It isn’t quite a year, but it’s long enough to now be able to put my head above the parapet and tentatively say, ’I think I’m starting to get my head round this.’ Last year my only true credentials for the post of Secretary to Orkney Fisheries Association were as the wife of a former fisherman. Another slight inaccuracy, Neil still fishes, but since 1995 we have been unable to rely on fishing for our total income. This is part of the story of this blog and will I hope help to map the dramatic decline in fishing in Orkney since that time.
My background was heavily reliant on family associations with the crab and lobster fishing in Stromness in particular. As kids we were brought up with the vague knowledge of all the extraneous things our father did which meant he was out most nights at meetings of one kind or another. One of the things he was involved with was the OFS or the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, a co-operative set up in Stromness in the fifties to provide the fishermen with a fair return for their catches. He strongly believed that fishermen were often ripped off by the Billingsgate fish merchants who would report that lobsters arrived dead. There was no way of knowing the truth.
The smells of the OFS permeated our Stromness lives up until the factory moved out to the soulless Cairston Industrial Estate. We used to think the fisheries in Alfred Street stank – as they did when they were boiling the crabs and we would run past holding our noses. However today I really miss the smells of the fishery – they were as endemic to the town as the Breweries to Edinburgh. Compartmentalising industry and work away from where people live has also meant a loss, kids on their way to school no longer see the work going on, the smells and the sounds nor imbue the ethos.
We had two fish shops in a town of 2000 inhabitants, Omands and Dowies. Maggie Dowie was a class-mate of my dad’s and was a formidable character and also the sister of Alfie Sinclair, father to Angie and Ollie who both in time were to make their mark as Stromness fishermen. Bob Dowie would give us kids boiled sweeties in the shop while Margaret wrapped up the fish in grease proof paper. The uncoiling roll of brown sticky flypaper held my gaze as my Buckie grandmother invariably argued about whether she had been sold whiting or haddock.
There were two boatbuilders, McKays and Pia Anderson’s. Again my dad and Pia were of like mind and friendly so the ups and downs of the boatbuilding industry came and went around my ears. Of more interest to me in those days was Pia’s wife’s shop, an ‘up market’, well as far ‘up’ as you could get in Stromness, clothes shop where my mother bought her clothes. It had what seemed like glamorous changing rooms with curtains, and Mrs Anderson had a miniature dog (probably a chihouha) with staring eyeys an incessant shake and which looked as if it would break in bits if you patted it.
As a kid I was inside Pia’s yard when my dad had to speak to Jimmy about something and remember being knee deep in wood shavings, hearing the noise of the electric saws and the smell of fresh cut wood. The ‘Highland Board’ as it was known started to help fishermen build boats and it was a big thing. Prior to that many were little more than yoles with a tractor engine. Pia came up with a design which you can still see today and all about it felt like things were thriving. The yard was out a Ness where Stanger’s yard was before and long before it became a camp site, the fishermen stored their gear out there. The other yard, McKays was tucked in behind Wilson’s store on the North Pier just about where the cars Q to get on the North Link Ferry now.
My mother and grandmother cooked in the old fashioned Scottish way, mince and tatties with dough balls, stew with carrots, scotch broth, syrup puddings, custard and apricot tarts with jam from a tin and when it came to fish we had boiled cod, boiled whole in a huge pot (the stock kept of course). I never liked the look of the whitened eyes, but we ate the chunks of cod with white sauce. ‘Yellow’ fish or smoked haddock was eaten poached in milk, but top of the menu was always fried haddock in breadcrumbs. If we got a boiling of partans or lobster that was considered a treat, and the entire kitchen would fill with fishy steam as they were boiled alive. That’s where I learned to cook- by watching them and ‘helping’ roll the cubes of beef in flour or dust the fish with the bright orange ruskoline.
Bear with me it all has to do with the present state of fishing. Like most things its all a bit more complicated that it might at first seem….