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Eyemouth Scotland

The Smugglers' Haven

For centuries the sea has dominated life in Eyemouth, providing a
welcoming port for fishermen, a notorious haven for smugglers and the
backdrop for a maritime tragedy that is remembered to this day.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

It is a breezy, blue-water day, with spray breaking against the Bantry, as Eyemouth's sea wall is known, sunlit eider ducks -- resplendent in black and white finery -- riding the swell, a couple of well-fed seals eyeing up passers-by on the harbour quayside.

The wind-whipped sea and the slap of waves on concrete, however, scarcely hints at the weather that left Eyemouth a deeply stricken community on October 14, 1881, when a storm of unparalleled ferocity caught its fishing crews at sea, wiping out 129 of its fathers, brothers, sons. A further 60 men from neighbouring Berwickshire fishing villages were drowned the same day, but it was Eyemouth that suffered most, in a tragedy that inevitably worked its way into the DNA of a community where people today will tell you of their elders still talking in hushed tones about "Black Friday."

Many of those who perished in what remains Scotland's worst fishing disaster did so within sight of their horror-stricken families, who watched from the shore as their menfolk were pitched mercilessly from shattered boats while trying to make the harbour. Their agony is captured, heartbreakingly, in Jill Watson's bronze memorial sculpture, "Widows & Bairns," erected on the Bantry a few years ago. It represents -- in miniature, but without stinting on impact -- the 78 women and 182 children (the "bairns") directly touched by the tragedy, beside themselves with helpless anguish.

There is, however, more to Eyemouth than the disaster. The picturesque little village at the mouth of the Eye Water, just five miles north of the border, boasts a turbulent, often tragic, history, embracing Borders warfare, witch-burning, a cholera epidemic and smuggling. Yet travellers heading along the A1 road between Scotland and England would hardly know it was there -- as I drove the 50 miles south from Edinburgh to visit, the first road sign indicating Eyemouth cropped up just five miles beforehand. Now initiatives are striving to attract more visitors to what one local businessman describes as the "hidden gem" of the port and its magnificent surrounding coastline.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2019 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Gunsgreen House