A Black Fishing Day

A Black Fishing Day


A Sad Day for Wick


In 1768, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster built a quay at Wick in order to promote the town as a herring fishing centre.

Progress was made with the intervention of the British Fisheries Society, harbour improvements made by Thomas Telford in 1810 and the building of an additional pier in 1831.

The fishing industry in Wick reached its peak between 1860 and 1890, when it is believed a 1000 boats were based at the harbour.

The fishing boats employed around 6000 fishermen more than the entire population of the town and provided work for an additional 6000 workers, including women who gutted, salted and layered the herring. Men and women during the herring season came and lived in Wick and surrounding areas, with most of the coming from the West Coast and the Isles.


Wick Harbour  


Wick was referred to as "the chief seat of the herring fishing industry in Scotland" as well as the higher sounding "largest herring port in Europe".

There is little doubt that Wick deserved these accolades.

So much herring was landed there that it was said that your nose would pick up Wick many miles before reaching the Royal Burgh.

This had much to do with the highly efficient processing that took place immediately upon the boats - known as drifters - delivering the fish to the harbour.

Fisher-lassies would gut the herring then packers salted and barrelled them quickly.

One ordinary day during a time of plenty in August 1848 the fleet prepared itself for another productive sortie into the North Sea.  

800 drifters set sail from Wick harbour.

It was just another day's fishing in an industry that lasted almost 200 years.

With good prospects for fishing the fleet set out windward mostly to the south of Wick Bay. As night began to fall the wind abated and turned westward. Many of the boats now were tempted to shoot their nets.

As the sun set and grey clouds grew thick and dark over the north-east coast.

Some of the boats recognised the indicators and hauled in their nets and made for shore.

Those who had heeded the early signs of the coming storm reached Wick harbour before darkness set in.

By midnight the wind veered again and worked itself up into a gale.

This vast column of air moving swiftly over the sea, the dense darkness, the ebbing tide and an unlighted, waterless harbour combined to create a terrible destructive situation.

The fleet had all but returned north to the mouth of Wick bay and many tried to run the harbour in the dark and were driven behind the old north quay to perish on the rocks.

Dawn revealed an angry North Sea and a town of cold spectators, praying and watching from the shore. In the bay the remainder of the fleet were still waiting for the incoming tide to reach the safety of home and family.

One by one they ran the gauntlet, some with more sail than others. Collisions were unavoidable and they fouled on each other and were driven into the boulders behind the quay.

Ladders and lifebuoys were yet years away and the population of Wick and Pulteneytown watched in horror as their men folk perished at their feet. Some foundered at sea before reaching land.

One swamped off the small cove at Sarclet and four swamped to the south of Wick Bay, another perished off Helman Head and another in the fierce tideway of Noss Head. Many lives were lost in Wick Bay where they expected to reach safety.

Thirty-seven men from Wick alone drowned leaving 17 widows and 63 children.

Eighteen boats were lost on the rocks. However, the total loss of life in the whole of the far north that day was 94 lives and 30 boats.

Wick's "Black Saturday" stayed deeply engraved on the memories of the fishing community of the east of Caithness for a long time. Fathers and grandfathers told their sons of the morning that brought grief to so many.

No monument marks the tragedy and the only marker is a painting by Robert Anderson depicting the disaster that hangs in the council chambers in Wick.



  Wick is a definite visit on the route, even if it is for the Museum which is not just award winning in its own right, but to understand much of the far North, it a visit that is time well spent.  


Wick Heritage Museum


Wick Heritage Museum