Black Saturday

I grew up a couple of hours’ drive away from the Atlantic Ocean. The sea and everything on it and in it never encroached upon my consciousness much, apart from trips “down the shore” as we said in Pennsylvania. I did like the ocean and the beach (and the Boardwalk!), though I preferred walking along the water’s edge on crisp autumn days rather than sunbathing on sweltering summertime sand. Other than as an occasional destination, though, the sea was not part of my life. Living as I do now on the east coast of the far north of Scotland, my maritime perceptions have definitely changed. I am never far from the water; the salt spray even finds its way onto our windows though we aren’t in direct sight of it, like we were in our former village.

The old Lifeboat shed.

These days there isn’t the same fishing boom as in times past; sadly and worryingly, demand is depleting the oceans at an unsustainable rate. While there are still those who manage to eke a living out of “the fishing” I do sometimes wonder what it was like in the days of the “silver darlings” (herring). Back then the boats were berthed so tightly that you could walk from one end of the harbor to the other from deck to deck without even getting your feet wet. This town was thriving, and I think a bit rough-and-tumble along with it, and I wish I had a time machine so that I could see what Wick was like in her heyday. Still, the links to the past are strong, and fortunately our harbor remains busy.

A few weeks ago my husband and I went out to see the “Black Saturday” anniversary flotilla. I have to say, it got this landlubber right in the heart.

Wick Bay.

From caithness.org: “Black Saturday, so named, happened on the morning of Saturday 19th August 1848 when the scale of the tragedy became obvious. The boats left as usual on the Friday afternoon but by the evening, the beginnings of a colossal storm became evident. Many of the boats began to head for home but in the early hours of the morning the severity of the storm caused boats to crash against each other as they tried to gain the mouth of the harbour.”

Boats sank all around the northeast coast of Scotland. Thirty boats and 94 men were lost, 37 of them right here in Wick Bay, leaving behind 17 widows and 63 children. The strength of the storm meant that where they went down — in a place that looked like it should be within rescue-reach — was instead devastatingly inaccessible. One of the saddest things about it was that in hindsight, it was thought that if they had all stayed out at sea rather than trying to reach the bay, they would have had a better chance of surviving the storm. Instead their families watched, horrified, as the boats crashed into the rocks and each other. I cannot imagine the heartbreak.

Sharp-eyed readers will spot the bearded Lord John Thurso of my previous column, just to the left of center.

It is a sad story and not the only one of its kind. But standing up on the headland and watching the boats slowly head out in procession, turning back in just beyond the mouth of the harbor, was profoundly moving. Dozens of people had come out to pay their respects, not just to those who perished on Black Saturday, but to all those who’ve been lost at sea, before and since. The large commercial vessels left first and then that lovely historic fishing boat, the Isabella Fortuna, went out as well, leading the smaller boats. She had a piper onboard; the skirl of bagpipes rose above the sound of the wind and the sea, and the Lifeboat growled past too, taking up position in the bay, waiting.

Sem and I had been standing in the chilly breeze for more than an hour by then, and we were getting tired and stiff. We waited to see Isabella Fortuna make her way back in to the bay after taking a short turn in the sea before the large boats lying farther out in formation. She is a little younger than the boats of that fateful day by about 42 years, and she’s had upgrades in the interim, as well. But you can imagine how things were in 1848, when you look at her. She entered Wick Bay, attended by the smaller fishing boats, and faced the Lifeboat.

We began walking back to the car as the names of those who perished were read out over the loudspeakers. During the two minute silence that followed, we heard the distant rumble of the big commercial boats and the closer, sharp cries of the wheeling seagulls. Children played and giggled, not understanding the moment, and we sat in our car sheltered from the wind, watching. We couldn’t see it from our vantage point, but a wreath was laid on the waves. I think the wind had blown something into my eye …

Though I’ve met a few fishermen in my time here, I’m still not strongly connected to the sea, not like these coastal folks. Fishing goes back generations in some families, and they’ve known more than their share of hardship and loss. The wild North Sea and the roiling Pentland Firth are still dangerous places in spite of all the safety improvements to ships and boats, and even with the ever-alert and watchful Lifeboat crews there are still those lost at sea. The big tragedies of the past are a bit outside of living memory, now, but the people here do not forget their stories.

Life is fragile and precious. I think most people knew that with a bit more clarity and immediacy back in those times, in communities like this one. And though sometimes circumstances mean we’re more aware of the gossamer threads weaving our life’s tapestry to its completion, for the most part we simply live our lives, and that is a fine thing. If we focused only on those we have lost it would be a sad, ghost-filled life. But it’s also important not to completely forget those who have gone before us, even those long-ago people we never knew.

With a final glance at the scene in the bay, I started the car and we pulled away. There was a fine drizzle just coming in from the east, and we had shopping to do and dinner to prepare. We found our way back to the present in thoughtful silence, and life – beautiful life – continued ever on.

Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands, sharing life with her husband, a Highlander she stumbled across purely by chance on a blog site. They own a small business restoring and selling vintage fountain pens, which allows Deb to set her own schedule and have time for photography, writing and spontaneous car rides in the countryside. She is grateful to the readers of ANC for accepting her into the North State fold.
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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

    This is hauntingly beautiful Deb, and while you may not be a native daughter of that town, you write with the emotion and affection of one who is.
    I could feel the wind and hear the birds and boats and I wonder who is cutting onions in here?

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thank you, Matt. History is so alive here, somehow. It’s easy to imagine the heartbreak.

      For a lighter side, go look at my friend Mary’s response to my Facebook post linking to this article :-).

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I’m pretty much in awe of your ability to tell tale after tale like this one that are sentimental toward the subjects without being mawkish.

        Another matter entirely: Those big trawlers Make life a heck of a lot safer for fishers, but they’re the reason for the over-fishing. They strip-mine the ocean, netting everything they encounter. Non-commercial fish are just thrown overboard.

        A large majority of the UK’s catch is landed by Scottish fishers. Alas, except for haddock, the demersol (bottom) species are largely fished out, and the biggest take these days is shellfish, especially langoustine (scampi).

        • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

          Thank you, Steve, what a lovely compliment!

          You are so right about the big trawlers. They basically vacuum up whatever’s on the bottom of the ocean without thought for what it does to the whole ecosystem. Supposedly they are working to become more sustainable but the reality is a very different – if you’ll pardon the pun – kettle of fish. There’s often some tension between Scottish and Norwegian fishing outfits as well – everyone really wants the same bit of ocean. And fish farming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either, with the many problems encountered there.

          Honestly sometimes (often) I think it was better when they had to do it the harder way… too bad there doesn’t seem to be a way to keep the safety aspect of things, while not stripping the seas entirely. It’s a worry for sure, and it happens all over the world.

  2. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Beautiful telling of a history lesson.
    I just finished watching Jack Clayton, set in Galway, and living on those islands has to be a bit beautiful and daughtening.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thanks, Bruce, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Other than Orkney, I have yet to visit any islands, but I know life on them can be very harsh depending on what Mother Nature decides to do!

  3. Avatar erin friedman says:

    Thank you for a lovely poignant piece. Your pictures, as always, are exquisite. May I have permission to try to paint a watercolor of the old lifeboat shed? Beautiful composition.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Erin! And yes, absolutely, please feel free to use the photograph of the old Lifeboat shed for a watercolor. Is that size ok to work from or would you like me to email you the original?

      What I love about the old shed is that you can see the ramp where they launched the Lifeboat down into the water. When you see the big powerful Lifeboats of today, and then realize that they just used to row out to save people, you realize how very far they have come… yet the spirit of the crews remain the same. Brave, determined, strong…

      • Avatar erin friedman says:

        Thank you, Deb – I can work from this pic here. And yes – the fortitude and bravery is mind-boggling. I’ll let you know how the painting goes.

        • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

          That’s great – and yes please, I’d love to know how it goes – and see a photo of it, if you are happy with the result :-).

  4. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Lovely tribute to a tragic event, Deb. Thanks for the telling.

  5. Avatar Erika Kilborn says:

    Just beautiful, Deb. I think something got in my eye too. It’s a hard life on the sea and it serves us well to remember how hard the men and women work to bring us our shrimp and fish and other marine delights. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thank you, Erika. I wish they hadn’t overfished – there’s so much they will never get back. But I think they are finally learning… let’s hope so.

  6. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    A lovely tribute to a tragic event, Deb. Thanks for the telling.

  7. Avatar Candace C says:

    I love the way you write.

  8. Avatar Eleanor Townsend says:

    Hi Deb
    Your first photo of the old Lifeboat shed tells such a story! We can picture the stoic, optimistic-against-all-odds men on the rescue boat setting off down that little ramp, hoping against hope to save lives. It’s just written into the picture (by you). Also the stoic stance of the people on the Isabella Fortuna, doing the ‘right thing’ but with dedication and heart.
    Yup, your beautiful writing and perfect photos affected many of us here at ANC today.
    Thank you for this lovely piece.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Hi Eleanor, they were – and are – such brave folks, the Lifeboat crews. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and photos – thank you for telling me.

  9. Avatar Janet McBride Tyrrel says:

    Loved seeing the solar panels on those homes. Talk about optimism…how many sunny days a year in northeastern Scotland?

  10. Deb, I agree with Steve’s observation that you have a knack for writing about sentimental topics in just the right way. It’s a gift.

    And the fact that you are as accomplished a photographer as a writer is just mind-boggling.

    This piece really got to me. You managed to share with us a piece of mournful Scottish history and bring it to life in a way to make us feel something for those brave souls who died so long ago. Thank you.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thank you, Doni, on all counts. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and that it conveyed what I’d hoped, and how I’d hoped to do so!