Life With Fisher Folk

After my previous post about “Black Saturday” there was some discussion on my Facebook page regarding disasters at sea. One of the people who commented was my friend Mary Kinnaird who lives in Lossiemouth which is across the Moray Firth from the wee village where we used to live. I knew she came from a fishing family, so I asked her about what life was like “back in the day.” Mary is pretty close to my age; even so, her experiences are vastly different from mine. No surprise I suppose, since I grew up in a different country, and not that close to the sea. I really enjoyed learning more about her growing-up, and hearing about life among the fisher folk.

Mary is a delight, by the way. She’s quick, bright, funny, stoic, and filled with warmth and good humor. She will probably be embarrassed by that description, but take my word for it, she’s a gem and I’m so glad to know her! It is my good fortune that she agreed to share these stories and photos with aNewsCafe’.

Lossie Harbor

On her father’s side, Grandfather Kinnaird from Nairn was an engineer. He was also “a bit of a singer,” Mary told me, who put on operatic shows in the Town Hall. Her mother’s side, the Reids and the Mitchells, were fishers. In Mary’s words: “My Great Grandfather James Reid (Bo) trawled up a huge anchor possibly from the Armada (his fishing net picked up the anchor). It is still on show outside the Fishing Museum. The Mitchells were descendants of a shipwrecked Spanish sailor. He was in a poor way when he was found on the beach, and his rescuers mistook ‘Michelle’ for ‘Mitchell’. When he recovered, the name stuck; all the Mitchells come from him. I like to think that’s where my olive skin comes from.”

Caption: Mary’s Great Uncle Jock (middle).

Mary’s mother was the youngest of thirteen children in a “blended” family; her grandmother, Mary Ann, came in to the marriage with two daughters, and her grandfather, Alec, had a son and daughter. They had a further nine children together, including two lots of twins! Mary Ann’s daughters (Jessellen and Rita) were “herring girls” in the late 1920s/early 1930s. They traveled all down the east coast, following the herring fleet. Back in those days there would have been hundreds of herring girls working in the harbors along the Scottish coast. They worked in threes; two doing the gutting and one doing the packing. (Herring were salted and packed into barrels in a particular way for preservation and shipping.) It was hard, nonstop work, but it would have helped bring in money for the family.

Being the youngest, Mary’s mother was rather spoiled, and was doted on by her older sisters. They would send home gifts for her: white frocks, frilly socks, and white shoes. This is a letter Mary’s mother sent to her sisters while they were away.

Mary’s mother’s letter, part one.

Part two of the letter.

One of the stories Mary recalled from her mother’s childhood: “At the time it was still line-fishing, and the women did lots of the manual work. They would even carry the men out to the boats on their backs so that the men stayed as dry as possible. My Mam would go with her mother to cut bents (long reed-type grasses found on the dunes, used to layer the fishing lines so that they didn’t get tangled). One time they were cutting bents when my Granny saw a man loitering around where they had left a wee picnic consisting of a bottle of lemonade and a jam piece (bread and jam). It was one of those old-fashioned bottles with a stopper, and my Granny poured the whole lot out as she was convinced the man had peed in the bottle. My Mam said she was parched, so the lemonade being poured away was devastating. But Granny would not budge!”

L-R: Mary’s Auntie Ruby, Granny Mary Ann, and Mary’s Mam.

Mary’s father went to sea, too. “My father was the cook on a seine net boat out of Lossiemouth and Lochinver. He came to fishing late in life when he was forty years old in 1962, the year I was born. Before that he’d been the projectionist and manager of the cinema in our town (my mother worked in the box office), but it was converted to a bingo hall, and that’s when my father started at the fishing. He would be away on a Sunday, and back on a Thursday. I think he found it hard.”

