A fictional story, based on accounts of the sixern disaster of July 1881, by Sandy Peterson
“So, Robbie boy, hoo did it go da day at da regatta? I gadder fae dy grumpy face – an’ da racket du’s makkin’ – dat hit mebby didna go as weel as du widda wanted.”
Speaking from his chair in the corner, the old man kept his voice expressionless. But the smile on his whiskered mouth and the twinkle in his eyes gently mocked his grandson, who was exercising his foul temper by crashing crockery and thumping cupboard doors as he searched for sugar-filled food and drink. His grandfather’s question just served to stoke Robbie’s anger.
“Hit wis pathetic, Gran’dad! Hopless! I tink we were last. Yiss, last! We were even ahint Vidlin . . . an’ dey haed lasses rowin’ in deir boat! Beaten by lasses! Embarrassin’ or whit?”
The old man grunted, a frown of ironic amusement putting deep creases into his weather-darkened brow.
“Git wint wi’ it, boy. Tak’ my advice an’ just accept dat nooadays weemin ir better – at everything – dan wis men. Du’ll have an’ aisier life, trust me. But onywye, tell me mair aboot dis race. Whit gaed wrang?”
Robbie paused his pouring of the red liquid which fizzed and bubbled its way from bottle-neck to tumbler. Still holding the bottle, he rested his other hand on the frame of the door and dolefully shook his head as he relived the events of the afternoon.
“Everythin’. Everythin’ dat could go wrang gaed wrang. We haed a useless start . . . wir cox somehoo managed tae git wis broadside-on tae da start-line whin da gun gaed aff. Dat pat wis miles ahint da idder yoals. Dann Darren rickit his oar in da strap o’ Mark’s lifejacket – an’ hookit him backlins aff o’ da taft. You widna believe it. But it got even waer. Just near da feenish, whin we were actually catchin’ up, Peerie Ian’s oar jumpit aff o’ da kabe. He laekly didna hae his hummlibaund ticht intae da clett. Whit a shambles!”
Robbie took a slow drink to fortify himself for further misery.
“We just wirna rowin’ hard a’nyoch. Wirna nyiggin’ at da end o’ wir stroke. Wirna leanin’ back. Wirna keepin’ time. Wirna usin’ wir legs tae really push. I tink wir oars is ower heavy. An’, accordin’ tae yon Burra man, wir tafts is ower high. Wir yoal just isna as fast as da Lerick een . . .”
He stopped, breathless from his rant and choking on the bubbles rising through his throat. His grandfather smiled inwardly at the way the old, natural art of rowing had been analysed into a technical and scientific skill – with its own strange language. But outwardly he seemed to ponder, putting his hand to his forehead in a pretence of deep and serious consideration.
“So . . . whit du’s sayin’ is . . . apairt fae da yoal, da tafts, da oars, da cox an’ da crew . . . everything wis fine.”
The words hung in the air, waiting for interpretation. The boy looked up quickly, his eyes flashing and his mouth opening to frame an angry response. Then, seeing the broad smile on the face of the old man whom everybody knew as Fishy Jeemy, Robbie lowered his head and started to laugh, his cheeks going red with embarrassment.
“Okay, okay. I git da point, Gran’dad. You got me goin’, as usual. Ah’m just makkin’ excuses for wir aafil rowin’. We were just rubbish, dat’s da truth. An’ I wis as bad as da rest o’ dem. But . . .” He raised his finger in the air. “. . . did I mention dat da wadder wis braaly bad as weel!”
Auld Jeemy laughed and nodded his bald head. “Yeah, I doot hit widda been kinda akwird. Da wind’s been lyin’ in da sooth-aist for twartree days – an’ dat’s no a good ert for yon voe.”
Robbie pulled his mouth into a rueful grimace. “Yeah. Dere wis a braw swall on, especially oot at da start. Da wind wis sidewyes on, which is alwis da warst. Some o’ wir boys haed trouble gittin’ deir oars clean oot o’ da watter – dey kept catchin’ in da taps o’ da waves – it hattered dem badly, an’ pat dem oot o’ time wi’ idder fok.”
There was a short silence as they both stared into space, their minds visualising the yoal lifting, bobbing, rolling and thrusting as the young crew struggled to cope with the motion. Then the old man nodded slowly and spoke quietly.
