John Simpson stories – one

As I have never seen much written about Portsoy before the war, I will give you my own recollections.

When the drifters were home

steam drifter

steam drifter

When the drifters were home, the harbour was definitely the place to be. They would be preparing for their next fishing trip, so it was a hive of activity: Boilers getting cleaned out, known as ‘blawen doon’. The used steam in the engine would be condensed and the water used again to be pumped into the boiler. But capstan steam was simply wasted after use, so the driver had to sometimes top up the boiler with sea water, which meant the inside of the boiler would be coated with salt.

A lot of painting would also be taking place, with various skills by the crew members, as can be imagined. Miles of heavy leader rope had to be tarred, evidence of this can still be seen at the top of Tom’s Jetty and the tarry steps. This was a very dirty job.  Looking closely the other day, I could still see cloots that had been used to dicht hands, buried in the now hardened tar.

All those hundreds of buoys (bows) had also to be painted in the chosen colour of their respective owners. Coalbunkers, of course, had to be filled – all those coal carts on the pier!

Nets were taken ashore, dried and repaired. Women were expert at repairing nets, fast and neat. Sometimes, nets were also barkett: dipped in boiling bark.

Women would be down scrubbing out the cabins. Of course, beds had to be taken ashore, washed, and the caff (chaff) renewed. Caff was the only filling used for mattresses then. It was collected from the farm, from the steam-threshing mill. It was warm and perfect for sleeping on in a boat.

The women, who were in the gutting crews, arrived home at about the same time as the drifters. Many would send their kists home in the boats, others by train. An exciting time for children: they would be getting a present from dad, uncles, etc. and also from the women arriving home.

Gutting crews, as we know, followed the fleet in different ports, and from Shetland down to East Anglia – a cheerful and hard working crowd.

Many crew members also put ashore a half barrel of salted herring to last over the winter. Modern doctors would have a fit nowadays if they knew how much salt we consumed – though I can’t remember anyone having heart problems due to salt!

Sma’ line fishing



My Granda was at the sma’ line fishing, using mussel bait. Hooks would be attached to a thin horsehair sneed and then tied to the main line. The horsehair line was known as tippence, made by tying the strands of horsehair to a small weight, known as a tippence, and spinning tight. I do not know why we didn’t simply buy line for this purpose, but the old men seemed to know what they were doing.

The baited line would then be coiled into a wooden skull. To save the hooks from snagging when we were shooting the lines, we would put long grass, or sometimes newspaper, between each tier.

When we went to sea, we would haul the lines that had been fishing and then shoot the newly baited lines – in this way we had lines in the water fishing all the time. At the end of the first line we had a weight and a messenger line to glass floats on the surface.

All this seems simple, but mussels do not grow on this stretch of coast. Before I was born, a boat would go West into the firth to load up with mussels to share out. By this time we had to buy them and get them sent down by train.

Down at the links we had ‘skaaps’: lines of stones to mark the boundary of each boat owner. We would spread the mussels along our own skaap where they could live for a while. I do not know the migratory habits of mussels, but as youngsters we would sometimes be entertained by an irate fisherman who was convinced that his skaap now had less mussels than the day before, whereas his neighbour’s seemed to be better stocked . . .

I was, of course, very young, so when I was taken to sea it was usually to steer the boat, but mostly for my sharp young eyes – I had to pick out various landmarks etc. At the time I did not know the significance of all this, but later on I realized that they were taking cross bearings to know exactly where they were.

Now in my eighties, I have discovered something about myself that I was not aware of. We needed new masts for two different boats, and once we fractured one. Again, with my sharp eyes I was taken to the estate to buy a tree. The tree had to be the right girth, thick enough to allow the stripping away of the bark and planing away of the sapwood, no branches, except at the very top to avoid knots, also to allow for shrinkage, and, of course, dead straight.

So, there we have it: other people can admire the beauty of a woodland, but I am looking for masts!

