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Recalling a black day in Wick's herring history

Herring in a basket
So much fish was landed at Wick it made it Europe's largest herring port

As talks begin in Brussels on European Union rules on fishing, far north-based historical researcher Ed Campbell looks back at a boom time for Scottish fishing that brought wealth but also disaster.

The herring industry of yesteryear has been the subject for many an exposition, and rightly so.

It was a boom time of unparalleled employment, wealth and fame for the far north.

Environmentalists may point out the obvious effect that the industry had on the stocks of herring, affectionately known by fishing communities as "silver darlings".

Sad stories

However when we try to imagine the 18th, 19th and arguably the early part of the 20th Century without the income it afforded the north, it is difficult to see how emigration and poverty would not have emptied the coastal regions to an extent that would have devastated the culture irreparably.

It was during this period that the Caithness county town of Wick was referred to as "the chief seat of the herring fishing industry in Scotland" as well as the higher sounding "largest herring port in Europe".

There is little doubt that Wick deserved these accolades.

So much herring was landed there that it was said that your nose would pick up Wick many miles before reaching the Royal Burgh.

This had much to do with the highly efficient processing that took place immediately upon the boats - known as drifters - delivering the fish to the harbour.

Fisher-lassies would gut the herring then packers salted and barrelled them quickly.

Aside from the decline of fish stocks and eventual death of the industry there are countless other sad stories to be told of this truly remarkable time in Scottish history.

One ordinary day during a time of plenty in August 1848 the fleet prepared itself for another productive sortie into the North Sea.

Wick harbour
Eight hundred drifters set sail from Wick on 19 August 1848

More than 30 years later veteran fisherman John Cruickshank, of Pulteneytown, Wick, reported his memories of 19 August.

Eight hundred drifters set sail from Wick harbour. It was just another day's fishing in an industry that lasted almost 200 years.

The prospects were for good fishing and so the fleet set out windward mostly to the south of Wick Bay.

It was the fall of the Lammas Stream. This was the high tide around Lammas Day on 1 August.

As night began to fall the wind abated and turned westward. Many of the boats now were tempted to shoot their nets.

The sun set and ominous grey clouds grew thick and dark over the north-east coast.

Some of the boats recognised the climate indicators and hauled in their nets and made for shore.

Those who had heeded the early signs of the coming storm reached the harbour before darkness set in and while the tide had not yet ebbed from the harbour basin.

By midnight the wind veered again and worked itself up into a gale. This vast column of air moving swiftly over the sea, the dense darkness, the ebbing tide and an unlighted, waterless harbour combined to create a terrible destructive situation.

The fleet had all but returned north to the mouth of Wick bay and many tried to run the harbour in the dark and were driven behind the old north quay to perish on the rocks.

Breadwinners perished

Dawn revealed an angry North Sea and a town of cold spectators, praying and watching from the shore.

In the bay the remainder of the fleet were still waiting for the incoming tide to reach the safety of home and family.

One by one they ran the briny gauntlet, some with more sail than others.

Collisions were unavoidable and they fouled on each other and were driven into the boulders behind the quay. Ladders and lifebuoys were yet years away and the population of Wick and Pulteneytown watched in horror as their breadwinners perished at their feet.

Some foundered at sea before reaching land.

One swamped off the small cove at Sarclet and four swamped to the south of Wick Bay, another perished off Helman Head and another in the fierce tideway of Noss Head.

Some ran into creeks along the coast with more or less success but many lives were lost right there in Wick Bay where they expected to reach safety.

Thirty-seven men from Wick alone drowned leaving 17 widows and 63 children. Eighteen boats were lost on the rocks.

However, the total loss of life in the whole of the far north that day was 94 lives and 30 boats.

Disaster's anniversary

A public inquiry revealed the weaknesses of the fleet.

Each boat only had 30ft of keel and was open apart from a little den at the fore peak.

One of the frailest craft in the fleet rode at her nets until the gale had subsided and limped into the harbour at high tide the next day, demonstrating that survival chances would have increased had the fleet attempted to weather the storm than make a frantic bid to reach Wick.

For many years after the disaster only the most daring fisherman would venture to sea on the disaster's anniversary.

Wick's "Black Saturday" stayed deeply engraved on the memories of the fishing community of the east of Caithness for a long time.

Fathers and grandfathers told their sons of the morning that brought grief to so many.

No monument marks the tragedy and the only marker is a painting by Robert Anderson depicting the disaster that hangs in the council chambers in Wick.

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