A fisherman's tale

The men and women of Mallaig are no strangers to death. They know the boats that set out daily in search of mackerel may never return. But then the Silvery Sea went down with all hands. And this tiny Scottish community will never be the same
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These should be great days in the Scottish village of Mallaig. Night never seems fall in this most westerly port on mainland Britain. Extraordinary golden sand on its beaches and almost Caribbean clear sea make you wonder if the wind ever blows on this edge of the Highlands. Nearby, the temperate presence of the Gulf Stream allows even palm trees to thrive. Indeed, this noisy port of pebbled-dashed cottages, dwarfed by great outcrops of granite tumbling into the sea, might easily be mistaken as a stopping-off point for tourists bound for Greek islands rather than the Western Isles. Each morning more trippers arrive on the steam train from Fort William, having passed beneath the peak of Ben Nevis en route to the sea.

These are days when the women of Mallaig, as they pack their men off fishing for perhaps a fortnight at a time, should be able to relax and enjoy summertime with their children. The sea appears so unthreatening. Look out at the bay around which the islands of Rum, Skye and Eigg wrap themselves and you can see for miles. So normally the women can set aside for a few months their usual fears of fierce winter storms and lost loved ones.

It has been a time of celebration. On 12 June, Eigg marked the first anniversary of the day when its 68 islanders bought out their landlord and at last gained a chance to dictate their own destiny. Meanwhile, in Mallaig earlier this month there was the traditional week of partying, with raft races in the harbour, prizes for the best kept boat and a visit from Paul Anderson, the great Aberdeenshire fiddler. The festivities closed with a service of thanksgiving during which this fishing community sang the hymn: "How good is the God we adore/Our faithful unchangeable friend."

Yet within days they were mourning the greatest tragedy to befall a community that lives in expectation of accidents. On Wednesday evening, 500 of them prayed together at a special service in Mallaig school hall. They should have been watching the final performance of the school play, which had been cancelled.

On Sunday morning, five men, four of them from this village of fewer than 1,000 people, had perished. Their boat sank after a collision, 30 miles off the Danish coast. The Silvery Sea, a 124ft, 265-ton purser, hit the much larger, 4,155-ton German coaster Merkur and sank rapidly, drowning the entire crew.

Had it been winter, the disaster might have been easier to understand, even though each vessel was equipped with sophisticated radar and electronic equipment. But this all happened in broad daylight at 7.15 in the morning. It was possible to see 20 to 30 miles, said the coastguard. You couldn't have hoped for a finer day in June.

The Silvery Sea's skipper was Alexander `Zander' Manson, perhaps the most respected fisherman in Mallaig. With him was a crew of men in their thirties and forties. All but one of them had been aboard the boat when it was almost dashed on rocks off Larne in Northern Ireland in November 1996. So the North Sea in June did not worry them. And they were delighted with themselves: The Silvery Sea was heading east for a processing plant in Denmark, loaded to the gunwales with a 500-ton catch of sand eels. A trip like that can earn a crewman more than pounds 10,000.

But a boat so heavily laden sinks fast: the sand eels were still alive swimming around in tanks holding thousands of gallons of salt water. The German freighter had reinforced steel bows to cut through ice. The collision was like a Mini hitting an articulated lorry. Two helicopters were scrambled and seven ships joined the search. They found only empty lifeboats and an oil slick.

Many people got their first word of the disaster while attending Sunday morning services at Mallaig's two churches, one Catholic, the other Protestant. Fr Michael Hutson, the parish priest, broke the news to some in his congregation. "We prayed during 10 o'clock Mass that the men might be found," he recalls. But within hours their hopes had shrunk. The prayer then was that at least the bodies might be retrieved so funerals could be held. Four of the men were married. One had two young children. Their relatives were sprinkled throughout the community. For two days, they waited until the first four were discovered by divers 100ft down in the submerged boat. Then the next of kin made their sad journey to Denmark to identify the dead.

No-one in Mallaig is untouched by this tragedy. Even when reporting the killings in Hungerford of 16 people in 1987, you would meet some in the town largely unaffected by what had happened. Not here. The mood in the pubs on Sunday evening was sombre, says Angus Macintyre, who has lived all his life here and works on a boat crewed by a brother of one of the dead. "Some of the lads were crying into their drinks. It's a terrible blow."

These are private people, who have come to loathe the intrusiveness of the press. On Monday afternoon, Frances Shand Kydd, Princess Diana's mother and patron of the local fishermans' association, met the bereaved in the village. The visit provoked chaotic scenes among journalists outside. At one point local men discussed turning a hose on them.

