Disaster inspires young sculptor

Artist Emma McKenzie with the porcilin and clay figures which will build her installation art work at Eyemouth Museum
Artist Emma McKenzie with the porcilin and clay figures which will build her installation art work at Eyemouth Museum

THE fishing disaster which rocked the Berwickshire coast in 1881 is an event that still doesn’t stray far from the minds of people in Eyemouth but in the year of its 130th anniversary, it’s someone from outside of the town who has chosen to mark the occasion with a new exhibition.

Emma McKenzie is from Edinburgh but ever since her mum moved to Coldingham just over a decade ago she has classed Berwickshire as her “second home” and immersing herself in the local community she soon began to hear talk of the events that changed Eyemouth and other east coast fishing ports for ever.

Her research into the disaster went up a notch when she was given the theme ‘Harbour’ for her second year project as part of her ceramics degree at the University of Cumbria in Carlisle and she said after being given this brief she couldn’t not look to Eyemouth for inspiration.

“I love the idea of the strong sense of community between the fishermen that were working along the coast at the time of the disaster,” Emma told The Berwickshire News while putting the finishing touches to her exhibition ‘The Pickit Men’, which opened on Monday.

“If one boat went out they all went out and that’s why, when putting the exhibition together, I felt it was important that the 129 figures (representing the number of lives lost) were grouped into the crews of the boats involved.

“They didn’t go out to sea that day as individuals - they went out as a team, but at the same time each man who lost his life in the disaster was pivotal to a family left behind, whether they were a brother, son or father.”

Emma’s first port of call when it came to gathering information for her project was ‘Black Friday’, a book on the events of October 14 1881 by celebrated local author Peter Aitchison.

Emma said the book served as a fantastic starting point and from there she spoke to locals in the town who were able to give a more personal perspective on the disaster.

She continued: “This project differs quite massively to other stuff I’ve done. I’ve always been interested in social history and my first under graduate degree was in history at the University of Aberdeen.

“After reading ‘Black Friday’ I began to take some photos around Eyemouth harbour and other places up and down the coast. It was then that I stumbled across the existing memorials. They were very inspiring but unlike their sculptor, who focused on the families left behind, I wanted the emphasis to be on the men themselves.

“With that in mind I got in touch with Eyemouth Museum and they allowed me to have a look round during the close season and it was then that I got talking to volunteer Jenny Dougal and then Alan Dougal who told me about his ancestors that were involved.

“It is the people whose families were involved that personalise my exhibition as it is their story.”

To give her project even more of a local feel, Emma has used clay from local cliffs for some of her figures and taking inspiration from what she read in ‘Black Friday’, fired them in a bonfire after finding out that the families of the fishermen would light bonfires from the shore in the hope that their loved ones would return.

“Making each one by hand using local material, I felt connected to the men.

“I decided to shape them like shrouds as when people died at sea they were often wrapped in their hammock, or a flag or sail.

“I decided to have them leaning into one another to emphasise the feeling of community between them and then shaped their backs to look almost angelic.

“It took around six months to make all of the figures and they’ve all been in boxes since I displayed them at university last year.

“I got back in touch with Eyemouth Museum at the end of last year and asked if they would be interested in having my exhibition and they said it would be perfect for the 130th anniversary.

“The space they’ve given me to exhibit in is brilliant. It’s quite small and intimate and with the scale of the project being quite small it fits really well; it would look quite sterile if it was shown in a big airy place.”

The figures on show in ‘The Picket Men’ will all be for sale with the smaller ones available for under £20 each.