Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Art of the Progue, a Galloway Whisky Galore and a naturalist Welsh Monk






The recent storms haven't all been doom and gloom for some of the local characters around here. Our shores have been recipients of huge quantities of debris of all sorts, including a few thousand tons of gravel that miraculously appeared after the storm on Christmas Eve, a fine present all neatly washed and graded. It's amazing what an angry sea can do and I've just read that all the sand at Ganavan disappeared in the same storm. Well, it's not ended up here and if anyone is missing some gravel, they're not getting it back.

An old local eccentric, sometimes known as Hairy Pete and by those who don't know his name just as the Old Logman has been down on the shore recovering sodden timber which may eventually dry out enough to keep him warm later this century. There's been enough black plastic stuff, curiously-shaped objects never seen before, enormous black barrels and bits of broken rope to start a small fish farm. A great length of heavy duty pipe also washed up and was hauled with great difficulty to the roadside by Hairy Pete to await later collection once his friends recovered from their revelries enough to help him, but had disappeared by the time they did. We have to guess that its owner, possible a hedge fund in Kazakhstan, has arranged for its recovery to go back to its function of feeding caged salmon.

In parts of the country where they have traditionally received such bounty from the sea, the locals have special names for it. The occasional fine sailing ship never made it out of the approaches to Firth of Clyde, coming to grief on Corsewall Point, a sticky-out bit of land at the top of the South-west tip of Scotland, where the tides are strong and the winds changeable. Around Stranraer and in the tiny settlements facing the Irish Sea and Luce Bay, havens for generations of smugglers, the harvesting of this material became known as "proguing" and the product as "the progue."

It always beats me why ship-owners didn't see the sense in having their precious vessels towed well clear of these dangerous waters. Ferdinand Laeisz kept a special fleet of steam tugs to tow his P-ships the whole way from Hamburg until they cleared the English Channel, where they were set free in the open sea and the tug would wait for the next incoming member of his fleet.

Typical of what happened in Galloway was the fate of the Firth of Cromarty, picture above, which thankfully was not shared by her complement.

On 26th August 1898 she and her tug anchored for the night in Rothesay Bay. We can guess that her master and crew enjoyed a few fairweel swallies in the watering-holes of the lovely Royal Burgh before setting off for the long trip to New South Wales.

About 6 a.m. the next day the tug pulled the Firth of Cromarty out into the Firth, past the south end of Arran, and about 7.30 p.m. she had Ailsa Craig on the port beam. The weather was described as hazy, with passing showers, and the sea was getting up. About 8.30 p.m. sail was made to topsails and foresail and the tug cast off, the ship standing on the starboard tack and continuing full and by on that tack, doing about four knots with the wind W.N.W at that point. Land was in view at all times and she was closing it, with the wind shifting from W.N.W. to W.S.W. as darkness began to fall. The subsequent inquiry notes 

"At 9 o'clock the light on Corsewall Point was made, bearing about south, and at an estimated distance of nine miles, but it is to be noted that neither at this time, nor at any subsequent period, did the master think it necessary to seek for corroboration of his assumptions as to distances by having recourse to the lead. The dangerous nature of this neglect, and of trusting implicitly to the eye for judging distances, is shown by the fact that at 11 o'clock, only 20 minutes before the ship stranded, the master judged he was eight miles from the light which was then bearing S.E., while, as a matter of fact, he was so close to the shore that when, a quarter of an hour later, he attempted to wear ship she was brought up by the rocks.....at a place locally known as Bloody Point, about half a mile to the southward of the lighthouse, and ultimately she became a total wreck. (my comment- so he's been doing four knots for two hours and thinks he's gone one mile over the ground???) Next morning the mate and nine hands, in one of the ship's lifeboats, landed in Loch Ryan, and the remainder of the crew was rescued by the rocket apparatus."

I hesitate to suggest that the delights of the Rothesay hostelries had anything to do with the disaster, but the aftermath would certainly have given the Galloway proguers some sore heads.

The cargo included a huge quantity of very fine malt whisky, placing the event at the very pinnacle of the art of the progue. Bottles were being recovered by divers quite recently, three selling at auction in 1991 for about £1,000 each.

We had no such luck here, but the local progue did include one biological curiosity. A local proguer came across part of a bucket that had been at sea long enough to acquire its own population of barnacles, but these were not your ordinary barnacles, they were goose barnacles, a species found only in far-away places.


It seems these creatures got their name thanks to one Gerald of Wales, a celebrated monk, politician and naturalist from the time of Henry II of England. As Wikipedia reports, 

"In the days before it was realised that birds migrate it was thought that barnacle geese, Branta leucopsis, developed from this crustacean, since they were never seen to nest in temperate England hence the English names "goose barnacle", "barnacle goose" and the scientific name Lepas Anserifera. The confusion was prompted by the similarities in colour and shape. Because they were often found on driftwood it was assumed that the barnacles were attached to branches before they fell in the water. The Welsh monk, Gerald (Giraldus Cambrensis), made this claim in his Topographia Hiberniae.  Since barnacle geese were thought to be "neither flesh, nor born of flesh", they were allowed to be eaten on days when eating meat was forbidden by religion."
The Goose Barnacle Tree

A little research on the great Gerald suggests that he should have perhaps stuck to the politics, as he developed a number of other theories, including the idea that an osprey has one webbed foot, which are unlikely to have been based on observation. Certainly our local osprey, who visits daily in summer, flies so high that I haven't been able to inspect his feet. It's always possible, of course, that Gerald himself had indulged in a bit of twelfth century proguing and had found a bottle of something that had addled his brain.

Easy to see how Giraldus got confused

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water