Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Cockles and mussels and some gey fishy tales

September 15th, 2018

Tales of the salmon fishing at Kinnaber in last week’s column brought back memories of his own youth for a Montrose reader.  He remembers the days when commercial salmon fishers Joseph Johnston & Sons Ltd were one of the major employers in Montrose, providing seasonal work to a small army of local men, as well as year-round employment for office staff, boat builders and other support staff.

Johnston’s leased mussel fishings on Montrose Basin and they harvested the mussels with special long rakes, and bagged and sold them for bait to the Gourdon line fishermen, some twelve miles up the coast.  There were long lines and sma’ (small) lines and  Gourdon was one of the last, if not the last, of the north-east fishing villages which fished the sma’ lines with 1200 hooks on a single line, mainly for haddock, cod and whiting.

Hard work

Fishing in the small, open-decked inshore boats was not for the faint hearted.  The wives didn’t marry into a life of ease either.  Their day starting as early as 4 a.m., they had to shell – sheil – the mussels, bait 1200 hooks, lay the line carefully into a long basket known as a scull so that when the line was shot it paid off the scull smoothly without getting tangled.  It was long, arduous and skilled work.

Her day was not finished for she had to run the household, get the bairns ready for school, wash, clean and cook for the whole family – and prepare another line for baiting the following day.

Gourdon line-caught fish were regarded as sweeter to eat as they had not been damaged by nets.  It’s certainly how the Doyenne remembers the fish she bought, no more than a day out of the sea, when I first brought her back to Montrose.  Born and bred in Bradford, the fish her mother bought would likely have come from Grimsby or Hull.

And I’ve just learned that the empty mussel shells, which used to be discarded in sheil middens, were latterly bought by a Mearns farmer and spread on his fields for the lime as they were broken up by the tractor wheels.

My Montrosian remembers Joseph Johnstons paid 2s/6d (15p) for the pair of feet of all shot cormorants (skarts, locally) handed into them.  The birds took a heavy toll on salmon smolts – young salmon leaving their mother river to enter the sea – and Johnstons wanted to control their numbers.  Five shillings (30p) would be paid when the Torry Research Station in Aberdeen took the cormorant bodies for research.

He remembers fishing for eels below the outflow of a sewer between the two leading lights, or navigation beacons, on the north bank of the River South Esk marking the route up to the quays at Montrose Port. The eels were sent, live and packed in seaweed, by train from Montrose to Billingsgate Fish Market in London.

Sea shells

There used to be cockle beds in the sand near the old Lifeboat Station and the upper leading light.  They burrowed into the sand leaving a blow hole which you poked your finger down and pulled them up.

Buckies, or common whelks, picked off the Scurdy Ness and Usan rocks were an easy, if time consuming, way for a youngster to earn a few bob – sorry, generational slip – decimal pence.  They were bagged and sold to a fish merchant in Aberdeen.

Major Sandy Gordon, landlord of the Southesk Bar on Montrose harbour front, often had boiled buckies on the bar, with cocktail sticks to prise the coiled body out of its tapering shell and wash down with a mouthful of beer.  Mrs Gordon supplied pickled eggs which I enjoyed with a shake of salt, but they seem now to be a thing of the past.  What happened to good old fashioned pub culinary artistry?

Ragworms and lugworms – rampers I remember them as – were dug as bait by the weekend fishers at low tide from the mud banks beside the stream of the Gassie Burn, so-called because it ran from the area of the old Montrose Gas Works, but was really the Tayock Burn.  They could also be dug on the Scaup, a bank in the middle of the River South Esk below the road bridge, now long gone – dredged to allow big vessels to manoeuvre in the harbour area.

Late arrival

In my talks I recall words and phrases that once were commonplace in our daily conversation but are all-but-forgotten now.  Recently a lady member of an audience asked me if I knew the country folks’ description for a late baby – an afterthought, they said.

“The shakkin o’ the poke”, she told me.  It may sound insensitive today but life on the north-east farms and in the fisher touns a hundred years ago was hard. Another bairn to feed and clothe stretched a family’s scarce resources.  A late addition to the family, while not unwelcome, might elicit the hope that it was the last.

Written on Saturday, September 15th, 2018 at 9:45 am for Weekly.