2nd November 2017
36 Links Road, Lundin Links
Interviewer: Jill de Fresnes.
T: Robert Gillies, you need to speak to him. He’s from Campbeltown – Lachie will tell you – no he’s Robert – you might not agree with everything he said – he’s got a hell of a good memory.
That day we went up to see John Shore and Archie – I took a bottle of whisky up with me – thought it didn’t go down too well with Shore’s wife – but the boys were getting wired in. And John told me a story – now it’ll involve me swearing – if you don’t want to hear me swearing
J: no you’re fine!
T: It was years ago – going to Carradale Bay in the evening, and we shot and we got a big ring of herring – now I cannot remember – just going to say it was 2020 baskets – it was a big ring of herring. Now at that time the screws were on the go – at that time you sold your herring to them. And the drifters – and they took them away to Glasgow and various points. So they discharged the herring into this screw – just outside Carradale Bay – and they got oot – I’m just going to say – 2000 – no – just going to say 1025 baskets. That’s the figure – its an invention of mine. So we decided we’d get two or three hoors sleep and maybe get them coming off the shore in the morning – with daylight coming in. So that’s what they did – so when daylight was just showing over the hills of Arran they were up and doon – and there was nothing to be seen at all. But there was a pair of Campbeltown boats came up from the Southard and came round the bay. And although it was not broad daylight – they would see the boats and they’d see the silhouette and they’d see they were light and one of…. These were in the days before wireless – so one of the men up fore-ard shouted ‘Aye – a puckle the night?’ and whoever was fore-ard in Shore’s boat shouted ‘A thousand and 25 baskets’ Now this man didnae know that they’d discharged it – but he knew that there was not 1025 baskets in that pair of boats. ‘Whey – you’re a crowd of sarcastic bastards!’
But – it was just a lovely story…that was the kind of thing that happened.
J; the ring net – it seems to have a kind of mythology about it. Why was it that the men who were at the ring-net – what was so…
T: I wrote a bit about that. If you leave me your email address if I can manage to get my feet into working order and get back through to that computer through there… I’ll send it to you. But that’s just the exact subject we’ve been on. But you know – if you think about it – old Dode – you know Dode do you –
J: I know of him
T: You’re sad you never met him because he was a rare lad. And he’d been at the drift net of course. And he was doon here sitting up the stairs having a wee dram. And I said to him ‘Dode – how did you get on – we were at the ring-net, we were up the Minch – and we’d maybe been working there three, four five, six – weeks. And you’d no get a bath in all that time. Dam lucky if you got a wash, because water was difficult to come by up there in those days. How did you get on when you went to Yarmouth?’ ‘Oh’ he says ‘ we were awful fussy about that – we’d get a bath before we went awa’ and as soon as we got hame we’d have another one’. Three months later! And folk say – how did you put up with that? And just the questions you asked. And I tried to answer it – and a wee short article I wrote – I never gave it to anybody. I just did it for the hell o it.
J: I’d love to see that. But if you had to sum it up in a few sentences Tommy… what was it about the ring-net?
T: I think it was mair the case of – there was a lot of comradeship – y’know. And we were all the same… nobody had a toilet on the boat – nobody had a shower or a bath or anything like that. But we all worked together.. oh there was rascals and rogues among, of course there were. But I don’t know anybody that wouldnae go back, I don’t know. They’re all – I bet you I know where John Shore is just now! He’s sitting on Carradale Point looking for appearance [?] He is! Aye – I enjoyed it. If I had to go back – if I had to start again I would… I was pleased to get away from it because it was dead. It was gone – it was a thing of the past. And its now reached very near the ultimate – where there’s very few boats, these big super trawlers. Eh, there’s a lot of good in what they’re doing – they’re landing fish in top class condition whereas we weren’t. We hadnae refrigeration or ice or all that. They’re selling fish for a vast amount of money compared to what we were selling it for. I bought herring this year and last year – and paying on average just over a pound each for them and maybe about 250 per basket – so in days of ring-net we’d have got £250 per basket – a thousand pound a cran – away and chase yersel – we’d have been dam lucky if we’d got £4 a cran. So it makes sense in some ways. It’s just a way of life that’s gone.
