The Fishing Port of Kirkcudbright

by © David R. Collin, Kirkcudbright, 2010.

Is Kirkcudbright an artists’ town with a fishing heritage or a fishing town with an artistic heritage? It’s been known as an artists’ town since the 1830s but can only really claim to have been a fishing town since the 1960s. Today however, it is undoubtedly a fishing town.

Prior to the 1960s, fishing was a minor activity, with only a few very small boats involved. The nineteenth century boom in herring fishing never directly benefited Kirkcudbright, as the shoals were too far away. Barrels of salt herring were shipped in to the harbour by local schooners from Manx and Irish ports to meet local demand. The shrimp fisheries were mainly in the upper reaches of the Solway Firth, and were worked by the Annan fleet, taking the tide down as far as the two-foot bank buoy, off the Cumberland coast. Only the occasional shrimper came in to Kirkcudbright. An unusual flurry of activity took place however in the 1860s as a result of the oyster beds in the south of England being worked out. The advent of the railway made it possible for oyster smacks from the south east of England to work in Galloway and send their catches south by rail, to meet the enormous demand for oysters in London. Most of these smacks were based at Isle of Whithorn or Garlieston, but some also came in to Kirkcudbright until the oyster beds, like those in the south of England were completely worked out.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, small numbers of fisherman from one or two generations of local families scraped a living from fishing, mostly working from very small open boats. The first and second world wars and the resulting economic hard times reduced their numbers however, and by the late 1940s and early 1950s the harbour was in decline, silted up and neglected.

In the late 1950s, local man John King began full time commercial lobster fishing in the smack Young John and then moved to trawling for sole, plaice, skate, turbot and brill in the Dos Amigos and the Polly Cook. Initially he trawled for 8 months of the year, and then dredged for scallops from December till April. By the late 1960s he had moved on to fishing scallops full time, and his hard work and considerable success at opening that market created a whole new industry in Kirkcudbright. By the early 1970s, up to 24 trawlers were based in Kirkcudbright, crewed by men who were mainly from Kirkcudbright and Annan, and businesses were springing up to process their catches, meet their maintenance needs, and to design and produce the all-important gear necessary to catch and sort different varieties and sizes of shellfish. The early 1970s were great years for all those at Kirkcudbright who were interested in the sea and ships. There was an ever changing selection of elderly timber fishing boats built in some of the finest Scottish yards, augmented by a great variety of craft, which even included a converted Belgian eel boat, as well as modern steel trawlers, beamers etc. People used to gather at the harbour when the sound of straining diesel engines was heard, to watch the boats come round Castledykes Point, sometimes dangerously low in the water and with visibility from the wheelhouses impaired by the bags of scallops piled on deck. The traditionally built boats suffered a lot of stress from wear and tear caused by scallop gear, and gradually, timber construction, canoe sterns and counter sterns gave way to steel construction and transoms as small boats were replaced with larger ones.

Men who had initially switched from labouring in the farming and building industries joined the fishing industry as expert shovellers in the hold (this was before the days of sophisticated sorting machines). Many of these men, with no tradition of seafaring, adapted readily to a new way of life, gained experience rapidly, followed John King’s example, received training and became skippers. Some became very successful and bought their own vessels. Over the years, eleven brand new vessels have been commissioned to join the Kirkcudbright based fleet, and the arrival of each of them has been the subject of enormous admiration and pride in the town.

Since the early 1960s a total of 173 commercial fishing vessels have been based at Kirkcudbright and have regularly landed their catches here. Many other vessels not locally based have either come to the town to convert for scallop dredging, or have landed catches here. The construction of a wooden pier in 1968 where the marina is now sited made it possible for fishing boats to lie alongside when a tanker was due, leaving the quay wall free for her to berth.

Today, some 14 trawlers ranging from 40 ft to 86 ft in length are based at the port. All but two are of steel construction, some being beam trawlers and the rest being mainly shelter decked and automatic scallop dredgers. The grounds they work extend from the Shetland Islands to the Bay of Biscay with the crews travelling home every two weeks, but in the winter months, they generally work from Kirkcudbright. Three smaller boats are engaged in full-time lobster fishing. Wherever they work, the normal practice of most skippers is to sell their catches to local processors.

There have been some dark days when tragedies have occurred and one or two incidents have resulted in adverse publicity. Today however, investment in training is paying off, schools are well-informed about careers in the fishing industry and the Scottish Government is striving to stand up for this vital traditional industry in a way that does not seem to have always been a priority at Westminster. Kirkcudbright people are proud of their fishermen and of the industry they have created for themselves.

Local fishermen are far better versed in conservation issues than many people give them credit for, and although they do not necessarily agree with everything that is said by the more extreme conservation crusaders, they recognise that their future depends on good practice. More environmentally friendly dredges have been developed in Kirkcudbright and are being trialled at present with very promising results. Boats that used to work 12 dredges a side have now reduced to 8 in inshore waters, scallops are reported to be more plentiful than ever before, and the by-catch of bottom feeding fish is also increasing. Whether this is due to global warming, the benefits of good practice, or some other reason entirely is not yet clear. Sadly for the fisherman, increased catches generally mean lower prices.

There is a demand for more berth space at Kirkcudbright for both the leisure fleet and the fishing fleet, but it is recognised that such provision would be physically and economically extremely difficult. An extension of the harbour upstream, though possible, would entail demolishing and repositioning an ugly and inadequate bridge, but the case for that is difficult to make in summer when the fishing boats are mainly working from elsewhere.

Keep Kirkcudbright harbour busy – eat more seafood!