This piece was part of a lecture given by Roddy J. MacLeod (Barts) to the Stornoway Historical Society in November 2010. Further recollections will follow.
Battery as a Paradise in which to Fish and Play
Any description of the ploys and pastimes of Battery Boys and Girls (although I can hardly remember the term Battery Girl), must inevitably start with the “Battery Shore”. As youngsters we spent hours there, dodging around the boats, playing simple games inspired by the materials lying around us, fishing the rocks, mainly for peeler crabs which we could catch easily by very basic techniques, often a length of “bobban thread” with barnacle baits on the end, retrieved slowly with one or two crabs attached. Winkles would be boiled in sea-water in a rusty syrup tin and eaten with a pin with no regard to hygiene or personal danger. On frosty winter evenings when the winter herring shoals came into the harbour, I recall going round the rocks with the older boys gathering herring in pails. This operation was a great adventure for us and it was a wonderful experience to see, by torchlight, the silver herring trapped in the seaweed.
I have said on occasions to people, when describing the Battery that every family had a boat on the shore. That, of course, is not true. There were many boats, but not one for every household. My own family had two boats at one time, a splendid launch of around 20ft owned by my father and a smaller 13ft rowing boat owned by my uncle which I eventually had the task of painting each year. I did not get much pleasure from my father’s launch, the “Daisy”, as the old car engine which propelled it was very temperamental and it finally packed up on a family outing to Cromore on a May or August holiday. A wandering tinker ensured it would stay ashore by helping himself to the substantial brass propeller. He must have had a good hacksaw as it was the neatest cut I had even seen. My uncle’s small boat was propelled by oars, of course, and latterly by the ubiquitous Seagull engine. The Seagull engine was a great invention, very basic, and mostly, fairly reliable, but it had one great drawback — a devilishly temperamental magneto which let you down from time to time — at least ours did — regularly! As a youngster, I recall many long summer evenings when I was old enough to be taken out fishing, when my father and three others, usually two of my uncles and Urim would row the boat with apparently tireless effort right out to the “hard grounds” some two miles or so beyond Amish Point.
…….they rowed in perfect timing and it felt as if the boat was simply skimming over the water. It was.
There were shore marks by which on cross-pointed bearings the fishing spot could be accurately found. I used to love listening to the banter as they rowed in perfect timing and it felt as if the boat was simply skimming over the water. It was. We were all taught boat-craft at an early age and it was not long before we were entrusted to take the boat out on our own. We were taught how to draw the boat up the shingle beach, share out the catch, mostly jumbo haddies, by one or other of the methods in common use. We were taught how to leave the boat secure with the anchor rope neatly coiled around the bow, the stools in place to keep the boat upright, the bung or “tuig” removed and the water drained out. Everything had to be ship-shape in readiness for the next fishing trip. It is a great sadness for me today that the long summer evenings are silent. There are no small boats on the Battery shore any longer, the characteristic drone of the Seagull engine is silenced and a glance out past the lighthouse and Holm Point shows a broad expanse of empty sea with not a small boat in sight.
I will describe briefly a typical trip for haddies as I was growing up. We would always have a ready supply of mussels gathered and stacked in hessian sacks in a sea pool below our house where they would be accessible at half-tide. My father would ask me at lunchtime to call at one of the kipper yards on the way home from school and pick up a bucket of herring guts, readily available under the gutting machines. This unsavoury, but deadly, mixture was then placed in a brown carrier bag, the mouth of the bag secured with string and lowered gently on the handline to the bottom, once the boat was in position above the designated mark. My father always performed this tricky operation and a couple of sharp jerks split the bag open and its contents attracted every haddie for miles around. So we thought, anyway. We always fished at anchor so we learned the skill of placing the boat above a mark and ensuring that the anchor was fast before settling down to fish. As well as the ground-bait we had put down we had already prepared a jar of freshly shelled mussels (incidentally, a deadly haddie bait). You had “arrived” as a crew member, as it were, when you could shell a mussel with a small knife with a stiff blade in the time it took your lead to hit the bottom. At the Sgeir Mhor where the depth was only some 6 to 8 fathoms that was no mean feat. I will boast here — I could shell two mussels in that time!!
The handline or “darrach” had end tackle consisting of a central lead weight with a balanced wire boom at the ends of which were two snoods consisting of a length of twine attached to the nylon or gut to which the hook was attached. It was a great art to fashion one of these and pride was taken in how this was done and we were quickly taught how to make a whip finish and rail a hook to the gut. The lead was lowered to the bottom and raised about three quarters of a fathom so that the baited hooks were fishing just off the bottom. Often the haddies were so plentiful that you hooked them as you drew your lead off the bottom. If you were fortunate to haul up two at a time this was known as a “caraid” which of course is the Gaelic word for a companion.