J: I think from speaking to some of the other guys as well. The crews on the boat – and the neighbour boat –more than just your own crew.
T: Oh aye, if there were rows between them – but at the end of the day – they all just worked together. It was a rare way of life. One man said it to me of late – in fact it was Robert, cousin – Robert Gillies. ‘All that noise about ring-net. It was buckin’ awful! So it was! Who the hell would go back to that?’ But he doesnae mean it. He doesnae mean it. Ha! I’m awful – I feel fortunate that I was allowed to be in among it.
And one of the biggest shocks in my life that I ever got… I was ashore – up in the office in Mallaig. And I came doon from there – and there was a man from Tarbert working at clam dredges on the pier. He’s well known but I’m hanged if I can mind his name – Richmond – was it Richmond something… he was a good hand wi clam gear and stuff. And he was working at dredges and when I came along he stood up. And the two of us was blethering – he was up to show one of the local men how to do this – how the job should be worked. Along came the skipper of a Mallaig boat. And stood beside the two of us blethering. And the skipper said – I’m away to the Mission for a cup o tea – anybody coming up? And I said no I need to go to Walkers office – I’ve got to be up there. And the local skipper – no he wasn’t going either. Richmond Murphy – I think that was his name. And he went away up to the Mission leaving me with the Mallaig skipper, who looked doon and saw a knife – picked it up, shut it and put it in his pocket. I says – that’s Richmond’s knife that – ‘Ha! Mind now!’ and went away down the pier. Stole the man’s knife! I couldn’t believe that.
J: what on earth was he doing that for? Bit of jealousy among them
T: ach there were crooks an criminals among them in the days of ring-net as well, but it was different
J: How long were you at it yourself
T: No – my father had a boat – the Golden Fleece in Campbeltown, and sadly he was far too fond of whisky and he wasn’t – and could be a very unpleasant man when he took too much drink. I was 21 when I left Campbeltown and went to Mallaig. And I was onboard the – along with the Mansons in Mallaig. And I don’t know when I left – about 5 or six years. I didn’t like the way the fishing was going at all. I just didn’t like it. I was on for – Ina will tell you – I was keen to get a boat, but I dinnae know which kind of boat to get. Cos I knew deep down inside that the days of the ring net was gone. And a bigger boat didn’t appeal to me. So I came ashore, and the rest is history.
J: so what boat was it – was it Jim Manson you were aboard with?
T: Jimmy Manson – aye – the Crystal Sea. Well it was the Jessie Alice first – which was a boat the Ina’s father had bought. He had a boat and she was a BA boat – I cannae mind the name of her – BA 303 and she was laying in Stornoway. And he bought her and took her to Mallaig – and he died 3 days later of a heart-attack.
J: That was one of the Coulls was it?
T: No he was a Sutherland – he belonged to Golspie but he’d married Jim Mansons sister – Georgina – and I liked then – I got on fine with the Mansons
J: I interviewed Freddie Salmon back in the 1990s and I just listened to that interview again – and he was saying he was with Cameron Downie and he was talking about the last ring-net trip they’d made – and he got so emotional. I’d never really noticed – of all the fishing – he went under sail first of all. Take a good look Cameron – cos this is the last time we’ll be here. And it just struck me then how much it meant…
T: Oh aye, Don’t be – mind it meant an awful lot to an awful lot of people – and I liked Jim Manson – I liked him a lot, and he could be a cra [bbit]… and I was sacked at least once a month – ‘You Campbeltown so and so – get your fuckin’ bed ashore of here…’ Aye – away and chase yerself! But he’d forgot all about it the next day –
J: Who else was aboard with you?
T: Jimmy Manson he was the skipper, Tommy Mathieson – he’d a share in the boat – he married old black Jim’s daughter Mary Manson. There was Jimmy Coull – the finest man I was ever shipmates with. eron Valdi [??] he belonged to Barra. He was aboard a while as wll. Sandy Scally – who belonged to Campbeltown. Sandy was a rare lad – I liked Sandy an awful lot. They are all gone. Whole lot of them. I’ve got film there, I’ve no doubt you’ve seen it – a big ring of herring at the back of Eriskay – daylight in the month of January and three boats brailing. And there’s only three men out of these three boats that’s still alive – a cousin of Ina’s – Henry Addison; young Feel and who’s the third one –
J: Who’s the second one Tommy – Henry – I’ll need to go and speak to Henry, I didn’t realise he was aboard the boat
T: Henry’s good –
J: He’ll maybe have some film too
T: He will for sure – and he’s very very keen on historical things. He’s a rare lad
J: And who’s the other guy you said was still around?