“I was about six when I started to go with him to the boat on Fridays. My Mam kept me off school to go with him, the idea being that after settling up, he would have to come home with me instead of drinking with the crew. It only worked sometimes – more often than not, I was left outside with a coke and crisps, and told to play. I usually found my way over to Duthies the Fish Merchants and Ship Chandlers, just across from the pub. I wasn’t the only bairn (child) left to their own devices, and we congregated at Duthies. I thought it was magical. It had a particular smell; a mixture of rubber, oil, ropes and the sea. They sold everything needed on a fishing boat from cutlery to gutting knives, to electric wiring and ropes as thick as my arm. I longed to buy something, but there was nothing suitable. The building was large, and I liked the attic the best. It ran the length of the building. Miles of nets stretched across the floor, and there were ropes coiled high enough to hide inside.”

“It was usually a couple of retired fishermen who worked there, and I would sit by the counter watching them fill out invoices in triplicate with carbon paper, or splicing ropes or mending nets. Sometimes they would just ‘news’ to one another, drinking tea out of tin mugs. I must have gone to Duthies weekly for four years, and it was a huge part of my growing up. I was a listener and I loved even normal conversations about fish landings, or the weather, or about who had broken down.”

Mary’s maternal grandfather’s boat, ‘Ocean Gleaner’ coming in to Lossie.

“Thinking about the pubs, at that time in Lossiemouth there were a huge amount of them, I think about 22. The main pubs for fishermen were The Steamboat, The Brander, and Davy Somervilles. They were all like someone’s house: lots of wee rooms with fireplaces and a bar built into the corner. The Brander was where the crew settled up, and the one I was most familiar with. I thought for ages that The Steamboat was an actual boat, and couldn’t understand why fishermen would want to go and drink on a boat after being on one all week!”

“I also used to go to the harbor on Saturday mornings to clean the boat, getting the lemonade money as my ‘wages’ – returning the glass bottles, and getting the deposit back. We would then go to the Deep Sea Mission for a rowie (a savory bread also known as a buttery) and a cup of tea.”

Mary’s brother, Sandy, went off to apprentice on a Lossie boat at the age of fourteen. After his apprenticeship he worked first out of Lossiemouth and, later, on a big boat out of Peterhead which was at sea for 10-14 days at a time. Mary remembers: “We always had fish. I remember Sandy leaving a Partten (crab) crawling about the kitchen floor to give us a fleg (fright) when we got up in the morning. The deep sink would be full of fish which my Mam used to fillet and skin and freeze in batches. They were usually gutted but if they weren’t, she would be mad – she hated gutting! Thinking back, it was amazing. Fish of all kinds were plentiful, especially from Sandy’s boat as he was on a big boat going out as far as Bergen, Norway. There would be big pans of prawns which we would sit around eating out of the shell like sweeties. Lots of cod, my favorite, and also ugly fish we call ‘oufs’ but which are today known as monkfish. We turned our noses up at oufs and called them fake scampi… ‘Oufs Tails’. But a fresh haddock lightly fried in a wee dip of egg with a dusting of flour is still a favorite.”

“When my dad and brother came home there were lots of stinky, fishy clothes to wash. We had a double sink and my Mam would fill the deep sink with soapy water, putting me in the sink to stamp up and down on the clothes. She also had a scrubbing board, and while I stomped she would scrub their jeans. She was so hard-working. She did have a spin dryer but didn’t get a washing machine ‘til I was twelve, and then it was a twin tub.”

Mary’s father worked aboard ‘Sunbeam INS 74’.

Mary also sometimes went out on the boat with her brother, when she was a little bit older. “Sandy’s boat was based out of Peterhead; a van would take the crew over to it from Lossiemouth. It was only brought home to Lossiemouth a couple of times a year, for trade’s fortnight and at Christmas. His boat was something else. It was bright blue for a start, and was twice as big as the Lossie seine netters. When the boat went to Buckie for ice (there was no ice factory in Lossiemouth), I used to go along. It was about an hour away across the Firth. The whole thing was fascinating, and there were always treats, too. Cream cookies and bottles of Moray Cup, which isn’t made anymore but was a bit like red cola, only much better.”

