Fife fishing exhibition brings Anstruther to life

Anstruther's fishing history will come to life in a special historical event. Picture: Donald MacLeod /
Anstruther's fishing history will come to life in a special historical event. Picture: Donald MacLeod /
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SCOTTISH maritime history comes alive for one night only as residents of a Fife fishing village become the curators of a very special exhibition.

On 2 April 1801, a Scottish nurse called Mary Buick found herself aboard a warship, as cannonballs ripped apart flesh and timber amid the mayhem of a naval battle. It was the Battle of Copenhagen and a British fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker was at war with Danish and Norwegian warships off the coast of Denmark. Sir Hyde’s second-in-command that day was vice-admiral Horatio Nelson in his flagship, HMS Elephant, and when the smoke cleared around 3pm, the British fleet emerged victorious.

Some 2,000 people lost their lives, but as Danish batteries pounded HMS Ardent, Buick was in labour. Ardent lost 31 men but Buick survived, as did her husband Thomas Watson who was also serving on the ship. They named their baby girl Mary Watson Junior.

Watson was a sailor from Cellardyke. Buick followed him into the navy after he was press-ganged and shortly after their experience at Copenhagen the Fife couple were transferred to Nelson’s new flagship HMS Victory. They would go on to bear witness to the most famous sea battle in British history.

During the Battle of Trafalgar Watson was in charge of a gun crew while Buick tended to the wounded, but their daughter was safely below deck in the care of another sailor from Cellardyke called Malcolm McRuvie.

Local legend tells that Buick helped to prepare Nelson’s corpse for transportation back to England after he was killed. It’s an extraordinary tale, but just one of many that will be told tonight when the East Neuk community of Cellardyke transforms the historic Fife fishing village into a living museum.

For one night only the past will come to life as residents in three streets act as curators and storytellers in a walking exhibition called Home from the Sea.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum (SFM) is behind the project which will be launched in Anstruther, before taking in three of Cellardyke’s thoroughfares – James Street, John Street and George Street – finishing up at The Haven which overlooks a harbour dating back to the 15th century.

Simon Hayhow, the director of the museum, says the idea behind Home from the Sea was that local people would become “community curators” by exhibiting objects and photos from the museum and researching and telling stories relating to their homes, fishing and the sea.

The idea came from artist Tim Fitzpatrick whom Hayhow approached with a view to applying for a grant from a Museums Galleries Scotland scheme called Iconic Artists in Iconic Places. In 2011, Fitzpatrick worked on a similar arts venture in Orkney when Neolithic objects relating to Skara Brae were temporarily relocated from Tankerness House in Kirkwall and exhibited on a beach.

Hayhow says: “I like the idea of taking objects out of museums and Cellardyke was appropriate because many of the museum’s items came from these homes. There is also a tradition in the East Neuk whereby artists open up their houses to the public so Home from the Sea taps into that idea of community involvement.”

Around 20 residents have agreed to become curators including physics lecturer Tom Brown who has lived in John Street for around eight years. After carrying out research into the history of his home Brown discovered that Mary Buick once owned it. He even has the original deeds dating back to 1827 featuring Buick’s signature, and he was astonished to learn about her presence at two famous sea battles. He said: “If you look at the 1851 census, Mary Watson, (Buick’s daughter who lived in Brown’s house), actually gives her place of birth as ‘Aboard HMS Ardent, 64 gun ship, at sea’. And it appears that the money to buy this house came from Thomas Watson’s share of the prize money from the Battle of Trafalgar. The other thing I found out about my home is that in 1871 there were 21 people living there – which is just staggering,” Brown says.

Cellardyke dates back to the 15th century when it was originally called Nether Kilrenny (Scots for lower Kilrenny) due to its coastal location just south of the village of Kilrenny. By the 16th century the village was developing as Kilrenny’s port but its modern name is said to have evolved from ‘Sil’erdykes’ (silver walls), a local description derived from the glint of fish drying in nets hung over the harbour’s walls, known then as Skinfast Haven. During the 19th century, Cellardyke became one of Scotland’s major ports and by the 1860s the town was thriving with catches of cod and herring salted and smoked by curers before being transported to restaurants down south.

The fishermen and their kin were hardy, courageous souls, but fishing the North Sea was fraught with danger and over the centuries many people lost their lives in the perilous seas they relied upon to survive.

The Black Decade, for example – as documented in Harry D Watson’s book Kilrenny and Cellardyke – saw 30 local sailors die including a crew who drowned on 3 November 1848 after a fleet set out to sea from Cellardyke on an “ominously dark and blustery morning of mist and sleet”.

