Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen
Forty Years Service at Scrabster - 1997
Elaine Smith

It was a lovely, calm Sunday morning in early June 1948 and, having recently come to live in Scrabster, the harbour was being explored in the course of the morning pram outing. Being interested in the sea in all its aspects, a conversation was struck up with the crew of two trawlers tied up to the old "St Ola" pier - "Everything is so peaceful, you must be pleased to have a rest in the harbour" - "No fear" was the reply "We are ‘twicers’ (trawlers sent out in pairs to fish) and we are ‘Sunday boats’ (owned by a Company which decreed that their boats went in to a harbour on Sundays). We are bored stiff; there is nothing for us to do in this little harbour".Feeling that this was an unfair reflection on the friendly port of Scrabster, the pram was quickly trundled round to the Harbourmaster’s house where the Harbour Master proved reluctant to pursue the matter. Having passed a large iron buoy which carried a collecting box for the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, the next question was "Don’t they do anything for fishermen?" The Harbourmaster brusquely explained that there were Societies and Missions but his sea-going experience had not given him happy memories. He had played in a football match for one in Tenerife and damaged his knee - hence this was the reason for his shore job. "We don’t want any of them around here."After a year or so, and getting to know the Harbourmaster better, it was realised that he was a thorough and astute character but kindly beneath his gruff exterior. So the subject was again broached. Could he give names of those associations which collected donations to provide facilities for seamen? The list was duly forthcoming. Three letters of enquiry were despatched: two refusals were returned plus one very tentatively asking for the harbour records relating to fishing and boats - it was from the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen.

The Harbour Master provided the records which included the information that the twin harbours of Thurso and Scrabster were, until 1950, classed as one port in the Statistical Tables but since that year, in consequence of the increasing importance of Scrabster, they were recorded separately; in that year some 1000 tonnes of white fish, caught mostly on the banks to the west of Orkney, was landed at Scrabster; in 1955 nearly 2500 tonnes of cod, haddock, whiting, plaice and skate, in that order, were landed and marketed by seine-net vessels from Wick and the ports on the south side of the Moray Firth. There were only a handful of local vessels but trawlers from Grimsby, Aberdeen, Hull and Granton called almost daily for ice, coal, fresh water, minor repairs or to land and pick up members of their relief crews.

Correspondence flowed for a couple of years with the Headquarters of R.N.M.D.S.F. A bargain was struck that the "locals" would provide tea and biscuits in the old Bethel Hall, and supply newspapers, dominoes, darts, etc.. The demand for further facilities could then be judged.. Trawlers and the Buchan coast family seine-net boats using Scrabster as a base were often storm bound and so the Hall was well used. An inspection by one of the Mission superintendents took place one evening - no criticism was made but teas were in progress and a tin of biscuits being offered - his report read "if the ladies would put the lid on the tin of biscuits they wouldn’t go soft! He didn’t endear himself to the local housewives and the Harbourmaster had an opportunity to quip "I told you so!".During this period the "Leicester City" went down in the Pentland Firth with many crew and after hours of heroic searching, the Thurso Lifeboat brought the bodies back. They had to be laid out in the Bethel Hall and relatives contacted. Following a visit from Council members of the R.N.M.D.S.F. it was then decided they would build a Mission at Scrabster.

It was now in the hands of the Harbour Trust. Where was the building to be? Every inch of the harbour was utilised, particularly the water frontages. The majority wanted the site to be on the Square Quay, (the present terminal area for the Orkney ferry) as this was not in use then. After much persuasion, and the final comment that "it had to be between the boats and the pub" the present site was allocated.

Up went the main hall, small kitchen, toilets and bathroom, small rest room and bunk bed accommodation. An assistant superintendent arrived and was given a caravan for his living quarters.

On 3 August 1957 after nine years of negotiations, an Opening Ceremony took place in front of an enthusiastic crowd. A platform was erected outside the door, the Mission flag was flying and the building was complete in its bright new colours. After the customary words were spoken, the guest speaker invited the then coxswain of the lifeboat, Angie Macintosh, to put the key in the lock and he turned it and entered as the first ‘customer’, followed by his crew. There were huge cheers from the large crowd. One very important point was made. The Harbour Trust wisely stipulated that a condition of the lease of the ground was that the Mission was to serve the local people as well as the fishermen. (Visitors to the harbour are welcomed for a cup of tea!) This policy has been strictly adhered to and it has worked well both ways - the local youngsters and adults have a useful facility; they look on it as ‘our’ Mission and the Superintendent has the support, both physical and mental, of the community at all times. A local committee supports the Superintendent. The running of the Mission was now in the hands of the Superintendents, who came and went, each doing a few years stint. There were few cars in those days and when the boats were stormbound, the fishermen, in particular the Buchan fishermen, were very glad to make use of the Mission.. Some evenings they overflowed into the corridors and vestibule. The local fish shop owner, Dick Spiers, was a brilliant pianist and would ‘thump’ out songs and hymns to beat the noise of the wind and sea outside. Films were obtained from Shell and BP to show on a loaned projector. One night it was left to a ‘local’ to organise and after great difficulty with the projector, the film, a Monte Carlo Car race, appeared on the screen with all the cars racing round the top of the screen upside down! It was hilarious and as the sound track was the right way round the audience insisted on seeing the whole race take place on the ceiling! Soon the Superintendent had to move to ‘digs’ in Thurso. The caravan was not suitable for the weather conditions so the R.N.M.D.S.F. were asked to extend the building. An additional area of ground was leased; a billiard room added on and overhead accommodation made for married quarters for a Superintendent.Every year the Mission has gone from strength to strength. The requirements change. The tonnage of fish landed in 1996 was 24,800 tonnes. The newer boats increasing get larger, more overseas boats trade, new marketing facilities have been provided.. This has meant extra canteen facilities for fish buyers and salesmen, lorry drivers and increased harbour staff all round. Up-to-date kitchen equipment had to be installed in the Mission to meet these requirements. A very important section of the Mission work is in connection with sea-going accidents, illnesses and emergencies: Shipwrecks and disasters do still occur with the comforting and counselling, apart from the practical work entailed, having to be given to crews and their families. Over the years, unpublicised and quietly, the Mission Superintendents have carried out unstintingly their other un-sung work of visiting and supporting every fishing family throughout Caithness and Sutherland including Helmsdale and also in Orkney. This support in troubled times both mental and physical, has been and is, invaluable.

All this costs money and the community is not slow to acknowledge and support the finances of the Mission. A ‘Fayre’ is held every year at Scrabster (this year the weekend 6/7 June). Anyone who has attended knows of the wonderful donations given by not only the fishermen with their fish and crustaceans, but also the gifts from local shops and businesses, and of course all the ladies rally round with baking, teas etc. and the men take charge of the fun games.Now with the hustle and bustle going on in the extra busy Mission hall, the original small rest room is required to be used as an office. The fishermen, the first priority of the Mission, need a small quiet room to relax and to discuss their fishing business. Also the very small amount of accommodation for a married superintendent requires addition. These extensions are to be incorporated this year and are to be built shortly.

The Anniversary Weekend this year (2/3 August 1997) will mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of the previous extension. It is hoped to have the present new secretary R.N.M.D.S.F attending the Fayre and hopefully Cdr. Hague, the ‘old’ secretary at the Anniversary celebrations, plus one of the first superintendents who is now a minister - Rev. John Billows.One final word - the present Superintendent has the record for staying the longest number of years at Scrabster - long may he STAY.