The Price of Fish

120 years ago today my Great Grandfather left the fishing port of Anstruther in Scotland on board the ‘Bernicia’, heading out into the North Sea.

The boat, and her crew, never returned.

This was written by another relative of mine –

On February 12th, 1900, the Shields-registered steam-liner ‘Bernicia‘ left Anstruther harbour with her Cellardyke crew, and was not seen again. Skipper Thomas Watson left a wife and three children…The other crewmen were Daniel Henderson, who left a wife and a grown-up family of five; Alexander Boyter, a wife and six young children; Alexander Gardner, a wife and five young children; Thomas Gardner, a wife but no children; Alexander Murray, a wife and eight children; James Stevenson (20) and Thomas Ritchie (18), young unmarried men, and an engineer/fireman from Shields.

‘Kilrenny and Cellardyke’ by Harry D Watson

That’s 8 men from the same village, leaving 6 widows and 22 young children without a father, including my Grandad.

I’ve spent a lot of time researching my family history – and I’m related one way or another to every crew member. This is what I’ve found out so far.

  • Thomas Watson, the Skipper. His first wife was a 4th cousin 2x removed of mine. After she died Thomas married Agnes Henderson.
  • Daniel Henderson – Agnes’s father, and therefore father-in-law to the Skipper.
  • Alexander Boyter – his wife was the Skipper’s niece.
  • Alexander Gardner –-a cousin to the Skipper
  • Thomas Gardner – my 2nd cousin 2x removed
  • Alexander Murray – my Great Grandfather
  • James Stevenson – a 4th cousin once removed. He was Agnes Henderson’s cousin – so she lost her husband, her father, and a cousin on the same day.
  • Thomas Ritchie – also a 4th cousin once removed.

It’s important these days to remember that there was no way for the fishing boats to communicate with the land back then. The only way anyone knew for sure that there was a problem was when they didn’t return as expected. And even then, there would be some hope for a few days.

A lifebelt was eventually recovered off the Farne Islands (just off the Northumberland coast). Then, and only then, could they be certain.

Their dates of death are given as 15th February, which was the day the storm was at its height, but no-one knows for sure.

The family story is that my Great Grandmother waited at the pier head for the boat to come in. When it didn’t, she wrapped her shawl around her and said, ‘The living need me more than the dead’ and went home and scrubbed her house from top to bottom.

She had 8 children still living when it happened. Of her five sons, one was already a fisherman, one was apprenticed to a fisherman the following year, and two (including my grandfather) became fishermen not many years later.

A couple of years ago there was a production staged at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh – ‘The Bernicia Suite: The Real Price of Fish’, commemorating the event. I went to see it.

There was a piece of music for each man – the old experienced guys, the man who had only joined the crew as a favour because someone else couldn’t make it, the young lads out to prove themselves. And the whole piece culminated in a darkened stage and a single protracted wail from a set of bagpipes. Was it the wind screaming – or the men?

Honestly, I was in bits.

My mother has always said – you should never complain about the price of fish.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. anglosvizzera says:

    Wow. Just…wow. x

    Like

  2. Thanks Anglo. I’m proud of my Scottish fishing ancestry – but what hard lives they led.

    Like

  3. Sue-Anne says:

    What a haunting post. Thanks for sharing it. x

    Like

    1. And thanks for reading it. I think it’s a story that needs to be told – not this story specifically, but the story of all the men who risked their lives and the women they left behind. I remember my Grandad very well, and he was 10 when this happened – so in the grand scheme of things it’s not that long ago.

      Like

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