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Fishermen baiting lines
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Fishermen baiting lines

Monochrome photograph of group of three fishermen baiting lines from the collection of Dennis Bethune
Picture added on 25 September 2008
Comments:
Embo was a busy fishing village up until about the start of the First World War. Most families were large and most families owned and crewed their own fishing boats which were sail driven. This life was dangerous. A great uncle on my father’s side drowned while fishing off Embo when aged 14 and four great uncles on my mother’s side drowned while also fishing in the same area when their boat, under full sail, capsized. Fishing in the Dornoch Firth was done by the use of baited long lines while those engaged in the herring trade in deeper water used nets. From what my parents told me there were strict unwritten rules as to where fishing could and could not be done so as to protect known fish spawning grounds. These grounds were identified by taking cross bearings on prominent land features on shore. When the Embo fishing industry was at its peak there was no pier or breakwater to harbour the fishing boats. The pier was built in about 1900 when the industry was already in steep decline and the breakwater in 1935 when it was effectively dead. There were attempts in the late 1940s and 1950s to resuscitate the Embo fishing industry but this failed mostly because immediately after the Second World War a Russian fish factory ship anchored off Embo for months just outside the 3 mile limit and “vacuumed” everything that was possibly edible from the sea. Embo men were skilled sailors and many of them served in the Royal Navy in both World Wars and in the merchant navy at other times. Many also joined whaling companies working in Antarctica when fishing jobs were not available locally.

In my childhood many Embo men and boys set long lines along the sand beach between Embo and Loch Fleet. Many of these lines had up to 500 hooks which were baited mostly with lugworm or sand eels but sometimes with cockles or mussels. The main line was a sturdy string made from hemp or similar natural material while the traces (Cheepighs – sp? in Gaelic)were made of several strands of twisted horse hair. The lines were secured to the sea floor by the use of iron stakes or large stones. Care had to be taken in the spacing of the traces so as to ensure that neighbouring hooks did not foul each other. The lines were set at low tide and then collected at the following low tide. The lines had to be checked well before full low tide and all fish removed before the hooked fish were stolen by sea gulls or other sea birds. The fish that were caught were mostly flounders but I have on occasion seen decent sized sea trout being caught. Most of these baits were sourced from the sand flats on the South shore of Loch fleet at low tide. Sand eels (Sachasan in Gaelic) were much sought after and at certain times of the year large numbers of them were caught in the sand at the Embo side of the loch’s mouth. Sand eels only moved in a certain type of “friable” sand and they were caught by swiftly digging in the sand with a “Caib” after a shoal had been detected. Most people had their own “Caib” which was a dedicated tool specially made for sand eel catching. It had a short and thick wooden shaft which was fitted into the head which was an iron horse shoe sharpened on the leading face. An experienced sand eel hunter could fill a pail in minutes if he found a sizable shoal. When lug worms (Lugaith in Gaelic) were being collected a conventional garden spade was used. They were plentiful in the muddy tidal sands in the area known as the “Ajhal” near the Skelbo rail crossing house where the MacLachlan family then lived.

I have been back to the Embo area several times over the years. Sometimes I hankered after a boiling of cockles or mussels from the shore of Loch Fleet. This served with a garlic, sweet basil and butter dressing and not the teaspoon of salt we used in Embo! However when I contacted the relevant environmental protection officer in Golspie prior to the visits I was told in no uncertain terms that this was not possible. Having been a policeman in Africa for 43 years and fully familiar with the hunting and food gathering rights of indigenous peoples in their home tribal areas I tried to play that card but I still met with no success. So I had to revert to what the Afrikaans people here in South Africa do in such situations... 'n Boer maak 'n plan.

Added by Kenneth Mackay on 06 November 2010
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