Sunday, February 22, 2015

Seal Fishing. Article V, 2/10/1879 - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea, and Neighbourhood – Part A

Article V. written by Alexander Gunn, aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 2 Oct 1879. Part A

Warning: This recollection of Alexander Gunn contains a description of a seal kill in the 1840s that some may find disturbing.

A seal snoozing at Dunnet Head, Highlands, Scotland
“ I said in my last that the seal fishing, or farming if you will, was a very considerable item in the industry of the people of Auchencraig: and so it was. The way in which the thing was managed was this. A man named George Grant, “Pogach,” who lived in Auchencraig, paid so much yearly to the Laird for liberty to kill the seals, of which there were hundreds upon hundreds about the coast at that time.
A seal sleeping on the ramp at Dunnet Head, Highlands
Grant would take his boat, and accompanied by five or six men, would proceed to the coves, where the seals had their young, in the month of October and November. Several of the boat’s crew were armed with thick strong sticks, about five feet long. It was always at night that they went on their sealing expeditions, and as soon as they touched the beach in one of these coves, so many of the men leaped on shore, each armed with his cudgel, and accompanied by a man carrying a large brilliant torch, which lighted up the cavern.
In trying to work out what the torches would be like I have found this picture of spearing salmon drawn at a similar time, that comments, "One man holds the torch, which is composed of pieces of tar barrels, old ropes, bog fir etc." McIan's Highlanders At Home.
There were usually some left in charge of the boat, which was rowed stealthily at first to the shore, so as not to disturb the animals; but as soon as the light shone in the cove, the seals made for the sea, when they were met by the party carrying the bludgeons, and who laid on the seals with all their might, aiming at the nose, the only part of the seals where a blow would have any effect. If struck on the nose the blood flowed freely and the beast bled to death. If you were to pound him in any other part, it would have no more effect than if you were thrashing away at a bundle of straw. Even a rifle ball, unless you were very close at hand, bounds off the seals skin without doing him the least injury. There might be from 10 to 20 or 30 seals in the cove, and a pretty large portion of these would fall under the stroke of one or other of these men. The remainder would make their way back to the sea, where they were all safe. Should a wounded seal – one bleeding to death – be able to crawl his way to the sea, it would staunch the wound, and he would survive after all.
A cove near Dunnet Head, north-east Highlands.
It was no uncommon thing to be struck violently by stones thrown by the seals when pursued. They had an art by which they could cast stones to a considerable distance, and with great force, with their hind feet, or paws rather, and often wounded some of the party engaged in the slaughter. They would also seize a man by the leg if they had a chance, and once they got hold, they would not let go until they heard or felt something give way. The parties engaged in killing these animals were in the habit of having two pairs of stockings on, and had the space between lined with charred wood, which, when the seal seized the man by the leg, cracked and broke, and when the seal heard or felt this, he let go, and the party escaped unhurt. Some of the seals were very bulky animals. I remember once coming on one in a cove where she had her young, and she was crying and speaking to her young. We slipped in unknown to her, and ran our boat along-side of her, when two of us leaped out with our weapons. She heard us by this time, lifted her head, and cast a look at us, we coming down on her at the same time with our bludgeons, but she gave one mighty plunge into the sea, which raised a wave that filled our boats as full as an eggshell, and she got away. She was fully as long as our boat, which was fourteen feet of keel.
Scotland's jagged north-east coast, with its coves and beaches

After a number of seals were killed in the way I have described, they were tied together and dragged behind the boat, and hauled up above the tide-mark and left there for several days, as the longer they were allowed to lie, the more oil did they produce. They were skinned, the blubber being taken off along with the skin, and next the blubber was separated from the skin, and latterly melted down in a large boiler, after which the oil was drained off, put into barrels, and sent to the market, Cromarty and Inverness being the principal markets for the oil. Hundreds of gallons of oil were thus yearly disposed of, and the price realised for the skins was very considerable as well, but this is all changed now. No herring fishing, or fishing of any kind; and why? Because a former Laird took a fancy for the poor people’s bits of lots to fatten his sheep upon, and at one sweep cleared away every one of these thirteen families.”

Friday, February 13, 2015

Herring Fishing. Article IV, 25/09/1879 - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea, and Neighbourhood – Part B

Article IV, written by Alexander Gunn, aka A Native of Badbea, was printed in the Northern Ensign on 25 September 1879. Part B
Berriedale, just a short distance from Auchnacraig, showing
 the fishing nets drying, the women gutting the fish & the
 barrels ready to pack them. William Daniell 1820
"Auchencraig had a sort of harbour or port, where a very successful herring fishing was carried on. I remember there being 12 boats engaged fishing there; and though they were the old fashioned kind, they used to make good hauls. If they did not land the number of crans that are common in these days, they had not the outlay. There were four of a crew, and 18 or 20 nets of 30 yards long, 9 or 10 score deep. One man could carry four of these to the spreading ground quite easily. There was, however, a very considerable amount of money put into circulation in these days. The stir with coopers and gutters, and the carrying of salt and barrels from Helmsdale, was something considerable. There were not only local curers, but some of the Leith curers had stations there, and a few of the boats. The white fishing was also carried on at Auchencraig, but as at Badbea, there was no market.

