Heritage Blogs

Fishing in Kirkibost, Great Bernera, The Hebrides

Fishing in Kirkibost, Great Bernera

Generations of fishermen landed their catch at the pier in Kirkibost in Great Bernera.The rich fishing grounds are now depleted and the pier used only by two or three small local boats, fishing for crab and lobster at certain times of the year.

In 2009 some of the history and the landmarks of the many fishing related sites around Kirkibost were recorded by the Bòstadh Archaeology Group.

Some of the families who left the village of Bostadh in the 1870s, settled in Kirkibost. The village landmarks, place names and related traditions, reveal the extensive fishing related industry and international links.In the 1850s lobsters were being sold to a mainland market and local man Murdo Morrison could see the need for an extensive lobster keep. This would enable the fishermen to build up a sizeable number of live lobsters before arranging costly transport to take them to the market.Murdo set his sights on a sea inlet called Tòb Blàr Meadha, north west of Kirkibost. He envisaged a stout sea wall across the mouth of the Tòb, which would allow the flooding of the inlet with the flowing tide, while leaving the lobsters and their keeps on its ebb.Malcolm set off for Australia to earn the money required to pay the stonemasons to create this feat of construction. Local tradition still relates how he was so focused on his project while in Australia that he kept seeing the completed stone wall in his sleep.

Donald MacAulay of 12 Kirkibost tells of how his great granny was part of the workforce of women with creels on their back, taking stones to the labourers building An Tòb Ghiomach. She had related how the two stonemasons from Tobson were paid the equivalent of a shilling and sixpence, their labourer’s were paid one shilling, and the women got a sixpence or a groat”.

An Tòb Ghiomach first used in 1863, is estimated to have impounded hundreds of thousands of lobsters caught in the creels in the offshore deep water, some destined for Billingsgate in London.In 2010, the curved stone sea wall designed to disperse the impact of the Atlantic waves, is still complete, measuring a staggering sixty metres long and between three and four and a half metres in height.The stout foundations of the wall vary between three and four metres in width and the top of the wall tapers to over a metre and a half in width. The Tòb Blàr Meadha lobster pound covers an area over three hundred metres in length.Today close to the stone structure of the Tòb Ghiomach is the clearly visible shore side quarry, where the dressed stone in the structure were earned.

Back in the village of Kirkibost, a small bay close to the pier currently in use, is still referred to as Pòrt D. Macleod, the forerunner of An Tòb Ghiomach, which had specially constructed boxes to store lobsters in, until there was enough of them to make the lengthy journey to market.

Curing Stations

Over one hundred years ago fishermen landed their catches of white fish to the fish curing stations, where the cod, ling, and other species was salted and dried. There is mention of curing stations at: Am Buaile Sheasgair, Kirkibost, two stations where Kirkibost slipway now stands, Croir, Barraglom and one in An Caolas by Little Bernera. Donald MacAulay continues “I heard my grandfather talking about four curing stations at Caolas Lungam, Tobson. There was a rocky peninsula in the approach to the Caolas and they blasted the rock away to make access easier for the boats. The rock still called Sgeir a’ Bhlast to this day, produced some very distinctive stone. Donald Smith from Stornoway had a drifter that sailed to the Caolas Lungam curing houses with a cargo of salt, on his return trip he packed this eye catching stone in the ship’s hold and used it to construct his house on Kenneth Street next to where, Smith’s Shoe Shop used to be”

The fish from the curing houses was taken by large sailing ships to places as far as the Baltic. Mention is made of how the fresh milk supply and onboard precaution against scurvy, on the months long sea voyages, was the ship’s cow.  This custom which must have spanned centuries, goes some way to explaining a place name in Kirkibost today, Leàna na Bà Mhanach (Meadow of the Manx cow)This landmark has an associated story of the shipwreck of a boat from the Isle of Man. The ship’s cow was taken ashore and she expired in the field which bears her name to this day.

The diet of the Bernera fishermen had an unusual wholesome addition to their diet as related by Agnes MacLennan of 3 Kirkibost.“In my great grandfathers day when the Bernera men were fishing, fresh white fish was the staple fayre, accompanied sometimes by an interesting delicacy. Raw fish liver was placed between two of the uncooked bannocks taken from home. This was placed on the thwart, under the men who were rowing. After some time, due to body heat and friction this tasty morsel, bonnach tobht, was ready to eat.  Agnes continues “In living memory the Kirkibost boats were at sea for days at a time. They fished around Cragam, An t-Seanna Bheinn, the Flannans, in the waters around Uig and as far as Harris. The peats necessary for the fire to cook the crew’s meals, were placed in the creel on Saturday. The creel was left on a hillock ready to put on their backs, on Sunday night after twelve o clock. This was when they took plenty bannocks, home made butter and the creels of peat to the boat, to ensure nourishment as they fished, weather permitting until Friday or Saturday. If the fishermen were at sea longer than anticipated, they had an agreement with villages on the west coast of Lewis, whereby they could take peats from the peat banks and leave crabs, lobsters or fresh fish in exchange. In one instance, young boys from one village, unaware of the agreed barter system, threw stones at the Bernera men as they made their way back to the boat with the peats”.

@Magaidh Smith

Many Kirkibost fishing stories still remain unrecorded

The End