas Islander, a sturdy fish-farm work-boat, about the helpless Mary R like cannibals round the pot. Engine failure for either means perhaps a minute to repair the fault before boat and crew are beaten to death on the Scalpay shoreline.
Quite a crowd is gathering, folk lining Cuddy Point quay in a fleet of Audis, BMWs and vans to watch the fun. There are faces ruddy and piratical. There is Filligan; there is Tearlach Mor; Margaret and Kenny and little Finlay, puffing on his dummy.
The Criticals are doughty seamen but the Watchful II has a fatal disadvantage; she is fibre-hulled, while the Glas Islander is steel. The latter can survive a dunt; the Watchful II cannot, and Finlay Ewen cannot imperil his own boat.
Nevertheless, waltzing crazily, mindful of the reef, the Mary R and their rival, and not unduly mindful of the salvage, the Criticals seem to get the first rope on the casualty and pull her off the reef. The craft wallow some yards inshore. Two lads wrestle with the line at the Watchful II’s bow.
And then, in casual catastrophe, the handrail breaks and with it the line, and the Mary R is once again the spoil of the seas. The Glas Islander closes in. In 30 seconds the drama is over. The Mary R is secure again, and the triumphant fish-farmers chug swiftly to the pier with their prize.
The Watchful II heads for the dignity of the North Harbour with rather more speed than is strictly necessary. Men gaze at her receding stern. "Wouldn’t you love to be in her wheelhouse now?" says somebody.
There was good fishing for one boat in the Hebrides today. Later, you learn that Finlay Ewen has taken defeat well. "You win some, you lose some," he says in rueful philosophy.
Morrison and Duncan MacInnes of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association have moved swiftly to safeguard local interests. The savage whitefish restrictions from Europe have no impact here, and as most Hebridean fishermen will not break the Sabbath, the new 25-day restriction per month is academic. In addition, Morrison seems to be on the brink of pulling off a minor triumph; winning a reform of the Inshore Fisheries Act to create an six-mile exclusion zone around the Western Isles.
So it will be Western Isles shellfish for Western Isles men and, in addition, we are shortly to see the establishment of a regional management committee, representing all local fishing interests and able to decree specific conservation measures. That is a new outworking of modern European emphasis on "subsidiarity" and tacit recognition that the old Common Fisheries Policy has been a disaster. But it also reflects local-industry-led initiatives to preserve shellfish for posterity - and a tough, self-help ethic born in the days when fishermen had to look after themselves, for politicians would not. It is a sweet end, too, to impotent decades watching strange boats plunder the seas.
Not, this week, as the western gale powers on and little boats with names ike Harmony, Majestic and Watchful II sway in idle safety by their jetties, that the fishers of the Western Isles are in any mood to gloat; or that Morrison would fret long if he were ignominiously discharged by island voters. He and Farquhar MacLennan and Finlay Ewen have a certain perspective on things.
As an old Harris man said 40 years ago, after Scalpay boys braved a ferocious storm to rescue three survivors from a wrecked east-coast trawler, "Our men were brought up in the school that taught them that life was precious and the soul was priceless."
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west