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Issue 16 - In celebration of fishing

Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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In celebration of fishing

Fishing has played a major role in Scottish life for generations. Vivien Devlin celebrates Fish Week in Ullapool

Fishing has been a way of life for generations of Scots over the past 250 years and more. Around Scotland’s salt wind swept coastline, thriving ports and village communities grew up from Newhaven on the Forth, Anstruther and Pittenweem along the East Neuk of Fife, north to the rocky cliffs around Aberdeen and Fraserburgh and over to the sheltered harbours of Mallaig, Tarbert and Ullapool of the West Highlands.

The idyllic whitewashed village of Ullapool curves around a natural peninsula on the shores of Loch Broom, where the eponymous sunshine-yellow flowers blossom along the roadside in spring time.

The port was created by the British Fisheries Society in 1788 when fishing became an organised industry at the height of the herring boom. There was no market at the time for fresh fish - herring had to be cured in brine as white herring or smoked as kippers.

The fishermen went to sea while the women – the famous ‘herring girls’ with their fingers wrapped in protective bandages – gutted, split, salted and packed the fish in whisky casks. This was a flourishing time for Ullapool but work was always dependent on the vagaries of weather, sea and fish – perhaps because of overfishing there were sparse herring catches by the 1840s.

Boom times followed lulls. From the early 20th century it was thriving again with fishing trawlers from Ireland, Germany, Holland, Russia and Eastern Bloc countries roaming the Scottish seas.

The massive Klondykers, fish processing factory cargo ships, were a common sight moored off shore in Loch Broom while lorries lined the harbour wall to export thousands of tons of herring to Continental Europe.

By the 1990s, Klondykers and lorries were declining while local fishermen were turning to mackerel and other shellfish to make a living. The tide had turned.

Ullapool was, as a local resident remarked, ‘weaned on fish’ and that precious heritage is deeply ingrained in the life and heart of its people.

Today there is still an important fleet of a dozen boats catching lobster, oysters, mussels and scallops worth £2 million a year to an international market. And at the height of the busy summer season thousands of visitors make their way from Inverness to Ullapool, stopping off for a few days touring around Wester Ross before, perhaps, taking the Cal Mac ferry over to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

Tourism is a vital part of the economy and a couple of years ago local businesses, shops and hoteliers decided to work together to put the old fishing port clearly on the map.

Instigator of this plan was dynamic entrepreneur Jean Urquhart, Highland councillor as well as proprietor of The Ceilidh Place – hotel, restaurant, bar, beer garden, book shop, art gallery and music venue – a year-round global travellers’ meeting place for good food, drink, conversation and eclectic culture since 1970. And so the Ullapool Tourism and Business Association [UTBA] was formed and one of their first projects was ‘Ullapool Fish Week’ which took place in May 2004.

The overall aim of this festival was to focus on fish and promote the village and its continuing dependence on the sea for food, employment, export and tourism.

As well as arts and entertainment, Fish Week was a valuable occasion to celebrate the past and discuss future prospects for the community.

Recent European Commission policy has restricted Scottish cod fishing quotas and decommissioned Aberdeen and Fraserburgh fleets causing financial hardship and unemployment.

Therefore the starting point was a conference in order to voice serious debate surrounding the current crisis facing the Scottish fishing industry.

It was opened by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West who welcomed “the opportunity to raise awareness of the cultural and economic role of fish and fishing on the West Coast.” The conference was attended by more than 100 delegates including politicians, industry leaders, fishermen, movers and shakers.

The colourful programme of events included ceilidhs and concerts, fish tastings and boat building, fishing competitions, island walks, boat trips, lifeboat demonstrations and sailing regatta.

Ullapool hotels and restaurants devised special menus and published a Fish Week recipe book full of appetising dishes such as Drambuie-flavoured lobster thermidor from the Seaforth Inn.

The whole village took part – schoolchildren, chefs, musicians, artists and fishermen as well as every visitor in town.

Highlights? – a superb archive display at Ullapool Museum illustrating the roller coaster highs and lows of the fishing history; a contemporary art exhibition called ‘The Sea’ featuring painting, sculpture, print, photography, tapestry and weaving from 17 local artists; live gigs by top Celtic band Capercaille and the amazing Orkney fiddlers, Saltfish forty, fusing traditional ballads with the Blues; a play by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, daily seafood barbecues and ending with a glamorous Gala Ball.

On the Saturday a vibrant festive spirit took over the village, with funfair attractions, children’s fish-themed fancy dress parade – pirates, herring girls and mermaids – while the harbour quay was transformed into a Fish Market beside a marquee exhibiting artwork, handmade soap, leather and wooden crafts.

As a finale to the day’s events, a new community dinghy, Wee Hector, was launched in style with a bottle of champagne. Ullapool boatbuilders were commissioned by Fish Week organisers to construct a boat for the Festival.

Mark Stockl, former classical guitarist turned boat builder, was given this prestigious task – 16ft long, 6ft wide with a 15ft mast, the handcrafted frame was made from local oak and larch varnished to perfection.

The cost was £9,000, partly funded from donations with children sponsoring a rivet at 50 pence each.

The name Wee Hector was inspired by the original Hector, an 18th century Dutch ship which set sail from Ullapool in 1773 with 200 Highlanders and Islanders forced by the Clearances to emigrate and seek a new life in Canada. After three months of atrocious weather and disease, 187 survivors reached Pictou in Nova Scotia.

An anonymous ballad recalls the plight of these exile families, who would never forget their homeland.

Wester Ross has an enchanting, wild, abandoned beauty, from the dramatic mountain range around Torridon to the white sand beaches along the Gairloch coastline. Head north from Ullapool and take the single track road west into surreal landscape – miles of empty, sheep scattered bens and glens, passed the famous rugged peak Stac Pollaidh before you reach the sea cliffs and coves of Achiltibue and along the ‘wee mad’ twisting road to Lochinver.

Take a cruise up Loch Broom to observe the birds, seals, dolphins and Minke whales around the cluster of tiny islands – the Summer Isles – shimmering and changing shape and mood in sea mist and sunshine.

Light is the dominant factor in this glorious seascape with an expanse of white, blue and soft grey skies meeting the horizon. On a clear day you can see Skye and the Outer Hebrides.

Fish Week 2004 was a pilot venture with a firm intention to establish it on the calendar. Lauri Chilton, Chair of the UTBA has deemed it “remarkably successful” while project manager, the ebullient Ramsay McGhee, is seen as the local hero for creating such an ambitious festival.

Modestly he pays gratitude to the enthusiasm of the community for their committed involvement. Five hundred people visited the sea exhibition, the Saturday market did great business and the recipe book is selling like hot (fish) cakes.

I heard American guests at the Ceilidh Place (who had come across the Festival by chance) ask about Celtic music concerts – happy to drive 25 miles to Achiltibuie to hear Saltfishforty perform.

Most excitingly, word of Fish Week has now spread to Pictou, Nova Scotia.

There, a full scale replica of the Hector has been built and the descendants of those very first emigrants are keen to sail her across the Atlantic to Ullapool sometime in the near future.

With true Gaelic hospitality, you are sure to receive ceud mile failte, a hundred thousand welcomes, whenever you may visit this north west corner of Scotland. Wester Ross is drenched in ancient history, a rich Celtic culture and the unforgotten memories and stories of its fisher folk. But the aim of Fish Week wisely went beyond a rose-tinted nostalgic view of the past and celebrated with music, conversation, seafood and a dram, this contemporary, cosmopolitan happening place – which is Ullapool today.

All going well, with a following wind, the second Ullapool Fish Week will take place from 9-15 May 2005.