Watson wrote: “before nightfall one boat, the Johns and Mary, had gone down, taking with her John Smith, James, Thomas and John Fleming, Henry Reid, James Dick, David Birrell, and James Dickson. Fleming and Birrell each left a pregnant widow.” According to Watson, the disaster left 26 children fatherless.

The vast majority of locals (nicknamed Dykers) back then earned their living from the fishing industry and while most men went to sea, most of the women cured and gutted fish as well as making nets and oilskins.

According to Robert Prescott, vice president of the SFM Trust, Cellardyke seamen and their colleagues in other East Neuk ports were the “aristocrats of the fishing industry”. He says: “They were first-class fishermen who would be engaged in fishing 12 months of the year. Further north, people would fish for herring during the summer, but in winter they would be labourers on the land. In the East Neuk, they’d catch herring in the summer, but also go to sea for white fish during winter, so Fife was very special.

“Cellardyke’s three bustling streets at that time would have provided a microcosm of the fishing industry and Home from the Sea aims to awaken people to this heritage.”

Objects from the museum will be temporarily relocated to people’s homes and residents have also chosen a photograph from SFM’s archive which has been transformed into a giant illuminated image placed in one of their windows to light up the village. Tom Brown has chosen a barrel as his artefact because Mary Watson Junior’s husband was a cooper, and an old photograph of a deep-sea diver will mark his home on John Street.

His neighbour Jake Brown (no relation) has chosen a model boat to display in his house while in George Street, Jim and Jane Allen will explain to visitors how their home was once an oilskin factory. On the eastern corner of James Street, Sean Dooley already has one of the museum’s finest images in his window. The black-and-white picture shows John Reid and two children repairing canvas buoys in Shore Street beside the harbour. Dooley – who belongs to an artistic group called The Red Field, with Tim Fitzpatrick – was commissioned by SFM to create a photographic record for Home from the Sea and his black-and-white portraits of modern day “Dykers” will be displayed at the museum. Dooley has chosen a harpoon to exhibit in his home.

He says: “It has been my favourite object in the fisheries museum for a long time. When a whale is harpooned it does everything it can to get away – twists, turns, dives. In the process of this the harpoon gets twisted like a spring. For me, the object communicates the visceral nature of whaling better than anything else I’ve ever seen.”

One of the most compelling stories chosen by Clare Checkland of John Street is the tale of the Tahitian princess who ended up living in Anstruther.

Princess Titaua of Tahiti was born in the South Seas, but after marrying a Scotsman she gave up her royal life, and travelled some 10,000 miles across the world to live in Fife. Her name was actually Tetuanui but she was known to family and friends as Titaua, pronounced Tee-at-oo-aa. The princess was born on 3 November 1842 in Tahiti, the first child of a marriage between an Englishman called Alexander Salmon who had left the grime of Dickensian London for the paradise of the Pacific island, and the sister of Tahiti’s Queen Pomare IV.

The queen adopted the child and gave her the royal name of Tetuanui-reia-ite-raiatea which means The Great God whose power extends to the heavens. At the age of 14, Princess Titaua married John Brander from Elgin who owned the largest trading house in the South Pacific. According to Titaua’s biographer, author Fiona Mackintosh, who wrote From the South Seas to the North Sea: The Story of Princess Titaua of Tahiti – Brander had a finger in “every commercial pie in Tahiti” including coconut, coffee and orange plantations. Mackintosh describes the princess as “captivatingly beautiful” with almond-shaped eyes. She spoke several languages and is said to have had a remarkable effect on men, including Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, who once presented her with a diamond pendant and a ring as a token of his admiration. She also made an impression on Robert Louis Stevenson and the Scottish painter Constance Gordon Cumming who said she was astonished when the princess talked with great knowledge about Scotland.

After Brander died in 1877 Titaua married another Scot called George Darsie and in 1878 they moved to Anstruther. At that time, Anstruther was enjoying a fishing boom and was home to the largest fleet on the east coast of Scotland – 607 sail drifters, 240 boats fishing with hook and line, and 116 yawls for crab and lobster – and the industry employed some 7,000 people in the area. The princess’s new home was a far cry from her Tahitian existence but she apparently adapted well to life by the stormy waters of the Firth of Forth. She kept herself busy with church and charity work and apparently always referred to herself as Mrs Darsie, never using her royal title. Princess Titaua died in 1898 at the age of 56 years old. She is buried in the graveyard of St Adrian’s Church in Anstruther a few miles from Mary Buick’s grave in a cemetery at Kilrenny. But tonight the two women and the story of their community will live again.

• Home from the Sea begins tonight at 7pm. For more information see