Scottish Borders travel - Eyemouth's 'widows and bairns', the inn with Robert Burns link and feeding seals

I do like to be beside the seaside

The views out to sea from the villages on cliff edges on the east coast of the Scottish Borders could have kept me transfixed for hours.

I would occasionally spot a boat, maybe a fishing vessel or cargo ship. Either way it would be a tiny speck, drifting solitarily in the vast North Sea. It reminded me of how small, powerless and insignificant you can feel when looking at the expanse of nature. I was just a mere, solitary speck myself on this cliffside.

The view from the cliffside on the east coast of the Scottish Borders, a few miles north of Eyemouth The view from the cliffside on the east coast of the Scottish Borders, a few miles north of Eyemouth
The view from the cliffside on the east coast of the Scottish Borders, a few miles north of Eyemouth | Katharine Hay

But at some of these view points, it wasn’t long before you felt like you weren’t alone. ‘Widows and Bairns’ statues by Edinburgh-based artist Jill Watson are dotted about this coastline.

Widows and Bairns statue, by Jill Watson, in Eyemouth Widows and Bairns statue, by Jill Watson, in Eyemouth
Widows and Bairns statue, by Jill Watson, in Eyemouth | Katharine Hay

They each represent the individual women and children who lost their husbands and fathers in the Eyemouth Fishing Disaster in October 1881. A ferocious storm battered the east coast, which left 189 fishermen dead. They drowned just offshore within sight of the families who were lined up at harbours, anxiously waiting for them to come back home.

Because of the stormy conditions and rough seas, these women and children could do nothing, but watch their loved ones drown. Reports say of the 189 who died, 129 were from Eyemouth, 24 from Burnmouth, 11 from Cove and three from Coldingham, all nearby.

Looking closely at the frantic and distressed body language sculpted into these figurines gave me goosebumps. They are incredibly moving and emit a haunting reminder of the power of the sea, which just moments earlier I was finding so peaceful.

The majority of these widows, 73, and 351 fatherless children were from Eyemouth, where the largest of these Watson statues is. Research has uncovered there were actually many more children affected by this fishing disaster, but they were not recorded with the Church of Scotland at the time.

I camped on the outskirts of the town on a cliff edge above the sea. After the sun had set, the sea looked black in the darkness and I saw a white figure drifting across the water down below. Camping alone at night, for several days in a row, the mind can start to play tricks a bit and I thought ‘is it the ghost of a sailor?’ But on a closer look, I could see it was a swan making its way towards the rocks just below where I sat looking out.

Drying tent on a fence after camping on the cliff edges near Eyemouth Drying tent on a fence after camping on the cliff edges near Eyemouth
Drying tent on a fence after camping on the cliff edges near Eyemouth | Katharine Hay

In need of a shower and a break from the tent the next day, I checked into Eyemouth’s Cutty Sark Inn for a night. A few friendly residents I met on my way there raised an eyebrow when I mentioned where I was staying. Unsure as to how the place was going to be, aside from seeing a few pictures online when booking, I headed in. I was met with a warm ‘are you Katharine?’, followed by a ‘come, come, come, I’ll show you your room’.

Sea views from a room in the Cutty Sark Inn  Sea views from a room in the Cutty Sark Inn
Sea views from a room in the Cutty Sark Inn | Katharine Hay

The place had a level of intimacy that you would only get in these smaller towns, so intimate my door wouldn’t lock and I spent the night with it left open as if I was spending the night in a friend’s spare room. I was also offered to have my washing done if needed. I did ask for the lock to be looked at, but the buzz of the bar downstairs on a Friday night kept the team busy. Propping my rucksack against the door should any merry guest stumble into the wrong room by accident, I made the most of the hotel’s amazing sea views and sat on the windowsill of their large, side-swing windows that opened fully.

I ended up spending three nights here. The bar seemed popular for locals, but also visitors and people travelling for work, from windfarm servicemen to prawn fishermen who had docked their vessels in the harbour for the night.

A 1922 copy of the Northern Mail found under the floorboards at Cutty Sark A 1922 copy of the Northern Mail found under the floorboards at Cutty Sark
A 1922 copy of the Northern Mail found under the floorboards at Cutty Sark | Katharine Hay

On my final day there, Simon Sawers, the owner, told me about some of the history behind the Inn, which, just last year, was named best pub in the Borders as part of local MP John Lamont’s competition to crown the top watering hole in the region. He showed me a copy of the Northern Mail from May 3, 1922, which he found under the floorboards after purchasing the building in 2020.

It had headlines including ‘Russian problem’, ‘immigration bill’ and ‘battle in Ireland’, which made me feel it could have been written today. He said the building dates back to the 18th century as an inn, and welcomed guests including Robbie Burns, from whose poem "Tam O' Shanter" originates the name of the Cutty Sark tea clipper ship. The vessel was built in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1869, and on its first voyage carried “large amounts of wine, spirits and beer”, and came back from Shanghai loaded with tea - an appropriate name to steal for a hospitality business.

'Please do not feed the seagulls'...'feed the seals' 'Please do not feed the seagulls'...'feed the seals'
'Please do not feed the seagulls'...'feed the seals' | Katharine Hay

On my way out of the town, I walked along the harbour and saw a sign saying ‘please do not feed the seagulls’, but then a trailer next to it saying ‘feed the seals.’ I did wonder how they manage to co-ordinate that when throwing fish bits, which I saw you can buy from the trailer, to the mammals while somehow deterring the feathered friends from swooping down.

I didn’t see the feeding in action, but I did spot a small bob of seals lounging on their backs on some rocks in the sun with their pectoral fins gently resting on their enormous bellies. It seemed appropriate there’s a restaurant in Eyemouth called The Contented Sole opposite where they relax.

Comments

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.