The photo above shows the very last of the Buckie Drifters, taken during one of their final fishing seasons. They had travelled from their home port, through the Caledonian Canal, to Ullapool for the herring fishery. My mother captured them one early summer’s morning in 1962 as they prepared to put to sea, little realising they represented the end of an era.
The Buckie Drifter was the culmination of many centuries of the shipwright’s craft: a hand-built wooden hull carrying a handful of men into the raging waters of the North Sea. It evolved through a line of Scaffies, Fifies, Zulus, Drifters and finally Seiners – but the 1960s brought a sea-change to the fishing, and the traditions of barking the nets and varnishing the timberwork were swept away by synthetic fibres and steel-hulled construction. By 1966, these little timber craft no longer headed out of harbour to carry out their business in great waters. Over-fishing played its part, too.
Amongst the final Buckie-registered drifters were the Lily Oak and Hallmark – the latter of which you can see on the cover of this issue – BCK-121. The letters indicate their home port, and Buckie boats bearing the BCK mark on their bows travelled far and wide.
Whilst Ullapool grew quieter in the 1960s, Mallaig became the largest herring port in Europe, although its reign was short. By 1977 a ban on herring fishing was in place. In a few generations, one of the world’s great fisheries had expanded, been fished to near exhaustion, then given up.
Herring – the ‘Silver Darlings’ of Neil Gunn’s book – had been a staple of Scottish waters since medieval times, and Crail in Fife was at the centre of the trade in 12th century. Most herring and mackerel were caught in nets, whereas the white fish which live in the deeps were caught using baited lines. Herring shoals were caught using drift nets from the 15th century onwards, when we learned the technique from the Dutch.
The first herring boom happened in Caithness in the 1790s, and by the second decade of the 19th century, fishermen from Banff and Buckie went beyond Wick, sailing for the west coast in their open boats. By the middle of the century, herring dominated the Scottish fishery with some 2,500,000 barrels of fish cured during the short summer season which ran from July to September.
The herring shoals are pelagic, or surface-feeding, and moved clockwise around Britain, travelling from the Minch in May to East Anglia in November. Catches were landed in Scrabster, Stromness and Stornoway during the spring; in Oban, Mallaig and Ullapool during early summer; around the Moray Firth and Fife in high summer, to reach East Anglia late in the year and feed on the rich grounds of the Dogger Bank.
The gutting quines followed the fleet from port to port, processing fish with their lightning-fast fingers, then packing the silver darlings into barrels. Dozens of coopers joined them, making and repairing thousands of barrels each week.
Sailing drifters were typically 75 feet long, cost around £500 for the hull and the same again for the ‘drift’, the fleet of at least 40 nets which hung vertically from a rope strung with cork floats.
Drift netting is a less indiscriminate way of catching fish than trawling, because it depends on the captain’s knowledge of how herring think, in order to predict where the shoal will be. A fleet of drift nets was shot to the windward side, then the boat kept its head into wind using a small mizzen sail. Nets and boat drifted together on the current, rather than boat towing net through the sea as with a trawler.
John Grierson’s famous documentary Drifters, from 1929, captures the process: “Two miles of nets to every ship, hand-over-hand agonies of three hours on end, a dash for harbour in heavy seas, the long labour of unshipping the catch at whatever hour of day or darkness the boat arrives, putting out again, shooting, hauling, seven days out of seven.”
The smaller Fifies and Scaffies were superseded by the Zulu, and by 1900, over 500 of them were registered in Buckie alone . But in 1902 the first steam drifter appeared in port. Steam power enabled the fishermen to travel further, and hence to extend their season. Buckie yards like Herd & Mackenzie were at the forefront of the steam drifter’s development – although as it happens, the very last sailing drifter was also built in Buckie.
The larger steam drifters were carvel-built using timber, around 90 feet from stem to stern. They travelled at 10 knots and had a 30hp main engine plus a steam capstan to haul in the nets. The drifter characteristically had a flush deck, and the nine-feet-square fish hold took up most of the forward area.
You can get a feeling for the character of traditional herring boats from the opening pages of Pierre Loti’s Iceland Fisherman: “The den tapered towards one end, like the interior of a great hollow sea-gull … Large beams passed above them, almost touching their heads, and behind their backs, sleeping berths, which seemed to have been hollowed out of the thickness of the timber, opened like niches of a vault for the dead … Outside, no doubt, was the sea and the night, the infinite desolation of dark and profound waters.”
The halcyon days for these fishers came in the years immediately after Victoria’s death, when Scots herring dominated the European market. There was a huge demand in Russia, the Baltic and Rhineland for herring pickled in brine. Caller herring, or fresh fish, was only practical in Scottish markets – these were the days before cheap and reliable refrigeration.
