Taken from
Issue Number 58 Autmn 2005

James 'Crusoe' Robertson, Dalintober fisherman


James Robertson

The three letters which follow were written by a young Dalintober fisherman, James McMillan Robertson, to his sister Catherine while fishing from Stranraer aboard his uncle Dugald's skiff, the Fairy Queen (CN 196), in February 1910.

James was born on 24 July 1889 in Saddell Street and died on 29 October 1947 in Princes Street. His father, William, was also a fisherman, and his mother, Ann McMillan, was born at Clachaig, near Muasdale.

In 1926, James had his own boat built, at the yard of Wilson Noble, Fraserburgh. He called her Fairy Queen and registered her CN 128. At 43 feet in length, she wasn't much bigger than the traditional Loch Fyne Skiffs, but she was fully decked, and he worked her until 1938, when he retired and sold her to Carradale.

According to family tradition, James's wife, Janet Campbell - one of the 'Scavach' Campbells - came into an inheritance and wanted to buy a guest house with the money, but he wanted a boat, and a boat it was!

The Stranraer Loch herring fishery flourished in the first decade of the twentieth century and is referred to in this writer's Herring Fishermen of Kintyre and Ayrshire (House of Lochar, 2002).

The following letters, though of a light-hearted, bantering nature, are not without interest. They were found among the possessions of the late Calum Robertson (issue No. 56, pp 22-3, and this issue, pp 28-9), who was James's son. I am indebted to Margaret McKiernan - a cousin of Calum's - for loaning me the letters and for supplying some of the background information and the photograph for the cover illustration.

The letters have been transcribed much as I found them. James's idiosyncratic spellings have all been preserved, but, in the interest of comprehension, I took the liberty of tidying up his punctuation and also broke the texts into paragraphs, which were lacking in the originals. Further, the reader will find numbered explanatory notes at the end.

Extracts from a notebook kept by James Robertson appear in an article by this writer published in Fishing Boats No 30. Editor.

Stranraer, 12/2/10
Dear Cathy,
I now take the pleasure in taking the pencil to give an account of myself for the past fortnight. We put past the first week in Girvan with no prospect. But we sailed down to Stranraer on Wensday and some of the boats got fine shots of herrings. But as usual we tore our two nets. Us and the Queens1 were the only two pairs out on Thursday night and we got two hundred baskets each at 5/- per baskets. They are plenty of herring here just now only we are not allowed to catch them. The fishery cutter was lying here all last week watching us like Hawks.2 I expect some of us will be put in jial before we return home. I am very pleased to hear that John McGeachy3 is doing well.

I would have sent both of you a post card only for my thumb. It is getting along fine only I am missing my nurse Maggie. I hope you are beheaving yourself since I left home. I am enjoying myself splendid just now; not much to do and feeding on the best. They are plenty of pretty looking girls here and if you say very much when you are writing I might never return home. Stranrear is a beautiful place. I could live in it fine.

Some of the fishermen are going into the grog very heavy especially Jamie Smith, only for all I mentioned it don't make a song about it as you usually do about anything you hear. I hope you are minding Auntie Effie4; you would always be saying you wished we would go away. So you have got your wish at last and see and don't forget her for me ...

Tell her from me Togo5 is getting along all right. I am sure she must be very lonely without him. He has got share of my bed every night since we left home. He is a fine mate to have for a bedmate; he is not like David6 at all; he does not care wether I put my cold feet on him or not. I hope the dressmaker7 will not be offended at not writing to her. It is drawing late now and I think I will close with love to all. Write soon.
I remain
your loving brother
James Robertson.

Fairy Queen
Dear Cathie, I now take up my pencil to give an account of myself for the past week. The weather is very stormy just now but we are lying in a safe harbour so do not trouble yourself. See you will not be telling me when I return home that you could not sleep thinking of me. If the weather would just come good we would be expecting a good fishing. The most of the boats had less or more herrings this week but we ruined one of our nets and had to wire to David6 for to send across another one with the Pirate.9

The Queens are by far the best fished this week; they had two fine fishings and got good money for them. The byers are gathering every day. They are coming from other places. Tell Maggie the week I spent in Girvan I went to see Mrs Leigton 10; she was delighted to see me and wants Maggie to write. She was wondering if you could put up with her for a night or two. It was a terrible day here all day with rain so we had to keep indoors.

