Tale of Eyemouth’s King of Fish to be told on his statue

The story of Willie Spears is to be added to the plinth of his statue in Eyemouth
The story of Willie Spears is to be added to the plinth of his statue in Eyemouth

The story of fishermen’s leader Willie Spears is a mystery to visitors chancing upon his statue in Eyemouth’s High Street – but all is about to be made clear.

Immortalised by a bronze statue a decade ago, the role Spears played in the fishermen’s fight to end the crippling tithes they paid to the church was only unearthed while BBC journalist Peter Aitchison was researching the town’s history for his book on the Eyemouth fishing disaster of 1881, called Children of the Sea.

Aitchison discovered he was a distant relative of Spears, and after being told that Scottish Borders Council was going to erect a statue in honour of Spears, he said: “I was bowled over as Spears was airbrushed from history, even though he really was a hero of the working classes.”

The statue is a fitting tribute to the man but other than learning his name, there is nothing to tell visitors why he has been so honoured.

Eyemouth Town Community Council chairwoman Jemma Landells said: “The museum gets lots of people going in and asking about the statue.”

It has been agreed to use the top of the plinth that Willie stands on to tell his story.

The wording preferred by community councillors is: “Willie Spears led the revolt to end the paying of tithes (taxes) to the church. Here he points towards Ayton, where he led a peaceful band of over 4,000 demonstrators. Called the King of Fish, Willie died on August 10, 1885.”

The council is working on the costings, and a request for funding may be made to the Berwickshire area forum in the future.

In the 1840s, Eyemouth was a major fishing port, but plans to make the harbour safe were scuppered because of a dispute between the fishermen and the local Church of Scotland minister, who claimed a tenth of their earnings.

Riots against that tithe led to fishermen’s leader Spears being locked up in Ayton jail.

Eventually, the fishermen bought out the tithe, but the harbour improvements came too late for the 129 fishermen who died in 1881 as they tried to get back to port during a huge storm.