There was still a few folk clubs around in the 1970s and pub music was still prevalent. One of the new sea shanties that was doing the rounds at that time was ‘The Silver Darlings’ by Jim McLean and Bob Halfin.
The final verse is that one that spoke to me,
There’s ice on the rigging and death down below,
With the gales screaming wild and the glass hanging low,
The wives and the sweethearts are women who know,
The price of the silver darlings.
When I was in the RAF a friend was posted up to Stornoway, Ilean Leodhais (Isle of Lewis) Where he met and married a local girl, I went up there just to see what all the fuss was about, staying with his new in-laws. I told his father-in-law that I would like to go out on one of the Herring drifters, and he arranged for me to go out on the ‘Ive Rose’ and 80 ft wooden fishing boat, whose skipper/owners name was Murdo.
We sailed south for Na h-Eileanan Mora (Shiant Islands) I stayed up in the wheelhouse with Murdo as he watched with interest the echo sounder, looking for little lines like matchsticks to appear, all the time chatting with other boats mostly in his he-drum ho-drum language, but when one of the boats asked in English
“Have you seen any spots yet?”
Murdo, asked me to reply
“Only the spots if front of my eyes”
“The message was soon answered”
“Where did you pick up the Southeaster, Murdo?”
Years of living in barracks and working all over England and on the continent I really believed I had lost my strong Fife dialect and gained a more metropolitan accent, although very much Scottish. But I had been found out, the skipper of the other boat had nailed my Fife accent, in seconds.
The rest of the message was lost to me in the language of the west cost Gaelic.
I had done a fair share of sailing and thought my sea sickness days were well behind me, but I tell you now, when the nets were cast and the drift sail set and the engine closed down. The old boat rolled like an old tub and the smell of fish and diesel oil hung like a heavy cloak over the boat, I had to go out on deck to concentrate on anything that would take my mind off my heaving stomach, thankfully the nausea quickly passed.
A whale came alongside rubbing along our hull, it glowed pure white in the deck lights of our boat. Murdo came out and explained what was happening, how we would circle around on our own nets. He then lifted a hand held search light and cast its bean across the water inside the net, and the water sparkled like new minted silver coins, cast in the rippling clear waters of the fountains in Rome. A few at first then the waters of Caolas Nan Eilean sparkled like quick silver.
The catch that night was eight cran and four boxes.
When the nets came onboard, one of the crew took a fish box and filled it with fish. When gutted and cleaned he dropped them into a large pot that was simmering away on top of the coal burning stove, standing just off the companionway where they boiled in salt water for twenty minutes.
The crew assembled around the mess table in the cramped quarters below deck, forward in the bow of the boat, there the Herring lay in a large bowl and alongside was a basket of rough hand cut bread. I was about to help myself when just in time I caught myself, for all had their heads bowed and payers were said.
Precious memories, and the fish, the best Herring I have ever tasted – bar none.