“We were really close even with our age difference, and with our sister Margaret in between. I remember for my 13th birthday Sandy took me to Aberdeen to get a signet ring but the real highlight for me was going to an Indian restaurant for the first time. I was excitedly reading the menu trying to figure out what to have when I heard him saying to the waiter, ‘Two sirloin steaks and two half pints of milk.’ Oh, well.”

“I remember the cabins they slept in. Sandy hated his because he was very claustrophobic. He was the net man. He could mend a net with a funny kind of implement, very fast. He was much sought after in the fishing fleet but was very loyal, only having two skippers his entire time at sea. I mind him greeting to my mother when he left for a bigger boat after ten years with his first skipper. (‘Greeting’ in this sense has the meaning of ‘lamenting’ in Scotland.) I think it was a huge step for Sandy to leave Sye Hall as he had been with him since he was fourteen. He felt disloyal after the skipper had taken him under his wing.”

Lossie Harbor, as Mary remembers it. It is now a marina.

Sandy was “kind of fishing ‘head-hunted’” by his next skipper, Alec Thompson. Mary remembers: “They always called the skipper “the Mannie” – I think all crews did. Alec Thompson was a young skipper with ideas, and he wanted the best crew he could get. His boat was built in Denmark; the crew had to fly over and take her home. It was the one and only time Sandy was on an airplane. I never got to go to the launch of the ‘Emma Thompson’ (named after the skipper’s daughter), as Sandy wanted to take our Mam. My nose was out of joint about that but looking back, it was the right thing for him to do. Our mother was a huge strength to us all, and is still missed every day.”

The ‘Emma Thompson.’

“They went on to break many landing records and win lots of prizes. I am 14 years younger than Sandy but I looked older and was always his partner at big fishing functions. I would have been about 14 or 15 but with my fancy long frocks I could pass for my 20s.”

I asked Mary what the big fishing functions were, and I have to say, I really wish I could go to one! She explained: “They were dinners and dances, paid for by White Fish Authority. The best one was at Eight Acres Hotel in Elgin. Sandy’s boat was top boat again that year; young crew, young wives, plenty of money… some down to earth, some ‘up themselves’. The mate’s (second in command) wife Margaret was very good with me, knowing I was at least ten years younger, and she kept an eye out for me. The evening started with a champagne reception – didn’t like it then, don’t like it now. I was there for the canapés, yum, I can still taste them. Wee delicate fishy things; I love fish of all kinds. The dinner – it was the first time I had whitebait as a starter and I loved it. I remember that Sandy somehow got us special steaks, marinated in something. He was delighted with himself when the rest of the crew saw we had something different! I can’t mind the pudding. (Can’t remember the dessert.) Then there was dancing to Level Par, the top local band of the day. The comedian George Duffus was there too, who was very popular in Scotland then. There was an after-party for a few of the crews and George Duffus was there, too. It was all very relaxed. He could sing a bit and when Sandy asked him to sing ‘Honey’, he did. More seafood buffet at the after-party, and that was when I had my first prawn sandwich with Marie Rose sauce. I was used to prawns, but in a wee sandwich… WOW. It was a good night. We also had crew dinners in different hotels. The skipper paid. Plenty of money: the “fishes were sweemin’ up”, and he liked to play his role.”

Things ended for Alec, along with many of the other skippers, boats and crews, for various reasons including fishing quotas being introduced and catches dwindling. Many a skipper had to sell up, in the end. I don’t think fishing has ever been the same, since.

“Sandy next to Granny (Dad’s Mum), my Mum, Dad, and Margaret. Me in front in my lovely rose dress – I loved that dress.”

