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The Eyemouth Disaster of 1881

 Eyemouth Harbour around 1920

The worst Scottish fishing disaster ever recorded was the Great Storm of October 1881. In Eyemouth it is known as 'Black Friday.' After weeks of bad weather the local fleet were becoming impatient to go to sea. On Friday 14th October 1881, they awoke to a calm morning. Ignoring the low reading on their barometer, they put to sea. By midday they had just begun their line fishing when the whole country was hit by a violent storm. The boats rushed home but many failed to make it safely into the harbour. They either capsized or smashed on the Hurkar Rocks at the harbour entrance. Their families on the pier looked on helplessly.

A total of 189 men lost their lives that day. They left 93 widows and 267 children. The Berwickshire Coast was worst hit. Eyemouth alone lost 129 men, and one third of its fleet. Others were from the nearby villages of Burnmouth (24), Coldingham Shore (3) and Cove (11). Seven men were also lost from Musselburgh's Fisherrow and 15 from Newhaven. Two days after the disaster, one of the Eyemouth boats, the 'Ariel Gazelle' limped into the harbour. Her crew were all safe. Instead of trying to make for the shore, they had struck out to sea and rode the storm.

 Photograph of the surviving crew of 'Ariel Gazelle', early 1920s

A Disaster Fund was set up for the relief of the families of those lost at sea. Money poured in from all over the country. Over 50 000 was collected. Widows received 5/- a week with 2/6d for each child who was attending school regularly. There were also unborn children to consider.

A few years later, work began on Eyemouth Harbour. Some felt that the loss would not have been so great if the improvements had not been delayed. For this, they blamed the 'tithes' disputes, which took place in Eyemouth in the mid 19th century. Bitter arguments took place between the local fishermen and the church, and Willie Spears, known as 'Kingfisher', led the fishermen. It is said that on the morning of the Disaster, he was apprehensive and said there was going to be an earthquake.

The people of Eyemouth will never forget 'Black Friday'. Many in the town are descendants of those who were lost that day. A Memorial stands at the sea front and in 1981, a commemoration service was held to mark the centenary. A special tapestry hangs in the Memorial Room in Eyemouth Museum. It records the names of all the boats and crew who drowned. Beginning with the storm, it ends on a note of hope, with images of new technology and a sunrise signifying a new day. Today the town is the largest fishing port on the South East Coast of Scotland.

 The Eyemouth Tapestry

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