New project for fishing disaster sculptor

Following the success of her sculpture trail in Berwickshire depicting the 1881 fishing disaster, sculptor Jill Watson’s latest project now stands at The Shore Leith.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 6th January 2011, 8:20 am

The Merchant Navy Memorial Trust commissioned the memorial and after fund raising and Jill being selected to complete the project, the results of her labour were unveiled by HRH The Princess Royal late last year.

Between 1910 and 2010 47,000 British Merchant Navy personnel gave their lives in conflict and Scottish seafarers made up a significant proportion of all ships’s crews. In 2009 the Merchant Navy Memorial Trust was foundedto commemorate the sacrifice of Scottish sailors in the two world wars and other previous and subsequent conflicts and during peacetime.

The memorial is five metres high, made of stone and bronze, and adorned by Jill with highly descriptive scenes as panels and her characteristic figures full of action and gesture.

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The sculptures use scale, texture, patina, and striking images to evoke Scotland’s rich maritime history.

Scenes around the column include trade to the Far East, across the Atlantic and through the Suez Canal (with camels in the foreground) including the export of railway engines and import of timber and marble. War and danger are represented by a convoy, a wreck on the rocks, explosions and rough seas.

The figures, approximately 20cm high, at chest height, show life on board ship, docking and docks.

The bronze capital reflects the Merchant Navy crest, with the ship’s bows being alternatively of wood and steel, joined by sails, creating a rich composition, highlighted with gilding.

Members of the Merchante Navy Memorial Trust, including chairman, William Thomson, Professor John Hume and Professor Gordon Milne contributed to the research; Powderhall Bronze cast the sculptures; Benjamin Tindall Architects assisted with the design of the column; and Bob Thompson was the mason.

Jill Watson’s sculpted figures are a familiar sight now along the Berwickshire coast. In 2007 she painstakingly started work on memorials that represent all 73 widows and 267 fatherless children of the 189 fishermen from Cove, St Abbs, Eyemouth and Burnmouth. Each figures is approximately 15cm high - the Eyemouth sculpture being the largest of the four pieces, stands five metres long and is still to be completed when funding allows.

Of the 189 men lost at sea on the afternoon of October 14, 1881, 129 were from Eyemouth and eventually all figures depicting their widows and children will take their place on the plinth.

When the memorials were unveiled at Eyemouth, St Abbs and Burnmouth in 2007 by Richard Lochead, Scottish Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, Ena Aitchison, whose great grandfather David Ritchie was in one of the fishing boats wrecked near Burmouth, spoke of the loss felt by the communities along the Berwickshire coast.

“On the 125th anniversary, we acknowledged our debt to the widows and fatherless children who were left behind,” said Ena.

“It took until the 1960s before the population recovered to the level of 1881, but we are once again a major fishing area. Things have changed over the last 125 years. Modern boats are stronger and fishermen are better trained but regulations such as limited days at sea, reduction of crew sizes due to economics force fishermen to stay at sea regardless of the hazardous conditions and we pay tribute to our present day fishermen as well as those of earlier days. Hopefully we will never experience a disaster like 1881.”

Speaking about her Berwickshire sculptures Jill Watson said: “I think the Eyemouth one particularly, when completed will have a profound effect as there were so many people affected by the disaster in the town.

“Working on the project has really brought home the moods of the sea and how quickly it can change and how small we are in terms of nature. I have real respect and admiration for fishermen who risk their lives by going out to sea in awful weather.”

One visitor to the St Abbs memorial wrote afterwards: “I went to see the recently unveiled memorial to the victims of the Eyemouth fishing disaster at St Abbs yesterday. The tragedy claimed the lives of 189 fishermen during a storm on October 14, 1881. At first I was rather taken aback by the size of the figures on the bronze sculpture, which were only a few inches high.

“However it’s really very effective as you draw closer and see the bereaved women and children scouring the horizon in vain.”

A heritage trail linking the sculptures along the Berwickshire coastline attracted £15,000+ of funding from the National Lottery and Scottish Borders Council Community Grant Scheme.

Along the trail are eight ‘waymark’ bronze plaques, produced by artist John Behm, to guide the local community and visitors. He said: “The plaques are designed so that rubbings can be made from them. Once you’ve taken rubbings, you should be able to collage them together into a patchwork picture, illustrating aspects of the life of the fishing: hard-working fisher lads and fisher lassies; the baiting of lines; fifies under sail; the gear and the craft of it all.”