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Caithness Field Club


Vol. 1. No. 6. October, 1975.


The little harbour of Sandside was built in the early years of the nineteenth century as a 'harbour of refuge' on the exposed north coast of Caithness, and withstood, quite unscathed, the fury of the Atlantic for well over a century, until that disastrous January morning in 1953, when the hurricane which left a trail of destruction across the north of Scotland breached its stout walls and caused widespread damage.

Today, apart from a few spare-time lobster fishers, the little haven lies empty. The tide of life has ebbed away from the little 'fisher toon', where a closely-knit community once wrested a livelihood from the sea, and the north coast is so much the poorer and less colourful because of it.

In its early days, Sandside was frequently a scene of great activity with herring fishing and its attendant coopers and curers; and it is said that at times it was possible to walk across the basin on the closely-packed boats, while Dutch and French vessels, which sold spirits and tobacco to the herring fleet on the fishing grounds, would occasionally dome in to add a romantic element to the scene.

At such times we may be sure that the crews of the French luggers would quickly find their way to the nearby tavern - not for liquor, for they had plenty of that - but to talk to Marie, the landlady, who was a countrywoman of their own who had found her way to the far north of Scotland as a bride of Willie Campbell, a local man who had fought at Waterloo!

One of these luggers was a fairly frequent visitor to the little-harbour, and on these occasions it is said that one of the crew, known as Joseph, could invariably be seen making his way up the hill to a nearby farm, carrying a small tin pail containing brandy which he would exchange for milk. We can imagine the farm work proceeding right merrily for the remainder of that day!

On one memorable occasion Joseph had gone sightseeing to the village of Reay, about a mile from the harbour. His shore-going outfit included a swallow-tailed coat and an immense umbrella, so, when his wanderings brought him to the local smiddy, some of the "wags" always to be found there thought they would get some entertainment by persuading him to mount a horse which the smith had just shod, thinking that, apart from being a comical figure, the sailor would be completely "at sea" on horseback.
Strangely enough, Joseph seemed quite willing to oblige, and mounting, complete with umbrella, jogged out towards the main road to the delight of the group gathered at the door of the smiddy.

Their amusement was short-lived for they little knew that they were dealing with a man who had, in his younger days, served as a trooper in the French cavalry, and who now proceeded to gallop the old nag unmercifully to and fro, wielding the big gamp as an imaginary sabre with which to execute all the still-remembered cuts and parries of the cavalryman's sword drill, while the distracted owner of the horse made frantic, but ineffectual, attempts to intercept him, but it was not until the poor beast was almost exhausted that Joseph brought his performance to an end!

However, the honour of Reay was upheld on another occasion when it was a Frenchman who misjudged his man.

A lugger had entered the harbour, and among the spectators on the quay was a simple-minded local worthy of whom many tales are told. No doubt he would be a peculiar-looking figure, and the French skipper thought he would get some fun out of him by challenging him to go aloft.

Strangely enough this was child's play to Davie who had served in the navy in his youth, and indeed it was said that his mental state was the result of having been struck on the head by a bottle in some drunken brawl at that time. In any case he soon took the wind out of the "Froggy's" sails by rapidly reaching the mast-head, where a pennant was flying, and this he tore down and cast derisively into the harbour. Unfortunately, carried away by his triumph, Davie attempted to descend by sliding swiftly down a backstay in spectacular "man o' war" fashion. Perhaps he had forgotten that his hands wore not as horny as they once were, for the friction so seared his palms that he was obliged to let go his hold and, falling to the deck, broke both ankles. As a reflection on the times it is said that he lay on the quay, wrapped in a sail, for two days before receiving any medical attention.

These vessels did not trade, at least openly, while in port, but on one occasion a lugger was lying at anchor in Sandside bay, and it was obvious to the local constable, Rory Mackenzie, that there was an unusual movement of boats and men between the harbour and the Frenchman, and also that those coming ashore seemed definitely more jovial than those going out. In fact it was evident that spirits were being sold and the law flouted.

