There is often a look of astonishment when I tell people that, for me, one of the most inspirational and intriguing stretches of the British coastline is the north-east shoulder of Scotland.
Few know these shores as a leisure destination, yet those who do are hooked. Outstanding beaches with great surf extend for miles, backed by colossal sand dunes reminiscent of exotic deserts.
All along the coast are fascinating fishing villages where dialects are rich and the residents’ character and street plans are shaped by the proximity of the North Sea. Mountains of creels fill gardens and yards; harbours protect the brightly painted small boats of the shellfish fleet; fishermen go about their business in yellow wellies, blue gloves and bright oilskins; and chip shops serve battered haggis and fresh fish landed in the local ports of Peterhead and Fraserburgh.
The fishing industry has long defined this coast; in the 18th and 19th centuries, harbours such as Port Errol and Gardenstown were purpose built to accommodate fleets of boats in pursuit of shoals of herring. The great summer hunt began at island ports such as Lerwick and followed the ‘silver darlings’, as herring are known, all around the coast to ports including Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth in East Anglia, and Newlyn in Cornwall.
Fishermen caught the fish and fisherwomen, known as ‘herring girls’, worked quickly at quayside curing stations to gut and pack the catch in briny barrels for export.
Former skipper Alex Strachan fished out of Peterhead and remembers the exodus. “Every summer between July and September, fisher families all along this coast left home to follow the herring. The men sailed their boats with the fleet, the women took special trains laid on by the railway to work as herring girls at harbours up and down the east coast.” Older sons and daughters worked with their parents, while younger children stayed at home with relatives. At the turn of the 20th century, this extraordinary annual event made Scotland’s fishing industry one of the largest in the world, but overfishing brought about decline.
Yet the fishing industry remains a vital part of the British economy despite the challenge of conserving precious stocks. And it also remains the most dangerous peace-time business in the UK. According to the Fishermen’s Mission, which provides emergency support to fishermen and their families, fishermen are 115 times more likely to suffer a fatal accident than the rest of the workforce and, on average, 25 vessels a year are lost around the British coast. Sometimes the crew is rescued; often not. Known as the Blue Toon, Peterhead may take its nickname from distinctive woollen jerseys knitted by fishwives for their men. Wearing different colours, each community’s fishermen could be identified if tragically washed overboard.
The RNLI built its first Scottish lifeboat station in at Fraserburgh, known locally as the Broch, in 1858. In the quayside shop of the modern lifeboat station, I met Sheila, an RNLI volunteer. Like so many locals, she has experience of tragedy at sea; her grandfather, who worked on a herring drifter, was drowned and her father was badly injured in a fishing accident. She has three sons who work in the industry and naturally fears for their safety. “We have an agreement,” she told me. “I’m not allowed to ask when they are coming back and I can never say cheerio, I just say ‘see you’.”
Recognising the perils of the treacherous coast around Fraserburgh, where the Moray Firth meets the North Sea, the Commissioners of Northern Lights, founded in 1786, installed a light for vessels at sea and a Keeper of the Light in the tower of Kinnaird Castle in 1787. Replaced in 1991 by an automatic light in the castle grounds, the original tower is part of the magnificent Museum of Scottish Lighthouses; an awesome collection of glass lenses from famous Scottish lighthouses makes this a terrific visit.
The red striped tower of Buchan Ness lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1827, stands on a rugged island linked to the granite cottages of the tightly knit fishing village of Boddam by a narrow white bridge. From dusk until daylight, the beam sweeps the North Sea to provide safe passage for fishing and oil industry vessels working out of Peterhead and Fraserburgh.
Rivalry and resourcefulness
The traditional rivalry between the fishing communities of Blue Bogganers from Peterhead and the Brochers of Fraserburgh has been intense, yet together these fascinating ports reflect immense changes witnessed in the fishing industry.
The politics of fishing, declining stocks and marine conservation are complex, and impossible to do justice to here, yet the ports of Peterhead and Fraserburgh have proved that they masters of reinvention, able to adapt to changing times as some traditional stocks have dwindled. Today they service the fishing industry, the commercial import and export industry, the leisure industry and the energy sector, servicing offshore oil and gas industries and renewable energy sources. Boats that used to go fishing are being converted to service wind farms.
Peterhead is a port with significant landings of shellfish, largely prawns, too. Fraserburgh is the UK’s most successful port for the landing of prawns and squid, fished locally in summer and autumn.
Walking around the harbour hub of each town is fascinating. About half of the total Scottish fleet of around 2,200 vessels is under 10 metres long; the largest are giants of around 62 metres. Beside the leviathans, the smaller boats appear like bathtub toys. The biggest vessels are so efficient that they fish for only 16-20 weeks a year to respect international quotas. Regardless of size, boats have evocative names, such as Sparkling Star and Forever Grateful.
As crews unravel lengthy nets for inspection on the quayside, squawking gulls clamour to poke for titbits in the mesh and fat harbour seals rise from the water to peer at the crew, ever hopeful of a lazy meal. Returning from an eight-day trip, a crew of Filipino fishermen in Fraserburgh told me how they work with their Scottish skipper for nine months of the year to send money to wives and children in Manila.
The ports’ modern fish markets are sleek industrial operations, with parking bays for the refrigerated lorries that whisk the fresh fish further afield, although some of the catch is processed locally.
I can never resist a handwritten sign promising freshly landed fish on the harbour. Here, in industrial sheds, the modern equivalent of the herring girls, clad in protective aprons, caps and boots, work skilfully with sharp, glinting knives to expertly assess and swiftly cut up each fish, some of which are almost bigger than them. Eviscerated guts and chopped heads are slung into vats. Cod cheeks, revered as delicacies in Spain, are sliced deftly; fine steaks are delivered to prestigious restaurants in London and fleshy chunks are sent to France. Amid all the activity, locals pop in for a chat and their regular orders.
At a time when there is so much gloom about Britain’s fishing industry amid red tape and falling stocks, I was so heartened to see traditional fishing communities full of life and still gaining a livelihood from the sea. Why not sample it for yourself?