“Yeah boy. Never aisy dealin’ wi’ da sea an’ da wadder. Never ken whit’s goin’ tae happen. You did weel da day. Somebody haes tae be last. Da important thing is tae enjoy it an’ learn fae it.”
Robbie wasn’t so easily convinced. He shivered at the memory of all the things which had gone wrong in the race. And, just as bad, in the aftermath. They had been the last yoal back to the pontoon and he’d had to jostle his way past the whooping and self-congratulating crews, already supping at their foam-flecked lager cans. Then had come the predictable comments from the usual comedians.
“Aye, aye, Robbie. You’re won back, dann.”
“Min, I tocht we were goin’ tae have tae come back an’ gie you a towe tae git you tae da feenish.”
“Nivir seen six fok all rowin’ at different times. Some achievement. How do you manage dat?”
“If you’d been ony slower, Robbie, you mighta won da nixt race!”
He had tried to smile casually and appear indifferent to their jibes – particularly hard when he’d spotted Denise among the laughing faces. Not much chance of impressing her with his performance as a feeble loser. He’d put his head down and had kept walking. The memory of how it had felt sent a cold spasm through him. Oh, he knew, as his grandfather was trying to tell him, that it was just sport. Just a fun. That, in any race, somebody did indeed have to be last. That it didn’t really matter. But, just once, it would be good to win. To experience the exultation of crossing that line before everybody else, arms and oars in the air and triumphant voices carrying across the water to the cheering crowds on the shore. He sighed as that fantasy was quickly washed away by a wave of depressing reality. Nodding his head slowly as he drew in a long sigh, he raised dead eyes to his grandfather’s face.
“I ken. I ken dat whit you say is true, Gran’dad. I shouldna tak it sae seriously. But you shoulda seen wis. Hit wisna a race – hit wis just a disaster. A total disaster!”
His grandfather seemed to be immediately affected by Robbie’s words. He drew in a long sigh and his face lost its relaxed smile and took on a solemn expression. His eyes stared unseeing through the gable-end window towards the restless surf beyond the low rocks at the end of the shingle beach.
“Yeah . . . disaster. Hit laekly did feel laek dat. A disaster . . . plenty o’ dem in da history o’ boats an’ da sea.”
Hearing the grave tone – seeing the sadness in his grandfather’s face – Robbie closed his eyes and pursed his lips in irritation at his own thoughtlessness. Wished he could take back his stupid words. Tried to frame an apology.
“Ach Gran’dad, I’m sorry. I shouldna have used dat wird. Hit wisna a disaster. Hit wis just a stupeet peerie race. Nae disaster. Nae wye. I’m a thowtless eedyit. I ken dat. I ken dat, for you, da wird ‘disaster’ means sometin’ very different fae a silly bairns’ rowin’ race. I shouldna have . . .”
His voice trailed off as he failed to find anything more to say. He stared intently at the old man, desperately seeking forgiveness for the selfish and childish outburst. The silence in the room hung heavy, broken only by the muted roar of the wind as it was caught in the chimney – and the melancholy wail as it collided with the clustered wires on the pole outside the back door. Robbie took a deep breath and tried again, his tone soft and his words hesitant.
“Did you . . . Mam said dat your grandfaither . . . was he killed in dat big fishin’ disaster?”
Auld Jeemy didn’t reply immediately, seeming lost in the past. Then his eyes slowly focussed on his grandson, who was standing tensed and anxious in the kitchen door.
“Na. It wis his fedder, my grit grandfedder Eedie, dat wis lost. Grandfedder was dere, richt enoff, but he wis just a young boy, just aboot dy age, in fact. He was ca’ed Geordie – dy middle name, eftir him. Just startin’ oot at da fishin’. He’d been twartree times wi’ his fedder’s boat. But dat day he wis axed tae go in his uncle Willie’s boat; dey wir short o’ crew becis some-een wisna weel.”
Robbie began to relax, relieved that his insensitive comments seemed to have been forgotten. He’d been thinking of going to the youth club in the hall, but he felt guilty about taking out his bad mood on his grandfather – and anyway he didn’t really fancy facing more bad jokes from his friends about the performance in the regatta. He took his drink and sat down facing the old man.
“So wis dat in da days o’ da sixerns?”
“Yiss, dat’s richt. I canna mind da actual year o’ da disaster, but hit wis at da end o’ da nineteenth century. A lang time ago. A lang, lang time ago . . .”
