NOTES on the Fisheries on the West Coast of Scotland, by Captain THOMAS A. SWINBURNE, R.N., of Eilean Shona, Argyllshire.
EILEAN SHONA, October, 1883.
The fisheries of the west coast of Scotland, especially those to the west of the Long Island are practically undeveloped. From Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis there are few fishing boats, and none (excepting from Loch Roag, west of Lewis) that prosecute the long-line fishing regularly.
The fishing ground extends from the Stanton Bank in lat. 56° 10' to North Rona in 59° 10', includes St Kilda, the Flannan Islands, & c , and abounds in cod, ling, tusk, and hallibut; turbot, haddock, conger, and skate are caught with herring and mackerel at certain seasons. The basking shark or sun fish might be fished profitably at midsummer, the liver yielding a large quantity of oil. These parts in olden times sent salt fish to Spain, which is now supplied from Shetland, Norway, and Iceland, but as the cod from those countries is much inferior to the Scotch cod, the old trade should be revived. The reasons why the fishing has not been carried on to any extent are, first, want of a certain market; second, insufficient boats and gear; second, want of harbours.
The first might be remedied by establishing fishing stations where the catch could be landed and forwarded to market by swift steamers, or cured on the spot. Storehouses for ice, salt and other supplies should be built; timber, spars, rope, & c , should be kept so that boats should not be obliged to leave the fishing ground for slight repairs. A fixed price should be paid at each station, so that the boats could run to nearest station according to wind. Supplies of bait should
be ready at each depot. The places I should recommend for stations or depots are—
(1) Barra (Castle Bay or Vatersay),
(2) Monach Islands,
(3) Borrera or Pabbay (Sound of Harris),
(5) Loch Roag (Lewis).
Bait. —Buckies can be caught in most of the lochs and can be kept alive in netted bags towed overboard or small well smacks might be fitted to supply the stations with live bait. Spout fish, lug worms, sand eels, & c , can be got in any quantities in the sounds of Barra, Harris, & c , and mussels can be got on the mainland lochs and laid down in beds at the fishing stations. Very fine haddocks are occasionally caught, but with mussel bait large numbers would be caught and either smoked or sent to market fresh.
Ice could be collected near the head of several of the mainland lochs, from the small fresh water lochs adjacent, and from the back water of rivers, the collection and storage of which would give employment during the winter, each large boat could take out a cargo to the depots before the February fishing commences.
Secondly, Boats.—For the Atlantic fishing a large decked boat would be required not less than 46 feet in keel, 56 to 60 over all, beam from 16 to 13 feet, lug-rigged foremast to lower, foresail dipping lug when at sea, which could be converted into standing or balance lug when working into harbour. These boats could be used for long line, hand line, and drift net fishing, the lines being worked by the boats, or in fine weather each large boat might carry two or more email boats to work extra sets of long lines. These large boats should have capstan or winch with stream anchor, with a length of chain and long hawser for anchoring in deep water. Open boats of 24 feet, carrying four or five hands, could be used near the stations and on the inner side of the Long Island, and four-oared whale boats would be useful for the sun fishery and might be carried or towed out by the larger boats. The decked boats would cost £300 ; 24-foot skiffs, £25 ; 25-foot whale boats, £23.
Thirdly, Harbours.—It would be impossible to make harbours on the Atlantic coast of the Long Island, but the stations I have named have fair natural anchorages, there are also anchorages at Taransay, Loch Hannaway, Carloway, & c , where fishing vessels might run in bad weather.
On the inner or east side of the Butt of Lewis there is a good deal of fishing carried on, but there is very bad harbour accommodation, in fact the boats are hauled up on slips far above high water. I am doubtful if any good harbours can be made except by quarrying into the land, which would be very costly. The boats used are good sea boats, but very roughly and slightly built, and do not last long—fir skin with birch timbers. These boats are about 20 feet keel, 30 feet over all, by 10 feet beam. Carry one high-peaked lug sail. Some improved method of hauling up these boats might be adopted, say by a double line of tramway or a continuation of the slip forming an inclined plane, with a wire rope, one end of which should be hooked to start rope under bilge of boat, the other passed round a drum at head of incline and made fast to a ballast wagon weighted more than the boat. When ready the ballast waggon should be released so as to run down the incline towards the sea, hauling the boat up on parallel lines.
