Community Voices #1 - Arran fisherman Lawrence McBride
Lynn Ross, an experienced weaver, interviewed an Arran herring fisherman , Lawrence McBride (born in 1899) in the 1980s. This fascinating story helps us discover what fishing used to be like and how fishermen's knowledge of nature helped them find their fish until technology brought in motors and war broke out.
This photograph is of Lawrence in 1983 proudly wearing his Arran Gansey sweater which Lynn knitted for him after copying the pattern from an old photograph.
Lynn has kindly offered to share this pattern of the Arran Gansey with COAST followers. Click here to find out more.
Until 1900 on Arran, fishermen were also crofters. They went out to sea to supplement the work they did on land. By 1900 'following the herring' was a full time occupation.
Lawrence McBride went to sea for the first time on the fishing skiffs with his father at the age of 14. On his first day the men were sailing in Prestwick Bay when they spotted a whale. Whales fed on herring and were a good indication that a large supply was at hand. The whale lifted out of the water and literally showered off his back. The catch that day was 60 tons and two extra boats were needed to help bring it in. Lawrence's father never left him at home again.
When the introduction of diesel engines allowed fishermen to widen their horizons, they often sailed round to Seahouses. They also fished the Clyde. Lawrence
had special memories of the ports at Mallaig, Campbelltown, Maidens, Lendalfoot, Loch Fyne and Ballantrae banks were the most frequently visited.
Herring fishing was usually done at night. There were bigger shoals in winter than in summer and conditions were rough. Lawrence remembered two ways of searching for herring besides the whale.
The fishermen used to look for phosphorescence or 'burning' on the surface of water. The term 'burning' translated from the Gaelic losgadh which describes the shimmering, burning surface of the water.
The other clue to the presence of herring was the diving of gannets or Solan geese. Usually when catching herring the gannet would dive with a vertical plummet so as to go down deep enough to reach the shoal. The height from which the gannet struck was proportionate to the depth of penetration necessary. The high dive was an indication that it was a shoal of herrings the gannets were after.
Where the Lochranza boats went depended on where the fish were and where the markets were. The diesel widened the possibilities for 'following the herring' for the Arran men. Lawrence remembered, though, many a night when they would search the whole night without finding a single herring.
Tools of the trade
In the McBride household, and among the Lochranza fishermen, the small sailing boats used for fishing were called skiffs. The larger boats which were introduced along with the diesel engines were called smacks.
Fishing nets in Scotland were originally made from twisted fibres of flax and hemp. They were usually spun by the wives and families of the families of the fishermen until about 1869. Then the manufacture of nets was taken into the factories.
The spinning of flax into twine for nets was a major source of supplementary income for crofters before 1869. There is a record in Kilmory Parish of quantities of linen twine being exported for nets.
By the time Lawrence McBride went to sea nets were made exclusively of cotton. They were preserved with cutch which turned them dark brown. The process of preserving the nets in cutch was known as barking and still today there is the remains of a small house in Lochranza, called the Barking House, where the vats were kept to carry out the process.
Lawrence explained to me how the nets were made. They were woven in squares with a flat needle. Sprat and herring nets had a gauge of 1 inch squares. The size of the square varied with the fish to be caught. By the 20th Century the raw materials for the nets came from Gundury's Chandlers in Campbelltown. If nets were bought they came from the net factory in Kilbirnie. Cutch was bought by the stone from Gundury's.
The Barking House Process
Lawrence described to me the barking process as it was done 50 years ago at Lochranza pier. At the pier there were 500 gallon vats which were fired underneath like a boiler. The cutch was put in the water to melt and when it was dissolved the nets were put in. The process was called barking because cutch originated from the bark of the various types of catechu trees which grow in south Eastern Asia and the East Indies. The bark of the tree is boiled to make a gum resin which is then used as a base for dye.
Herring fishermen used wicker baskets which were like round clothes baskets with two handles. Wicker was twigs or canes woven together, usually for baskets or furniture. On Arran wicker was made from willow and from an early stage this was supplied by the chandlers in Campbelltown.
Each basket held 7 stone (98lbs) and 4 baskets made up a cran which was the standard measure for fresh herring.(37.5 gallons or 1's 60.6 litres)
According to Lawrence the McBride's invented the stick basket with a long handle which made the basket like a ladle and saved bending. This was later replaced by a brailer, a small net which was worked from two overhead cranes.
Among the fishing folk on Arran and Kintyre, the way of life was distinctive. Superstitions were common, the most notable being that ministers and priests were avoided on working days.
Women were considered bad luck on board the fishing vessel, especially red haired women.
Certain trees used in the building of boats had superstitions attached to them as well. The elder or bourtrie protected from evil spirits. Rowan trees were associated with power, so tillers were made only from this wood.
A piece of wool, perhaps reminiscent of knitting and nights by the fire was carried to sea in a pocket for good luck.
Lawrence described the clothing which was used for the fishing and said that they and no special costume for non working days.
The gear for fishing included oil skin trousers, jackets and hats on the outside. Underneath the men wore jerseys which were knitted by the women in oiled machine-spun wool which was supplied by the chandlers in Campbelltown. No hand spinning was done by the fishing communties in Lawrence's time, although on other parts of the island wool was spun by hand for blankets.
Lawrence described the jumpers knitted for them.
They were knitted in the traditional Gansey style, like fishing jumpers all round the British Isles. They did not have any special family pattern, but incorporated the cable or rope stitch for decoration, and moss stitch for a close knit for warmth and waterproofing.
Lawrence's brother Jimmy and fellow crew member Walter Marshall from the fishing smack the Mary Graham which belonged to Lawrence's uncle. Photo taken by Mackay's studio in Rothesay around 1920. It shows a typical ganset jumper, the traditional thick dark blue trousers made from wool twill and welly boots.
End of an era
In the 1800s there was a fleet of 20 boats on the Kilbrannan sound from Lochranza. Boats were made for the Arran fishermen at Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne, in Campbelltown and Tarbert. Arran fishermen enjoyed good catches until the end of WW 1.
After the introduction of motors, they fished round the Outer Hebrides, as far as Seahouses in Northumberland and could bring in a high rate of pay for each basket of fish.
Between the wars the demand for fish dropped. Tons were thrown back into the sea. After WW2 the fishing industry deteriorated. Around this time Lawrence's father died and his sons made the decision to sell his boat. There was an occasional comeback in the fishing. Lawrence got a job with John Currie of Pirnmill on his fishing smack Irene. John Currie sold the Irene and the last boat on Arran went.
It was the end of an era.