When Mary had her son Mitchell, Sandy retired from fishing. He’d left in the van for the boat at Peterhead as usual but was home in a taxi by teatime. “He just said, ‘I am done,’ and he never looked back,” Mary remembered. “He brought Mitch up with me; I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Sandy kept busy with other things once he was finished with the fishing. “He worked as a ranger on the golf course,” Mary said. “Golf was a huge part of his retirement, and he played very well. I think he does well with everything he takes on, from golf to prize-winning gardens, to decorating. He used to mend nets and go down to the fish market early mornings and ‘lump’ – unload catches to the market. He was some worker, and had a very good name among the fishermen. These days he goes down every day to The Bunker, a wee clubhouse for retired fishermen on the site of the old Market. I believe they get up to all sorts under cover of ‘playing cards’…”

Mary’s stories and recollections transport me to another time, one that feels like it should be far more distant than just within these past few decades. Maybe that’s because the sea is timeless, or because the fishing community still seems to be so close-knit. There is, I think, a continuing strong kinship among fisher folk. It’s in the way they still honor the memory of those who were lost at sea, and it’s in the yarns they tell. “The fishing” will never again be what it once was back during the heady days of full holds and huge successes, before demand exceeded supply, but the memories and stories remain.

Mary’s Mam and Dad on their wedding day.

I think I’d very much like to spend some time in the company of fishermen and their families, especially around a table with a dram or a cup of tea, telling tales (both tall and otherwise) of days and nights at sea, the ones that got away, and the many that were caught.

Heartfelt thanks to Mary for the stories and photos (with apologies for Americanizing the spelling)!

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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26 Responses

  1. Avatar Gary Solberg says:

    Thanks Deb for sharing. Mary’s stories and recollections, and the photos, transport all of us to another time. Sadly, all over the world fishing has declined and fisher folk have struggled with the diminishing populations of fish.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Gary. It is a worldwide issue for sure, and while it seems that folks are now trying to be more responsible about fishing I’m not sure the damage hasn’t already irreversibly been done.

  2. Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

    This is just beautiful. Utterly gorgeous in words and images and thank you and Mary both for sharing them. It does feel like a world from another time!

    I wonder how these experiences are similar (and different) from the little fishing communities on the West Coast. Many of the tiny towns have tiny harbors with fishing boats that still go out every day, and I imagine the towns have many people with stories that will be lost forever when they go. A way of life that is slipping away for a variety of reasons, and more’s the pity.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thanks, Matt!

      I think that there would be a lot of similar experiences along with the differences. Boats have gotten safer, technology has made equipment better, but I’ll bet the stories would still ring true for the fishermen no matter where they fish. It is sad to lose the old stories!

  3. This is exactly what we need today. Thank you, Deb. Delightful, evocative, interesting writing, as always.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thanks, Doni! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I hope others will, too. Mary was so generous with her time and her stories!

  4. Avatar Sue says:

    What a grad read! Thanks to you Deb and Mary.

  5. Avatar Sue says:

    That is suppose to read “What a grand’ read!!!

  6. Avatar Candace says:

    Love these stories – thank you!

  7. Avatar Sue says:

    By the way – my husband’s comment after reading this story — “YES, I really like this, ‘the wives would carry the men out to the boats on their backs so that the men stayed as dry as possible ‘– those were the GOOD OLE DAYS — for sure!!!” :o)

  8. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    My comment apparently disappeared into the ether, but I said that this piece was a stroll down memory lane for Mary and a lovely read for ANC viewers.

  9. Avatar Cathy Allen says:

    I love these stories, thank you for recording them. it’s wonderful to have the pictures to go along with!

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Glad you enjoy them, Cathy! Mary was very kind to let me use the photos as well, and to let me share some of her stories.

  10. Avatar Janet Tyrrel says:

    The photos and place names make this a wonderful story.

  11. Avatar Eleanor says:

    Fabulous story-telling, Deb. You paint great pictures with your words. Thank you!!

  12. Jon Lewis Jon Lewis says:

    Oh to be a fly on the wall in some of those old pubs when the boats returned to harbor! Thanks for sharing, Deb

  13. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Deb, I loved this! Thank you.