Obituary: Willie Hay, fishing industry leader

Willie Hay. Picture: ContributedWillie Hay. Picture: Contributed
Willie Hay. Picture: Contributed
Born: 7 October, 1929, in Sandend, on the Banffshire coast. Died: 18 December, 2013, aged 84

Born and raised in the small fishing village of Sandend from a well-established fishing family, it was perhaps inevitable that Willie Hay’s passion for the industry glowed so strong that it ultimately led to him becoming one of the leading lights in protecting the interests of our fishermen.

Willie’s father, Jimmy, together with his six brothers and his grandfather, sailed together on the family-owned 83ft steam drifter Industry BF 182. This name couldn’t have been more appropriate given that Willie undertook a wide variety of roles with distinction during his life-long association with the fishing industry.

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On leaving school at 13, Willie first worked on a fishing boat ferry based in Scapa Flow, before joining the steam drifter John Watt supporting Royal Navy ships in the Clyde. On returning home, Willie became a cook on the 86ft steam drifter Onward BF 919 and later Olive Tree FR 321, fishing out of Yarmouth before entering National Service with the army.

Following his discharge in 1949, Willie took a berth on the seine netter Faithful, fishing out of Kinlochbervie on the plentiful fishing grounds off Cape Wrath. In 1951, Willie joined Portsoy skipper Jimmy Sutherland on the 68ft Bezaleel BF 262 seine netting in the Moray Firth from Buckie, before transferring across to the new 65ft Bezaleel built by Buckie boat builder Thomson’s the following year.

Two years later, Willie bought his first boat, the 55ft seiner Golden Eagle WK 359, in partnership with two other young fishermen, Alex Sutherland and Joe Hay. Following six successful years based on “a lot of good luck and hard work”, Willie and Alex consolidated a partnership that would span nearly 40 years by buying the 70ft seiner Lodestar BF 241 from Lossiemouth.

Consistently good fishing encouraged Willie and Alex to start planning a new vessel. As a result, Thomson’s built the 69ft seiner Illustrious BF 438, which Willie’s wife, Sheila, named on 1 October, 1966. Featuring a 200hp Gardner engine, Illustrious cost £32,000. Despite being told “you are mad for taking such a big risk”, Illustrious quickly proved to be a sound investment, regularly fishing in Shetland waters, as well as the Stormy Bank north of Cape Wrath and east on the Ling Bank.

Rapidly escalating worries in the inshore sector associated with Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1972, together with higher lumping fees and rising fuel costs, proved to be a big milestone in Willie’s life.

With the prospect of the first and last ever national ports blockade of 1975 rapidly developing, Willie, who was already a greatly respected leader of fishermen in the Buckie area, was approached to help raise the profile of the inshore fleet.

Following a vociferous meeting at Peterhead attended by more than 1,000 local fishermen, 70 nominated skippers from across Scotland met in Aberdeen to ensure the survival of inshore fishing as an industry. An action committee was appointed, with Willie unanimously voted in as chairman. He cut an imposing figure on TV and other broadcast media.

Nearly 100 boats from the Firth of Forth and north-east Scotland sealed off Aberdeen harbour and for three days from 31 March, 1975. The blockade of Aberdeen and numerous other locations in Britain was maintained in the full glare of national media coverage. Willie was constantly in the public spotlight, while continually defusing some very tense moments with police, government ministers and threats of court action from shipping owners threatening to claim thousands of pounds in loss of earnings per day against the fleet. The blockading fishing boats did eventually disperse, but only after they had completed their original plan of action.

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The calm assurance, integrity, strong sense of purpose and passion for the industry Willie portrayed when suddenly thrust into the spotlight of the national media in 1975, propelled him into the political side of fishing immediately following his prominent role in the blockade.

Although delayed while recovering from a heart attack, Willie subsequently became chairman of the Scottish Inshore White Fish Producers’ Association, representing the interests of more than 700 boats. This appointment graduated Willie on to the board of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) at the same time as Gilbert Buchan became president. Two years later, in 1978, Willie was elected vice-president of the SFF. With the European Union embarking on crucial discussions on the long-awaited new derogation to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), Gilbert and Willie attended every meeting in Brussels where fishing was on the agenda.

Recalling this very intense period when talking to Fishing News in March 2013, Willie said: “Looking back, while the derogation signed in early 1983 was not everything we wanted, it was certainty better than what we had beforehand. The CFP derogation immediately threw the Russian and eastern European block fleets out of the North Sea, as those countries were not members of the EEC.

“At the time, these fleets were hoovering up everything that swam. This one action itself made a terrific difference to the amount of fish in the North Sea, as it prevented stocks from being annihilated.”

Willie succeeded Gilbert as president of the SFF in 1982, with the final CFP declaration being agreed in early 1983. Due to the strain of being SFF president while continuing to go to sea whenever possible, Willie and Alex decided to sell Illustrious to a Fraserburgh skipper.

Among the many highlights of his presidency was securing a meeting with then prime minister John Major, which gave Scottish fishermen the opportunity to express at the very highest government level their tremendous concern about the impact of days-at-sea restrictions being imposed on the fleet at the time.

Summarising his 11 years as SFF president, Willie concluded: “I always viewed my role as one of listening to skippers before trying to get the best deals possible in Brussels. While nothing surpasses my career at sea, I learned to enjoy the political side of the job, which I did totally gladly, mainly because through this involvement, I continued to meet some great fishermen and made many lifelong friends. While I don’t know if I did anything good, perhaps more importantly I don’t think I did anything bad.”

The dignified manner in which Willie co-ordinated the blockade was reflected a few years later with the award of an MBE in 1980, when one civil servant told him tongue-in-cheek at Buckingham Palace: “You must be the only criminal who ever got a medal – being in charge of a port blockade is one of the most unlawful things you can do.”

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Willie returned to the palace six years later to be awarded a CBE for services to the fishing industry.

Away from fishing, Willie enjoyed salmon angling and bowling. The extent of his passion for bowls is shown by the fact that he was invited to be president of the Highland Bowling Association in 1981, as well as 16 years later in the association’s centenary year in 1997, which was a great honour both for him and Portsoy Bowling Club.

Willie was also a board member of the Sea Fish Industry Authority from 1983 to 1993, and was the first fisherman to be appointed as a commissioner of the Northern Lighthouse Board, a post he held from 1989 to 1999.

Although never afraid to speak his mind, Willie frequently used his trade mark dry humour to minimise any potential confrontation, while always ensuring that his point of view was clearly stated.

In the year that the SFF marked its 40th anniversary, it was appropriate that a man who held various roles of office with the federation for 35 years was able to meet his numerous colleagues and friends at a celebratory evening at St Andrews in June and at the SFF annual dinner in Edinburgh in October.

His beloved wife Sheila – who Willie regarded as his bedrock – died in 2010. He is survived by his son James, daughter Yvonne and four grandchildren.