It is no exaggeration to say that two overflowing boxes of prime jumbo haddies was the average catch on a fine summer evening. When we came ashore and some of the crew secured the boat and prepared it for the next trip one person was delegated to split the catch into a number of bundles on the shingle to match the number fishing in the boat. Once the four or so equal bundles were ready there were at least two ways of allocating them. One man would be asked to turn his back and the guy who shared out the catch would point to a bundle and say, “Co leis tha seo?” (Whose is this?) “Tha leth Urim” (Urim’s). “Co leis tha seo?” “Tha leat feinn” (your own) and so on until everyone had their share.
Another method was for each fisher to pick up an object from the shore – a white pebble, a piece of cork, a scrap of wood and so on. If there were children present a young child would be given the important task of placing each object on a pile of fish, and if, for example, you had chosen a piece of cork that indicated your share. What you then did with the share was up to you and I have seen some fellows throw a few extra haddies from their share into another share, usually that of a bigger family. Quite often we would carry our share home and my mother would make a supper of fresh “ceann cropic” (fish liver mixed with oatmeal, salt and, sometimes, onion, stuffed in the fish heads, secured with thread, and boiled). I have never since tasted better “ceann cropic” than that freshly made within an hour of the catch.
The marks we fished around the harbour, the harbour entrance and beyond, were prolific haddock grounds in the forties, fifties and sixties. Well-known fishing spots included the Sgeir Mhor, Stoneyfield, Holm Point, the Number Seven, Bank `an Bhainn, the Sgeir Aladh, the Sgeir Leadh, the Peter Buidhe, the Bow and the famous Hard Grounds.
I have never since tasted better “ceann cropic” than that freshly made within an hour of the catch.
Arnish was always a great attraction for us. We made special expeditions there by boat to gather mussels for bait and at particularly low tides we gathered the large “Mattaichs” which older generation could digest easily but which we found very strong. May Holiday and August Holiday were highlights in the year and I can remember one occasion on which the picnic was transported in a large tea-chest — not a very practical solution. Just being there was exciting with the lighthouse, Prince Charlie’s Loch and Monument and, of course Black’s Farm.
Behind the Battery Shore there was the “ocrach”, or the Og as we called it — the town dump. My memory flashed back when I saw the film “Slumdog Millionnaire” and the urchins foraging in the dumps in the Indian slums. I am not going to say too much about our escapades there, but we did, at times, have prolonged campaigns to hunt rats, often with Atcha’s wee terrier “Boyan”, a prolific rat-catcher. We foraged in “Yankee loads” as we called them in the later years of the war and the immediate post-war period when the Yanks were still here. The Americans at that time were thought to have too much of everything and they dumped perfectly good and serviceable equipment, comics and magazines which we fought over. The great prize one day was a solid block of milk chocolate – it was in a tin in case you think it wasn’t wrapped – probably a dried chocolate powder past its sell-by date and solidified with age. It found its way into the rafters of the “Brown Sheds” down at the Battery buildings and if we wanted a wee scoff of chocolate we went up into the rafters and hacked off a bit with a sharp stone. We survived both the ploys in the Og and the wonderful chocolate that was such a novelty to us in the days of rationing.
Behind the Millar Road houses there was the Battery Park where we played endless games of football, often until midnight on long summer evenings. Many a good footballer learned and honed his skills on that well-used piece of ground. Memorable inter-district games took place there with sizeable groups of spectators.
The Battery Gate, although I do not recall a gate ever being there, was the meeting point and the entrance to a wonderful playground. There were located lain Lilidh’s shed, the old Labour Exchange, later to become the famous “Okey Dokey”, the building we mistakenly called the Sawmill, the Brown Sheds, the Old Coastguard Building then housing the LSA apparatus, the old roofless toilets with the targets still on the outside walls, where we created the “jumps”, the wee stone sheds where we used to gather for winter evenings lit by candle-light and the wee house occupied by Alec Dan Domhuill Tharmoid, his lovely, gentle, wife and daughters. lain Lilidh’s shed was stacked to the roof with paraphernalia connected to the sea and boats. I can still smell the rich tang of the barked nets, the mustiness of the disused great-lines and the general aroma of a by-gone fishing age. We were fortunate, some years, to be allowed to clear sufficient space to have our Hallowe’en parties there. One of the Brown Sheds at least was open to us; if not we broke in and the floor area was ideal for a game of football.
The “Jumps” as we called them consisted of the gaps above the doors of the former toilet block, then roofless. These were graded tests of skill and daring depending on the height above ground and the width of the door. The final jump was at the sea end where you had to launch yourself into space to bridge a gap with a twelve-foot drop on either side. Having successfully completed that you then jumped off into the field at the back, a twelve foot jump, on to a mound of sawdust, culminating in a parachute roll. I do not recall any resulting injuries to any of the gang.
The Okey Dokey deserves its own special spot although I am too young to recall it being in use as a “Ballroom of Romance”, of happy nights spent dancing away to candlelight. Chrissie Maclean gives a descriptive account of the Okey Dokey Club in her very vivid account of the Stornoway she knew between the 1930s and the 1950s (Maclean,Chrissie B. (2009) The Stornoway I knew. Stornoway Historical Society. ISBN 978 0 9531274 5 0. 66 pages. Illustrated. Price: £9.00 plus £3.00 postage per copy.)