The women, in particular, have retreated into their community. "You are always worried when a man goes to sea," explains one woman. "You never want him to go when you have had a row. You have to sort out your row first, in case he doesn't come back. But you don't expect this to happen in fine weather. Nothing on this scale has happened here before. There have been boats going down, losing a couple of men. But not five. Everyone is so shocked. I was speaking to a friend of mine whose husband went to sea on Monday and she says she wants to ring him up every hour to check he is OK. You look out at the bay and think how can anything go wrong on such a nice day. And then you realise how easy it is for a boat to get its nets snagged and to go under."

The men who died were well known to most people. Zander Manson, 57, the skipper, was the king of fishing in Mallaig. A tall, lanky man, he was owner of the largest boat and head of a family whose name is synonymous with the village. Michael Dyer, 36, left two boys, one aged 14 months, another, Christopher, aged 8, who is nicknamed "the harbour master" because he was already helping around the boats. "Michael and Betty seemed such a happy couple with their lives set up," says one friend. "Now, it's all gone." Michael Dyer's body is the only one not yet found.

In a place like this, no-one goes by their Christian name - everyone has a nickname. Alan MacDonald, 31, was known as "Druimdhu", after his family home. He was newly-married and had just built a house. The fourth crew member was Alex "Tucker" Mackenzie, 32, who, said his brother Gordon, "loved the sea and loved his boat. He was a big Aberdeen football club fan and a shareholder in the club - he really talked about nothing else." The fifth was Billy Tait, 42, from Fraserburgh, a man whose name will ripple through the Scottish fishing industry in which the Taits are a key family.

There is grief for all these deaths, but also guilt. The crew was at half-strength because they were fishing sand eels rather than mackerel. "Some of these men live together for a month at a time," explains a Mallaig woman. "So the crew members who are left are devastated. They have lost their boat family."

Raymond Manson, Zander's brother, was one of the crew not aboard that night. Another surviving member had been discussing with his ex-wife only the other day the details of his will, should he be lost at sea. Alistair McCombie lived by chance. He had been on holiday in Spain, returning late on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, it was his task to break the news to Ruby Tait, Billy's widow. Mr McCombie's wife said: "Mr Tait only joined the boat at Christmas and it was my husband who got him the job. Can you imagine how he is feeling? He got the man the job and then he has to tell his wife he is lost. He is just devastated. I am just grateful that we went on holiday because I still have my husband."

The deaths also preoccupy those who carry on fishing. Charlie Duncan, born and raised in Mallaig, took his 54ft trawler, The Primrose, out on Sunday night after the sinking. He is a large, bullish man, sweat dripping from his forehead as he mends his nets on the quayside before another night of fishing for prawns. He knows how physically tough fishing is, the dangers, even in calm weather, posed by miles of rope on deck that can catch a man's ankle and send him overboard in a moment. And he knows no-one is certain of a living in a port where boats can be tied up for four months of the winter because of bad weather. His wife is nervous for him: "She tells me to keep myself safe," he says. "Of course, you think about what has happened. I was at school with Zander. But if you kept thinking about it, you would never go to sea."

Mr Duncan knows the pressures that the crew of The Silvery Sea would have faced. "In the summer with the daylight you make your money," he says. "So I'm working from 4am till 10.30 at night." In such circumstances, it is not hard to see how a crew member on a boat might have let his attention wander. It's a thought which is the topic of much quiet conversation as people inevitably look for someone to blame.

Chatting on the quayside, you also realise why men may not survive such accidents. Most fishermen, particularly the older ones, feel that if you go overboard far out at sea, no-one will reach you in time. So it's best not to fight your fate. Charlie Duncan, like many deep sea fishermen, has never learned to swim.

Mallaig people are practical. They know why they are here. Many families arrived for work little more than a century ago, mainly from the east coast fisheries, when the landlord built a pier in a village which was until then only a sheep farm on a rocky outcrop. The coming of steam-boats created a way to follow huge shoals of migrating herring. And the new railway from Fort William in 1901 offered a route to market.

Zander Manson was the last of the great herring fisherman. The Silvery Sea was up for sale when Zander died. He planned to retire.

Poor herring stocks mean that Mallaig has all but abandoned the fish that made it, but prawns, white fish and sand eels are making it rich again after the lean Eighties. But the deaths on Sunday will never be forgotten.

In St Patrick's Catholic church, overlooking Mallaig harbour, there is a stained glass window showing a fisherman in trouble being rescued by a God-like, oil-skin clad lifeboat man. After last Sunday's drownings, such a memorial will no doubt remind the faithful that sometimes even God cannot protect against the ravages of the sea.

Mallaig quayside: most of the fishermen are philosophical about the dangers, but even they were shocked at the deaths Tom Pilston