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Children of the Sea

Children of the Sea
The Story of the Eyemouth Disaster

Foreword by John Home Robertson,MSP
Peter Aitchison


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"A gripping read" {Scotsman}

"So well written it was almost as if the Disaster was yesterday" Newcastle Journal

"One of the most enthralling Scottish books I have ever read" (Scottish artist John Bellany)

Full review from the Scots Magazine (See full review from Newcastle Journal below)

IN 1981 I was in West Cornwall when, just prior to Christmas, the Penlee lifeboat went down with eight local crewmen. By coincidence, I had read a press item about a ceremony held in Eyemouth some two months earlier, and — incongruously in the circumstances — felt an annoyance at my ignorance of the tragedy, 100 years earlier, that this had commemorated. Two decades on, the chance has come my way, with the tremendous book Children Of The Sea, to learn about Scotland’s greatest maritime disaster, the outcome of a fatal “Friday run” that claimed a score of vessels and 199 souls. Of these, 129 were “Haimoothers”, eight of those of what we would now regard as school age. If these statistics are in themselves staggering, so, too, is the fact that many Scots, myself among them, have long been unaware of that calamitous “Black Friday” in October 1881 when “the heavens opened in a most hellish way”. That moment, despite its coming as no surprise, is superbly depicted: “Like the shot of a gun, the storm broke with amazing speed, sweeping all before it”, making it immediately obvious that “this day would not be about lost lines but lost lives”. The motion of the vulnerable craft “tossed the men around like pebbles in a jar” while “men vainly battled on the seas and gambled with a dash for port”. A gamble it was either way, some losers paying with their lives within sight of their kinfolk ashore.

These are no mere dramatic descriptions since we’ve been skilfully introduced to some of those involved and made familiar with their “hunger or a burst” circumstances, as well as their alleged capacity to be “thrawn and ingenious”. We know of their traditions, including that crucial one decreeing: “If one man sailed, all were obliged by honour to follow”, regardless of experience or misgivings; regardless, too, on that 14th October, of the Kingfisher’s repeated warning, uan earthquake’s coming”. We recognise the dour optimism arguing, “What we’ll have tae day this day, we’ll need tae dae quickly”, and the dismissal of the coastguard’s warnings with, “What’s to do? We’ll be oot and in afore the wind blows.” A third of the male populace perished that day. So skilfully does Peter Aitchison involve us with those Eyemouth folk, some of them ancestors, that we sympathise with their desperation, but to his credit he does not portray them as wry, picaresque rogues or hapless victims of authority for, while he identifies with their plight and predicament, he is critical of a stiff-necked intransigence. The loss of so many craft and hands speaks for the severity of the storm, when even on an inland estate, “more than fifty thousand trees were uprooted. It would take four years to clear the damage.” It took somewhat longer to put right the damage done in that town on the EyeWater—onlyby 1981, the centenary of the tragedy, had the population again attained the level of 1881 when 93 women were suddenly widowed and 267 children were fatherless. Here is history as it deserves to be served up —vivid, thoroughly researched, the details convincingly deployed, and totally involving. Given the subject matter, it is grim, at times grisly, but never less than gripping and the writing is lively throughout. The harrowing events are put in a centuries-long context letting us meet this community as the product of its own geography and troubled history. Fisher folk are traditionally “a race apart” because they’re a race together, autonomous, anarchic in some respects but these are Borderers. Besides, many bearing the names of the warlike “riding families”, with a turbulent heritage of their own of “witch hunt, of religious persecution, of war for the King, for the Kirk, for the King and the Kirk, for the Kirk against the King, the Kirk against the ungodly, the Kirk against the English”. Little wonder they had come to regard themselves as “fodder brought out for battlefield slaughter”, or providing “the convenient victim thrown on to the witch-fire”. Over generations they had come to view authority, at best cynically. Smuggling became a more profitable pursuit than the reiving of their forefathers but, by the time of the disaster, they had a long-running war of their own with the Kirk over the matter of the anachronistic “fish tiend” or tithe, an issue that played its part in the tragedy. Peter Aitchison knows his Eyemouth, knows his history and knows just how to present it, for this is raw, real and readable, about the sort of people we recognise and the harsh economics and conditions governing their lives. He conveys the irregular “boom and bust” rhythms of port, fishery and unpredictable hauls and markets; land clearances squeezing landward folk on to the coastal fringes where any future harvests must be won from the sea; how harbour improvements merely created “an impression of safety and encouraged the fishermen to be more daring”. Their daring we have to admire for they seemingly feared neither God nor gale but if they could be fearless they could be feckless and reckless. We have, too, to admire some of those thwarted, frustrated, occasionally “demonised” ministers struggling to serve both their Kirk and the townfolk, too often with “no time for the Kirk and no interest in ideas” who regarded them as oppressors or extortionists. One was regularly “affronted by their insolence on the street”, another “burned in effigy”. This is a many-stranded story entwining bravery, bitterness, bereavement, heroism rewarded with parsimony, distress, disappointment, disasters, enmity, epidemics and, whatever else, a sense of community. Peter Aitchison has done a great job here, and I hope it won’t be too long ere he turns his eye to some other aspect of Berwickshire and Border history.