Auld Jeemy said these last words in a soft near-whisper, more to himself than to his listener, his eyes going distant.
Robbie sat for a moment in silence, wondering whether his grandfather preferred to keep his memories to himself. But then the deep voice picked up from where it had left off.
“. . . Yeah, boy, hit wis a truly terrible thing. Men an’ boys – husbands an’ sons – lost fae nearly every hoose.”
Robbie knew that he had at various times heard snatches of the story of the great disaster – but, if he were being honest, he hadn’t really listened, dismissing it as just another of the morbid, boring tales used by old people to make modern youngsters feel guilty about their easy lives. But, since experiencing the joys and difficulties of yoal rowing, he’d begun to be intrigued by the notion of such open boats going far out into the ocean to fish. Hoping not to reveal his ignorance, he risked some of the questions which had puzzled his mind.
“So whit kind o’ fish did dey catch? An’ whaur did dey go? Is it true dat dey gaed miles oot tae sea?”
“Oh yiss, my boy. In winter dey wirked closer in, catchin’ da laeks o’ haddocks an’ saithe. But in simmer dey wid go twenty, therty – or even mair – miles aff. Different places, dependin’ on da wadder, an’ whaur da fish were. Da day o’ da disaster dey were efter ling – an’ haed geen aboot therty mile aff tae da nor-wast.”
“Therty miles? But hit taks wis nearly twenty meenits tae row wir yoal wan mile – an’ dat’s whin we’re fresh . . . an’ racin’ agenst idder boats. Efter dat we’re completely shattered, hardly able tae row back tae da marina. Just imagine rowin’ therty mile in a sixern – hit mosta ta’en dem all day just tae git tae da fishin’ grunds.”
“Dat’s richt. I tink hit wis aboot nine oors rowin’. Dey got dere aboot tay-time.”
Robbie was converting this information into images, but needed more answers.
“So wis it simmer-time? An’ whit wis da wadder laek whin dey gaed aff? Did dey hae nae warnin’ o’ da gale dat wis comin’?”
His grandfather shook his head slowly, his words heavy. “Man, hit wis da middle o’ simmer – July, if I mind richt. An’ a fine, windless day. Da sea widda been kinda restless wi’ muckle swalls, becis it haed been windy, apparently, da days afore. But yon day seemed perfect for a trip tae da far haaf. Dey could not ha’ predicted whit happened.”
Robbie narrowed his focus. “Whit aboot my great-grandad Geordie? Whit wid a boy o’ his age ha’ been doin’? Wid he ha’ been rowin aa da wye?”
“Oh, very laekly. Unless dere wis an extra man – dann he mighta been gittin’ lines an’ bait ready for shuttin’. A braaly cauld job dat, even in da simmer. Or he coulda been makkin’ maet. Bein’ a boy, he probably preferred da rowin’ – just laek du widda done. In fact, in a kind o’ wye, dey were racin’ too, becis dey kempit wi’ een anidder tae see wha could git tae da grunds first.”
Robbie gave a rueful laugh of embarrassment. “I doot I widda been a waste o’ space in dat race. Dey widda laughed at my pathetic efforts.”
“Na boy. Dunna say dat. We all just dö whit we have tae dö. Du widda been as good as da rest o’ dem.”
There was a short pause as old man and young man looked inside their own thoughts. Robbie was keen to know the details of the disaster, but he was conscious that his interest was provoked as much by a gossip’s lust for bad news as it was by a sympathy for the victims of the tragedy. So he framed his prompt carefully.
“Da wadder musta come upö dem aafil suddenly.”
Jeemy scratched his brow with the stained and broken nails of his large hand.
“Dey did see it comin’. Grandfedder Geordie didna spaek much aboot it – but I heard fae some’een dat dey saw a black line across da water in da nor-wast – da ert o’ da wind. A flan o’ wind, dann hit fell awa’ agen. Dann, all o’ a sudden, hit struck dem wi’ tremendous force . . . dere wis little dey could do. Deir lines wis all set – miles an’ miles o’ dem. Dey were just startin’ tae hail dem. So dey kerried on, hoopin’ dat hit wis just a passin’ squall – no’ dat unusual, even in da simmer.”
Robbie knew enough about fishing to understand the classic dilemma of the storm: to carry on working on dangerous seas or seek the safety of the land. “Could dey just have headed for hom’?”
