Saturday, 17 September 2011

Fish theft and vodka

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My father used to say the EEC was nothing more than a Tory club. In 1973 I was coveting suede mini- skirts, denim Wrangler jackets and trying to work up the courage to ask him to let me go the ‘Harray’ dance. Harray is the only landlocked parish in Orkney and natives of Harray got the nickname’ Harray Crabs’ as they had no shoreline. (No I don’t know the logic behind it, I suggest you google it). The Harray dance was symbolic of everything that was terrifying to a parent emerging blinking into the 60s and then hurtled into pre-punk 70s. The iniquity of the hall’s reputation  encompassed legendary copulations at the ‘back of the hall’,  imbibing of vodka behind broken toilet doors with secondary spewing in the same location, and a floor running in spilt beer which was de rigeur. Unregulated, even socially condoned underage binging in the macho rural society that was Orkney then, created the perfect storm of authoritarian parenting for someone like my dad – a refugee from the Wee Free kirk.
In our house pre –TV – the news whined on and off station from a Bakelite radio, and news times were religiously observed. We later got telly – my uncle Kenny who ran the Decca station was a whizz with electronics and always had the latest in TV and electrical stuff like an 8 track reel to reel tape recorder on which he taped us all. He was well known among the fishing community of course in Orkney and then later in Peterhead when he moved to Longside. A radio operator in the war he survived Monte Cassino. (Never get a risk assessment for that now). Seeing Thunderbirds in their house was again, tasting the forbidden fruit of ITV.
I only realise now, how significant that time was politically for fishing and our remote and coastal areas. It went almost without question that the UK Atomic Energy Authority would site an experimental reactor at Dounereay as far away from Westminster as you could get. There was no devolved power. Caithness and Orkney really were at the end of the line and the populations small, insignificant and ultimately expendable if the thing blew up. Orkney was much more of an island than it is today when we only had one daily crossing of the Pentland Firth by the St Ola. In 1973 ro-ro changed our island ethos out of all recognition. Oil was mooted and speculative companies arrived in town to present their plans to remove entire hills, build refineries, make millionaires, (Local Hero indeed) while proffering the inevitable beads and goodies to the wary local population. (We got a Steinway Grand which apparently is no longer cost effective, as it’s too dear to repair, and therefore  no longer of the calibre required during the annual import of RP culture which is the Saint Magnus Festival)  It is a cyclical state of our remote communities, to those of us that were born and brought up here, that a procession of shiny suited developers  ‘discover’ our undeveloped potential, come in with big talk and promises and deftly use the isles and our communities as stepping stones in furthering their personal careers or company aspirations.
In the 1970s, the UK still had all of its manufacturing base, its heavy industry and as yet had not grabbed and squandered the spoils of the oil industry. Europe had all these things too. What Europe did not have was the riches of the Scottish fishing grounds. I believe that fishermen were seen as the peasant class of the UK. Ted Heath negotiated the UK entry to the EEC and those fishing riches were part of the key bargaining chips for securing entry. It was class and national politics at it’s worst. Scotland, where fishing was of much larger importance to the working population than England, was viewed as no more than a backward and stroppy Jock-filled shire and the industry itself and working fishermen were perceived as an expendable economic entity that could be scrificed  in order to gain entry to the coveted club. If the wheat fields of central England had been handed over to Europe’s farmers to come and reap willy-nilly there would have been outrage. Our Scottish fishing grounds were our prime harvest crop and they were squandered and handed over practically whole sale to be carved up by Europe. Thinking of it now it was unbelievable folly that this should happen. But then in those times there was precious little hope of any control for the Scottish population over their economic future nor the fishing industry of stemming the desperate juggernaut towards the Tory club. ‘As you sow shall you reap’, and what we see now is the pathetically sad and infuriating state of our fisheries and our communities.
The Scottish fishing grounds were stolen and handed away without the democratic say so of the Scottish people let alone fishermen. The EU in its Common Fisheries Policy reform proposal, barely disguise their appetite for screwing down our fishing communities as they are set to reinvigorate the Tory club and release even more lawless market driven forces on what is left of Scotland’s  hammered industry .In polished vagueness, the CFP document allows everything and nothing to be possible. Most alarming is the assumption that market forces will assist sustainable fishing – the economic analysis of a Santa list is produced to justify this and the fervour of a blatantly neo-con drive toward a free market in quota via permanent international transfers of fishing quota. They have changed the terminology slightly to keep everything subtly disguised, so what was once fishing quota and became rights based management is now tradable fishing concessions. If international permanent transfers in fishing quota – (the right to fish the un-owned fish in the sea) are introduced then the status of tradable quota loses all links to national boundaries and individual fishermen and becomes exactly the same as stock market commodity shares traded on the international market with no controls at all. Quotas currently restricted to the demersal and pelagic fleet fishing( cod, haddock herring mackeral ) will  be extended to encompass all species including those caught by inshore fishermen in our small remote and fragile communities, crab, lobster and scallops.
 Fish swimming blithely round today are oblivious to the fact that under the CFP they are destined to be owned at birth. The fisherman will have to go cap in hand to buy the right to fish at whatever price the quota owner, who could be a football club, a pop star or a multinational supermarket chain, wishes to charge. The ‘market’ is notoriously bad at protecting the interests of the non-monied. Survival of the fittest is all very well if you happen to be the fittest, but even the fittest are unaware that there’s a bigger cat in the jungle till it’s too late. Note well the plight of the UK’s dairy farmers held to ransom by low supermarket prices. Potential quota buyers will right now be rubbing their hands and thinking up ways to get round the feeble legislation mere governments might attempt to introduce – ghost fishing companies, nominal links to bona fide fishermen…
We are at the end game of what started back in the 1970s, the theft of Scotland’s fish. In those pre- ro-ro days us islanders, who didn’t buy the life-style on the back of a housing boom in the South East, all felt a bit dislocated from the Mainland and the big decisions that happened there out-with our control. Back then we never knew we were 20 years behind the fashion down south, till we arrived in the city and felt like Eastern European refugees possibly feel now. In the Harray Hall where ‘disco’ was something only read about in the ‘Jackie’ our local bands played out cover versions of The Doors, Deep Purple and Led Zepplin. We never expected to wake up years later and see our industries and our communities fighting for the basics of their survival