When we were growing up and danced to Billy Brochan and Harry Cameron as part of the Stornoway Dance Band, the “Ballroom of Romance” was the YM after it had been translated from North Beach to Bayhead. The Town Hall also featured to a lesser extent with its Saturday night dances but that was also a venue for regular bouts of all-in wrestling and bare-knuckle prizefighting! Good bouncers at the YM like DL, Bobby Brackie and Smokey ensured that that did not happen there!
The old concrete building used by the “Franks” as a garage was in a state of disrepair for many years and I recall a time when the older boys discovered that there was a huge supply of lead on the roof. They used to organise a labour force to strip some of the lead for sale as profitable scrap and the younger boys were roped in to extract the nails. I can put hand on heart and say I was never on the roof but I do recall the scatter as the shout went up, “DTO 189”. How many old Stornowegians remember that as the number plate of the wee police car that would pounce from time to time? It was not quite a Keystone Cops scenario but at that time there were some capital offences like riding your bike with no lights and parking without lights so DTO 189 spread the fear of death in us.
Another recollection is that we played a form of cricket on the flat area in front of that building. Ball games always featured in our play and many a game of rounders was played out on Millar Road at its junction with Builnacraig Street.
When we were growing up and danced to Billy Brochan and Harry Cameron as part of the Stornoway Dance Band, the “Ballroom of Romance” was the YM……..
Games and pastimes came round in season. Spring, summer and autumn we played football every evening. Y- forks extracted from the willow trees became the handles for slings and we hunted anything that moved. If no potential prey were available we lined up cans and bottles on the sea wall and competed to break or dislodge these. Various games took place at the Battery shore, notably “pitchers” — a simple game with two sticks as markers in the sand, a set distance apart and two flat stones each (quite heavy) which were thrown with a flat trajectory to get as near the markers as we could. Another variation of a game played all over the world. “Speatainn” was played by the older generation, often on a Sunday evening, unknown to parents. Pennies were thrown to a penknife stuck in the grass and as the pile of coins grew, fortunes changed, tempers flared and eventually a winner who took all emerged. As youngsters we spectated avidly. An up-ended 40-gallon drum with a candle on top served as a makeshift card table where the older boys played endless games of Brag and Rummy, quite often with considerable sums of money changing hands!
We all bemoan the fact that today the youngsters do not see as much snow as we appeared to have in our childhood. Slides were created on the roadside, notably Millar Road brae, by pouring buckets of water on the road as the frost came on. Some memorable slides on Millar Road resembled a Cresta Run — not for the faint-hearted! Millar Road was also the best area for sledging. We sledged on the tarmac road. It was great fun constructing a sledge. I was lucky as my father had access to second-hand timber at the mill and we discovered that the metal T-shaped fence supports at the mill made ideal runners. My sledge was quite long, around 5 feet, and as you careered down the brae you ran the risk of having the older boys piling on your back. Imagine the momentum down a fast brae. Yet, I do not recall any serious injuries. In times of severe frost water in the field below the cemetery froze over and we had our own skating rink.
On dark winter nights we would gather at the Battery gate and organise games such as “Leav -o”, a sophisticated form of Hide-and-Seek which had us ranging far and wide throughout the Battery, Seaview Terrace, Seaforth Road and the Back Sheds. Talking about the Back Sheds, another ploy, a cruel ploy, let’s face it, was climbing on to the roofs of the buildings at the kipper yards occupied by the herring and kipper girls — the Betsags — and placing a “cape” or a “ploc” (a piece of turf) on the chimney. That was cruel.
As a long summer drew to a close and a return to school beckoned we would go on the rampage looking for fields of turnips to raid, usually out Mossend and Steinish. The braver lads would tackle the strawberries at the mill cottages and the really brave ones, Julia Fraser’s apples on Lewis Street. We did not go hungry! Talking of hunger, another ploy was to share our pennies and buy a fresh plain loaf for 5 (old) pennies and share it out, having haggled over who got a bit of the flat crust. Many of the lads would buy Woodbines. I smoked my first one with Johnny Hardie in the underground shelter at the Oil tanks at the end of Newton, was violently nauseous and never smoked again!
That is only a very brief selection of our ploys and pastimes. We did not have to roam far for our entertainment, but we had our own “Battery Comer” in the “seven-wings” and the “three-wings” in the Playhouse. I remember walking back to the Battery at 10.30pm on a badly- lit Newton Street, a stormy, wet gauntlet to be run on a wild night. That was before the causeway was built in the late forties. That, of course opened up another adventure playground on Goat Island, good berthing for boats and sea angling from the jetty.
I cannot conclude without mentioning the industrial establishments we frequented — all the tweed mills and the kipper yards. What memories the kipper yards evoke — making kipper boxes and scoffing succulent kippers on a late evening courtesy of a generous smoker who would cook the fattest kippers for us in waxed paper in the smouldering “mush” as we called it. On a fine, still, summers day the whole area of the back sheds and Newton was enveloped in a fug of kipper smoke.
Roddy J. MacLeod