We are thinking of sending toga home with the Pirate on Monday. So I think we will be here for a fortnight or three weeks yet at anyrate. My socks are getting far through and I would be the better of another shirt but I am only warning you in time so see and have plenty of socks at hand. You were talking about a post-Card in your last letter. If I get a fishing next week I will send one to you and the dressmaker. Tell Davie I was asking for him. I think as it is getting near bedtime I will close.
I remain
your loving Brother
James Robertson Write Soon

24/2/10 Stranraer
Dear Cathie,
I received your letter all right and was glad to see by it you were all well as this letter leaves us the same. The fleet is very heavy here just now. For the last day or two they were no herrings to be felt in the loch so we are allowing they have shifted outside. If that is the case I expect we will soon be home because the weather is so bad it will be once in the fortnight we will get out and that will not pay. You need not send any clothes in case we will soon be home.

If the fishing lasts you will have to send clothes across with the Pirate. I think it's Saturdays she comes to Stranraer. Taylor11 had a hundred baskets this week. He was the best on Monday night. They were no fishing in the loch since. But they are reporting large shoals of herring off Turnbery that is up near Girvan. The Campbeltown men are working themselves just now.

I received Davie's postcard all right and was very pleased to get it. If we go to any other port I shall send a postcard. I answered Davie's; he should get it as soon as this letter. I am enjoying stranraer all right. News is scarce; excuse the scrubble. I remain
your loving brother
James Robertson Write soon

1. A Campbeltown pair, May Queen and Harvest Queen, built for Neil McLean and company at the local boatyard of Robert Wylie in 1896.
2. The Ballantrae Banks were closed to ring-netting in 1902 by a Fishery Board of Scotland bye-law, which was evidently relaxed after 1910.
3 A Dalintober fisherman, probably at that time skipper-owner of the Isa McGeachy.
4. Euphemia McMillan, Fairy Flower Cottage, Trench Point, widow of David, and mother of Dugald, owner of the Fairy Queen.
5. The spirited family dog, subject of a few court cases in its time! It was unusual for dogs to accompany fishermen to sea, especially in the skiffs, which were very cramped in accommodation. Indeed, it was said of Dugald Robertson that he never removed his oilskins and seaboots when he lay down to sleep, and that the forecastle of the Fairy Queen was so tiny, his feet 'hung outside the door into the hold'. (A Martin, Herring Fishermen of Kintyre and Ayrshire, Colonsay, 2002, p 87.)
An uncle, Henry Martin, told me many years ago, that 'Togo' would swim from Trench Point to Campbeltown for the daily newspaper and swim home, carrying the paper in its mouth. He said that the same hound once took exception to the skirling of a tinker's bagpipe as he tuned up, and attacked the poor man. He dropped the offending instrument, to which the dog then directed its hostility. As the bag still had wind in it, the squeals and shrieks continued, exciting the dog to an even greater pitch of fury, until it finally ripped the bag to bits. The incident generated great hilarity among those who witnessed it, but the humour was no doubt lost on the unfortunate tinker.
6. Probably his younger brother, born in 1893.
7. Unidentified.
8. Probably Davie Robertson, fish-salesman in Campbeltown and a son of Dugald's.
9. A Glasgow cargo-steamer. See Carol McNeill's Old Campbeltown and Machrihanish
(Stenlake Publishing, 2004 p 21) for the transcript of a postcard sent in 1910 to Dan Black in the May Queen at Stranraer by his daughter, Bella. 10. An unidentified family friend.
11. Probably Jock Taylor, a well-known Dalintober fisherman who had the skiff Daisy. His brother Archibald partnered him in the Eudora. Their father George was among those fishermen who came to Campbeltown from Ayr in the mid-nineteenth century, as part of a general migration which also brought an influx of Ayr fishing families to Ardrishaig, Tarbert and Carradale.