T: Young Feel – Andy Ritchie. I don’t know what age he is – he’s my age as well – 80 odd
J; So if I can – I saw that piece of film – but I cant use it – would I be able to get your permission?
T: It’s my film – and you’ve got my permission [15.41] to use and that’s all that matters.
J: I’ll need to get consent forms from the museum – but it would be a shame not to be able to use it along with other stuff
T: I gave the museum a copy.
J: I’m sure they’ll have it
T: A lot of the things they get disappear into a black hole somehow
J: One of the ideas with the project – and also I’m doing a film course in Edinburgh – and one of the ideas is to maybe take a boat out – and take Archie and John MacConnachie and anyone else we can find that’s interested – back out
T: Cunna [?] would be great
J: aye – what’s his full name?
T: Robert – Robert Gillies
J: Is he in Campbeltown?
T: Aye – just when you go down past the Dillan Tobar pier – then go down to the low road – well traverse – is about number 3 on that road – something like that
J: It would be nice to get them out – on a nice day – a day like this or whatever… and record stories at sea – rather than ….
T: I put that notion into Lachie’s heid and Lachie got a boat – and we’re going to dae it – he says. But he’s not done it yet.
J: Well its Lachie that told me about it and I asked him if we could do it as part of the project – and I’m hoping that he’ll be involved as well
T: it was place names that I was bothered about more than anything else. Theres names for any fisherman – they named damn near every stone on the shore. And Dode – I says to Dode – he says – theres a lad – he was oot at the partans – just on his own in the boat and he took – something quite serious that was wrong with him, he took an awful pain in his head – and they met him and took him up to the doctors and the doctor says – now I cant remember the names – I’ll use campbeltown names for them – and he says – where did you get this pain? And he says ken yon white stone between dots brew and the isle slip – it was just right there. A spot on the shore! The doctor wanted to know where was the pain in his head. He told him where the thing came on him.
J: [laughs] I think you’re right – all the tows will have different names and all the – yeh – its definitely something that will get lost – and many names change over time
T: they’re gone now. It would be good to get someone like Lachie – and trappers good and Cecils good at that too. Cecil’s got a good memory – I havenae
J: Well we’ll see how you’re doing… we’ll maybe get you over to the west coast in the spring
T: I’m afraid not – I would love to but… it’ll not happen. I can easy shut my eyes and I’m there and the good thing about that it never rains in my dreams…
J: you never get the big swells…
T; its quite bonnie weather
J: The other thing I’m trying to do as part of my course – is that on a boat you’re looking at the land from the sea – rather than the sea from the land. Is that idea worth exploring – that you’re kind of seeing things in a different way, and whether or not the senses are more acute – you know – in terms of smells and tastes and the cold and all the rest of it.
T: You know – it was Grieve Gelloch – that put the thing into my head – and I thought about it and elaborated on it , and he’s spot on – you go along the shore at night in a ring-net boat – dark – black and if its really black – and you’ve got black rock – and black sea. And where does one begin and the other finish. And the way to figure out a] where you were and to how far off you were – was to watch the skyline – cos you can always see the skyline. So folk would be looking – wheres the shore? And somebody else would see – oh, there’s the skyline – you’re alright you’re 20 feet off the shore here. Y’know – it was just part of the game – that’s what you did.
