This is a personal history of the boats and the life as I remember it of the the fishermen in Stromness from the 60s onwards.

Whitefish Days of the Haddock Klondyke

by Unknown - 12:46 on 13 July 2012

In 1986 Neil had MV Prevail K44. She was a wooden built traditional Scottish whitefish boat, with good lines and a gentle curve, painted black and white with wood effect comb technique applied on the wheelhouse and the traditional yellow line round the hull. She came north from Eyemouth complete with rope reels for the seine and LH registry. The rope reels were removed to go to the trawl. Back then the fishermen were the gutsy backbone of Stromness, sitting in Raymies Café with its faded photos, the  Country and Western juke box playing and orange polystyrene tiles on the walls. There they would tuck into fry-ups and coffee through a fug of cigarette smoke. 

Alongside Neil who was known by everyone as Stalin, was Titch (Robert) Peace, Jeff Temple, Eoin Sinclair, Angus and Ollie Sinclair, who were all young men in their 20 and 30s with their own boats all fishing whitefish out of Stromness. Among the others who made up the Stromness fishing fraternity were Billy Seatter, Jo Laughton, Raymie Adams, Dougie Adams, Willie Sinclair (young Bilcum), Norrie Mowat, Alistair Buchan, Michael Flett, George and Frankie Sinclair and Harvey Sinclair.I am bound to have missed soemone out so please tell me!

The’ Prevail’ was bought with family help, a bank loan and OIC money –and father and son Neil and Davie Matheson set about working it together fishing whitefish and prawns. Among the crew were Dimma Towers, Andy Elder and Davie Buchan. The pattern was pretty much going to sea on a Sunday, coming in to land on a Thursday or Friday, getting ice doing any net mending and repairs and setting off again on the Sunday. They caught everything. Quotas hardly figured, the boat was in the SFO which had plenty of quota. It was a time when you could head out anywhere  and fish for anything. The picture shows  a huge haul of dog fish taken on an occasion when someone had a camera aboard and got a photo. Another time they came in with a shark tied up on the mast.

The way the fishermen prepared and cooked haddock I learnt at that time, how to skin the fish by slipping the knife under at the tail, pinning the skin to the board and pulling the flesh  through under the knife. The best method was to mix up batter with flour and eggs, dip the fish into it and then cover it in Ruskoline by shaking it inside a plastic bag.

In those days when Neil  frequently came home with plastic bags full of prawns, they would get  boiled straight away and eaten immediately with home-made Marie-Rose (tomato sauce, salad cream and tabasco) lacking any hint of the finesse and presentation of the 4star posh restaurant but incomparable in quality. I was intrigued by the names of the fishing grounds, The Skate Hole, The Patches, The Noup and terms like Hummel Bummels for small prawns.  Any strange fish caught was taken  home to show off – there was a Cat fish – black with sharp fangs, a real ugly thing, Red Gurnards (goudies) with prickly little wings. Monks were not unusual but were highly prized for big prices in the markets and he took them ashore too for tea, pulling them inside out to get the white flesh, their doleful gaping jaws and triangular bodies transformed to a pure white, succulent flesh. In terms of our fish diet we lived like Kings.

The weather forecast was the guiding oracle of life and I too became addicted to it. When they went to sea in those days there was no immediate contact – no email, mobile phone or even sat phone. If you had to contact the boat you had to phone up Wick coast guard to radio them and speak through the echo and delay of the wireless transmission. So you never contacted the boat unless it was a true emergency and their time away from home was a complete communication blackout. You knew that poor weather would send the boat in. Usually the boat would land at Wick or Scrabster and then there would be a call from a phone box to say they’d landed and would be coming back across to Stromness. They worked through Duncan’s of Wick where  the boat’s chandlery supplies were bought and settled up the costs although they took on stores at Argo’s and Flett’s – hundreds of pounds worth of supplies, a big sum then, from stew to chocolate biscuits. Food was very important as fuel for the crew, and the quality of the cook was very essential! The boat worked on a share system. After the boat expenses were paid 50% of the profit went to the boat and 50% to the crew. This was the crew share system.
The Prevail was an old boat though and prone to leaking. The pumps had to be on the whole time which meant old Davie often making overnight visits down the pier to check them in poor weather. In June 1988 I had to use Wick radio to contact Neil with the news Davie had died suddenly.

   Prevail on the slip at Wick 1988
The legality of boat ownership can be complicated, sometimes when a part-owner dies the boat cannot go to sea until the legal situation is clarified. The ‘Prevail’ had been due a refit and  went onto the slip at Wick to be re-caulked, painted and valued to pay out the shares. It was advertised in Fishing News only to get a valuation really, but an Irishman came north and offered the asking price and Neil let it go. In a matter of weeks the Prevail was gone, sold to Portavogie, freshly painted blue and recaulked. My own father, Ricky Moar and Geordie McAughey sailed her with Neil from Stromness to Ireland, returning to us with incredulous tales that the pavements were indeed painted red white and blue across there. Another world it seemed.

Prevail setting off for Ireland 1988

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