Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Learning about the sea at St Abbs

St Abbs by Ailsa Tanner

I don't remember much about my first visit to the North Sea, probably because I was in utero at the time. My parents had a holiday at Coldingham sands in the summer of 1947 and were to decide later that St Abbs was a great place for holidays. After my brother arrived the custom was for our parents to rent the house of a lady named Mrs Nisbet for the month of July. During that period she lived in her garden hut, but regularly turned up in the house to practice playing hymns on her harmonium, for she was the local church organist. Our father couldn't take the entire holiday and for most of the month continued to work weekdays and make the long commute to the East coast in his Wolseley each Friday evening.

"Brother dear, your memory is tripping you. In 1956 we stayed at St Margarets which was almost opposite the bowling green and was owned by Mrs Hood who was the organist in the local church. She had a piano on which I learned my first tune - chopsticks  on black notes only. It is true that we did stay in another place, possibly a guest house, nearer the primary school, again opposite the bowling green maybe a few years earlier, of which I have no memory at all. I did hear the father say that this place had a harmonium, so I cannot be sure that the harmonium was connected with the church organist."
St Abbs by Joyce Peterson

Childhood memories are usually of permanent sunshine and I recall these holidays spent almost entirely by, in or on the sea. At the age of about four I became apprenticed to Jake Nisbet, Master and Commander of the Fleetwing, an open launch from which he mainly hauled crabs and lobsters. I now believe the Fleetwing to have been a utility launch designed by Walter Bergius and built by James N Miller & Sons at St Monans. She was fitted with a petrol/paraffin Kelvin engine. The two of us often set off for the fishing grounds and I quickly learned how to keep the boat under control while Jake emptied and rebaited his pots. On one memorable day after a period of strong winds we went hand-lining for cod, close in at the foot of some steep cliffs with the swell bouncing back from the rocks. He was after a particular fish that had eluded him in the past and was to do so again that day. Looking back it was a pretty dangerous operation, but Jake was my hero and I had total confidence that he would get us back safely.
"You forgot about Patch the dog of Jake. Remember when young Peter Nisbet put the Fleetwing into reverse without pausing in neutral for a few seconds, this happened when Patch fell overboard and so this gear movement  broke the gear linkage. There was a pump that had to be primed with a canful of seawater and that was my job. Young Peter was the son of Peter the Fish and owner of grey Morris Minor van in background of foto of yourself and Jake and Lenny the lobster that you boiled alive"

Years later my mother spoke of the pride she felt when I brought the Fleetwing alongside the quay, to the surprise of some visitors (we never saw ourselves as such). However she also got a scare one day when we had just left the little harbour, as usual with a bit of a swell running and an East wind and Jake switched to paraffin before the Kelvin was properly warmed up. As he calmly set about priming the engine with petrol to restart it my wretched mother was seen scrambling over the rocks, calling for the lifeboat to be launched, to my eternal embarrassment. Of course we were soon going again, but Jake thought it better to return me to shore, so I lost a day's fishing. 

Harbour entrance by Patricia Dorward

At the time I was sure that Jake, with his full beard and thick traditional jersey, was the oldest man in the world. Many years later I was returning from a meeting in Durham and found myself near to St Abbs, which I had never revisited, so I took a detour. I found that Jake had died only a few years earlier in his fifties, so he must have been scarcely out of his thirties at the time of our trips.

"Your memory is away again Brother dear, look at the foto again please. You just expect someone like Jake to have had a full beard and his jersey doesn't look all that traditional to me."

Those summers were also an education of the dangers of the sea. There were many people around who could remember the storm of October 1881, when the entire village lost loved ones. And several times during our stays the maroons went off, summoning the lifeboat crew.

My brother and I were green with envy one year when we arrived to find that the local boys had built themselves sailing boats from fish boxes, coating the outsides with canvas and tar, curragh-style, and square-rigging them with old black window blinds. We lacked the skills and resources take part and the experience probably caused both of us to start building boats in later life.

"the home made boats sails were of course wartime blackout blinds. One of these boats was called Lark. It was from these boats that I developed a great love of very small rowing boats."

Rather more stylish than these craft was the Lively Peggy, a beautiful clinker-built skiff, gaff-rigged and immaculate, with the ends of her spars painted white, that lay in the inner harbour, the pride and joy of the charismatic harbour-master George Colven.

In those days the main activity was of course fishing, but many of the men went whaling in winter. There were also occasional opportunities for a little trade, for example when the Polish fishing fleet came close to shore the local men would be off with goods for barter. I don't know what they exported, but the imports included Polish cigarettes and vodka. This all seemed very exciting at a time when the Cold War was getting under way and Mother lived in constant fear of being attacked by the Communists.

"Jake worked in the winters for Christian Salvesen the whalers. There was an article about him in one of the chipshops in Eyemouth about his wartime excursions"

St Abbs is now a haven for divers and I understand that George Colven was instrumental in resolving the problems associated with their arrival, allowing new forms of economic activity to replace the old. On my last visit a couple of years ago I realised that while the structure of the village was unchanged the character was now very different and felt that perhaps the old memories should have been left undisturbed. There are echoes of the past, however, as the village has built a St Ayles skiff and is now participating in the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project.

    "your whole article is very much a boys view of things."

As you have seen my brother is gifted with supernatural recall. Looking back I realise that Jake had a special quality in that he could make everyone feel special. Neil and I were only two of a no doubt large number of holiday children who got their introduction to the sea from this legendary boatman, whom we now know had also survived a hazardous war in the Merchant Navy. We little knew how much those seaside summers would shape our later lives and I despair for those present-day children who are freighted off to Disneyworld at every opportunity and denied knowledge of their native land.

postcard from Robbie Nisbet's collection


  1. Here's a photo a Young Peter Merry from Wayside, have a look at a St Ayles Skiff.

  2. Hi Petticowick

    You've posted some great pics of the skiffs on flickr, but I didn't find young Peter. Also any idea how I can find the Hogmanay stories?



  3. Coldingham and Shore Past:


The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water