J: When you think back on it – and you remember it in that kind of intricate detail and you’re on the deck or whatever – can you describe what it would feel like to be on the boat when you’re at the ring-net. Say you’re coming onto a shoal of herring – what’s the exciting bits and what do you see or feel or smell
T; Oh – that’s not a short question that. That’s one that takes about 3 hours to answer. What was the difference between the ring net and the drift net? Well – the excitement! You were chasing something – you were hunting something – they were trying to get away from you and you were trying to catch them. We used to say of driftnets – it was totally unreasonably – they just used to shot their nets and hope the herring swim into them… well – yes…. [phone ringing] But no – there was expertise in all that too. But – I think the excitement was always chasing something below the surface – and if you were on the wire and you felt a spot of herring- thick here –
J: can you say that again – cos that’s all interesting – you had …chasing the fish – just below the surface – was where
T: they were there – one would betray his brothers by jumping and that was enough. You only needed one to let the mob doon and you’d got them all. You could smell the things. You could smell herring… oh aye… how could you smell herring? Well it’s quite simple – because what feeds on herring? Bigger fish – an they take a bite out the herring and the oil will come up from the herring and there’s a distinct smell – there’s no question at all. The only sense I knew of that you didn’t use was taste. But smell hearing, touch all the other they were all used. My uncle Henry – my mothers brother – used to tell us of lining up in Cromo waiting for the sun to go down and they were neighbouring a BA pair – a BA man I’m not sure why – but this one shouted ‘hey martin – what do you think? Is this the place to be?’ And Henry says ‘you’ll be wrong to leave this place –theres a good smell of herring here…’ and they got a shot of herring that night. I think then – he says – back over the next evening – and this fellow shouted to him – are you smelling anything Henry – aye he says – but that’s no herring – that’s no herring I’m smellin, that’s cuddies…’ and when somebody shot and they got a ring o cuddies…! And Henry was laughing- it was just a chance – just pure chance – because I was doon the focsle of a BA boat – and there was a young fellow – and he says – ‘I heard tell there’s a Campbeltown man can smell herring…’ ‘Is that right!’ I never said a word. But you can certainly smell herring. So there so many different ways of watching gannets and even a single gull – if a gull was standing on a rock no movin =g – just waiting – he knew there was herring there. How? Probably smell better than ours. And you see herring putting up as well. But they did! They put up bobbles. I don’t know if it was emptying or filling up their swim bladders – but and that was – you just they were putting up – that was the word for it. So many different ways of searching oot the kill… ha! And I never ever mastered – there were masters of the burning – the fire – phospherence in the water – that was particularly good in the Isle of Mann. And I must freely admit that my time in the Isle of Man was testosterone was coming oot yer lugholes and your were up on the key when you should have been doon sleeping. And Jock Kenzie – he was one of the finest men at fishing that ever I met. He had a mallet – and he’d bang on the side of the boat with a mallet and the shock waves would cause herring to start. Hammering was nae use to you – theres other men would bang the anchor – but he needed his mallet. And he lost the mallet my uncle, and he was inconsolable for a week until he got another yin. But there – you see steaming along through – theres so many things could cause confusion, reflections from the sky – diesel oil on top of the water could cause a sheen but what he was looking for was doon below that – just a wee change quick flash in the water – quick as that – and if you werena watching – I’d be lying there sleeping and he’d bang the mallet beside my lug and say – did you see that! No jock no I didn’t – cos I was bloody sleeping!
J: and you were up on deck sleeping?
J: and you’d be too young for the wire? That was before?
T; NO no, anybody… it was a cold booger of a job – it was a cold cold cold job. Cos you were just standing with the wire in your hand. That was quite simple – you’d to keep the wire from bouncing on the bottom – so you were trying to keep the lead a few feet above the bottom – because there’d be herring that would be lying close to the bottom. I – this is no disregard to people – my own daughters went to university – but I wasn’t 15 when I left the school and I went to eh university of hard knocks – by god – you dinnae forget what you got told.
J: well I suppose on a boat that was important – because to me – the safety looking at it – and seeing the film – especially if folk are jumping about at night-time
T: It was totally – health and safety didn’t come into it. Health and safety. I was getting preached to on health and safety recently. And I was a long time on the lifeboat and I’ll tell you theres a fair few men walking about today that are deid if I had got with health and safety – I was lucky I never killed anybody – but when health and safety came in – common sense went out the window in my opinion
J: I would agree there
T: There was very few people killed at the ring net – not many at all. You were jumping from one boat to another – but you weren’t out in 99ft seas. So that’s that….
J: So that’s that….. I’ll maybe come back in a while.. …