Kirkcudbright’s Fishing Fleet

by David R.Collin – March 1999

This article was published in “Kirkcudbright and District Holiday Brochure” in 1999.

In the Kirkcudbright of my childhood, fifty years ago, the harbour was picturesque but moribund, and at low tide its muddy bottom supported rather more bicycles and bed-ends than it did boats. Vandals had not yet discovered shopping trolleys, so in those carefree days, they threw each other in to the water, attracted no doubt by untreated sewage which was all too evident at low tide in those bad old days.

The process of decay was abruptly halted in the mid 1950s however, when largely by the inspiration, effort and dedication of one man, John King, the fishing industry was revived. While employed as manager of the Gibbhill Sawmill. John King built a twenty-two foot long clinker motor launch as a joint venture with Donald Tait and Maxwell Hannah and then progressed to full time lobster fishing and trawling in the characterful Morecambe Bay prawner “Young John”. Fresh sea food crept and swam slowly on to the menus of a few local hotels, and the “Young John” became superseded, firstly by the “Polly Cook”, secondly by the Cornish gig “Dos Amigos” fitted with the “Polly Cook'”s winch, and thirdly by the much larger and more powerful Scandinavian vessel “Nordland”.

Word quickly spread of John King’s success, and in a few years the harbour was transformed. Engines strained to push deeply laden vessels up the river, bleary eyed skippers peered from salt caked wheelhouses over bags of scallops piled high on deck. and the building trade lost fit young men with strong stomachs who could handle shovels in almost any weather. As the fleet grew, it included representatives of the work of nearly all of the very best designers of fishing vessels from every part of Scotland, and these vessels were quickly re-rigged, re- equipped and steel plated for their new and rugged life as scallop dredgers. A scallop gear design and manufacturing industry was established, and a processing plant was founded in 1971, which is now one of the town’s largest employers.

Elderly Scottish vessels such as the “Girl Anne”, the “Silver Fern” of Stronsay, and the modern but almost yacht-like “Radiance” were dwarfed by the massive masts and spars of the distinctively Scandinavian “Nordland” and “Solway Firth”. Tough East coast vessels like the cruiser sterned “Ocean Hunter” from Fife contrasted with the finer lined “Village Belle” built by Dickie of Tarbert, and sporting a characteristically elegant canoe stern.

The first new boat to be commissioned in Kirkcudbright in living memory was John King’s “Ranger” built in 1966 by Noble of Girvan. With her straight stem, bold sheer, and curved wheelhouse top, she was a fine example of wholly traditional design and craftsmanship, combined with the latest developments in mechanical and electrical equipment. The day of her arrival was a proud one not only for her skipper and crew, but also for the growing number of people that thrived on the excitement which the ancient harbour had begun to generate. Four years later, that excitement was recreated by the arrival of a new “Ranger”, built in Denmark in 1970, and perhaps displaying John King’s affection for his earlier vessel , the “Nordland”. The new and beamier “Ranger” was an interesting illustration of the gradual change of shape of traditionally built boats, as they became more heavily powered, and gained greater hold capacity.

The ” Isabella”, “Marwood”, “Aliswood”, “Fredwood 1” and “Fredwood 2” were evidence of the experienced eyes of the Woodman family, and of their loyalty to Scottish-built timber vessels, but also evidence of evolution towards more comfortable and more efficient designs, as transom sterns and whalebacks were incorporated into traditional hull forms.

The Kirkcudbright fleet included a few steel vessels such as the “Armadale”, the “Berryhill”, and the original “Kingfisher”. Fishermen however have always clung closely to tradition and many early steel vessels sported artistically wood grained steel wheelhouses in a nostalgic reference to a material that had served well for so many years. That generation of vessels was followed by more modern, beamy and simply constructed boats such as the “Islay” and the “Jura”, with their low centres of gravity, and spacious wheelhouses. Change was in the air however, and the arrival of the “Cadno” on the river Dee demonstrated the power, comfort, and safety, if not the beauty that modern design could provide.

At the time of writing, there are seventeen trawlers in the harbour, six of which are owned by the enterprising Tony Finlay. Of those seventeen, only one, the handsome “Fredwood 2” is built of timber. The largest is the King family’s latest “Kingfisher”, and she like her near sisters the “Solway Harvester” and the “Tobrach -N” illustrates that the last traces of the many distinctive Scottish hull forms have probably gone forever.

Kirkcudbright people are immensely proud of their enterprising fishermen, and of the vessels bearing the name of their home port and the registry port of Ballantrae. These men have created an industry for themselves, with all the associated spin-offs for suppliers, gear manufacturers, processors, retailers and the tourist industry.

When you visit the harbour, look beyond the rust, the accumulation of gear, and the occasionally colourful language of men who may have had very little rest! Millions of pounds have been spent on the fishing fleet, and almost every penny has been scratched from the sea bed, by hard work, high technology, and the use of a rediscovered but ancient skill.