What is it that makes many ring net herring fishermen yearn, almost obsessively, for the days gone by? I am certain that, as I write this, John ‘The Shore’ McConnochie of Carradale is sitting on Carradale Point, just a quarter of a mile from his home. His eyes will be searching up and down ‘The Soon’ – the name that he, and many others use for Kilbrannan Sound – searching for gannets, gulls or ‘Sholters’ (basking sharks) – all signs of shoals of herring.
The late Willie ‘The Count’ Jackson, of Tarbert, when I questioned him not long before his death told me that on most days he would sit for hours in his car looking out over Lower Loch Fyne, searching for the same signs of herring and re-living exploits from the distant past.
Jim Campbell recently built a house a few miles south of Carradale and pointed out to me that the back of this house overlooked a bay where he, many years ago, took around 1200 baskets of herring in one ring. When I asked him how often he looked at the view and thought of this event he looked me in the eye and replied, after a pause: “Every bloody night o’ ma life, jeest afore I go to ma bed!”
Jim passed on shortly after I wrote this.
I am certain that, by now, readers will possibly be thinking that there is nothing unusual in reliving pleasant episodes from the past, but I would ask them to please consider the following facts before reaching their final conclusions.
The ring net boats, craft that have been generally acknowledged to be probably the most beautiful working boats ever built, ranged in size between 48 and 58 feet long with a beam of 15 to 18 feet. They were powered by engines that, in the early 1950s, were mainly of the ubiquitous 66 or 88 horse power Kelvins or the 68 to 95 horse powerGardners. In the 1970s, however, engines of considerably more than 250 h.p. were not at all uncommon.
A dear friend, the late, and greatly missed Donald Gibson, of Dunure, used to chuckle as he quoted his father as saying that the main things a ring-net boat required were: ”A 66 Kelvin in the engine room, a Bandeera stove in the fo’c’s’le an’ a brass rail roon the wheelus!”
I will confine my thoughts to the boat that I served my time in, the Golden Fleece. She was 49 feet overall and had a 4 cylinder, 68 h.p. Gardner engine.
In common with all of the ringers of that era the engine room was aft and the fo’c’s’le forward – the space between them was the hold which held around 420 baskets (105 crans) of bulk herring.
The tiny fo’c’s’le was where 5 men and a boy lived, ate and slept for periods of up to 6 weeks at a time. It was about 15 feet in length and its width tapered from around 12 feet at the aft end to a point at the fore end.
There were 6 bunks, 3 on each side with lockers for storing food etc. below the 2 forward bunks. There were additional lockers, 2 of which were used for storing coal, below the wooden seating that ran around the sides below the bunks. A rudimentary table with side flaps stood in the middle of the floor space.
The bunks, especially on an old boat like the Golden Fleece, were invariably damp – if not wet – and certainly when I started fishing the mattresses were usually of flock that was lumpy beyond belief!
A small, one ring coal stove was situated along the bulkhead that divided the fo’c’s’le from the hold. All of the cooking was done on this stove but we carried a simple paraffin powered Primus stove that was mainly used to boil the kettle for a quick cup of tea.
We ate well, I really must say, but my wife was disgusted to hear that if at the weekend we had, for example, mutton broth (a favourite of mine) we ate the soup from a soup bowl which was then used for the meat, tatties and vegetables. The sweet, typically tinned custard or rice with tinned fruit was eaten from the same plate. Well, they all mixed up in your stomach, anyway!
Mind you, the plates usually got a dicht with a slice of bread between courses!
There were no personal washing facilities apart from an enamel basin that had to be a different colour from the similar one that was used for washing up dishes! Anyway, in the Minches there were very few places where the fresh water tank could be easily replenished so personal cleanliness took a back seat!
I recall telling the late George Alexander (Doddie Icey), another very dear friend of mine, a man who was orphaned when he was just 18 years old and who skippered his own steam drifter when he was 21, that we would be unable to have a bath for between 4 and 6 weeks when fishing in the Minches. How, I asked, did he fare when he worked the Yarmouth fishery, which meant that he would be away from home for around 3 months?
“Ah weel,” he replied, after some thought, “We wis aye affa fussy aboot that. We aye hid a bath jeest afore we left hame, an we aye made sure we hid anither een as soon’s we got back!”
The toilet was fashioned from a round 5 gallon oil drum that had its top cut off and had a piece of rubber hose or a length of old bicycle tyre attached to the part you sat on . Toilet paper was a page from the Daily Record or, if you were on a really posh boat (which I wasn’t), the Daily Express!
There were no fixed working hours then. It was quite usual to spend the night fishing and then to set off to market getting – if the weather allowed – a couple of hours sleep when off watch en route. The herring then had to be discharged before getting another hour or two sleep en route back to the fishing grounds and another night’s toil. If there was a breeze of south-westerly wind, sleep – even with a wooden fish room board fixed across the opening into the bunk in an attempt to avoid being thrown out – was difficult indeed!
If you caught no herring you got no money and home life was curtailed to a point where it would not be tolerated now.
Not for the first time, I question why we put up with this environment when today there would be a public outcry if the vilest of prisoners were subjected to similar conditions?
I have never found an answer to that question.
Health and safety? You are joking!
We were certainly – I see with hindsight – much closer to nature and we generally worked within nature’s rules. Every sense we possessed with the exception of taste, was used to detect our prey, It was exciting; I cannot imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling than ‘drying up’ a good ring of herring.
Most importantly perhaps, there was a real camaraderie among fishermen then. Also, E.E.C. rulings have now taken the place of the laws of nature and they are the cause of almost intolerable stress. I remember the late Matt Sloan, of Maidens, telling me that one of his daughters was to be married while he and Billy, his brother, were fishing atWhitby. It was agreed that both boats’ crews would go home on a specially hired bus on the Saturday to attend the wedding on Sunday. They fished as usual on the Friday night and Matt’s boat had a good load of herring aboard when they berthed in Whitby on the Saturday morning.
“A group of Whitby fishermen came aboard as we were preparing to discharge,” Matt told me. Get yourselves washed and get off home’ they said. ‘We’ll discharge the herring and look after your boat. Off you go and give the happy couple our best regards!’”
He then told me that when they arrived back after the wedding celebrations they found their boat safely berthed ‘up the river’, washed down with hardly a scale to be seen on her.
I would love to think that this might happen today – but!
I remember asking the aforementioned Willie Jackson why he didn’t continue fishing after a decline in earnings meant that they had to abandon the ring net and resort to prawn trawling at times in order to try to make ends meet. He replied: “Trawlin’ for prawns? That’s no’ fishin’ – that’s sheer f****n’ boredom.”
I now find myself back where I started!
Why is it that, despite the facts that the conditions we worked in and the lives we led were intolerable by today’s standards, just about any one of the rapidly diminishing band of men who took part in the glory days of the ring net fishery will tell you that, given the chance, they would do it all over again?
I am sorry, you will have to tell me why this is so, because I simply do not know.
When the last river is poisoned; when the last tree has fallen; when the last fish in the sea is dead; then, and only then, will we understand that we can neither eat gold, nor drink oil.