How Eyemouth is clinging to centuries of fishing heritage

How Eyemouth is clinging to centuries of fishing heritage

The Scottish fishing town on the North Sea coast

Beyond a horizon of Borders’ fields and farms lies the North Sea, with Eyemouth on the Berwickshire coast still clinging to centuries of fishing heritage. Sandy Neil paid a visit

There’s a part of the Borders that’s seafaring, with a direct link to the fish of the North Sea. Catches from Eyemouth’s last dozen boats are packed in ice or landed live on the harbour by 6am, and on the fishmonger’s counter by opening time at 9am in Kelso, Duns, Melrose, Gala and Hawick.

Unless farmed, sea fish are a wild food: you must enjoy what the boats catch, when tempests allow. When choosing fish, the trick is an open mind, and knowing how to use what’s best on the day. Scotland has more wonders in its waters than haddock – such as lemon sole, hake, plaice, gurnard, mackerel, herring, sea bass, monkfish, whiting, turbot and cod – and more in its kitchens than batter and breadcrumbs. If there’s little variety on display, the problem isn’t lack of supply but lack of demand. So ask the fishmonger, and Eyemouth’s boats will bring it in if they can.

Shellfish such as lobster, crab and langoustine are landed live, with 90 per cent exported within hours across the world. Some head for the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants in London, Paris, New York and Japan. ‘Everyone should be eating lobster,’ argues Stewart Aitchison of Eyemouth fishmonger DR Collin about the sweetest meat you’ll ever eat. ‘When there’s an abundance in August and September they’re at their cheapest: £6 per lobster.’

DR Collin and Waddells smoke salmon, herring, sea trout, haddock and mackerel in their own blackened backyard smokehouses. Smouldering on the cobbled floors lie piles of dense oak chips mixed with light, aerating pine sweepings from a local wood turner.

Eyemouth, like most of Scotland’s ports, was built on herring, and on smuggling too: overlooking the old harbour sits Gunsgreen, an elegant Georgian house designed to cheat the authorities, with cellars leading direct to the sea. But ruthless over-fishing in the 1950s and 1960s reduced the North Sea’s ‘inexhaustable’ stocks by half. Seventy per cent of Scotland’s fleet was laid off or gave up. It warned of a now familiar story: dwindling stocks chased by fewer and fewer boats with increasingly sophisticated equipment.

For all but a dozen of Eyemouth’s once 80-strong fishing fleet, government quotas and the renewed awareness of sustainability have come too late. ‘We’ve been Eyemouth fishermen all our lives,’ says Bonaventure captain Bryan Blackie. ‘We’ve all been through the good times and bad, but this is the perfect storm.’

Eyemouth’s future is uncertain but the 13th-century port’s fishermen are not gone – yet. There’s still hope that we can help save them, and their dependent fishmongers, by enjoying their fish for tea.