Barbara Malcolm1

Our association with this squadron - Flying Swordfish, No. H 13, if I recall correctly - came about when Flt.-Lt. George Hodgson - a Londoner - arrived at our door and begged father to let him have a fortnight's board and lodgings for himself and his New Zealand wife, who had recently arrived in Great Britain. He had had no success elsewhere. They stayed with us on two consecutive years. We were always alerted to the squadron's arrival at the base, as one chap, who had an auto-cycle - the first I can recall - headed for Machrihanish where his WREN girlfriend was resident at the Ugadale Arms Hotel. Four WRENS - all English girls - used to join us periodically for high tea.

Royal Engineers, most of whom came from Ayrshire, were at the Aerodrome for a lengthy period and were later billeted throughout the area. I remember Johnny Foyle - London, and billeted at Fort Argyll - helped out when I was struggling in composing an essay on 'Co-Education' for Mr Banks, Principal English Teacher.

Having since taught in an all-girls' school, I'm pleased to have been a pupil at Campbellown Grammar where the atmosphere was more relaxed. There was fun to be had. Just as we'd exchanged snaps in primary school, collecting autographs was then in fashion in secondary. Regretably, the autograph book was discarded due to mutilation by intruders, but it included a combined contribution by Dr. William Semple Millar (deceased brigadier) and Donald Douglas Leys (retired assistant head teacher).

We seem to break up all your romances,
Butt in and spoil your most opportune chances.
If we have blundered we most humbly regret,
And hope you are prepared to forgive and forget.

The subjects Maths, History and Domestic Science I enjoyed most. All Maths teachers appealed - Mr Anderson with bouncy walk and mop of black hair; Mr Smith ('Teefie'), usually good-natured, but not on the day brother John received six of his Lochgelly belt. The reason will remain secret and instead I'll share the occasion when Mr Balfour Downie turned detective due to wee Dolly Smith, art teacher, receiving a mysterious postcard. Classes where the culprit might be found were asked to write the word 'DENSITY'. John's capital D's were too distinctive! 'Teefie' gained first prize in belting.

Other teachers of Maths were Mr D. McPhee - the only teacher other than Miss Grant (P.T.) running a car then - and the handsome Adam Sturrock was particularly admired by the girls. The popular James Kaye (History) arranged the Saturday hockey fixtures. Miss Lizzie Stalker (Geography) engaged classes in much chanting, e.g. 'After me - Paris sets the fashions to the world'. No one stepped out of line when Dr David Lees (Latin and Greek) was online duty.

Dances were popular, and as I had many like-minded friends, willing to offer me a bed, as transport, owing to petrol shortfall was difficult, I danced at many venues, including Tayinloan, where the McSporrans - Ella (now Mrs Armour) and Ina (Mrs Morrison, now deceased) - offered shelter. On one occasion, while staying with them at Dunashery and visiting a nearby house, at a lower level than that of the road, I tripped over a low wall and landed head-first on a grater, on which you'd normally wipe your feet. When Mrs McSporran reported this little accident at home, she described it as my needing 'a wee stitch in her nose.' It was, in fact, four stiches, which operation Dr. MacQueen carried out by paraffin lamp. As it was thought he'd underestimated his skills when charging - one guinea, for not just that single visit - a Stilton cheese (approximately twelve by eight inches), made in a small oak tub, accompanied the fee.

Mary Langcake (McMaster) housed me for the first school dance I attended, and Olga Levine, an evacuee, for another in Campbeltown. As Olga was Jewish, this introduced me to their way of life. The Levines' maid addressed Olga as 'Miss Olga' and I was 'Miss Barbara'. That took a trick! Anne McCuaig (Gillies) and I were regular attenders at Drumlemble dances, where we had the occasional soloist, e.g. the late Mrs Paterson - 'Blighty's' wife - singing, 'Oh, boys, oh, get married when you're young! If it's a bonnie wee lass you want, I'm the very one'; or one of the village Browns treating us to 'The Wild Colonial Boy'.