Encouraged by the fair Marie, who did not relish this competition on her own doorstep, Rory decided to arrest the vessel, but before any action could be taken, proof that the contraband was being sold and landed had to be obtained, so, discarding his uniform he donned old clothes and tried to get out to the lugger where he hoped the unsuspecting Frenchmen would sell him a bottle of brandy. This was easier said than done as the Sandside fishermen flatly refused to assist him, but eventually one man, who shall be nameless did the dirty work and took Rory out to the lugger where he had no difficulty in buying some spirits.

With the evidence secured, and Rory back in uniform, the vessel was arrested and brought into the harbour where she was placed under a guard commanded by an old, local, ex-army veteran.
At the court, which followed, the French skipper produced a bottle of his strongest spirits, as a sample of his stock, and denied that the brandy produced by the prosecution had come from his vessel. The result of this plea must have exceeded his wildest hopes, for, when the contents of the two bottles were sampled, it was found that while the skipper's spirits would take one's breath away, poor Rory's brandy was hardly worthy of the name, so, after another round from the skipper's bottle - just to make certain - the case was dismissed.

It was learned later that while the bottle had been in Rory's possession it had been discovered by his two teen-age sons, who after lowering the level of the contents, had made good the deficiency with water! We don't know what action Rory took with them, but we can be sure he had a very sour face as he watched the liberated lugger leave the harbour and go dancing mockingly across the blue waters of the bay.
In later years Sandside was visited by many coastal vessels, ranging from bluff-bowed old smacks to graceful schooners. Among the latter, some Welsh ships are said to have been outstandingly beautiful and well cared for.

The small, tidal harbour was no place to be trapped in during a northerly gale. This was the lot of the Emmaus, a fine schooner of clipper lines, which was unloading a coal cargo in mid-October, 1877.
The vessel broke her short moorings repeatedly, so, when the wind backed to the N.W. and moderated somewhat, Captain Swanson decided to get out at all costs and make for the shelter of Scrabster Roads some eleven miles to the eastward.

The ship was brought into the harbour entrance where two Sandside fishermen, Robert Stephen and Duncan Macpherson, went aboard to assist in hoisting the sails. Suddenly, without warning, the stout hawser holding the schooner to the pier, strained to breaking point by the surging vessel and press of sail, parted, and rapidly gathering way she rushed seawards.

Fortunately for themselves, the two fishermen were able, by a desperate leap across the widening gap, to regain the pier, where they stood and watched Emmaus go scudding away across the bay. It had been, for them, although they did not know it, a leap for life.

Arriving off Scrabster about three o'clock in the afternoon, the schooner, being light, was unable to sail up to the proper anchorage and was obliged to anchor some distance to leeward, in a more exposed position. That night the gale veered once again to the north, and was soon blowing with even greater fury than before.

About midnight flares were seen on the Emmaus, but the Thurso lifeboat could not go to her assistance, and when dawn broke it revealed the schooner riding bottom-upwards at her anchors.
In the latter decades of the 19th century herring boats were putting out to sea from every harbour, creek, or usable inlet around our northern shores. With the boats growing ever larger, crews from villages without harbours on the north Sutherland coast also made use of Sandside. Here they hauled up their boats for the winter, and fitted them out again amid scenes of bustling activity in the spring. The hauling up of these boats of up to fifty feet in length, by the means of block and tackle, was a strenuous task requiring the united strength of several crews, and much Gaelic exhortation.
Topaz and Crysolite, Lively and Fleetwing, Diadem and Harvest Home - the lovely names of those vanished boats still seem to linger around the deserted causeway where the massive anchor which their crews placed there to act as a hold for their tackles still lies embedded in the soil. Of these boats, the Lively and Diadem, both of Portskerra, were lost with all hands in the disastrous "June Gale" of 1890. Skippered by fine and experienced seamen, they were, at 42 feet, among the smallest boats at sea that night, although the smallest of all, the "Comrades" rode safely at her nets throughout the gale. The Lively was cast ashore in the Bay of Skaill, in Orkney, but no trace of the Diadem was ever found. In all, fifty-six lives wore lost in this midsummer disaster, and even today it may safely be said that no winter passes without the tale being retold around some peat fire on the north coast - the experiences of the various boats recalled, and conjectures made regarding those whose tales shall not be told until "the sea gives up its dead".