David Whetstone reviews a gripping book recalling the day 129 fishermen died off the North-East coast.
The Journal

Most days blend into one another in hindsight but October 14, 1881 - Black Friday - still stands out for the people of Eyemouth, the Berwickshire fishing town which has been the pleasant destination for many trippers from south of the border.On that day, the town crouched beneath the epicentre of a hurricane which struck all too swiftly.Nobody was spared its ferocity."I was in the school - we were getting dictation - when it got fair dark, an' a feafu' squall struck the school" recalled William 'Nirley' Nisbet years later."Every wundy was blawn oot and the roof o' the school was lifted clean off."When the wind bowled over a baker's cart, causing the poor horse to be nearly strangled by its harness, a group of children sheltering beneath an upturned fishing boat were showered with cakes and buns.Their stroke of good fortune was perhaps the only thing worth celebrating that day. As the hurricane wreaked havoc, more than 50,000 trees were uprooted on an estate near Duns Castle. Roofs were whipped off and walls collapsed.But all this might have been forgotten in time if the Eyemouth fishing fleet hadn't been at sea.While the storm raged, many of the townsfolk of Eyemouth lined the beach, huddling against the wind and the rain and praying hard for the safe return of more than 40 fishing vessels which had set sail earlier in the day, against the advice of some of the senior crew members.They ranged in age from 17 to 60 and they plyed their perilous trade in vessels with pretty names - the White Star, the Lass O' Gowrie, the Blossom, the Forget-Me-Not and the Lily Of The Valley.Out at sea, the silence before the storm was all too evident. A light wind dropped to a dead calm as the smaller boats caught up with the bigger and ones and the lines were played out.But George Dougal of the Onward would explain how "all in a moment it became as dark as darkness".The storm broke like the shot of a gun. A light north-westerly breeze became a north-north-easterly gale. Rain lashed down and the sea became mountainous.The skipper of the White Star, the man they called Little Dod, tried to instil order among his panic-stricken crew by singing hymns.George Dougal, skippering the adjacent Onward, saw his 21-year-old son, Alexander, swept away, the first known fatality of the day.He ordered the bow of his vessel to be hauled towards land, meaning a perilous journey home in the face of the storm. The White Star then drifted near to the Myrtle. Dod saw it tipped over and sunk in an instant.The seven crewmen, including two fathers and their eldest sons, and a pair of brothers, were never seen again.The White Star survived (it sailed into Tynemouth late the following day after 33 hours at sea) but the memory of what they had seen would live with Dod and his crew."I remember in the midst of the storm seeing 14 men, who were in two boats, drowned right in sight of us," he would recall.In all, 129 fishermen from Eyemouth lost their lives on Black Friday. The waves of grief which swept over the town after the storm subsided were reflected in funeral after funeral.There is little danger of such a calamitous event being forgotten but Peter Aitchison's gripping book makes it seem as if it were yesterday.Having attended the centenary memorial service in 1981, he wondered about the men who had died and the families who had lost loved ones.In this carefully researched and gripping book - illustrated with photographs and with a cover by the celebrated artist John Bellany - he puts faces to the names on the memorial.Eyemouth could have curled up and died of sadness but it didn't. This is a story of courage and survival as well as disaster.