It has been quite an unforgettable journey; my tenure as patron of Shetland Wool Week 2019. At first I was overawed by the enormity of my task! Design a beanie and attend Edinburgh Yarn Festival. Writing these blogs and delving into my archives and photographs gave me a focus, and also brought back memories of my journey; most of them positive. One of my most vivid experiences of Wool Week was standing at the front door of my childhood home at Roadside, Hamnavoe, Burra Isle. I found myself thinking how on earth I got here; standing holding a Burra Bear called Peerie Olie o’ Roadside! As I stood there with the sea breaking in the background at the Hamnavoe Lighthouse, I recalled my early years living with my grandparents, until our family home was built further up the village. Most of my time was spent with my grandad, a retired fisherman, spending most of the time on his croft and in his Shetland model boat, the Betsie. Fishing was still very much part of his life and in the summer months we would spend a lot of time off in his boat catching all kinds of fish. He took fishing quite serious as it was still important to put food on the table. I would often take part in these fishing trips which could be for hours at a time. Often cold or sea sick, rather than go ashore he would put me ashore on one of the outer isles, and return when he had caught sufficient fish. There was no going easy on me and returning home early! I remember on more than one occasion sheltering behind a rock, cold and recovering from sea sickness.
My father told me that my grandfather had suffered with sea sickness all of his life, however he had little choice other than to continue as a fisherman as he had a family to support and there were no other job opportunities. I continued to join him on his fishing trips despite my poor constitution however looking back I wonder if he was trying to discourage me from a life at sea.
Many years later when clearing out an office in the wool store, a Shetland magazine fell on the floor open at a page, the headlines read, “The Burra Isle Boat Disaster”. It told the tragic story of what happened on the Monday morning of 16th September, 1907, when seven Burra Isle fishermen set out to sail from Hamnavoe to Scalloway, then travel overland to join their boats which were on the East side of Shetland for the summer herring fishing. The unfortunate men were crammed together in a small sail boat in fairly rough weather when they were hit by a fierce squall from the west, while crossing an exposed stretch of water called the Firths, a funnel of sea between Burra Isle and the smaller isles Oxna and Papa. Sea swell and breakers can roll in from the Atlantic Ocean; with the next landfall being America. The boat capsized and the men went into the water and four of them tried to swim for shore at the point of Brunaness a headland on Burra Isle, despite being strong swimmers they all perished. The three remaining men clung to the capsized boat and were rescued by James Laurenson SNR; skipper of the Qui Vive with his crew, his son James (15), my grandfather and two other fishermen. They landed the rescued men in Scalloway where they were tended to by a doctor.
A terrible tragic disaster to witness at any age, but at the tender age of 15 must have left an indelible mark on one’s life. Witnessing such an event once in your lifetime but to have to witness such harrowing times again would have been hard to bear.
Again the woolstore played a part in me discovering another serious event my grandfather had to witness. Along with my old boss we were sorting wool one winter’s night in the early 1980s; as usual he would have on Radio Scotland. It was by chance I heard the broadcast; a tale of two trawlers, the Eleanor Viking who foundered on the notorious Ve Skerries, a mile long reef of the northwest coast of Shetland in 1978. The crew of 8 fishermen were plucked from the rocks by a heroic helicopter crew. The other incident, in 1931, involved the trawler Ben Doran who had hit the reef in foul weather; sadly there were no helicopters at that time and the crew of 8 all perished. A rescue was attempted by the Burra Isle fishing boat the Smiler Morn but the weather was too severe. I heard from that broadcast a member of the crew who again witnessed this harrowing scene was my grandfather, James Laurenson!
Growing up in a tightly knit island community I had never been told of any fishing disasters, they were never mentioned. Our house was situated on a slight hill overlooking the Firths, my only lasting memory of this stretch of water was as a child kicking a leather football and on one occasion it gathered speed down the hill and over the cliff into the sea. I had to report this to my mother and I feared her reaction as money was scarce for such luxuries, in the 1950s. I was taken completely by surprise when she informed that she had been listening to the trawler band on the radio, when she was given a message. It was from Robbie o’ Clate, the skipper of the fishing boat the Northern Light he had picked up my football on the Firths and I was to come down to the pier and pick it up. I was given money to buy the skipper a packet of 10 cigarettes for his reward.
I hold the utmost regard for all fishermen and a great respect for the sea; I firmly believe that the experiences my grandfather had to witness had a great bearing on how I ended up as a patron of Shetland Wool Week!