What can they do when the fish are gone?: James Cusick on the crisis facing Scottish villages

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT, thunders the current issue of Scottish Fishing Weekly, faces a long summer of confrontation. Scottish fishermen themselves, however, know that after the summer will come the autumn and winter, and privately they expect to have been beaten by then.

The protests are already well under way, involving blockades by trawlers of five West of Scotland ports in the past fortnight, and an occupation of fisheries offices in Plymouth by 80 skippers from South-west ports that ended yesterday after 32 hours. At issue are new quota systems, which from October will restrict the number of days a skipper can spend at sea, in order to conserve stocks, and could see some boats limited to 80 days' fishing a year - nowhere near enough to earn a living.

Insiders reckon that in the end, the small operators will have no option but to sell their quotas to the big trawlermen and give up fishing. Villages heavily reliant on income from their remaining boats, such as Kyle of Lochalsh and Tarbert on Loch Fyne, are, according to one Kyle skipper, 'staring extinction in the face'.

David Dunn, a retired skipper from St Monance in Fife, has seen it all before, and reckons that what happened to his village serves as a warning. From the beginning of the century, St Monance was one of the principal fishing stations for the Scottish herring fleet. By the mid-Seventies it had all gone. The last remnant, Millers the shipbuilders, closed in November after 250 years in business.

Now, the little communities of Crail, Anstruther and Pittenweem join St Monance on the official tourist trail for visitors seeking the village-as-museum experience. In the summer, coaches squeeze down narrow streets where money has recently been spent in this preservation area to replace functional black- and-white street signs with decorative blue-and-white ones. The Scots word for street - wynd - is making a big comeback.

But the old sepia photographs of the village being pored over by Mr Dunn show that today's sleepy peacefulness is completely misleading. The pictures show the harbour, today containing only a handful of pleasure boats, packed with motor boats and steam drifters with tall funnels, which carried St Monance men up to Shetland, out into the North Sea and south down the coast to Yarmouth.

Not that it was all wonderful, Mr Dunn points out. 'There was plenty of work, but little money about. Then we had no crew wages, only a share of the profits from the catch. If there was no profit, you got nothing. If the boat was in debt, you were in debt.'

Margaret Dunn chips in: 'We lived in one room then. Box bed, one-ring gas cooker, a fire. It's a wonder we weren't burnt down. And the wives mended the nets in the home as well.'

Nevertheless, the community prospered. A statistical account of 1790 shows the village as having four bakers, three breweries, four merchants, five tailors and six weavers, along with two boatbuilders, a wright, a gardener, two flax-dressers, two sievemakers and a shoemaker. By 1844 there were two schools for general education and one infant school, four fish-curers, two benefit societies, three savings banks, another boatbuilder and 10 licensed taverns.

Three things dramatically changed St Monance's future. The first was fishing technology and the coming of the trawl boats. 'They trawled the sea bottom. Catches were much higher. Spawning areas were destroyed. And that's when the herring started to get scarce. Less fish meant you needed to fish further away. You needed bigger boats.'

By the Fifties the old steam drifters were all sold, and there were no more herring boats at St Monance. The decline through the Sixties and early Seventies was slow but steady. The bigger boats moved out to other ports, mainly Aberdeen to the north. Mr Dunn, who retired in 1982 with health problems, ended his fishing days as owner of the Fidelitas, a 54ft seiner, in Aberdeen.

For fishermen in other villages worrying about their livelihoods, Mr Dunn warns that there was no day when St Monance could say 'Now is the end' - 'It won't be dramatic. Just a slow, gradual decline. Just down and down. Here it took a number of things. Beeching closing the railway station in the early 1960s didn't help. But gradually the boats went, the shops went, the people went.'

Roy Hardy is one of the new settlers. After 30 years in the RAF, he came to St Monance from Andover eight years ago, attracted by the quiet. Now the owner of the village newsagent's, he says he has noticed something of a resurgence recently. 'This was strictly a retirement village a few years back - a lot of people selling up in the South-east and moving up here. Now some young people are living here. It is a commuter village for Edinburgh (45 minutes to the Forth Bridge), Glenrothes and St Andrews.'

Business at the newsagent's is 'steady'. There is an antiques shop, a small food store, a bank, two bars and a primary school. But Mrs Dunn misses 'the old chemist's, the draper's, the butcher's and the baker's, the dairy. And oh yes, the shoe shop. We had everything we needed.' Mr Dunn too is regretful. Although he admits he did not worry about it in his day, he has advice for today's fishermen: 'They should remember one thing,' - he says, pointing towards the sea. 'It's not a bottomless pit out there.'

(Photograph omitted)