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.”

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