Norrie T MacDonald: The cycle of the sea and island traditions of the ‘share’

By Norrie T MacDonald

Although Shinigeadh was our training pool as youngsters (baby rods and baited single hooks) and probably today seems quite safe and relatively innocuous; it was also my first introduction to the concept of ‘industrial’ fishing.

The poc cudaig (cuddy bag) was strictly for deployment only by the stronger adults.

It consisted of a stiff pole (not bamboo) from which was slung a netted hoop, around 4-6 feet in diameter.

It was to our mini-bamboo rods, what the Broch purse-seiner was to the Scalpay ring-netter.

There had obviously been a couple of nights where our amateur, one-at-a-time, efforts to procure a decent supper had been insufficient to adequately harvest the bounty on offer.

I remember the bodach and both the uncles appearing with the borrowed ‘poc’, intrigued as to what purpose it could possibly serve.

They took turns carrying it down to the ‘creagach’.

The old ‘stomping ground’ of Point in Lewis

A couple of pocketfuls of just-about-right, newly boiled, potatoes were the secret weapon.

The cuddies scattered as the ‘poc’ got lowered into the sea.

Crushing a potato into small pieces and scattering on the surface elicited a frenzy of activity.

The timing of the hauling of the ‘poc’ was crucial.

A miss, and you could maybe only land a couple.

A full hit and you might struggle to lift it out of the water at all, requiring a re-submersion.

This could result in losing the lot, the elusive cuddy being much quicker than the second haul.

It took the knotting of the legs and sleeves of one of the standard, adult, blue boiler suits to make a receptacle big enough to take that night’s catch home.

It was the first time I observed the tradition of the ‘share’.

Walking back through the village, it was like we were expected.

Several caileachs came to their gate with a basin, each the recipient of half a dozen/dozen fish, dependent on their family (and frying pan) size.

It was a tradition Iain ‘Scud’ MacLeod, George ‘Baba’ Richards and myself continued as we graduated onto the big bamboo in Bayble School.

They were my fishing buddies as we moved onto the next level in our adventures.

The full bamboo rod required technique and balance.

Especially when we moved further afield onto the more difficult fishing hot-spots.

We followed the blue boilersuits, not just those belonging to relatives, onto a different ‘sgeir’ every night.

We were careful not to take the prime spots lest we got a mouthful, but we were tutored and encouraged, warned about any pitfalls and certainly well chaperoned for our own education and safety.

We moved further up towards the Tiumpan where the rocks were more daunting, each climb steeper and requiring a working knowledge of the way down.

With a 15-foot pole and in wellies.

Foitealar’ and ‘Raingealainn’ were the favourites, not too tricky a climb and with deep water just off the inside-point.

Sgor nan Cat’ and ‘Stac nan Gabhar’ were reserved for night when we felt particularly brave or even simply when they hadn’t been claimed by the adults.

They were prime locations, great fishing spots, but generally could only accommodate a single rod.

The ‘Rubha Meadhonach’ and ‘Fidigeadh’ were up at the Tiumpan itself and required the right combination of tides and prevailing wind to be accessible, safe and productive.

We learned spots that were great for different types of fish, ‘Beillie Mhór’ for pollock/lythe and ‘Geodha Bean Mhurchaidh’ for a ‘muc creag’ (small rod only).

The big rod came with several different options.

The fly (or trace) which mimicked sand eels, consisted of usually three, four or six hooks, depending on what you were after (six mackerel is never a good idea).

It could be deployed with, or without, a weight on the end.

Skimming the ‘fly’ – we called them ‘fly’, but they were never to be confused with the freshwater variety – over the surface was the best technique where ‘brag’ (seaweed) was an issue.

In the deeper water, a ‘dandy’ was best. This involved far less effort, a simple up and down motion of the tip of the rod producing plentiful yields.

In hindsight we had the wonderful honour of feeding the caileachean; bedecked in housecoat, slippers and ‘beannag’, basin outstretched, every night we caught more than was our fill.

We also, as we got more adventurous, took to a bigger, single, hook and a longer, single trace (usually made out of sheep’s wool).

Barring this, a rubber eel.

We were moving up from cuddy to lythe.

What a fright the first one gave me!

Two pulls of almighty force, then ‘I give up’.


The sense of yet another ‘graduation’ was palpable, but the lythe was no grand fighting fish.

It marked another progression up whatever the fishing ‘ladder’ was.

By this time we were regulars in the town and had had our introduction to Meg’s ‘Electro Sports’ shop.

He had, to our limited experience anyway, a huge assortment of rods and tackle for us to gawp at.

Naturally, we moved up to spinning rods, monofilament, lures, kosters and paternosters.

But we still ‘fished’ at Portnaguran pier for portainn, hand-lines baited with maoraich, in competitions to see who could be the first to 20, 30 or even 50.

Traumatised for an hour or so, they would get returned to the water as the sun began to set.

With spinning rods we learned a completely different set of rules.

What was deep 50 yards out and what was disaster for your tackle.

How to tie a proper knot and which kit worked best for the conditions.

How to unravel a reel-tangle with three mackerel on the line (cut the line).

The cost of losing gear was beginning to hit the pocket-money hard.

The only real solution was to get better at making your own.

You learned how to make your own trace – downy seagull feathers were better, but not as practical as sheep’s wool – and how to tie knots that never ‘slipped’.

Graduating onto more ‘specialist’ fish and fishing became a challenge after years of cuddies, mackerel and lythe.

Fancier bait; lugworm, real sand eel, salted herring even, were meant to be great to entice the bottom feeders; flounder, sole, gurnard, possibly haddock and ling if you could reach with a long cast.

Ok, so we mostly caught dogfish and, like every single other thing we pulled up, handling one came with its own set of rules.

