A new book by Cunningsburgh-based writer Charlie Simpson charts the amazing revolution which has taken place in marine navigation over the past 60 years.
The development of electronic equipment, which can now pinpoint locations precisely and effortlessly, has utterly transformed the maritime industries, and fishing in particular.
But in the process of this change an incredible wealth of skills and knowledge has been lost, and is still being lost today.
Until the mid-20th century navigation at sea relied on a combination of observation and memory. Most fishing was done within sight of land, and “meids” were used to locate fishing grounds. Features such as hills, headlands, buildings and other marks were lined up, and the intersections of these lines provided an accurate and essential positioning system.
The meids, and the knowledge they incorporated, comprised something like an oral map of Shetland from the sea, and it is this map that is being gradually, irreversibly, erased.
Charlie’s book seeks to gather together some of that knowledge, using interviews with 16 retired fishermen from all over the isles.
Water in Burgidale: Shetland Fisheries in a Pre-Electronic Age has been almost a decade in the making. Charlie said: “It began in about the year 2000. I was commissioned by the Shetland Amenity Trust to record the meids of fishing grounds, basically as an extension of their work on biological records.
“That project was well underway for land, and they thought it might be a good idea to extend that seaward. One of the convenient ways of accessing seabed knowledge was to go to fishermen.”
Fishing meids also tied in with another project led by the amenity trust: the detailed recording of Shetland’s place names. Knowledge gathered from fishermen would provide another significant angle to that work.
There were initially two aspects to the research. “The commission was to record both the professional fisheries and the hand-line – the inshore, amateur fishing grounds,” Charlie said. But because the details of inshore waters have been better preserved, with the continuing popularity of amateur sea angling, “it was a higher priority to speak to the old fishermen while they were still there”.
He continued: “John Goodlad and I put our heads together and came up with a list of contacts . . . I spoke to all those contacts and I had enough material to cover all around the coast with meids.”
Following his meetings with the former fishermen, Charlie had to transcribe the interviews, analyse the information and plot the fishing grounds on maps. The level of detail he gathered was incredibly impressive. Even after so many years, the men could remember many of the meids they had used and could describe them in great detail, such as this from John Scott, a crewman on the Day Dawn in the mid-1960s: “Gyaan oot nort o da Score, da first you’d come tae wid be da Score Sand hitsel. You wid run oot til you got da Bard Head comin ida Noss Soond; wance du saw da Bard du wis comin on da wast edge o it, so you took da Bard oot. Du guid nort til du hed Kebister Ness on da nort end o da Green Holm; dat wis da nort limit. Da aest edge, du could come oot til du got da Bard Head comin on da aest side o da soond, a peerie bit on ta da Noss land.”
Charlie said: “They could bring it back, 40 years after they’d last used the meids. The mental agility was impressive.
“For guys that left school at 14 and maybe wirna afforded the same respect that other folk got . . . the thing that came out was just how clever these men were.”
In addition to the recording of meids, Charlie also gathered information about fishing methods, as well as other stories from the men’s time at sea.
“At the end of the day the stories that came out were probably as important as the meids,” he said. “Really it’s the oral history that’s turned this into a book. Without that it would have been a list of information.”
It is these interviews that make up the bulk of the book, transcribed faithfully in dialect. The stories are a fascinating reminder of a time now long since passed.
“There’s been such a huge change in fishing methods and in fish stocks,” Charlie said. “There’s a whole generation that has no knowledge of this at all.”
According to the book’s introduction, while completing the project he experienced “the growing realisation of just how prolific our inshore fisheries used to be, within living memory. Trying to imagine what it must have been like even earlier, in the sixern days before steam trawling, leads to the now-elusive notion of ‘a sea full of fish’ . . . It’s sad to realise that today, this scenario no longer exists – anywhere in the world.”
That realisation, along with the undercurrent of loss that inevitably runs through these stories, makes Water in Burgidale something of a poignant read, though it is also, in equal measure, hugely informative and entertaining.
For Charlie it is an important work in two respects. Firstly, it represents a significant linguistic record, and may be the largest work in dialect ever published. Secondly, it offers a captivating insight into a world of which few people have any experience. “The general public never saw fishermen at work,” he said. “It was a closed book to shore society. In that sense it’s worth bringing it to public attention.”
Eileen Brooke-Freeman, place names officer at Shetland Amenity Trust, said: “This is a hugely significant publication in terms of Shetland fisheries, place names and the dialect. It paints a vivid picture of the life of fishermen in the second half of the 20th century. Charlie’s careful transcriptions of many hours of sound recordings mean we can almost hear the voices of the men.
“However, like much of our place name information, we are reminded of the fragility of the oral resource as sadly five of our informants have died since being interviewed, making it all the more valuable to have captured their words and recorded their knowledge.”
According to Charlie, writing in the introduction: “This isn’t my book, really; it belongs to the men who told me their story.”
By MALACHY TALLACK