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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.