Running before the wind


Monday 19th June 
Having stayed over night in Braewick campsite we were up early and down at Stenness beach to be greeted by morning mist and drizzle. Undeterred clutching Wellington boots, cameras and GoPro stick we set off for sea with Tom Williamson who was waiting for us in his creel boat . 
It meant that we could get some sense of the experience of leaving from Stenness Beach as the sixareens had once done; of what the Haaf fishermen would have seen as they rowed out to the fishing grounds, behind them the land and Böd slowly receding and before them the open sea and far horizon (not that we went anywhere as far as they would have gone). 

During the fishing season from around Beltane Day in May to Lammas Day in August their days and nights were spent traveling in an open boat between shore and far haaf setting lines and hauling the fish until there was a full catch in the boat and they could turn and head back to shore, where the ling and cod would be dried and salted by the beach boys while, after a few hours rest, the men returned to the sea. Dried on the stone beaches, bleached white by sun and air, the white fish, so prized on the continent, would be weighed by the factor and a note made of each boats catch.
Hand-written list of Ling shipped from Stenness, 1817 (document held in Shetland Archives)
I've read that the men sometimes rowed for nine hours, although, weather permitting and with a good wind behind them, with the sheet raised this must have taken them to the far haaf a lot faster. A hard life, and one in which they didn't have much say but to go to the fishing, given pretty much all they had was owned by the Laird.
Extract from Fisherman's Agreement Book, 1861 (held in Shetland Archives)
The day we went out there was a brisk wind and choppy seas, the mist hanging over us, but I know they experienced far heavier seas running. Being so low in the water the land disappears the further out we traveled. Even so, rowing Foula down with its high cliffs, would have been some feat. Any bit of land would have acted as a marker - a meid from which to orientate their position. As Tommy Isbister remarked 'when you were sitting down in a boat ..when the land was sinking you knew where you were'. These men would have known their sea, could read how the water was running, and most of the time knew how the weather would be.  Despite this there were times when there was heavy storms and loss of life.
Grave stone in graveyard at Eshaness
Returning from the haaf fishing the first sight of the beach would have probably been the chimneys of the Böd rising above the hills, or smoke rising from the lodges .

Thank you to Tom for taking us.

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