It was left to the women, such as my Grannie, to sheil and bait the lines. Grannie had a small knife, which she used to split the mussels open. She would then put a wisp of sheep’s wool round the baited hook to prevent the soft bait dropping of when we were shooting the lines. We called the wool ‘sheepies ooh’, collected from barbed wire fences.

When the fish were landed, those that were not sold were taken home. My Grannie would clean and fillet them. Some would go into the smoke shed and the rest would be carefully packed into her creel in greaseproof paper to be sold to customers in the town and surrounding countryside.

fisher wives wi creels

fisher wives wi creels

Some of the women took their creels on the train to sell fish further inland. None of us had a radio, so we’d no weather forecast As most of us were in sail, men would crowd round the weather glass in the early morning darkness and also search the sky for signs of bad weather.

They would also go to the Doonie to gaze at the horizon. They would do what they called ‘far seeing glaises’ to get a better look, while we youngsters wanted to hear the words: ‘it’s nae gaun ti be a mornin’ – then we would scurry back to our warm chaff beds.

One Saturday morning, I saw the wisdom of all this caution. The sky was ominous but the fish were plentiful further East. All we needed was a good hour with our darras over the ground, so we decided to risk it. The wind at this time was from the West, but not too strong, so we ran to the East before it. The winter dawn was breaking as we arrived, and I was sick. The boat stopped, lying over the broadside, rolling, with the sail idly flapping, always turned my stomach. But no time for self-pity, the cod were thick and we were getting on well.

Suddenly my Granda rushed forrit and threw the turns off the haliard cleat – he had spotted a big dark cloud rushing down on us. He brought the yard crashing down, we sheltered under the sail, and the noise of the hail was deafening.

When the hail stopped the wind came, and big flakes of snow. We hoisted the sail to the half head (haff heed) and set off West for the harbour.  Tacking to the North was fine, although we shipped some water and had to bail. Everything had turned black.

When we tacked to the South we had to wear – that is, turn away from the wind – as our stem would not go up through, so we always lost a little ground when tacking.

Running South, I had to be on the alert as we were heading for the land – not ideal with the snow in my face. Don’t know how many times we tacked, but suddenly the wind and snow were gone and we were in the lee of the land. Everything went deadly quiet and the sun broke through. We had to take an oar each and row for the harbour.

I don’t know what I expected – people asking how we had coped or something. Nothing! It was only at sea that this squall had been in force, so no one ashore had been in wind, snow and darkness. My pal was on the pier with his black grocer’s bike – he had a Saturday morning job. ‘Fit a bonnie day,’ he said, ‘it wiz snawin up the country tho, good job ye missed it.’

A bit miffed, I said nothing. I was learning!

I, myself, would only go to sea in light mornings, when we could start early, as I had the school to go to. Homework was a no-go area.

Just as I was becoming useful, the source of bait dried up. Maybe it was too expensive.  We did try herring for bait, like they used at the great line fishing, but success was very limited. I think it was the finish of sma’ line fishing in this area.

We now had to resort to hand line fishing, or sprool, as we called it. Many years later, I talked to someone along the coast, who told me that they could make a lot of money working sma’ lines, but no amount of money could induce people to bait their lines.

My Granda went into partnership and our boat was no longer based in Portsoy, so I was not called upon very often. Instead, I got an after school job making bow lids – the wooden part of the canvas buoy for keeping up the herring nets. The small factory was in that building behind the corf house.

Although the war had started, there were still bigger boats at the herring fishing – though not in Portsoy. These were older boats, such as Zulus, and not called up for war service. So, the produce of this small factory was still needed.

Preparing for war

A lot of activity had taken place at the harbour when they came to commandeer our drifters for war service, all the nets bundled up and taken ashore, bows, ropes etc. They sailed with their crews – those that were able. Sadly, our drifters never came back, and it also marked the end of the coal ships coming into Portsoy.