Seals below the Great Stack, Duncansby by Richard Webb

There was another branch of industry engaged in at Auchencraig, which at that time was of considerable importance, viz, a seal fishing. Your readers are not to run away with the idea that there were ships from Auchencraig sent out to Greenland. This was not the case, but nevertheless there was a considerable trade in seal fishing. The caves from Ousedale head to Berriedale head abounded with seals, and the laird, Mr James Horne, claimed them as his property, and rented them to a man in Auchencraig, who paid him a handsome sum yearly for liberty to kill the seals, and dispose of the oil and skins."


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Whisky & Atalanta. Article IV, 25/09/1879 - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea, and Neighbourhood – Part A

Article IV, written by Alexander Gunn, aka A Native of Badbea, was printed in the Northern Ensign on 25 September 1879. Part A

"I purpose now to draw my remarks about Badbea to a close, and to introduce your readers to our neighbours in the west - the inhabitants of Auchencraig, which lies reclining on the slopes of the hill, and looking about due west. Unlike Badbea, it is seen from the turnpike road, almost as soon as the traveller crosses the Ord on his way northward, and is also seen from the road as the traveller passes Ousedale southward. It consisted in my time of thirteen houses or families, and, like their neighbours of Badbea, each had a croft to cultivate. Auchencraig was in a more regular form than Badbea. The houses were all in a line at intervals of a few hundred yards apart, the land running down from the front of the houses in the direction, and pretty close to the burn, which was sometimes called Ousedale burn, and at other times Auchencraig burn.

Achnacraig and Auchencraig are the same place. 
The Ousdale burn runs down the left side of the picture.
Badbea starts at the top right hand corner where the B is. 
Map: Ordance Survey 6 inch 1st Edition 1843-1882
Ruins of Achnacraig by Sylvia Duckworth
The Auchencraig folks lived very much in the same style as the Badbea folks. The bothy and the "black pat" were as familiar with the one as they were with the other, but Auchencraig had an advantage over its neighbours, when the gauger visited the district, because coming from the east as they did, they paid their visit first to Badbea, which was not slow in despatching a messenger westward to announce the prospect of a visit from the enemy. The delay at Badbea gave the Auchencraig people a little more time to secure their malt or whisky as the case might be. The whisky, however, was not kept long on hand after being manufactured, but was disposed of as soon as possible, either to the innkeeper at Berriedale already referred to, or to some of the Helmsdale innkeepers. Donald Ross of the Commercial and Donald Mackenzie being the best customers. There was great risk in going to Helmsdale with the whisky, as there were gaugers stationed there, who were ever on the alert, and watching the principal road to the town.

The Highland Whiskey Still (1827) by Sir Edwin Landseer. 
Hathi Trust version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library.
There were many hairbreadth escapes by parties going to Helmsdale with their precious treasure. It was always at night that it was sent, and sometimes there were seizures made, but as already stated, the law was not very stringent, and the greatest loss was the forfeiture of the whisky. 
Illicit Whisky Still, Glen Torridon, Wester Ross by Tom Forrest
This illicit whisky still located in a concealed gully is believed to have been in use as recently as the late 1950's. 
The "Atalanta" paid the Auchencraig folks a visit occasionally, just as she did the Badbea folks. One day on her putting in an appearance at Auchencraig, the people were very unprepared for her. Several of them had malt in hand at various stages, and on the news spreading that the "cutter" was on the coast, it created no small commotion, everyone running here and there, helping their neighbours to hide the malt. The captain of the cutter, always on the alert with his glass to his eye, saw what was going on, and at once dispatched a boatful of his men shoreward, armed as they always were, to the teeth. The boat reached the shore, and in a few minutes the smart cuttermen would be in full swing, pursuing the parties carrying and concealing the malt. But the women, who are always fertile in resources when an emergency arrives, betook themselves in great numbers to the braehead, right above the shore where the boat had just landed, and commenced to hurl down large stones on the cuttermen below, which placed them in imminent danger of their lives, for if struck by one of these stones which went dashing and bounding down the face of the rock with the speed and the force of a cannon ball, it would grind them to powder; and if one of them struck the boat, it would smash it into match-wood. The captain of the cutter saw the predicament in which his men were placed, and he sailed in as close as he could to the face of the rocks, and opened fire on the women on the braeheads from a couple of small guns with which the cutter was armed. But he had a poor chance of doing any damage amongst the intrepid females, as they stood so high above the level of the cutter that it was seldom a shot reached over the top o the brae. The women continued the battle until everything was put out of the road, and then retreated to their houses, after which the cuttermen climbed the rocks, and scanned the town from end to end, seizing every woman they could get hold of, and inspecting their hands to see if they showed marks of being engaged at the stone rolling. Some of the women they attempted to drag towards their boat, but the men who thought it more prudent to keep out of sight at first, appeared on the scene, and interfered in the matter, which caused the cuttermen to desist. It was very near turning out a serious matter, for had the cuttermen persisted in their attempts to drag the women to their boat, the people of the place would have risen as one man to protect their wives and daughters; and the cuttermen, being well armed, lives might have been lost."

This story from 1826 would support the claim that 
incidents  with the cuttermen could be very serious. 

Revenue Cutter HMEC Greyhound chasing a smuggling boat 1794

Details of the Atalanta.
Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 31 May 1845