Those were also the days of a prosperous white fishing, when dozens of boats shot their "great lines" side by side on the prolific grounds to the north of Sandside: a fishing which was practically brought to an end by the arrival of the first steam trawlers, and the consequent destruction of the lines which the inshore fishermen had been in the habit of leaving to fish, unattended during the night. At Sandside there were three times when every available space on the quays, walls, and occasionally even the boulders on the beach, was occupied by split and salted cod drying in the sun for eventual export to Spain and other Mediterranean countries. In the event of rain, all this fish had to be gathered together and covered with tarpaulins. Some of those bygone summers may have been exceptionally fine,, but it is certain that, with the changed weather conditions of the present day, it would now be futile to attempt to dry such quantities of fish in this way.

If the weather was fine, and fish on the grounds, work went on almost around the clock until everyone secretly longed for the weather to break, and bring some much-needed rest. Of course every spare penny made at such times was carefully "laid by" for the inevitable "rainy days" of winter, when bad weather might prevent anything being earned for weeks on end, and the only fresh fish for the pot would be sillocks caught with a "pook" net in the harbour.

At best, the fisherman's livelihood was always a precarious one, and the members of a crew were frequently brothers who pooled their earnings in the fa1mily kitty, the boat's earnings being quite insufficient to maintain three or four families. Thus economic necessity, and a loyalty to crew and home, resulted in many of these fishermen remaining unmarried, and the consequent dying out of families, and with them a store of hard-won knowledge about fishing marks and grounds on the coast.

Perhaps because of the inevitable element of chance in their calling, few classes of men were more superstitious than the old fishermen, and although I would not go so far as to say that my own relatives really believed in these things. I do know that, for instance, they might 'prefer' not to turn a boat against the sun. Certain creatures were, of course, quite unmentionable, none more so than the salmon, always referred to as "cold iron", and I have seen my uncles grow ominously silent as some garrulous summer visitor questioned them about the salmon fishing while they were engaged in "laying on" their herring nets before going to sea on an August evening.

One local crofter, who loved the sea more than his few mossy acres, once ridiculed this superstition, and, sitting in my grandfather's store, he fearlessly muttered "pigs and salmon" as he baited each hook of his small-line. Strange to say, he caught nothing that day, but Johnny was undismayed. "The sea always bids you come back", he would say.

A green boat was unthinkable, add indeed anything painted green was extremely unlucky. (Is this a widespread superstition, or could it have a local connection with the traditional aversion of the Sinclairs to this colour ever since the Earl of Caithness and his men, all dressed in green, marched away to Flodden, an expedition from which only one man returned).

As long as men go to sea, there will always be lucky and unlucky boats, and if one was especially fortunate the done thing was to obtain something out of her, such as a ballast stone, in the hope that this would carry the luck with it.

A woman crossing the path of a fisherman, on his way to sea was unlucky, while the minister, however much he might be respected in his own right, was, as far as the fishermen were concerned, a bird of evil omen and to take him to sea was as good as inviting a gale to arise.

There was formerly a universal superstition that it was unlucky to have anything to do with the bodies of drowned sailors, but when a vessel was lost with all hands at Portskerra, my great-grandfather was the only man willing to assist the Reay minister in interring the bodies, which at that time was customarily done at the scene of the wreck, and not in consecrated ground. (The fact that the bodies of the crow of the Moy, of Limerick, wrecked on Isauld Point on 1st September 1847, were later exhumed and transferred to the Reay churchyard may indicate the time when this custom ceased).