They had put a pole with a painted square in the middle of the former train line in Low Street. It was supposed to change colour if we were attacked by gas. We were given gas masks and identity cards. Windows had to be completely blacked out at dusk, and air raid wardens patrolled the streets to ensure that this was done.

Old men who had survived the trenches were now back in uniform (Dads Army). The firing range at heathery was very much in use – they still had WWI rifles.

They also erected a building on the pier at the new harbour for shooting flames across all the way to the old harbour, for anti-invasion purposes. As invasion seemed imminent, we were given lectures on some very gruesome methods of killing the enemy when they arrived … ‘Yeah’.

Something now happened that was to have an indirect impact on my family some months into the future. As it was wartime, we never discovered what happened, but a huge oil slick had hit our stretch of coast. Boats, harbour rocks and beach were all covered in thick crude oil. Even our two resident swans were covered. The floating oil moved out with the tide but left a coating over everything for years.

As it happened, my Granda went out in the wartime darkness to tend an Admiralty trawler, anchored in the bay. When he had not returned when it was getting late, I was sent to the new harbour to check. The boat was moored up, but my Granda was not to be seen, so I went home.

Later that night, the man next door went again to check with a powerful torch and discovered him floating between the boat and the pier. He had slipped on the oily iron ladder and bumped his head. I suppose he would qualify as a casualty of war.

Our classes at school were now split in half, so we only attended on alternate half days, in case a bomb landing on the school would wipe us all out. This arrangement suited us very well, for I was able to get a job as a delivery boy for Arthur Clark, the chemist. I liked his wife and him very much, my future could have been bright, as they had no family, but there was too much ocean out there and I had to see what was over that horizon.

I woke up one Thursday morning and discovered I was now 14, and told the headmaster I was gone. He asked if I would at least come on Friday to finish the week. I told him I would think about it! I did actually go, and discovered that this stern man had a faint sense of humour. He kept giving out homework to the class and with a wink telling me he would see mine on Monday.

Before the NHS

Sorry for a very patchy description of being brought up in the house of a fisher family in the days when there were no handouts and no NHS. For example, there was a door at the bottom of our street that always stood open. When I got older, I asked one of the men at the shore why this was. I was told the old couple that had lived there had fallen on very hard times. Afraid to ask for help in case they would be taken away and split up, they tried to disguise the fact that they had almost no food in the house. But the powers that be finally stepped in, and they were taken away. I hope it was not as bad as they had feared.

Perhaps worth a mention:  There was no NHS or welfare state, so we had to live by our own devices. Certainly, in our area all births were at home, attended by neighbours.

It was common to have a beggar at the door, some heading for the lodging house at the harbour with their chits from the inspector of poor, ensuring they got a bed for the night.

Everyone was trying to earn a living: organ grinders, knife grinders, one man band – even trying to sell rolls of linoleum and glasses. Dole was only given for a short period, after which they were given a small transitional payment for a few weeks.

A little man would frequently visit Portsoy on a motorbike to check on the unemployed, trying to catch them out. He was called the ‘transitional mannie’ – not a very popular figure.

Of course, when the war started, money suddenly grew on trees. Everyone was offered jobs. They even tried to recruit my old Granda as an auxiliary  coastguard. Everything in night and day production.  Army convoys would sometimes be nose-to-tail going along Seafield Street for the whole day. I have even seen bren gun carriers and troops in Low Street, to get to the bakers.

All very exciting for us youngsters, who at that time had not come to understand how serious it all was. That was to come later!


5 Responses to John Simpson stories – one

  1. hazel higgins

    what a great account and words used I heard as a child

  2. A wonderful informative trip down memory lane. Thanks for all the memories and insights, John.

  3. Annie Robertson

    Great to read about your young life in Portsoy John, wonder what the fishers would think of the fishing boats in your day with no mod cons

  4. Iris Stuart

    You are a natural story teller John. Thanks for sharing these snippets of your early life where you brought your early days around the seatown of Portsoy to life again. I look forward to more.

  5. Vonny jones

    I love to hear stories about old times in portsoy. thank you x

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