Jeemy sighed thoughtfully. “Weel, yiss. But hit wis complicated. As I say, dey had started hailin’ da lines. So dey wid have tae cut dem. An’ dann – an’ diss is just wan o’ yon horrible ironies – dey needed fish for ballast, becis dey’d dumped deir ballast wi’ da fine wadder. No tae mention, of coorse, dat dey needed da fish tae feed deir families – an’ satisfy da greed o’ da damned lairds, wha’ owned da boats an’ treated da crews laek slaves. So hit wis a terrible dilemma for da skippers.
“Eventually dey nearly all cut deir lines an’ headed back. Fok have said dey should have ridden oot da storm on da open sea . . . safer dann comin’ tae laund in da darkness. But, man, yon men kent deir boats – kent whit dey could staund. So if dey decided tae turn for hame, I doot it wis becis dey felt dey haed nae option. By yon time, da wind wis at storm-force, gret munstrous seas, brakkin’ ower da boat. Wirkin’ mebby just twa oars whin dey wir hailin’, dey widda haed a terrible struggle tae keep her head intae wind……an’ if shö gaed braidside-on, shö widda been swampit – or whummled ower laek a toy boat in a bairn’s bath. I’m sure du kens dysel, fae haundlin’ your yoal, hoo akwird hit can be tae wirk oars in a heavy sea.”
Robbie blushed, simultaneously flattered and embarrassed by the comparison. He recalled one practice-night, when it had been blowing a full gale straight down the voe. Against the advice of lobster-men landing their creels at the marina, but winding each other up with dares to manhood and accusations of cowardice, they’d taken the yoal out. Heading into the wind had been thrilling as they punched into the waves, their backs lashed by spray as they strained arms and backs against the power of wind and sea, but turning at the end of the voe had put fast-beating hearts into mouths as they shipped water over the gunnel. And rowing back had silenced the testosterone shouts as they were chased by huge, looming swells which seemed as if they must overwhelm the yoal as she dipped low into the troughs. With that memory still vivid, Robbie spoke softly.
“They widda haed da wind ahint dem – but hit musta been a terrible job controllin’ da boat.”
“Yeah. Mind, dey did hae sails. Lug-sails. Comin’ in fae da nort, dey widda been mainly runnin’ afore da wind. But dey haed tae be aafil careful. Hit wis a real skill, becis dey haed tae control deir speed wi’ da sail – an’ dey haed tae git it absolutely richt. If dey traivelled ower fast – surfin’ da wave-taps – da lack o’ grip in da watter made it impossible for da helmsman tae keep ony control. On da idder haund, if da boat gaed ower slow an’ lost steerage shö michta geen braidside on an’ be swampit. So dey needed twa men on da halyards, ready tae adjust da sail immediately on da oarders o’ da skipper.”
Trying to picture the oil-skinned figures, crouched against the wild shrieking of the wind and peering through eyes lashed by salt spray, Robbie asked the question nearest to his own heart.
“Whit wid young Geordie have been doin’?”
“Weel, apairt fae dem on da sail, da idder men widda been staundin’ by da oars, ready tae use dem if dere were problems wi’ da sail. Gran’da Geordie micht ha’ been doin’ dat . . . but I doot he widda been in da owse-room, wirkin’ da shivvel – owskerri, as you ca’ it. A hard job, but a very necessary wan, as du can imagine. Dey were different ‘rooms’ in da sixern, sections atween da tafts, each wan wi’ a different purpose. Een, da shott-room, widda been full o’ fish – an dat sometimes caused budder, becis da fish dammed up da water an’ hindered it fae movin’ trou’, an’ made da boat uneven. But gran’dad Geordie, bein’ da youngest, widda laekly been balin’ as if his life depended on it – which, in a wye, hit did.”
“He mosta been worried aboot his fedder, as weel as himsel’.”
“Yiss, dat’s true. He didna really ever spaek aboot it, but I heard fae idder men dat da twa boats wis tagidder for a while, but lost sicht o’ each idder as dey headed for laund. Dey dunna really ken whit happened tae Eedie’s boat. Dey fan’ bits o’ wreckage apö Uyea Isle . . . but whidder shö sank in da open sea or gaed apö da rocks at da nort end o’ da isle naebody kens. ”
Auld Jeemy drew in a deep sigh, his mind far away, linking the plight of the sixern crews with his own experiences of the cold and merciless savagery of the sea. Then he spoke again, shaking his head as he voiced the speculations and theories which always torture the minds of those left behind after a tragedy.
