“The mine, the giant conger eel and the ten foot sturgeon” – from my Granda’s fishing diary, 1948

It was the end of January 1948 and I was the skipper of an old steam powered, hundred and thirty foot trawler by the name of “The Bruce” LH21.

We had been forced to go into distant waters to fish owing to the scarcity of fish in the North Sea and had been fishing Faroes Bank, a bank which lies 75km southwest of the Faroes Islands in the track of the Gulf Stream. (The Faroe Bank is well known for its large cod. Compared to cod in 18 other stocks in the North Atlantic, a 3 year old cod from the Faroe Bank has twice the length of those in other stocks.)

We were trawling along the edge of a mine-field laid during the war getting good fishing. As we hove for our last haul before going home the wind freshened up to gale force with heavy snow showers. It was ten in the morning and day light was just filtering through the gloom when the net was pulled alongside by the huge steam winches filled with Faroei bank cod. We had a struggle to get the bag aboard, but using a special double purchase block and tackle, like a huge hay stack it swung aboard the lurching trawler as she lay wallowing decks awash in the gathering storm.

When the vessel steadied herself up a bit the bosun (officer on ship whose job it is to look after the ships equipment) crawled below the swinging bag to let go of the cod end lashing whereupon the cod cascaded across the fish pounds. Low and behold in front of us was a huge black painted mine, with horns sticking from it like some prehistoric monster, sat fair and square in amongst the fish.

The crew and I were amazed! For a few minutes all we could do was just stand and watch it as it settled down amongst the fish to rest on the deck. Then it started to fizz, and when I straightened up after examining it, I was left myself in the pound as the crew on seeing it starting to fizz had disappeared aft around the gally door.

Then just as I was giving them a shout to come and secure it to the ships deck something amongst that mass of cod took a grip of the calf of my left leg. Struggling I brought my leg to the surface of the cod and saw teeth embedded in my white sea boot. It was good I was wearing thick Fearnaught trousers for that saved my calf although the skin did have an ugly bruise for months. It was a giant conger eel! I could just see its head and wicked looking eyes. The tail must have been jammed below the mine. The mate came forward and I told him to get the axe from the fish room to chop its head off but so close was I to the mine that he was frightened he would maybe hit one of the mines horns.

A giant conger eel

On the big powerful steam wenches there were drains and when you started the wench they gave a blast of steam, similar to a steam railway engine so by wriggling and watching the roll of the boat I managed to get my leg with the eel still gripping me below the chain cock of the wench. The mate started the winch and gave it a blast of scorching steam. It worked and as it lay squirming in the fish pound the mate gave it one swipe of the axe and beheaded it before it could do any more damage.

We leashed and jammed the mine so it would not move and cleared some of the fish off the deck but I would not allow anyone to go among the fish near the mine. We then ran to the Pentlands Firth in a force nine gale.

We arrived in the Firth of Forth two days later but were instructed by the Radio Control of the Port of Leith to remain at anchor as far as possible from the pier end. Two hours later a vessel arrived from Rosyth and defused the mine. We were told to go outside the May Island to dump it.

The rare and now endangered sturgeon

This was done and when clearing the squashed fish we found a ten foot sturgeon still alive. When we put the hose on it it bleated like a calf, not only that but its head was the shape of a calf, and its skin had a lovely clover leaf pattern. It is the only one ever I caught in all of my long fishing career.

Jimmy is the young fisherman at the front aged 21 in 1933. The trawler is leaving Anstruther West Pier for Yarmouth

We landed in the Edinburgh dock in Leith for the Grimsby fish markets. The sturgeon was destined for HRH Resilience but somehow got a faulty road map and landed up in Bully Gate where it was sold for some banquet or other. It helped to pay for a pair of new sea boots I required!

James (Jimmy) Gay Barlcay (1912-1996) left school to become an apprentice joiner but quickly realised this was not for him as the sea was in his blood and he went off as a cook on the BENE VERTAT KY20 with his father (my great grandfather James Murray Barclay 1884-1974). He made rapid progress and had his Mates Certificate by 18 and his Skippers Certificate as soon as he was 21. Jimmy was quick to realise the limits of the local fishing industry and went off to go on the trawlers operating from Granton with Joe Croan & Co. He progressed to be the Company’s top earning skipper, and acquired a great knowledge of the fishing grounds in the North Sea and Icelandic waters long before instruments like sounding apparatus used later to locate shoals came into use. He became a “King of the Fishers”. The outbreak of the 1939 War saw him off to the Royal Navy in charge of his own vessel eventually finishing up in the Far East. In 1965 skippering Netta Croan LH100 Jimmy broke the port record grossing £5,500 for a 14 day trip to the Faroes and then in 1966 he won the prestigious “Golden Haddock Award” for the highest earning Near/Middle Water Trawler with £91,300. In 1970 skippering the Aberdeen fishing vessel Ocean Sceptre set a record catch for line fishing. A year later Jimmy steered the Netta Croan again to a record this time with catches worth £108,000 almost £8,000 more than the Granton port’s record.


4 thoughts on ““The mine, the giant conger eel and the ten foot sturgeon” – from my Granda’s fishing diary, 1948

  1. Wow – that’s some story, Doug! I remember your Grandparents well being close to your Mum when we were at Waid.

  2. Hi, My name is Andy Hall and I am webmaster of the Grantontrawlers.com website. I sailed with your grandfather in the ;ate sixties and early seventies. I was in my late teens. I learned alot from him, most of which I remeber to this day. He was a hard task master but a superb seaman.

    1. hi andy, thanks so much for the reply, amazing that you sailed with my grandad. we all miss him. any further stories or information / photos etc that you have on his life I would love to know. Sorry I have not been keeping this blog very live so this is first time I have seen your message from ages ago.

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