The Fisherfolk

 

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A true account of fishermen in distress...

 

Manly and daring are the fishermen when their qualities of heart and hand are put to the test - as, alas! they often are on the subtle and ill-protected northern headlands. The third of October, 1847, was one of those days which leave their impress in anxious and sorrowful memories. There were tales of shipwreck - of brave men perishing in their efforts to reach the shore; and were the untold fruits of that terrible storm revealed, what a picture of suffering, endurance, and heroic toil!

On that fatal morning the 'Buchans' of Springhaven, a boat of little more than fifteen tons, left the Tay for her native port with a heavy cargo of mussels. She was manned by William and Alexander Stephen, with two of their sons - boys of about fourteen years of age. Suddenly the wind rose, and finding it impossible to breast the storm, they ran to sea, and continued their course till at least a hundred miles from land. Being unable to carry canvas, or even to take down the mast, they were entirely at the mercy of the waves, and could only struggle to keep their vessel from sinking. The perilous condition of the poor fishermen and their boys it would be impossible to conceive. Here on the trackless ocean, in a small open boat, their provisions destroyed, without fire or chart or compass, wet and weary, in the midst of the raging elements, their only prospect was a watery grave. Most of the precious cargo was thrown overboard, twice was the boat nearly filled with water, and the waves continued to break over her. The poor boys soon became exhausted, and were placed under the only shelter a deckless boat can give - saddening thought! - that their parents might not see them die. They refused to remain; they would die by the side of their fathers; and the last edible remnant, a raw cabbage, was divided between them. Hard and hopeless were the struggles of the two fishermen; yet they toiled on as those inured to danger only can. For five days did William Stephen remain at the helm. except twice he was dashed by a wave into the bottom of the boat; for the same time his brother worked the pump, now and again arranging the ballast, and dropping a word of comfort to their fast-sinking laddies. Such trying exposure, such protracted privation, such suffering in themselves and for their children, few men have been called to endure. At last the calm came and the troubled waters were stilled. With what strength remained, stimulated by the hope that even yet, through a kind Providence, they might be saved, they bravely rowed for the land. On the sixth day they sailed into the little haven, guided thither by an instinct which cannot be explained. Five days had they battled with the storm - without food, without sleep - and been exposed to perpetual wet and the hardest toil. With mingled astonishment and joy were the tidings of their deliverance welcomed by loving friends - a joy chastened and purified by the sorrow that had come before.

This tale of privation, endurance, and manly courage, when told in the newspapers at the time, called forth many welcome expressions of sympathy and appreciation. A noble Earl sent from his far distant English home five pounds and a Bible suitably inscribed to each of the "brave men who manned 'The Buchans;'" and a widow sent her mite, with the words - "Remember the Fishermen at Sea in the Storm." 

Past and Present or Social and Religious Life in the North
by H G Reid
1871