The entire Earlsferry fishing fleet was devastated off Dunbar on the 17th of August, 1579.
For centuries, making a livelihood from driftnet fishing in the North Sea, off the East Neuk of Fife and the Dunbar coast, had been commonplace. In the summer, from August until the end of September, it was herring fishing, when catches were gutted and packed in barrels, and sent to Europe or the West Indies. In the winter months, local fishermen fished for cod and whiting, and shellfish, such as crabs and lobsters. However, long before the 19th Century, when the herring industry took off, encouraged by the British Fisheries Society and the newly formed Board of Fisheries, such an occupation, to all intents and purposes, had ceased to be practiced out of one coastal village in Fife.
That wee township was Earlsferry and it wasn’t because the fisher folk had become lazy or lost their sea legs, or even their appetite for fish. It was largely because of a series of maritime disasters over two centuries that devastated the wee community; events from which its fishermen never fully recovered. Fishing always had been a dangerous occupation and risk taking wasn’t uncommon when there was a catch to be had, but for the most part, those risks had much to do with the weather. Whatever motives persuaded the men to venture out in storms and tempests, it looks like the weather forecasting instincts of hardened seafarers, such as indubitably they were, sometimes deserted them.
A story found in prose and verse tells us about a storm at sea that sank the entire fleet of Earlsferry fishing boats on the 17th of August, 1579. The fishing fleet, which was lashed by hurricane force winds south of the Forth Estuary, numbered all of 60 boats and all of the fishermen – in the region of 300 men (five to a boat) – were said to have drowned. The next generation growing up in Earlsferry, without their fathers to inspire them with tales of the sea, could be forgiven for having doubts over fishing as a career. Over time, potatoes replaced herring and salt as the main export from wee harbour villages like Earlsferry. Don’t forget that those two-masted fishing boats, locally known as ‘fifies’, didn’t have outboard motors or diesel engines; they had only sails and oars to drive them through the water. Being a landlubber wasn’t so bad, after all, you might say.
There is a report of the Earlsferry tragedy in ‘The Kingdom: a descriptive and historical handbook to Fife, with map and illustrations’ edited by ‘Kilrounie’ [John J. Russell] and first published at Cupar, in 1882. An extract from the book records that the fishing industry suffered a severe blow and “…during a fearful storm all the boats of Earlsferry were lost and the whole fishing population perished.” It refers to a record of a storm that occurred on the 17th of August, 1579 “…when 60 fishing boats foundered near Dunbar.” The same 1579 incident is also mentioned in ‘The East Neuk of Fife’ by the Reverend W. Wood, in which he refers to the tradition of the storm: “…in a fearful storm, the whole boats of Earlsferry were lost, and the whole fishing population perished.”
There is another record in verse that probably refers or relates to the same event, however, it is not so exact as to the month or day and it has the year two years prior to the date in Kilrounie’s history. Maybe that’s poetic licence. Fishermen have always faced dangers at sea, with disasters and drownings an accepted part of life in their towns and villages. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the earliest recorded disasters have become the stuff of legend. The poem in question is known as ‘The Luckless Drave’ or ‘The Legend of the Lost Drave’ and it tells of “a thousand boats” being wrecked off the coast of Dunbar in 1577. References to the poem indicate that it was the Dunbar fishing community – and not that of Earlsferry on the other side of the Firth of Forth estuary – that was devastated by the storm that wrecked its fleet.
In a ‘Drave’, shares in a boat were divided between two or three fishermen and five or six landsmen, one of whom was the proprietor as landsmen at the time built and equipped fishing boats “in the way of adventurers.” At the end of the season, after expenses, the net [sic] profit was divided into a number of ‘deals’. The owner got one deal, every fisherman drew half a deal, every two nets (each fisherman had at least two nets) had half a deal, and every landsman that was capable of working two nets got half a deal.
Reputedly, in 1577, Dunbar was one of only two ‘ungodly’ places on the East Coast where the North Sea fishermen fished on the Sabbath. On the fatal day, described in the poem as “a beautiful Sunday morning” the boats had put to sea, despite the warnings of the local Minister, Andrew Simpson. In a tome called ‘The History of Dunbar from the earliest records to the present period; with a description of the Ancient Castles and Picturesque Scenery on the borders of East Lothian’ by James Miller (author of St. Baldred of the Bass) and published in 1830 by William Miller of Dunbar, there is further reference to 1577, “…when 1000 boats were wrecked on the coast.”
That James Miller book records an extract from the Session Records of the 27th of July, 1712, when the Reverend T. Wood of Dunbar read a minute left by his predecessors, which mentions “the dreadful disaster” that had fallen upon “the people of this place” for breaking the Lord’s Day. Quote: “Mr Simpson, minister of Dalkeith, son to Mr Andrew Simpson, minister at Dunbar, in his exposition of the XXXII Psalm, hath these words: A fearfull judgement of God fell furth at Dunbar, about the year of God 1577, qrof I was an eyewitness. My father, Mr Andrew Simpson, of good memory, being minister thereof, qho, going to the church, saw a thousand boats setting their netts on the Sabbath-day. He wept and feared that God would not suffer such contempt. …at midnight, when they went forth to draw their netts, the wind arose so fearfully, that it drowned eight score and ten boats, so that there was reckoned in the coast-side fourteen score of widows.”
You can find some image records of the poem on Scran, the online image resource base. They show the title page or front cover of what’s called, variously, ‘The Luckless Drave’, ‘The Lost Drave, a Legend of Dunbar’ or ‘The Legend of the Lost Drave’. One image is of a 17th Century drawing that shows fishing boats in a storm, with witches on broomsticks flying above. Witches were popularly unpopular in the 17th Century. You could attempt a poem about the fateful Drave of ’77, perhaps in the style of William Topaz McGonagall? Here’s a start…
“Tragic Fishing Fleet of the Dunbar Bay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
Thousands of lives have been taken away
On a holy Sabbath day in 1577,
Which will be remember’d as a time of grievin’.”
Of course, neither Dunbar nor Earlsferry were unique in their grief. In ‘The Kingdom’ there is the tale of another fearful storm, which raged in 1863 and sank 36 fishing boats from the East of Fife “and all of the men aboard were drowned.” Its editor also includes the story of the Eyemouth Disaster, which occurred on what is known as ‘Black Friday’. That dire date was the 14th of October, 1881, when ‘The Great Storm’ took the lives of fishermen; in that case, 189, with 129 of them coming from the one town – Eyemouth. According to ‘The East Neuk of Fife’, seven fishermen out of Earlsferry were drowned in one boat during a tempest in 1776. Wood also records that it was since that time that Earlsferry “ceased to be a fishing place” not least, because the harbour was completely filled with blown sand. It’s still worth a visit though, especially if you like ‘gowf’ or fancy a day on the beach. Or you might visit Macduff’s Cave at Kincraig Point, near Chapel-Ness, and imagine him fleeing from Macbeth.