During the late 1940’s and early to mid 1950’s my father, John, held a number of labouring jobs with a variety of companies – Knowles, Richards and Tawse to name a few. In between those jobs he also served his National Service which took him to the Far East where he explored the delights of Hong Kong and Singapore before completing his service in Catterick, Yorkshire.
It was around the mid 1950’s before John made a permanent link to the sea and fishing when he joined Joseph Johnston & Sons of Montrose and became a member of the salmon fishing crew at Altens, near Cove. This work was mainly seasonal, lasting from February until around September, so alternative work was sought over the winter months to tide him over until the beginning of the following season.
At around the same time as John’s salmon fishing career was starting he decided to buy a fishing boat and purchased a small, open, clinker-built, Gustav designed vessel measuring around 14 feet in length. Initially the only means he had of travelling from A to B would have been by rowing however it wasn’t too long before a 1-1/2 horsepower Seagull outboard motor was on the agenda and purchased. He was now in a position to do a spot of creel fishing, small line fishing and take an occasional trip out to the “ripper” in search of cod. It would be fair to say that it was during the 1950’s that he truly gained his sea legs.
To diversify briefly for one paragraph; the small boat that John purchased in the 1950’s is still used by the family today although we do have a bigger fibreglass version that has been in more frequent use for the last 30 years. They are both good boats but a lot of credit for their longevity is due to John for the care and maintenance of them during their lifetime.
During the early part of the 1960’s John became skipper at Altens salmon fishing station and was in charge of a crew of six men. The job of a salmon fishing crew is just as challenging as that experienced by any small inshore fishing vessel – the same difficult weather conditions have to be faced, nets are positioned precariously close to rocky outcrops and there was the extra task of having to ensure that all leader nets were removed from the sea, despite the weather conditions, whenever possible, over the course of a weekend.
1963 proved to be a particularly challenging year for John and he was involved in two major incidents in the early months of that year that made the local news headlines. In February, whilst at sea in the salmon coble, they experienced engine trouble, broke down and were soon adrift and battling against the elements, it being quite stormy at the time. They managed to guide themselves towards one of the salmon nets and tied themselves to one of the tripper buoys to save them being forced against the nearby rocks. To draw attention they had put together a makeshift distress signal which comprised of a bright yellow oilskin being tied to the end of an oar and waved landwards in the hope that they would be spotted by someone on shore. After about an hour in this position they were seen and the Aberdeen lifeboat was called and rescue was at hand; just in time too because the weather was worsening and the day was darkening. The coble and crew were towed to shelter at Aberdeen harbour.
The second incident, unfortunately, had a tragic ending. This was a March weekend and the weather was stormy, so stormy that the coble which was moored on the runners on the beach at the small cove at Altens was in danger of being washed from its berth out to sea. It was essential to have the boat winched further up the beach and on to the bank to avoid it being lost.
Help was summoned from other local salmon fishing stations to assist in the securing and winching operation. John and a fellow skipper, Alex Mackie, from a nearby fishing station made their way down into the cove to clamber into the coble to begin securing operations. It was whilst both men were in the coble and the winching operation had begun that a chain snapped and the coble launched itself back down the runners into the stormy sea. A huge wave crashed into the small cove sweeping all before it; John managed to leap to safety but Alex was less fortunate and was swept from the boat and drowned. The coble ended up being battered to pieces.
John remained at Altens until the late 1960’s and it was then that he was transferred closer to home to be skipper of the salmon fishing station at Portlethen shore, a mere quarter of a mile stroll from home. For the next decade John remained working as a skipper there.
In the close season (when no salmon fishing was taken on) he remained employed by Joseph Johnson & Sons looking after a variety of maintenance projects that Johnston’s were involved in around the country, this may have been in Montrose or it could have been on the north-west coast of Scotland where Johnston’s had some interests in salmon farming.
As well as working continuously for Johnston’s for nearly 25 years John also managed to put his small boat to good use in the way of inshore fishing so he made a supplemental, if not exactly bountiful, living out of the sea for a number of years.
In 1980 Joseph Johnston & Sons closed the salmon station at Portlethen and relinquished their rights to the salmon fishing lease. John, by then, had discovered a talent for building walls and drystane dykes and it was at the age of 49 that he took redundancy from Johnston’s and changed careers to make a full time living out of building work. Despite this change of career John continued to make frequent trips out to sea – to make a bit of spare cash and for the sheer enjoyment of being out there on a fine day.
Today he continues to make many trips out in the boat but not to make any revenue – legislation means it’s difficult to make any money out of anything that is caught without an appropriate licence nowadays, but to catch the odd partan or lobster for the pot and to do a spot of “ripping” for cod.