mince and tatties politics and fish

It isn’t quite a year, but it’s long enough to now be able to put my head above the parapet and tentatively say, ’I think I’m starting to get my head round this.’ Last year my only true credentials for the post of Secretary to Orkney Fisheries Association were as the wife of a former fisherman. Another slight inaccuracy, Neil still fishes, but since 1995 we have been unable to rely on fishing for our total income. This is part of the story of this blog and will I hope help to map the dramatic decline in fishing in Orkney since that time.
My background was heavily reliant on family associations with the crab and lobster fishing in Stromness in particular. As kids we were brought up with the vague knowledge of all the extraneous things our father did which meant he was out most nights at meetings of one kind or another. One of the things he was involved with was the OFS or the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, a co-operative set up in Stromness in the fifties to provide the fishermen with a fair return for their catches. He strongly believed that fishermen were often ripped off by the Billingsgate fish merchants who would report that lobsters arrived dead. There was no way of knowing the truth.
The smells of the OFS permeated our Stromness lives up until the factory moved out to the soulless Cairston Industrial Estate. We used to think the fisheries in Alfred Street stank – as they did when they were boiling the crabs and we would run past holding our noses. However today I really miss the smells of the fishery – they were as endemic to the town as the Breweries to Edinburgh. Compartmentalising industry and work away from where people live has also meant a loss, kids on their way to school no longer see the work going on, the smells and the sounds nor imbue the ethos.
We had two fish shops in a town of 2000 inhabitants, Omands and Dowies. Maggie Dowie was a class-mate of my dad’s and was a formidable character and also the sister of Alfie Sinclair, father to Angie and Ollie who both in time were to make their mark as Stromness fishermen. Bob Dowie would give us kids boiled sweeties in the shop while Margaret wrapped up the fish in grease proof paper. The uncoiling roll of brown sticky flypaper  held my gaze as my Buckie grandmother invariably argued about whether she had been sold whiting or haddock.
There were two boatbuilders, McKays and Pia Anderson’s. Again my dad and Pia were of like mind and friendly so the ups and downs of the boatbuilding industry came and went around my ears. Of more interest to me in those days was Pia’s wife’s shop, an ‘up market’, well as far ‘up’ as you could get in Stromness, clothes shop where my mother bought her clothes. It had what seemed like glamorous changing rooms with curtains, and Mrs Anderson had a miniature dog (probably a chihouha) with staring eyeys an incessant shake and which looked as if it would break in bits if you patted it.
As a kid I was inside Pia’s yard when my dad had to speak to Jimmy about something and remember being knee deep in wood shavings, hearing the noise of the electric saws and the smell of fresh cut wood. The ‘Highland Board’ as it was known started to help fishermen build boats and it was a big thing. Prior to that many were little more than yoles with a tractor engine. Pia came up with a design which you can still see today and all about it felt like things were thriving. The yard was out a Ness where Stanger’s yard was before and long before it became a camp site, the fishermen stored their gear out there. The other yard, McKays was tucked in behind Wilson’s store on the North Pier just about where the cars Q to get on the North Link Ferry now.
My mother and grandmother cooked in the old fashioned Scottish way, mince and tatties with dough balls, stew with carrots, scotch broth, syrup puddings, custard and apricot tarts with jam from a tin and when it came to fish we had boiled cod, boiled whole in a huge pot (the stock kept of course). I never liked the look of the whitened eyes, but we ate the chunks of cod with white sauce. ‘Yellow’ fish or smoked haddock was eaten poached in milk, but top of the menu was always fried haddock in breadcrumbs. If we got a boiling of partans or lobster that was considered a treat, and the entire kitchen would fill with fishy steam as they were boiled alive. That’s where I learned to cook- by watching them and ‘helping’ roll the cubes of beef in flour or dust the fish with the bright orange ruskoline.
Bear with me it all has to do with the present state of fishing. Like most things its all a bit more complicated that it might at first seem….