BY a terrible grim coincidence, this week sees the anniversary of two of the worst disasters ever to happen in the Scottish fishing industry, and on both occasions it was the Shetland Islands which were afflicted by the tragic calamities that took place almost 50 years apart and cost the lives of 163 men.

On both occasions, wild storms caught fishermen out at sea and led to the destruction of fishing boats, often with the loss of all on board.

The first disaster took place 191 years ago today on July 16, 1832, in the midst of what became a summer of mourning on Scotland’s northern archipelago.

In their sixerns, a boat so-called because it was rowed by six men, a sizeable proportion of the Shetland fishing fleet set out on a sunny morning for the fishing grounds 30 to 40 miles east of the islands. This was “haaf” fishing that involved what were effectively large open clinker-built rowing boats which had six compartments for stowing fish, provisions and tackle. Each had a sail but when there was no wind, the six men took to the oars and sometimes rowed all the way there and back.

The “haaf” fishing was carried out with lines, possibly up to six miles long, rather than nets, and the species they were seeking was cod which was salted onshore and sold to the Continent in vast tonnages. Very few areas of Scotland still ate salted cod which had once been a staple of the Scottish diet, but in Spain and Portugal in particular there was huge demand for Shetland’s produce.

On this occasion, which became known as, and is still called “The Bad Day”, none of the crews could have known that dreadful conditions were developing to the west of the Shetlands, where a storm was gathering and heading eastwards rapidly.

On board the fishing vessels, experienced sailors saw the darkening clouds approach and feared the worst. When the storm struck the fleet, the carnage was immediate. Howling winds, hail and towering waves overwhelmed the sixerns, 17 of which were lost over the course of the next few days.

The number of how many survived and made it home is not known, but in all the death toll reached 105 from various parts of Shetland. The sad list of the dead, compiled to show the effects of the storm, graphically displayed how almost all the perished men had families for whom they were the breadwinners, and a disaster fund soon raised £3000 for dependents.

One crew had a miraculous escape when they were picked up at the point of drowning by a passing Dutch vessel, the Edwards. Though happy to accommodate the salvaged crew, the Dutch captain was not willing or able to divert his ship so Tammy Hughson and his sons Willie and Lawrie gained a “holiday” in the US, the Edwards being set for Philadelphia.

Destitute, it took them months to find a way home and they arrived in Lerwick on Christmas morning – one can only imagine how Tammy’s wife Charlotte and their other relatives rejoiced that Christmas Day.

The disaster sounded the death knell for the cod-fishing industry which transformed over the years as Shetland fishing crews went instead in search of herring, the Silver Darlings – a story brilliantly told in John Goodlad’s book The Salt Roads.

So it was a herring fleet which was battered in the second disaster that took place on July 20-21, 1881, but it was still mainly sixerns which were used for the fishing. The crews had seen heavy seas prevent them for days from putting out to the fishing ground, but conditions were much better on the morning of July 20 and the fleet from Gloup on the island of Yell led the way.

No sooner were they many miles out to sea when a storm swiftly hurtled down from the direction of Iceland.

The Daily Telegraph reported: “A fearful storm swept over the Shetland Islands late on Wednesday night, and continued to blow with great fury to Thursday morning, resulting in destruction of property and loss of life unprecedented in the north since 1832.

“On Wednesday, the weather was favourable for prosecuting the fishing and boats from every station throughout the islands put to sea. When the storm burst with suddenness that gave no warning the boats were far at sea.

“On Thursday, all the large decked boats fishing from Lerwick had arrived in safely but as the day advanced and reports came in from the smaller island stations, it was apparent that a terrible calamity had overtaken a large proportion of the inhabitants.”

It soon emerged that 10 sixerns had foundered with the loss of 58 men but again there was a tale of good fortune.

The Telegraph reported: “One boat had a most miraculous escape. It was one of the large full deck boats and crew. Having set their nets they decided to stick by them and the boats and the nets rode out the storm, although the craft was often completely covered by the heavy seas.”

More than half of the lost fishers and six of the sunken boats were from Gloup on Yell, which is why it is known as the Gloup Disaster. Some 34 widows and 85 children were left behind and again the public responded by contributing to an emergency fund.

The Telegraph stated: “The scenes as witnessed at the landing places and along the coast are heartrending. In Shetland, it is customary for fathers and sons, and perhaps other relatives to fish in the same boat and several families or closely related are deprived of their breadwinners. As a rule the people are exceedingly poor and the destitution caused by the calamity among the dependents, who it is estimated cannot be fewer than between 200 and 300, will be fearful as their neighbours are mostly as poor as themselves.”

Haaf fishing in open boats ceased not long after the disaster with new and safer boats helping to lead to a huge boom in herring landings.

In 1981, to mark the centenary of the disaster, a monument was raised on Yell. It portrays a woman with babe in arms looking out to sea for the men who never returned.