When the seas swallowed Scotland's fishermen

THE MEN who fish the seas around the Scottish coast know that the spectre of death and disaster is always with them. Every fishing port in the country has lost men to the sea, their names are remembered in memorials and as part of local folklore - but everyone connected with the industry accepts that the cost of harvesting the sea will forever be measured in lives.

Nothing, however, could have prepared Scotland's fishing community for the sheer horror of what happened to the men and boys of the fleet that left the small Berwickshire port of Eyemouth on 14 October 1881.

On that morning, the vast majority of the fishing boats on Scotland's North Sea coast had tied up at port. A storm was brewing - not just any storm, but a European cyclone with hurricane-force winds. The Eyemouth skippers, along with some fishermen from nearby ports, ignored the weather warnings and set out at the crack of 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 only yards away. Family members watched as their husbands, brothers and fathers drowned before their eyes.

By the time the wind subsided a total of 189 men had perished, 129 of them from Eyemouth alone. The deadly storm had left 93 women as widows and 267 children without their fathers. Of 45 boats that had gone to sea, only 26 returned. It is believed to be the worst fishing tragedy in British history. In Eyemouth it has been known since as Black Friday, the day that brought devastation to a close-knit community whose 1881 census showed there were but 2,952 residents.

The Fiery Cross was typical of the boats that sailed from Eyemouth that day. It never returned and all its crew were lost. On board were Robert Collin, 41 years old, who left a pregnant widow and four children; William Collin, 43, his brother, who left a widow and one child; Joseph Collin, 41, their cousin, who had a wife and nine children; John Cowe, 41, who left a pregnant widow and three children; Hugh Grant, 38, who also left a pregnant widow as well as five children; Robert Wilson, 34, who was single; and James Young, 24, who left a wife. Young's father was killed on another boat, as was Joseph Collin's brother and Robert Collin's brother-in-law.

Eyemouth was a town in despair, the bulk of its working male population gone at a stroke. Two days after the disaster, a shaft of light arrived in the form of the Ariel Gazelle, a fishing boat thought lost that limped into harbour with all its crew. Instead of trying to head back to port it had struck out to sea and managed to ride out the storm.

Of the 60 others who died, 24 were from the nearby village of Burnmouth, three from Coldingham Shore and 11 from Cove. Seven men from Musselburgh and 15 from Newhaven also perished.

Yet the disaster begs one simple question. Why? Why, when every fishing skipper on the east coast of Scotland had stayed at home because the weather forecast was so severe, did the men of Eyemouth decide to sail? The answer is not that these men were ill-informed or consumed by greed, but that they were desperate.

For almost a century Eyemouth had been at the centre of a bitter and often violent dispute between the fishing community and the Church of Scotland. The Church had demanded that Eyemouth skippers pay tithes - or one-tenth of their income - to the local minister. Even Robert Burns, on a visit to the town in 1787, noted: "Fishing of all kinds pay tithe at Eyemouth." No other fishing port in the country was subject to the same demands and, not unnaturally, the fishermen of Eyemouth rebelled.

The dispute came to a head in the mid-19th century with the emergence of the charismatic fishermen's leader William Spears, known locally as "The Kingfisher". He took on the Kirk with a vengeance, there were near-riots in the streets of Eyemouth, debt collectors were beaten up, the church was broken into and eventually a "Fisherman's Covenant" was drawn up. Cavalry troops and naval gunships were sent to the Scottish Borders in case things got out of hand. In 1864 it was agreed that the tithes would be dropped in favour of a lump sum to the Church.

In the meantime Eyemouth Harbour was in a state of serious disrepair. Harbour dues had not been paid while the Church was taking tithes from the men. The port, therefore, did not qualify for much-needed government repair grants and was effectively bankrupt. It was against this background that the cash-strapped Eyemouth fleet felt the need to take risks and sailed into disaster.

On the morning of the storm Spears said there was going to be an earthquake. Local people estimate it took Eyemouth 80 years to fully recover from Black Friday. A statue at the seafront commemorates those who lost their lives and a 15ft-long tapestry hangs in Eyemouth Museum. Today Eyemouth is once again the principal fishing port in the south-east of Scotland.

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