Memorial to 189 Eyemouth fishermen drowned in day of tragedy

It was the close-knit Scottish coastal community that lost 189 men at sea in a single day.

Sculptor Jill Watson with her Women And Bairns memorial at Eyemouth harbour. Photograph: Toby Williams
Sculptor Jill Watson with her Women And Bairns memorial at Eyemouth harbour. Photograph: Toby Williams

Now the 78 widows and 182 children left without a father in the wake of the Eyemouth fishing disaster are being honoured with a major work of art overlooking the seafront.

Descendants of the fishing families who lost their loved ones 135 years ago this month are expected to attend the unveiling of the five-metre long bronze sculpture.

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Created by artist Jill Watson, the £250,000 work of art for Eyemouth Bantry, which overlooks the harbour, depicts and names each mother and child who was directly affected.

The work of art, entitled Widows And Bairns, will be officially unveiled on its plinth on the 135th anniversary of the disaster on Friday. It has been completed ten years after the publication of a book telling the true story of the disaster through the accounts of fishermen who were caught up in the “Black Friday” storm.

On the morning of 14 October, 1881, the vast majority of the fishing boats on Scotland’s North Sea coast were tied up in port. But skippers from Eyemouth, along with fishermen from other nearby ports Cove, St Abbs and Burnmouth, ignored the warnings and set at out dawn.

By midday they were in the teeth of a severe storm for which their wooden boats were no match. They fled for the shelter of the port but many never made it. Their vessels either overturned or were dashed on the Hurkar Rocks at the entrance to Eyemouth harbour.

Hysterical women and children looked on helplessly as their menfolk were thrown overboard and swallowed up by the sea. Family members watched as their husbands, brothers and fathers drowned before their eyes.

Watson said: “It took a long time to do the research into the different families because each figure on the memorial has a name and age of an actual person who was affected by the disaster.

“I hope the message of the sculpture is really about the community sticking together, helping each other and carrying on.

“At the time, there was a lot of poverty in Eyemouth and orphanages offered to take the children, but they were all kept there and a relief fund was set up. The memorial is really about the tenacity of the women after such a tragedy.

The creation of the new memorial has been spearheaded by the 125 Memorial Association, which was set up to instigate a series of events and memorial projects. Backers include Scottish Borders Council, the European Fisheries Fund, the Scottish Fishermen’s Trust and the Anglo Scottish Fishermen’s Association.

Jim Evans, chairman of the 125 Memorial Association, said: “We are delighted to have so many descendants dedicated in Jill Watson’s remarkable and powerful sculpture. This will be the culmination of over £250,000 fund-raising activities by the association to honour the widows and bairns left behind by Scotland’s worst fishing disaster.

“It was them, not the drowned men, who regenerated the communities so devastatingly affected. We believe this sculpture is so powerful that it will be a great attraction. It will be an economic and cultural asset to the Scottish Borders and the whole of Scotland.”