Eyemouth Fishing Disaster (1881)

Eyemouth’s Widows & Bairns

The worst Scottish fishing disaster ever recorded happened on Friday 14th October 1881 after weeks of bad weather the local fleet were becoming impatient to go to sea, on the day in question they awoke to a calm morning and ignoring the low barometer reading and put to sea.  Around midday the crews had just cast their line fishing when the whole country was hit by a violent storm.  As the boats rushed home most capsized before reaching the safely into the harbour, whilst the rest smashed on the Hurkar Rocks at the harbour entrance as their families watched helplessly on the pier.


A total of 189 men lost their lives that day leaving 93 widows and 267 children. The coast of Berwickshire was worst hit with Eyemouth alone losing 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 and 15 from Newhaven. Two days after the disaster, one of the Eyemouth boats the ‘Ariel Gazelle’ limped into the harbour with all crew members safe, instead of trying to make for the shore they had struck out to sea and rode the storm.


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 and widows received 5/- a week with 2/6d for each child who was attending school regularly.  A few years later work began on Eyemouth Harbour. Some felt that the loss of life would have been less if the improvements to the harbour had not been delayed. 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.


“Black Friday” will never be forgotten by the people of Eyemouth as many of the towns descendants still live in the small fishing town. A memorial was built-in the town, which stands on the seafront and a special commemoration service to mark the centenary took place on the 14th October 1981. Eyemouth Museum has a special tapestry hanging in the memorial room, which records the boat names and crew members that drowned. Today the town of Eyemouth is the largest fishing port on the South East Coast of Scotland.

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