At around 8.30 pm on a Friday night I’d walk through the foyer area of the Neuk Bar and as I approached the entrance door to the bar itself I’d hear the hubbub of noise emanating from within. As I put my hand on the handle to open the door a very familiar voice would rise above the din and I’d hear the following immortal words, words that I had became used to hearing on a regular basis:
“Murray, I dinna gie twa monkey’s f*cks” which would have been followed seconds later by an equally vocal “ye’re talkin’ shite, Burgess”.
I’d open the door, walk into the bar and be met with the reassuring sight of Ken Murray, John Burgess, John Paterson, Iain McMillan, ‘Specky’ Dave Wright, Raymond Fowler, Andy Collie, Alan Jones, Martin Quigley and John Gallagher all shoehorned into the corner of the bar next to the dart board and in front of the coal fire. In their midst, holding fort, was Chris Mennie, former Cove loon, ex-trawler skipper, previous owner of Lethen Taxis and born-again lobster fisherman.
As usual, Chris was voicing his opinion in his own inimitable style and bantering with the friends standing next to him. He wasn’t being offensive or disagreeable in his use of bad language or intentionally taking the opposite viewpoint to those around, instead he was calling a spade a bloody shovel as he was often wont to do. In fact it was very likely that Ken or one of the others were making comments to intentionally provoke an amusing, expletive filled outburst from Chris.
Today, you will still get the same regulars drinking in the Neuk on a Friday night, usually a combination of the above mentioned “worthies” plus a few others too, however these days the Neuk is a lot quieter and that’s because there is one vital ingredient missing – Chris Mennie.
On the morning of Wednesday 3rd October 2007, Chris left Stonehaven harbour, as usual, in his boat, Nadine II, to tend to his lobster creels which he fished on the Kincardineshire coast between Stonehaven and Portlethen and during the course of the early afternoon he was observed at sea from both Newtonhill and Portlethen. However, at around 5pm, his boat was seen lying against the rocks at The Moat, south of Portlethen village, apparently taking on water.
The alarm was raised and the coastguard was called for and they were soon on the scene next to the stricken vessel. At the same time my father and brother had made their way down to the rocks next to where the boat was lying and were quickly aware that there was no sign of Chris, either on the boat or in the immediate vicinity. Soon after their arrival the boat began to break up and sink, and as darkness fell there was very little evidence of the Nadine II left other than a tangle of ropes from the creels that had spilled overboard and the flotsam and jetsam being washed ashore.
The search for Chris continued into the evening and a helicopter assisted the coastguard’s rescue craft on the water and the shore-side crew on the cliff-tops in an attempt to locate the missing man but unfortunately to no avail and, as midnight approached, the search was called off. The next day saw the search resume and divers taking to the sea in the area of the wreck site but once again the search proved fruitless.
What caused this particular accident at sea? Unfortunately none of us will ever know the full story but it seems possible that Chris, who was a diabetic, could have taken an ill turn and went overboard whilst further out to sea, and the vessel, with no one at the helm, may have blown ashore in the strong and prevailing south-easterly wind, or run onto the rocks under its own steam. It’s unlikely that Chris was onboard the boat when it run aground because he had no creels in the immediate vicinity of The Moat at that time and there was no reason for him to be there.
Unfortunately Chris’s body has never been found.
So, why this tribute to Chris Mennie? Well, he was a very good friend to me and many others and his loss was sorely felt, as it is to this day. Chris and I spent many an hour in the pub extolling the virtues of lobster fishing – he the consummate professional making a living out of the profession and me the enthusiastic amateur catching a lobster or two to fill the pot. What we had in common was a good understanding of inshore fishing, the local coast and the habits of the crustaceans in our midst. If anyone had been listening to our conversations about “beasts”, “bobs”, “bashers”, “busses” and “bait-bags” they would have thought we were talking a language from another planet.
I first heard about Chris Mennie when I was in my teens, around the time I began to take my father’s boat out to sea on pleasure trips or to work a few creels around the shore but back then I didn’t know the man. I was familiar with some of his peers who I encountered regularly whilst doing my creels, people like Robbie Sutherland, Euan Curle, Derek Craig and the Gibb brothers but by then Chris had moved into the more serious field of trawling and did his fishing further afield. There would have been no reason why our paths should have crossed – me, a part time, pleasure fisher who would occasionally venture out in the boat and Chris, a career fisher, making a serious living out of the sea.
The sea was in Chris’s blood. Fishing had been his life since the day he left school - first as a young deckhand on an Aberdeen trawler and then as the skipper/owner of two moderately sized trawlers with his own crew. Like many of his fellow skippers, he had sold the last trawler during the turbulent years the fishing industry endured during the 1990s.