In any case, it must have been an ordeal for my ancestor to be engaged in such a task with such a companion, and certainly enough to ensure a double dose of misfortune.

Perhaps it did, as he and two of his sons had later to quit the harbour after refusing to participate in a scheme proposed by the laird of Sandside, which would have resulted in half their catch going to him.
Although bygone Reay never lacked some aged crone who was regarded as a witch, these ladies in general seem to have been minor members of the sisterhood, who rarely troubled the seafarers except perhaps in bringing occasional misfortune to those who misguidedly refused them a boiling of fish as my grandfather learned on one memorable occasion. (But that is another story.) Certainly there is no tradition of them over earning a satanic penny by the age-old custom of selling fair winds, so, when a boat from the "Firthside" was storm-bound in Sandside for several days by a north-east gale, the crew were nonplussed when their query "Wha's your lempad heid here?" was answered by the announcement that there was regrettably, nobody locally from whom they might hope to purchase a "brave west wind" to waft them home to their presumably anxious relatives.

Sandside was also the most westerly point at which incoming vessels might expect to find a pilot for the dreaded Pentland Firth, and many a fine ship passed through its perils in charge of a Sandside fisherman. A lookout was kept from the headland above the harbour, a task usually delegated to the fleet-footed younger members of the family, but woe-betide the excited boy who was guilty of mistaking a distant oncoming brig for a barque or full-rigged ship, and thus sending his parent dashing out to sea on an unprofitable venture!

The haste was due to the fact that, at Sandside, the direct route of shipping bound for the Firth passes far off shore, and if the vessel had a fair wind it would often be impossible to set out across her course in time. Competition was also keen, and pilots from as far away as Stroma came drifting westwards on the "ebb" in search of employment and thus it occasionally happened that the Sandside men, after a hard row, or sail, were mortified to see a hitherto unobserved "Stroma man" raising his mast and sprit-sail between them and the ship.

There were of course instances of pilots being carried away when bad weather prevented their landing, and in these days of modern communications we can scarcely comprehend the heart-breaking anxiety which was the lot of the wives and families at such times.
Sandside had its share of such incidents. On one occasion my grandfather and companions set out to meet a ship in the gathering dusk of an October evening. A gale was rising and as the boat which they had hurriedly launched was only some twelve feet in length, it was indeed fortunate that it succeeded in intercepting the vessel, which took men and boat aboard. We can imagine something of the feelings in the homes ashore as darkness fell, the gale increased, and the tiny boat did not return. The waiting for a footstep at the door or the welcome sound of the lifting "sneck". The waiting through the long, sleepless night until the stormy dawn revealed an empty ocean.

However, in this case all was well, and in due course news was received that the Sandside men had landed at Dundee, where they soon obtained a passage north, complete with boat, in an outward-bound whaler, the captain of which pressed them to sign on for the voyage.
On another occasion a boat and crew were given up as lost, although Joseph Mackay, a local seer and the reputed possessor of "second sight" assured the sorrowing relatives that their men were safe and would turn up, as indeed they did, the vessel on which they had found refuge having been driven far to the northward by continuous gales.

The Boars of Duncansby still rage, and the Merry Men of Mey dance as madly off St. John's Point as they did in those bygone days, but the men, fishers and pilots alike, are gone from the once-populous island of Stroma, and Sandside, from which their rivals sailed, lies forsaken, a fate, in these days of large fishing vessels, shared by all the small tidal harbours around the coast.

Life was never easy for those old-time fishermen who, in their open or half-decked sailing craft, endured conditions unknown to their present day counterparts, but it was the life they chose, and most certainly they would have no other.

They called no man Master, and the writer can recall hearing an old Sandside fisherman - a June gale veteran - conclude some reminiscences of his early life with all its hardships and discomforts with these words "But man, you are as free as the maw flying above you".
To know our northern sea in all its changing moods - a sea which they frequently distrusted, perhaps at times even hated, but yet forever loved, and to feel as independent as the seagulls circling overhead - what more could the heart of Man desire?