Downturn in fishing industry prompts new project for Shona

AFTER launching a project last year that celebrated all that was good with fishing communities on Scotland's east coast, Shona McMillan is changing tone after being stunned by just how few local boats there are left.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 7th July 2010, 11:57 am
Updated Wednesday, 7th July 2010, 11:57 am

Shona's 'People and Songs of the Sea' project exhibited in 14 venues along the Forth, downing anchor in Eyemouth and Duns and being visited by over 10,000 people, many from out with the area.

In addition, the project spawned an award winning album with a track featuring local people including Convenor of Scottish Borders Council, Alasdair Hutton, former Eyemouth Harbour Master, Jonny Jonhston and Assistant Harbour Master, Alex Thorburn.

In taking pictures of people involved in the fishing industry, Shona enjoyed sharing in the camaraderie amongst fishermen and their families. Yet, over the last years of her project, as quota restrictions and fuel costs have increased, there is very little left for those in the Scottish fishing industry to smile about.

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It was on a recent photographic mission to Eyemouth that Shona discovered just how bad the situation has become.

Shona began: "I went to Eyemouth thinking it would be good to get a picture of each local boat in the harbour. Yet, every time I was visiting I thought the majority of the boats must be out at sea.

"Finally, I went to see the Harbour Master to ask for a written list. He said he could tell me, he didn't need to write a list down as there were so few local boats left.

"When I heard the details I was really shocked, I was told that there are only 12 local boats left at Eyemouth and over certain periods of the year the number drops as low as five – considering Eyemouth's proud fishing tradition, this is a heartbreaking decline.

"At every harbour along the Forth, fishermen tell me the exact same story – their backs are against the wall as they suffer and not in their experience because of lack of fish stocks but because of the way the Scottish industry is being managed through the political restrictions imposed on it by Brussels.

"Local fishermen are unhappy at what they believe to be a political desire to centralise fishing to the north east Scotland and that, impacting on the Scottish industry, the restrictions from Brussels actually appear to favour the Spanish fishing industry.

"The Scottish fishing industry supports tens of thousands of jobs and Scottish landings are worth around 350 million to the economy. Yet, each year fishing quotas get cut and then cut back again."

This doom and gloom is a long way from the proud past of local fishing communities as highlighted in 'People and Songs of the Sea' but Shona, who won praise from the likes of Mike Russell, former Minister of Culture, the Consul General of Ireland and East Berwickshire councillor Michael Cook, said that the one thing she hopes will never be extinguished is the strength of feeling of those in the fishing community to hold on to their heritage.

She continued: "Jamie and Michael Fairnie from Fisherrow have two boats which fish from Eyemouth. My great grandfather also had two boats from there but over my life I have seen all the fishing boats go from Fisherrow to be replaced by pleasure crafts. Fishermen at Eyemouth tell me that they fear the same is happening at their harbour. But when I asked Jamie Fairnie if he would give up the fishing his response was 'I will not be beaten. My family can be traced back to 1700 and I do not intend to be the Fisherrow Fairnie which ends that tradition'.

"My conversations with him have been very moving because fishing is much more than just a job, for those in the industry; it is their life, their heritage.

"From my business background, I would look at cultural tourism to fill that economic gap. Four years ago I said through the press that I wanted to see a cultural tourism trail which would bring visitors in to fishing towns such as Eyemouth.

"I am heartened that over 10,000 people came to my 'People and Songs of the Sea Exhibitions' and that, as the project's international reputation has spread, people from as far away as America and Canada have been motivated to make arrangements to visit places like Eyemouth.

"Accordingly, I again call for a heritage trail to be established around the Firth of Forth. Lets celebrates the cultural heritage of the industry and the fishing community!"

One person who has maintained strong links with the fishing communities where he was raised is artist John Bellany, who was recently given the honour of officially re-opening Gunsgreen House.

And, over the past few months, Shona has become friends with John's son, documentary maker Paul, who received rave reviews for his recent film about his father, 'Fire In The Blood'.

Paul has expressed a keen interest in getting on board with Shona to make a film giving a 'real' insight into the fishing industry. Due to prior commitments he is as yet unable to make a firm promise as to whether he can take this project on.

Nevertheless, in a timely project, rather than wait until Paul's schedule is completely clear, Shona is pressing on to make her film but is pleased to recognise the benefit of the input Paul is giving her to date.

"Because of his experience and family ties, Paul is the perfect man to help me in this film," she said.

"I was greatly inspired by 'Fire in the Blood' and it would be fantastic to work with Paul. In addition, he has an established reputation and I anticipate he could open a lot of doors when it came time to getting the film out there.

"I freely admit I am not a film maker but then again, I had no experience in record production prior to 'People and Songs of the Sea' and now it's Liveireland's 2010 Compendium Album of the Year!

"Even though Paul lives outside the area he still feels the importance of his fishing roots. He called his film, 'Fire In The Blood', a film on fishing could easily be called 'Salt in the Blood'- it sums up the strength of feeling in the hearts of People of the Sea, fishing is in the blood!

"Whether Paul is sitting in his house in southern England or John is in his house in Italy, family roots keep Port Seton and Eyemouth in their hearts. It is the concept of home which we all carry in our hearts."