Kathleen McDougall (Mrs Duncan McPhee) and her family made me welcome at Carradale. Mrs Mitchison's new hall was much appreciated by all. Though able to enjoy life without 'props', there were regular reminders that the world was not at peace. A Carradale dance, arranged in mid-March, 1941, was cancelled when news came that Jim McKinven (Kathleen's cousin) in his late teens, who was the only child of the Lochpark Tearoom owners, had lost his life in the Clydebank blitz.

In the mid-'30s, my sisters left home. Jean and Jim McPhee married and farmed Pennygown. My first memory there was the 1936 ploughing match. Mary trained in Domestic Science at Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh, followed by a six-month course in High Class Cookery in Glasgow. Cathie went to Agricultural College in Glasgow and at Auchincruive. Both sisters were prize-winners. Cathie was presented with the Courance Gold Medal for Agriculture - rarely won by a girl - by the late Sir John Boyd Orr, renowned for his work on diet and whose publications have greatly interested me.

Sarah (Gillespie) then became housekeeper. Sarah had a heart of gold and couldn't do enough for us - clootie dumplings on birthdays, arranging bramble-picking days, Hallowe'en outings, a visit to Gigha, where she'd previously worked, etc. Mrs Katie Mitchell, whose husband was lost at Dunkirk, came once a week to do the washing. Much later, she was father's housekeeper and, later still, brother John's. Katie was an avid reader and 'talkie' -goer. During the late 1930s, Sandy Henderson - well-known 'brickie' - came to build a new bothy. Romance with Sarah nourished and they married. He was extremely generous with chocolates, not yet then in short supply. You'll have guessed who ate the lion's share! Soon, however, Sandy was off to the Army and India. He had many idiosyncrasies, which brother John had off to a tee. Neither Sarah nor Sandy ever knew idleness. Prior to leaving, Sandy took out the black kitchen range and installed a stainless steel and enamelled range called an 'All You Want'. When securing help became difficult, Sarah returned with her family, Agnes and Flora, while Sandy was abroad.

Heavy snowfalls in March of 1940 and 1943 made those years memorable. At Trodigal, we were cut off for three or four days on each occasion. I recall walking to school mid-week in 1940. To reduce distance, at Low Knockrioch I cut off Stewarton corner and aimed straight for the 'Hungry Hoose' through fields, a foolish move, as I had no knowledge of the terrain. In 1943, I was very active baking scones of all sorts. Chilblains, due to exposure, and ugly skin markings - 'fireside tartan' - due to sitting too close to a fire, were common afflictions of the time.

Father's 'bridge boys', as we called them, came to Trodigal every four weeks. Over the years the group did change. There was old Robbie Millar, Auchaleek; Sammy Mitchell, bachelor, Dalivaddy; Johnny Mathews, upholsterer and very fast talker; big Tom Glen, technical teacher, 'ten foot ten, hasn't had a drink since I don't know when'; Archie Revie, chemist, and John Armour, Backs. Dr MacKenzie, Mr Smith, of the Ugadale Arms, and Mr Pursell, headmaster, occasionally filled in. On one occasion, Sammy was so engrossed that his cigarette burned its complete length on the carpet! Father found Sammy's seats too uncomfortable, so he took in the car seat - no offence at all! I enjoyed their visits; chairs used to creak when Robbie and father got going, and without even a snifter! Supper started out as a sandwich affair, but progressed to knife and fork, and lasted a long or short time, depending on how interesting the cards were. Bought cake left-overs, e.g. a meringue or eclair, were much enjoyed by John and me - then a novelty. Our fondness for sweets led to visits to our dentist, Mr Bill McMillan, Creagdhu Mansions. Neither his professionalism nor the loch view from the chair could banish the fear of the foot-operated drill.