A good season, coupled with high prices, in 1905 appears to have stimulated the demand for steam drifters, and by 1913 Buckie men owned one third of all steam drifters in Scotland, a total of 276 hulls.
Buckie specialised in herring fishing, hence in drifting, to a greater extent than any other Scottish port. As a result, boat building boomed and three shipyards grew up in the town, including Herd & Mackenzie, and Jones’ Buckie Shipyard, which currently lies derelict.
Yet the introduction of the steam drifter was a double-edged sword: it may have had the capacity to travel much further and catch more fish, but it was many times more expensive to build and operate than a Zulu was. A steam drifter crew typically consisted of a cook, an engineer and a fireman, plus six or seven fishermen – several more hands than a Zulu. The Buckie men would need a run of good seasons and high prices to pay back their heavy investment in steam power…
Instead, the glory days of the steam drifter were short, because World War 1, coupled with the Russian Revolution, killed off its markets. The years between the wars saw the herring fishery in steep decline – in 1914 there were 8,500 Scottish-registered boats with over 32,000 crew, but by 1937 only half of them were active, with fewer than 19,000 crew. The effects hit the Moray ports hard: in 1921, there were over 600 unemployed fishermen in Buckie. The east coast herring boom, which had lasted over a century, was over.
Scotland’s historic link with the Baltic ports kept the herring fishery going on a far smaller scale, but crews struggled to make their living. The aftermath hit Buckie particularly hard – the fishermen’s gamble on steam power had not paid off. Not only were there wages to be paid, but coal for the boilers, repairs to the engines, and nets to maintain.
A drift of nets could be over a mile long, and each Saturday they were repaired, then barked by immersing them in tanning solution and boiling water. At 1950 prices each net cost £14, and each boat had at least 40, sometimes as many as 80. Running costs increased, catches decreased, but the complete collapse of the herring industry was averted by a second war.
At the outbreak of Hitler’s war, the steam drifter fleet was old, and many boats struggled on with worn-out machinery. Regardless, most were requisitioned to work as tenders and inshore craft. Six years later most were scrapped after war service, unfit to be returned to their pre-war owners. That proved to be Buckie’s salvation, as the herring fishery was still going, just, and compensation enabled a new fleet of motor drifters to be constructed. In a reversal of the rules of the sea, just as sail gave way to steam, steam in turn gave way to diesel motors. In 1948, there were only 230 steam drifters left in Scotland, the last of which had been built in 1932 – but twice that number of motor drifters.
Diesel power first appeared in the 1920s, with Kelvin or Mirrlees engines favoured in Scotland, and by 1955 it had completely replaced steam. At 1950 prices, an average motor drifter cost £10,000, and it was the ultimate evolution of the drifter breed: the last working Buckie Drifters, such as the Sea Wave, Hallmark and Go Westward, were diesel-powered. When they followed the silver darlings during the early 1960s, the fishermen in these photos still had to travel to the west coast, basing themselves in Ullapool during early summer.
Although the working conditions on board a motor drifter had not improved greatly over those on a steam drifter, their working week had. Affordable motor cars enabled them to fish the grounds during the week, and return home each weekend, so they regained a semblance of family life.
Drifting became obsolete due to the final stage of the herring fishery’s collapse, and the introduction of two new techniques – the purse seine net and the mid-water trawl. The decline of herring had already led some steam drifter crews to try out Danish seine-netting gear: just as drifting was imported from Holland, seine netting was borrowed from the Danes.
Many fishermen hedged their bets when they built new boats after the war: the diesel-engined, wooden hulled boats they commissioned were suitable for drifting or seine-netting, for either white fish or herring. Although the first seine netters took the same traditional profile as drifters, they gradually evolved into the deep-keeled steel-hulled trawlers you see in harbour nowadays.
Buckie coped with the demise of the herring fishery by taking its old drifters out of service and leaving them to lie alongside in the harbour. By 1957 it was the principal white fish port on the Moray Firth, with deep water fish having taken over from the pelagic herring. Drifting may have ended, but the driftermen of Buckie looked to the future.
Yet today the fishing industry convulses, wide-eyed and gasping on the bottom of the boat, once again. Quotas are strangling its ability to carry on. Who knows which boats will be fishing in a few years’ time – if any – but the prettily-varnished timberwork and elegant carvel hulls of their ancestors have long gone, drifting into history.
Mark Chalmers trained as an architect, but now turns his hand to writing, drawing and photography, as well as designing buildings. His current diversion is finding out about the city that never was – Aberdeen’s unbuilt architecture.Tweet
This is an article from the August 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.