It’s somehow ironic that I first got to know Chris when he was taking a break away from the sea back in the 1990’s. At that time he was the owner of Lethen Taxi’s and I got to know him through using his taxi firm to shuttle me between home and the local pubs in Portlethen at that time. I also got to know him a lot better in those particular pubs and our friendship grew from there, particularly when he discovered who my father was, someone he had always known and respected.
Chris was never destined to be the owner of a taxi firm, a result of a drunken whim that ended with him setting up his own business because one evening he couldn’t get a taxi to take him home from the pub. At the time it seemed like a great idea to run a fleet of taxis and have them ready at his beck and call however his enthusiasm waned after a couple of years and it wasn’t long before he was being drawn back to the sea.
Initially, he had an idea to make a few creels as a hobby and fish them for pleasure from a berth in Portlethen shore and that’s how he caught the bug once again. Lobster fishing rekindled his love of the sea and ultimately he began to think that, perhaps, it was possible to have fun and also make a bit of money at the same time.
However, by the 1990’s Portlethen shore wasn’t an ideal place to initiate heavy duty creel fishing as it was very labour intensive to carry creels and baits from the shore-head down onto the beach. The more creels that Chris accumulated, the more he realised that he’d have to move to a harbour that suited his needs and ultimately he moved from Portlethen to a berth at Stonehaven. It was around this time that he sold his taxi business so he could focus on his new fishing venture on a full time basis.
It wouldn’t be long before Chris was taking lobster fishing very seriously and, as he never did anything by halves, he was soon working a fleet of hundreds of creels along the local coast throughout the year, fluctuating between working them in the deeper waters in winter and the inshore areas in the summer months.
By the time we reached the 21st century Chris was very much re-established as a seafarer and was one of the best known and most respected shellfish fishers on the north east coast of Scotland. His vessel, Nadine II, was a very familiar sight on the Kincardineshire coast, particularly on the stretch of water between Stonehaven and Findon Ness.
Chris was not only a fisherman; he was also a family man, and a “weel-kent” personality in the communities of Portlethen, Stonehaven and Cove, where he had spent his youth. There are many stories about Chris, which illustrate the humour and character of the man, and he wasn’t averse to making himself the fall guy when things might not have gone according to plan.
Out of all the anecdotes surrounding Chris it would be possible to produce a more than interesting book; in fact, my friend Dave Wright has already produced a booklet of his own humorous poems (*see illustration and footnote below) that covers some of the highlights and escapades of Chris’s life at sea.
Without fully going into all the details I can recall three brief stories that go towards summing up a little of the humour, personality and character of the man.
Firstly, in 1982 when his boat sank in the navigation channel of Aberdeen harbour and brought the port to a standstill – Chris’s comment “I have done something that the German Luftwaffe failed to do in the Second World War”. He was the kind of person who didn’t mind making a joke at his own expense even in times of hardship or disaster.
Secondly, his wife Nadine felt the need for new living room curtains and thought it would be a smart move to put them in the washing machine to shrink them and appeal to Chris that the curtains would have to be replaced with new ones. She didn’t anticipate Chris’s response which was to lower the curtain rails and put the shrunken curtains back up again.
Finally, the evening in the pub where Specky Dave and Chris were discussing the merits of Owls (Chris kept a selection of owls in captivity at home, having one of the biggest collections in North East Scotland, and being something of an expert in this particular bird of prey).
Dave suddenly asked Chris about a Teat Owl which resulted in a quizzical look on Chris’s face and the retort “there’s nae such thing”. So ensued a passage of banter that resulted in bets being placed (a dram) on the existence of the mysterious Teat Owl, which Dave was going to have to prove in the pub the following week.
A week went by and the pub regulars waited in anticipation as Chris asked Dave “fit aboot this Teat Owl?”, Dave turned his back, slipped his hand inside his jacket pocket and slowly revealed a …….Tea Towel! The bar was in uproar and none laughed more than Chris himself as he put his hand in his pocket and paid up on the bet.
Perhaps the biggest acknowledgement I can pay Chris is that he would have fitted in with any of the other fishermen from any generation that I have written about elsewhere in this site. He was a true sea-faring person in every sense of the word and a throwback to the times when local characters were the norm rather than the exception.
Finally, a recent development in respect to Chris is the decision of Portlethen Community Council to name a street after him, near his home in Hillside. This decision to name a street “Chris Mennie Walk” is a very fitting tribute. For anyone living on this street, or who notices the street sign and wonders who Chris Mennie was, I hope that this particular section answers some of those questions.
Chris is survived by his wife Nadine and son Ricky, and I am indebted to them for allowing me to write this tribute.
* Specky Dave's publication "The Poems and Tales of Captain Crab" is