Why did this decline in the fishing villages happen? One suggestion mooted in 1966 by Mr James Lees, an Aberdeen Fish Market Porter who had family connections in some of these villages, was the continual loss of lives in the small vessels that plied their trade from places such as Downies and Portlethen.
In respect to the “Late Gale of 1880”, Mr Lees quoting from his Grandfather (who had been out at sea that day) said that his Grandfather’s boat had no time to “tide their lines” but started to haul when a south east gale broke. His boat made for Skateraw Harbour, their “muckle sail reefed” as they ran for shore. So severe was the gale that the only bit of sail left “wind mak a guid cravat”.
Mr Lees recounted that many of the villages lost men in that storm and that there were very few Downies men left. “The disaster was responsible for many men leaving their villages that year and starting a new life in Torry. The exodus gained momentum as the years went by until 1900 the villages were more or less deserted, as far as fishing communities were concerned” stated Mr Lees.
It would appear that both Torry and Footdee (Fittie) were the benefactors of this exodus and their existing populations became supplemented by those families leaving the Kincardineshire fishing villages and, additionally, those villages north of Aberdeen as well.
Mr Lees added that the few original families that lived in Torry before the exodus were not fishers but deepwater sailors and ship’s carpenters. He also said “Most of the small fisher villages between Aberdeen and Peterhead were at this time gradually being deserted and, before 1900, they had virtually ceased to exist. The fisher folk from Collieston, Slains, Whinnyfold, Port Errol and other small villages were a God-fearing, industrious people who took part in the Klondyke to be when they came to Torry”.
“English trawler men and their families came to live at Torry and in 10 years Torry grew to become the largest fishing village in the country. From 1900 until the outbreak of World War I the community participated in the greatest fishing boom of all time. As a result Torry became a very prosperous part of Aberdeen” Mr Lees added.
From Mr Lees’ comments it is apparent that the small white fishing communities were dying away and being replaced by the centralised fishing “village” of Torry where there was a good harbour. Additionally, boats were becoming larger and safer and were beginning to journey further from the shore.
The industry had changed in the space of a few decades and the small villages that were left behind did not have the space or facilities in their small creeks and shores to cope with these new technologies and larger boats. As a result the numbers of boats being kept in the small harbours dwindled and by the beginning of the 20th century there were only a handful of fishers working from Portlethen and Downies. Those that remained were occasional small white fishing boats and a few others used for creel fishing.