“As du’ll fin’, Robbie, life is fu’ o’ ‘what-ifs’. Some said dat dey fan brokken halyards among da wreckage. Skippers had warned da lairds aboot da need for new gear – but dat miserable sods widna spend deir precious money. An’ dann, whit if da boats haed ta’en a different route? Some o’ dem made for Yell Soond – hit’s a wider entrance . . . but dann, hit haes idder dangers – terrible tides an’ low laund dat you canna see in bad wadder. Wha kens? Maist o’ da local boats headed for Ronas Voe. Comin’ in fae da nor-wast, as dey were, I tink dey saw da Ossa Skerry – an’ dat telt dem dey were a’ richt for da voe. Truth is, da skippers were skilled men wi’ tremendous knowledge an’ experience, but dey needed a bit o’ luck as weel. Grandfedder Geordie, in his Uncle Willie’s boat, wan hame safely, his fedder Eedie didna.”
With that blunt truth, Auld Jeemy sat back, his face blank and expressionless, hiding the sadness in his heart. After a respectful pause, Robbie couldn’t resist the macabre question.
“Did dey ever fin’ da bodies?”
Auld Jeemy shifted his eyes back to window, with its view out to the sea – his much-loved friend and his most treacherous foe.
“Just een or twa. Nae search an’ rescue in yon days. Dey fan wan body near whaur dey fan’ da wreckage apö Uyea – an’ anidder een washed up later in da voe. But dey never fan’ Eedie. I tink dat, a’tagidder, dere were ten boats lost dat nicht – nearly sixty men dead. Man, hit wis a terrible thing.”
Robbie stared at the floor, trying to imagine the depth and intensity of the shock and grief within the small communities.
“Hit musta been aafil for Geordie an’ da faimily.”
“Oh yeah. We can hardly pictur’ whit hit meant for dem. His midder haed twa idder bairns, apairt fae him. Mind, shö wis luckier dann some, becis Geordie was auld enoff tae geen tae da fishin’ and help her tae wirk da croft. Dey were poor – but dey didna sterve.”
This time the silence lasted longer. The tale had ended, but not the feelings that went with it. In Robbie, sadness was mixed with guilt. He tried to articulate his discomfort.
“Dey haed such a tough life. Strugglin’ just tae live – an’ sometimes dyin’ in da attempt. An’ here’s me moanin’ aboot a stupeet rowin’ race. An ca’in’ it a tragedy! Whit an eedyit! Whit an eedyit . . .”
Seeing his grandson’s woebegone face, Auld Jeemy gave him a broad and affectionate smile.
“Na, na, Robbie boy. Du’s nae eedyit. Far fae it. I’m fair prood o’ da wye dat du an’ dy freends are keepin’ da ould tradeeshins goin’. Seein’ you rowin’ oot da voe is a splendid sicht. An’ I’m sure it’s helpin’ you tae understaund a peerie bit o’ whit hit wis laek for da men in da sixerns.”
Robbie’s expression relented a little, but he still wore a frown of self-disapproval as he raised his eyes and shook his head at the ceiling.
“I doot da auld men widna tink muckle o’ wir rowin’.”
His grandfather laughed and leant forward to cuff him gently on the shoulder.
“Onywye……whit’s du doin’ sittin’ here spaekin’ tae a silly auld man on a Setterday nicht? Is dere no sometin’ on at da hall. Min, awa’ du goes. Ah’m seen dee wi’ yon lass o’ Tammy fae da Taings. Denise, is dat her name? Na, du needna blush an’ shak’ dy dead. Du haes nae secrets fae me, boy. Go on, git oota here.”
Robbie was laughing now. Still looking a bit rueful and embarrassed – but definitely laughing. He stood up and stretched.
“I tink I’d redder be here wi’ you, Gran’dad. But, okay. I’ll go an’ face da music. But if onybody maks ony mair jokes aboot wir rowin’, I swear I’ll . . .”
His threats were left unheard as he went out the door. Auld Jeemy smiled contentedly at his grandson’s departing back. Then he picked up the remote control and switched on the television, settling back in his chair and muttering to himself.
“Aye, aye, Robbie. Du’s some boy. Mebby if I win da lottery da nicht, I’ll bigg dee a brand’ new yoal. Een dat will win races.”
– – – – –
With grateful thanks to Stuart and David for their help and advice.