On this day 1881: 'Black Friday' as 189 men lost at sea in Scotland's worst fishing disaster

Bad weather had kept their boats in the harbour for a week – and the men were itching to sail.

Wednesday, 14th October 2020, 7:00 am
A memorial to the 'Black Friday' fishing disaster at Eyemouth, with this commemoration of the fisherman and their families found at the nearby village of Cove, which also lost men to the sea on October 14 1881. PIC.www.geograph.org /Walter Baxter.
A memorial to the 'Black Friday' fishing disaster at Eyemouth, with this commemoration of the fisherman and their families found at the nearby village of Cove, which also lost men to the sea on October 14 1881. PIC.www.geograph.org /Walter Baxter.

In the early morning of Friday, October 14 1881, fishermen at Eyemouth gathered as usual to check the weather and decide whether it was safe to work. A strong gale through the night had fallen and things seemed clear and calm.

The barometer, however, was abnormally low.

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“The older fisherman cautioned against putting to sea, but the younger men were impatient – bait was getting stale and families had to be fed. Those with money tied up in boats and gear had loans to repay, ” according to an account published by Eyemouth Museum.

The boats set sail one-by-one, the fleet covering the eight or nine miles to their fishing grounds in around three hours. Around the time their lines were shot into the water, one woman in St Abbs recalled “a horrible sort of stillness” descending.

The light wind died away and the sky darkened, according to the account.

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It added: “The boats’ heads were brought round in to the wind and sails reefed. Decisions were made whether to run for Eyemouth or weather the storm at sea.

“Ashore, crowds of people gathered on the sea front and on the brae heads. The school was closed and the children joined the others, straining to see through the driving spray and lashing rain.”

Women and young ones watched helplessly as their menfolk, who had almost made it home in their wooden boats, hit the Hurkar Rocks at the mouth of the harbour and disappeared into the sea only yards away.

Wreckage of a number of known boats appeared on the shore. On the Sunday at 7am, seven fishermen arrived back in the harbour on the Ariel Gazelle, which was spared from the “gates of death” after deciding not to head for shore but battle the storm for 20 hours.

Stories of miraculous escapes, such as the man knocked out his boat by a wave only to be returned to his vessel by the next swell, brought hope.

But for those yet to hear from their loved ones, that hope turned to a painful acceptance of the worst.

A report in The Scotsman on October 18 said: “The terrible toll ….cannot be regarded without intense pain and sorrow.”

A total of 189 were killed in the storm. Eyemouth had 129 of its “best and hardy men snatched away”. Burnmouth, Cove and Coldingham also counted losses wth 93 women widowed by the disaster and 267 children left without their fathers.

Money poured in from all over the country for the families of the fishermen who died, with over £50,000 collected by the Disaster Fund.

Some blamed the ‘tithes’ dispute between the fishermen and the Church of Scotland for the disaster, with the kirk demanding that the skippers pay tithes, or one-tenth of their income, to the local minister.

Some believe the cash-strapped Eyemouth fleet felt the need to take risks and sail into disaster on October 14, 1881.

It is said that Eyemouth took 80 years to recover from the disaster. A statue at the seafront commemorates those who lost their lives and a 15ft-long tapestry hangs in Eyemouth Museum.

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