The East Coast Fishing Disaster of 1881

East Coast Fishing Disaster Memorial, Burnmouth

On Friday the 14th of October, 1881, hurricane Euroclydon struck the south-eastern coast of Scotland. Nineteen fishing boats were lost and 189 men did not return, leaving 73 widows and 263 fatherless children. Until our visit to Burnmouth last summer, we had never heard of what some locals still call Black Friday. When we strolled round the village on our first evening, we wondered what this sculpture on the harbour wall commemorated.

A few years ago, Jill Watson was commissioned by the people of Berwickshire to create memorials representing the exact numbers of surviving widows and children in four of the communities affected. These tiny figures represent those of Burnmouth.

Along side them is an older memorial which lists all the men drowned.

Around the village are planters representing each boat lost: Alice, Christina, Excellent, Guiding Star, and Transcendent. We only found the first three.

Throughout our week in Burnmouth, we went in search of the other Jill Watson sculptures. This is Cove:

And St Abbs:

And by far the biggest is in Eyemouth, the main town of the area:

On a hill overlooking Eyemouth Harbour, there is also a commemorative wall, built in 2017, with each lost man represented by a pebble at the base.

The town’s small museum has more information and displays about the disaster. (These are all fairly terrible pictures because of reflections in the glass cases.) The poster below has a quote from Alex Burgon, Skipper of the Ariel Gazelle – “We’ll not see Eyemoth today boys”. The men clearly knew what was coming. Pickit Men by Emma Mackenzie (2010) has a figure for each of the 129 Eyemouth men lost, standing together in their crews. Pickit is a Scots word meaning plucked. “Ye wad juist think that they had been pickit” was a frequent comment made about the men at the time.

A remembrance plaque and mourning artefacts:

The Eyemouth Tapestry telling the story of the disaster is displayed in a small, narrow room. It is thus very difficult to photograph, but I hope you can get a small impression below of this wonderful work. Hand crafted by 24 local women, it took two years to complete. I foolishly didn’t note when it was made, and neither the leaflet I took away nor the museum’s online information tells me. However, I recall that it was long enough ago for most of the women who worked on it to be no longer with us.

Poignant facts gleaned from other parts of the museum: during the great storm, there is no record of the lifeboat having been launched. As the lifeboat was manned by the fishermen, it must be assumed that its crew were out there fighting for their lives already. In any case, the wind was so strong and the sea so rough that the boat would have been unlikely to get out of the harbour. The Census of 1881 was taken just before the disaster when Eyemouth’s population was 2935. The town went into decline, and it was almost 100 years (1976) before it reached that level again. Today, the population is about 3420.

We were very glad to learn about this disaster through Jill Watson’s sculptures which led us on to find other commemorations. I hope many more people are made aware of it as we have been. Eyemouth today is a relatively unspoilt town which combines being a working fishing port with tourism. I’ll tell you more about it in my next couple of posts.