Regular vans called with supplies - Kerr the butcher, Black the baker, various fishmongers, and Colin and Donald Campbell, grocers. Colin came on Thursdays and Donald late on Saturday night. What a joy it was to see Donald's lights at the Hamiltons' cottage about 9 p.m. - the long wait for the 'lucky bag' was nearly over! Petrol scarcity led to the decline of the van. All had their favourite suppliers, often depending on handiness. We favoured Alistair McConnachie, at the foot of the Big Kiln, for groceries. The assistants seemed to stay forever - Alistair himself, Donald McKinven, Mary Smith and Annie McSporran, who kept the books. A line was left in on a Monday morning and goods were collected later. If missing items could be found elsewhere, they were. 'Service' - an almost forgotten word. Renton the butcher, when 'phoned early in the morning, had requirements on the 10 a.m. bus.

lronmongers Johnny McNair, David Livingstone and Huie all got a turn. I chose Johnny 'Nair - I liked his gruff approach - for bicycle supplies and skipping-ropes. E.P. Smith, near the Town Hall, stocked daily and weekly newspapers as well as school needs - pens, jotters, etc. John, being less likely to dilly-dally, collected the Glasgow Herald on the way home. During holidays, it was tossed into the garden from the 10 a.m. bus. Other than at Christmas, few greetings cards were sent.

Many a happy hour was spent in Cooks for clothing. Miss Farmer (buyer) made sure that none of the staff stood idle. Sister Mary preferred Sam McNair for quality. Materials - cotton for school sewing classes, e.g. lapbags and outsized bloomers which fitted no one - were available in the City Warehouse. The Misses Colville supplied wools, red being my favourite colour, representing Knockscalbert House. Shoes were my greatest weakness, so Kennedy's saw a lot of me. Miss Hamilton at Dalaruan was a very talented dressmaker. Some gents favoured N.L. McMillan, where a fifty shilling tailored suit could be had. Accounts were sent out at six-monthly intervals, in November and May. Shopkeepers today would be unlikely to give such lengthy credit, nor buyers likely to have sufficient faith in the accuracy of accounts over this period.

We were fortunate that, in collaboration with some neighbouring farms, we had electricity installed a few years pre-war. Every lamp-shade, from byre to sitting-room, was of a white bakelite type .strictly utilitarian. Electricity reduced the work load; cleaning paraffin lamp globes wasn't a pleasant job. Prior to the advent of electricity and vacuum cleaners, the yearly spring clean, completed before cheese-making began, was very necessary. Damage resulted if clothes' moths and woodworm were left undisturbed. Church-goers were very familiar with the distinctive moth-ball smell! Cleaning was systematic - one room at a time, and good weather essential to take mattresses and carpets outdoors for airing and beating, using cane carpet-beaters.

Due to the cost and hard work involved in cleaning - i.e., on knees using hard-bristled banister brush and dust pan - fewer floors were carpeted. Inlaid linoleum was more suitable for busy areas. Our 'good room' - rarely used except when we had visitors - had a five by five-and-a-half yard carpet. It went into the garden via a window. Those involved in the spring clean experienced a feeling of satisfaction on its completion, but with every door and window open, the onlooker was less happy. Father's comment on one occasion was: 'Aye, it's waarmer ootside than in, the day!'

Not many months before the arrival of electricity, when en route to catch the 5.30 p.m. bus to go to the pictures in Campbeltown, I struck a match to check the time on the cuckoo clock sister Cathie had won for sports. Unfortunately, the match got too near the clock and the hands disappeared in flames. Not surprisingly, my popularity plummeted, though not as much as on the day I'd borrowed Cathie's watch for an exam. As we had 'P T' (Physical Training - now Physical Education) last period that day, I took off the watch, which took wings.

It was some years before I dared broach the subject of watches. At last, thanks to the garlic-smelling Jewish gentleman who called yearly, I got my very own. Unbelievably, three weeks' later, when posting letters at a pillar-box, it slipped off my wrist. More unbelievably, it was handed into Partick Police Station by a milk boy. Fellow-Campbeltonian, Jean Parker, had advised me to appeal to St Jude, the saint who deals with impossible situations. As expected, on my next visit home I was asked if my watch was keeping good time!

In September, 1943, I started at Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science - better known as 'Dough School' - but within months was called up. Choice was limited, as the Services weren't recruiting at that time, so I opted for NAAFI and landed at Town Camp, Inveraray. I thought then that I had arrived at finishing school, but had yet to learn it was only the beginning.

1) Part I -

To visit some of my index pages,
choose from this drop down list, and click GO:
HTML-Kit Button 345