Mackerel have a nasty wee ‘sting’ in front of their anal fin, a small protrusion of cartilage/bone which can catch the unwary out.

Gurnard require welding gloves and a lesser-spotted dogfish will try to wrap its tail around your arm and give you a nasty ‘Chinese burn’.

Rub your fingers against the ‘grain’ of one’s scales next time you see one.

It’s like rough sandpaper.

Everyone’s ambition, however, was to get out on one of the village boats.

We had grown up with Roddy Alec and ‘Saight’, the last proper village fishermen who plied their trade on the ‘Fisher Lass’ out of Portnaguran.

The ‘Fisher Lass’ was a substantial wooden boat, somewhere between the privately owned ‘rowing’ boats – each one now had a Seagull, Mariner or Evinrude rather than rely on such menial propulsion – and the commercial trawlers.

Hers was a serious purpose; we just wanted some fun.

Whilst the rocks could disappoint, we were brought up with the notion that being a quarter mile offshore must come with an assurance of plenty.

There were boats on the Portvoller side as well.

The trick was, in the absence of having a boat in the family, knowing someone who did and whose father/uncle was prepared to take responsibility for you for a couple of hours.

Three a side, with mackerel or herring running, was huge entertainment.

It was, necessitated by space and safety, a return to hand lines again and a degree of ‘back to basics’ which felt very raw.

Around this time, my father got a job at HBP (Herring by-products) in Stornoway, better known as ‘Taing na Guts’.

A fish meal factory, dependent mostly on locally caught sand eels, but which handled mackerel and pout when available; it could stink out the entire town given the right conditions.

My father would come home, not entirely fragrant, and I would rush to get the folded-up daily paper from his lunch box.

There were days, especially in the height of summer, when I couldn’t get beyond the back page (isn’t that where everyone starts?).

Little did I realise, until many years later, the destruction caused by overfishing of the type to assault the senses so violently.

We (no names, no packdrill) did dabble with a multi-monofilament, four and-a-half inche ‘mogal’, purpose made, ‘cod’ net which, if used correctly, might provide some sport at the back of ‘Goitealar’.

Barry (not his real name) had procurement of his uncle’s boat and we made an anchor out of an old engine, attached a buoy and plastic ring, then ran 60yds of 12mm, in a loop, to the shore.

The rest, you might say, is piracy.

All good fun until the fishery cruiser, possibly the ‘Minna’, I couldn’t comment, came along one morning and confiscated the net, cod ‘n’ all.

Now this could have been a delicious irony.

Murdo ‘A ‘Mhate’.

I referred last week to the passing down of genes through the generations.

The son and ‘heir to fresh air’ was never a guy to show his hand early, certainly not while in school.

We had no clue what career path he would decide on, his head, whilst not always in proximity, was (at 6’4” at 17) certainly edging closer to the clouds.

“I’m going to sea Da, to do marine engineering”, he one day boldly announced.

Luckily, no one had a feather handy.

And that’s what he did.

He qualified as a ship’s engineer.

It shouldn’t have been too hard to figure out where this notion came from, however.

His great-grandfather, Murdo, aka ‘A’ Mhate’, MacIver was the Chief Engineer (go figure?) on the old Fishery Protection Vessel, “Minna”.

It is indeed a tangled web.

Years later I ended up, standing on several fish boxes in the mart in Stornoway, as a fish-salesman.

In my apprenticeship, under George Prince Jnr, we oversaw the landing of tens of thousands of tonnes of sand eels to HBP.

The fishery was devastated, almost entirely, by local vessels and a couple (of vessels, not Seonaid and Shonnie) from Barra.

But while the smell was awful, the money was fantastic for all those involved.

As the years progressed, the main catch moved from fish to prawns.

I could tell the difference between a dab, a plaice, a brill, a turbot, a halibut, a megrim and a witch, but saw increasingly (decreasingly, surely) less and less of them each year.

My good pal Stuart Keyte – the local fishery officer – and I bought a small, Orkney origin, ‘clinker’-built 14-footer to work some creels and have a bit of ploy.

You can get used to two lobsters for breakfast.

But only for a wee while.

Despite HBP closing down and the fishery banned, the knock-on effects of overfishing, several stocks over several decades, were beginning to take their toll.

I could go to the rocks for nights on end and catch nothing.

As it was, I ended up on the rocks anyway.

A spell clam fishing with John Murdo ‘Easdaidh’ MacLeod was my swan song.

I loved it.

We left the harbour every day at 5am and headed for, guess where?

Correct, the Tiumpan.

As day broke we would haul the six dredges and he would get the frying pan on whilst I sorted the catch.

I could see the lights in my house going on from half a mile at sea (well, that’s how I remember it).

We had two rolls each and a cup of coffee.

A huge scallop, bacon, black-pudding and fried egg on each (Becky Passmore, please note!).

“If they fit through the handle of the basket, throw them over” was the rule of thumb.

I’m guessing we could have been inside ‘the limit’.

I’ve never fished a Loch nor a river.

Not remotely interested.

Given my track record, I’d have probably used a bit of dynamite, certainly a bit of mono.

Just for dramatic effect.

Mother Nature, left to her own devices, is a truly wonderful thing.

Stocks will, eventually, recover and, managed properly could give sustainable employment for years to come.

Maybe even endless fun for kids who have got too accustomed and fed up, paralysed even, from the catatonic effects of lockdown.

Remember what Dougie said to Para Handy?

‘The herring in Loch Fyne comes in cycles’

‘Ach man’, replied Macfarlane, ‘There wass herring in the Loch long afore the cycle was inventit’.

Everything goes around folks.

Remember it when you contemplate your next move.