Introduciton / The Island
Fishing, along with farming, was the mainstay of the island’s economy. Looking at the censuses for the sixty years from 1841 to 1901, especially where the population was at its highest, it was noticeable that the occupations given were farmer, fisherman or farmer / fisherman. There would always be one farmer or farmer / fisherman at a house. A member of another household there could be the fisherman while the other was the farmer. The reality of the situation was that the two were inextricably linked and were so as long as the people stayed. At the end of the time, each house would have had its boat for the lobsters and the cuithes.
The “Account of Produce, &c” for Pharay mentioned in the Second Statistical Account of Scotland, written sometime between 1834 and 1845, lists two herring boats and two lobster boats.
Billy Burgar (b. 1868) from Cott was one of these fishermen who as soon as he could haul cod would go to sea with the older men. He went with his father once he was old enough to handle a boat. When he was around twenty, he went with an Eday man, Robert Harcus, to the herring fishing in the summer months. This was in Robert’s boat, the “Sea Bird”, which was about 50ft in length. They fished from Stronsay, which was a big centre of the herring industry at that time. Billy unfortunately lost his father, Robert Burgar, in a boating accident in 1895.
Mary Groat (b. 1871) from Lakequoy spoke of there being two big boats that went fishing. It was a big day when they were hauled up at the West Geo. There was a lot of cod fishing and the south shore would be covered with split cod drying. These would be sold to Adam Benston, who had a shop at Guith in Eday, who bought them for shipping south. There was a salt store at the south end of Pharay.
The cod fishing came to an end around the 1890s with the advent of the steam trawler, which cleaned out the outer fishing grounds. Reliance then had to be placed on farming and lobster fishing for a living. Before the advent of creels, lobster fishing was done with a ring about 2’6” in diameter with a net that the lobsters were caught in. Once in, the fisherman had to haul quickly or the lobster would escape. Creels were considered a great advancement with the lobster being unable to get out once inside. The fishermen were often out in rough weather and were accomplished boatmen.
Large numbers of cuithes (sillocks or small coal fish) used to be caught. Mary Groat’s father, James Groat (b. 1839) was among those who caught these. He would be down nearly every night to catch them. The fish then had to be gutted, put on “tinneows” (pins) and then dried over the open peat fire in the house. When they had dried so far, they would be put in nets and hung from the roof. When they had dried further, they were tied in bundles of a hundred and sent to Kirkwall where the shops and even the hotels bought them. There seemed to be an insatiable demand at that time. Some of the folk of the house did get tired of the gutting and tinneowing though.
Bobby Burgar (b. 1898), the son of Billy Burgar, said that the boats used in his time were traditional Orkney yawls. The North Isles’ ones were slightly straighter in the bow and had a little rake on the stern compared to those from the South Isles, which had a bit of a rake at both ends. The boats usually had two men although in winter when not many boats were going out then there might be three or four men in a boat. Sometimes in the winter, they would go as far as Papa Westray. The fish got shared equally amongst the men. Boats were generally fitted out with just the bare essentials: a pair of oars, mast and a sail.
Each house would have had its geo where its boat was in during the summer months. In the latter years, lobster fishing in a good year added considerably to the income of the island. The cuithes continued to be fished and eaten while there were people on the island.
The lack of good anchorage was a difficulty for the island with boats having to be hauled out of the water. This required manpower, which became more difficult when the population declined. It was in 1935 that the jetty was built but this did not lessen the need to get the boats out of the water.