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Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Scottish fishing's Black Friday
Eyemouth 1880
The fishing port of Eyemouth in 1880
One hundred and eighty nine men died in Scotland's worst fishing disaster when a hurricane thundered down over Berwickshire on October 14 1881.

All but 70 came from the small town of Eyemouth.

The men sailed, as they had done many time before, in spite of warnings of dire weather to come.

They took a chance.

The harbour at Eyemouth was inadequate and tidal, and to make a decent living the fishermen fell into the habit of braving the heaviest seas to supply a hungry market.

A memorial remembers the massive loss of life
The port had long been identified as ripe for development, but while other places from Wick to Dunbar received tens of thousands of pounds in state aid to extend their piers, Eyemouth got nothing.

The town and the harbour did not qualify because the fishermen were in debt - to the Church of Scotland.

After the Kirk split in 1843 the minister at Eyemouth tried to revive an ancient right to a tithe - a tenth - of the landings on the quay.

Such demands had long since been abandoned elsewhere, and the men refused to hand over any of their hard won earnings.

Force a settlement

In a stand-off lasting more than 20 years the fisher folk were taken to court, had their goods impounded and many were sent to jail, but they resolutely refused to give in.

They rallied under a banner which proclaimed 'In Liberty's ennobling cause our fisher lads stand Weal And Gloriously have won the Right of Freedom to the Creel !'.

Eventually after riots and serious disturbances the Lord Advocate intervened to force a settlement.

The fishermen agreed to buy out the Kirk's right to the fish tithe, but the debt was not redeemed until 1878.

Old fishermen
Fishing was the town's main industry
Until that was done Eyemouth was unable to apply for some of the generous grants dolled out to other, perhaps less well advantaged havens.

The pull to these stations was strong, but so was the community spirit along the Berwickshire coast.

So, the people stayed and took risks with the sea, confident that their time would come.

In August 1881 a major expansion plan was at last sent to Whitehall.

Six weeks later, while this was being studied, the fleet took one risk too many and sailed into the teeth of a hurricane.

Wholesale loss of life

October 14 1881 would leave a third of the men of Eyemouth dead.

It would leave 92 widows and 263 fatherless children.

But for the mid-Victorian madness of the fish tithe dispute, Eyemouth would doubtless have got the harbour that would have prevented the carnage of the disaster.

Because of the wholesale loss of life on a day still remembered as Black Friday the port was deemed a bad risk.

Herring girls
Women were employed curing herring
The deep-water facilities went instead to Peterhead, and Eyemouth was left as a town to die.

But the survivors of the storm struggled on, and fishing is yet the predominant industry in a burgh which has only recently regained the population of 1881 - a year that should have been the town's annus mirabilis.

A year that left a people in despair.

Peter Aitchison tells the story of Black Friday
"The picture today is very different to that 120 years ago."
See also:

31 Aug 01 | Scotland
Fishing pay-off scheme opens
10 Oct 00 | Scotland
Deadly Harvester: transcript
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