There is good fishing grounds inside of the Long Island, the Shiant Bank, banks off the Sutherland and Cromarty coasts, and to the south of Skye, off Canna, and to the north and west of Coll and Tyree.
The most central for a fishing station would be Loch Pooltiel (Glendale, Skye). In 1862-63 I rented the store house at Hammara for the purpose of forming a depot for my vessels fishing at Rockall. There is a fair anchorage and a splendid shingle beach for drying fish. From Pooltiel the inner fishery in Minch, &c, could be worked, or vessels could go through the sounds of Harris and Barra, or round Barra or Butt of Lewis according to wind. This would be a centre for all the outside stations.
The Rockall fisheries might be tried again, as they have now had a good rest.
This, however, would require a larger class of vessel.
The fishing stations or depots I should propose to the east of the Long Island,—
1. Eriska (Sound of Barra). Bait plentiful.
2. Loch Skiport, South Uist.
4. Loch Pooltiel
6. Arisaig. Plenty of bait, and Steamers calling there and at Eigg.
7. Tanera More. Summer Islands.
8. Loch Laxford (Crow harbour).
I would suggest that the presence of the fishery cruiser or coastguard would be very useful in regulating the fisheries. Close seasons of certain fish should be enforced.
The fisheries at Rockall, in 1861-63, were spoiled by the fishing vessels throwing their offal overboard on the fishing grounds, thereby attracting dogfish, sharks, & c , and preventing cod, tusk, & c , from biting. After the tide's fishing—six hours—all vessels should be compelled to stand out from the banks, and clean their fish in deep water.
Lobster fishing is carried on to some extent at present, but will soon become a thing of the past, as lobsters are fished all the year round, especially in the summer in the close season which is not enforced. The consequence is that lobsters are becoming scarcer, and some good spots (Isle of Muck, for instance) are exhausted. Crabs of marketable size might be caught if the trunk net was used instead of the lobster creel, the entrance to which is small for crabs. The salt water lochs on the west coast are admirably adapted for oyster cultivation, which should prove a source of wealth. In the Long Island there are hundreds of miles of sheltered coast line, where there is scarcely any frost in winter, and nothing to interfere with the production of spat. In many of the lochs there are plenty of oysters, but they are stolen, and proprietors who have no charter have no redress. I suggest that Government should grant a free charter to landlords who intend to cultivate oysters.
Mussels are already plentiful in many of the lochs, and might be cultivated in others, so as to supply bait not only for the haddock fishing on the west coast, but might be shipped by tons to the east coast where they are getting scarce.
The collection of bait, cleaning and planting of oyster and mussel beds, would give employment to old men and women and children. Spout fish, cockles, & c , could be collected in quantities, and live bait stored in floating boxes at depots. The women should learn to clear, clean, and bait lines, especially the haddock lines, and knit jerseys, stockings, & c , with home-grown wool. There is a great scarcity of good timber in the West Highlands, a great deal has been cut or blown down within the last fifteen years, and there is little coining forward in its place. Larch grows well when sheltered from the direct sea blast, and wood grown on the shores of most of the lochs on mainland, also the laricio or Corsican pine, which stands the sea blast, grows fast and makes excellent timber. Plantations would in many instances pay better than grazing. In the Long Island fish manure could be made by mixing the offal with peat, dried and ground.
The large class boats would be beyond the means of the crofter class, but, if money was advanced by Government, the landlords in their respective districts might guarantee the payment by instalments, or the fisheries might be worked by a company, the crews having share of the profits. All fishing should be worked on the share system.
THOS. A. SWINBURNE,
Capt. R.N. (Retired).