The Sea Inside
As part of Scotland's year of Coasts and Waters, three local artists, Jacqueline Briggs, Alice Taylor and Izzy Thomson, have been supported by Nature Scot's 'Plunge In! Coasts and Waters Community Fund' to work in partnership with Cromarty Courthouse Museum, alongside the communities of Cromarty and Resolis. This project will explore our connection with the sea, in the hope to celebrate people’s appreciation of the area we live in and our desire to look after our coasts and seas. Research gathered from marine experts and memories from local residents will be brought together to create a large community artwork in the form of a patchwork sail which will be displayed at the Courthouse.
If you would like to get in contact with the artists for more information, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To read more about the fund, please see: https://www.nature.scot/plunge-projects-revealed-world-oceans-day
COLLAGE INSTRUCTION VIDEO: https://youtu.be/ApiLU_l9tQw
If you are looking for any help creating your collage or would just like some inspiration, please click on the above link to see our handy instructional guide video. You may also recognise the voice!
*** O U R B L O G ***
The Minke Whale
Saddened and inspired by the juvenile minke whale that was washed onto Cromarty sands, we found out more about whales and Cromarty’s connection to them.
David Alston remembers a conversation with Helen Couper -
“About 25 years ago Helen Couper (Bobby Hogg’s wife) told me that Dundee whaling ships used to call at Cromarty to stock up with fresh water because the water from the springs along the shore to the west kept particularly well.”
It’s amazing to think of the journey these sailors undertook, leaving the Cromarty Firth and travelling all the way to the infamous whaling stations of Greenland.
Thankfully now for the most part, instead of whales being looked at as a product for meat, oil, and bone scientists are establishing their ability to store carbon - like amazing underwater forests. This could not only help with the fight against climate change, but could mean the increased protection of whales like the minke and the beautiful humpback whale that has been sighted visiting the Cromarty Firth.
Seaweed is a type of marine algae and is one of the oldest groups of plants on the planet. One group of scientists found some Kelp off the coast of Scotland that is aged 16,000 years old! Seaweeds, especially kelp, are often called underwater forests and in the same way as trees, they are very important for our environment because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and give out oxygen, as well as helping to prevent coastal erosion. They provide homes for between 30 and 70 different species – and many hundreds of individual animals, including:
- Sea urchins, sea snails or common whelks
- Crustaceans and shellfish
- The tube-dwelling worm Spirobranchus triqueter
- Sea Squirts
- Common starfish
- The blue rayed limpet is particularly spectacular to see.
These habitats in turn provide important nursery areas for young fish, which in turn provide food for higher predators such as seabirds, otters, seals and possibly dolphins. Isn’t it amazing to think all of these creatures who also live in Cromarty!
There are many different types of seaweeds. Here are a few that you can find locally…
- Kelps: large leathery brown seaweed. Scotland's kelp forests mainly comprise of Tangle weed or cuvie, but also include Oarweed, Dabberlocks or Badderlocks, or (winged kelp), Sugar kelp and Furbellow.
- Wracks: (These are the ones that pop wehn you walk over them). Egg wrack, Bladderwrack, Spiralwrack, Sawrack, Thongweed.
- Green Seaweeds: Sea Lettuce, Gutweed and Grass Kelp.
- Red Seaweeds: Irish Moss, Dulse, False Irish Moss and Porphyra umbilicalis (used to make laverbread- a Welsh bread).
If you are interested in seaweed identification, you can use the free app ‘Seek’.
In the past, stories and language were swapped and taken from the ships and boat traffic that came in and out of Cromarty. This influenced the Cromarty fisher-folk dialect, which was only spoken in fisher-town and nowhere else in Cromarty. It was a mix of words and phrases, from Doric to Gaelic, with a lot of the words being Anglified Gaelic.
Here are some of the seafaring superstitions that overlap from fishing on the West coast, to the Cromarty Firth and the Royal Navy:
- Never sail on a Friday
- It is bad luck to mention rabbits, pigs or salmon
- It's also bad luck to mention weddings
- ‘Swan vestas’ matches were banned on board
- It’s bad luck to see certain members of the village, before setting off to sea especially the Minister - “If you meet the minister don’t go to sea”
- Ginger and Lea and Perrins is good for sea sickness
- No whistling whilst out at sea
- Some families like to keep the same boat numbers if they get new boats built.
- Sailors would commonly have a pig tattooed on one foot and a chicken on the other one. This was because they believed that these animals didn’t drown at sea, because they were kept in wooden crates that floated, so would sometimes wash up on shore if a boat was wrecked.
- Don't cast a Clout til May is Oot, which means that the sea is not warm enough for swimming until May, although there's a few hardy folk who like to swim all year round!
Hugh Miller (1802 - 1856) in his book ‘Scenes and legends’ talks of Cromarty fishermen sailing in calm weather. . .
"Earnestly invoking the wind in a shrill tremulous whistling - calling on it in fact in it’s own language... on thoughtlessly beginning to whistle one evening about twelve years ago, when our skiff was staggering under a closely-reefed foresail, I was instantly silenced by one of the fishermen with a “Whisht, whisht, boy, we have more than wind enough already;”
He also wrote of an old tradition called ‘soothing the waves’...
‘When beating up in stormy weather along a lee-shore, it was customary for one of the men to take his place on the gunwale, and there continue waving his hand in the direction opposite to the sweep of the sea, in the belief that this species of appeal to it would induce it to lessen its force.’
What name would you give your boat, and would there be any rules / superstitions for your crew to follow, like no whistling?
Thanks to everyone who told us their hair-raising stories. Here are some of them bellow . . .
A fishing crew from Culbokie told us that they were on a passage in the North sea, bound for Bremerhaven in Germany. The wind force was 11, which is one less than a hurricane. It was night time and the waves were huge. They were hit on the bow of the boat and there was an almighty bang. The next day they discovered that the mental stairway on the boat was completely buckled and their anchor light, which was probably about 20 metres above sea level, ws nowhere to be seen!
“I have seen the sea at its absolute worst and seen it for its tranquility and beauty, always respecting it and never taking it for granted. The sea is where you worked but you never underestimate its power...incredible” - A Culbokie fisherman
A local sailor went for three days with no sleep, when he was caught in a storm in the Bermuda Triangle. They were travelling at 7 knots with no sail up, their boat going up and over 20ft waves - that’s taller than the lampposts in Cromarty.
Two Cromarty residents were sailing on the Spanish coast when their mast got struck by lightning, and so did one of the lights they were using to navigate safely into the harbour. Luckily they made it back to dry land.
Another local told us a story about sailing in northern Greece when he saw what looked like three suns in the sky, because of the way the light was reflecting off the mist around them.
One local resident learnt to swim at the age of four by being thrown in the sea! She is now an amazing and strong swimmer. About going out on the skiff she says:
“We row in rain, hail, snow and as happy as we go” and “the wilder the sea the better, for me the power amazes me.”
Cromarty Firth offers safer waters for sailors. John Major wrote in 1521 -
‘ Scotland possesses a great many harbours of which Cromarty at the mouth of the Northern river is held to be the safest.’
The Ross-Shire Journal in Nov 1881 writes of vessels being ‘compelled to run to Cromarty for shelter from the gale . . . as the storm continued with considerable severity in the Moray Firth and the German Ocean.’
The Cromarty Fishermen used to walk down to the Weatherglass house as there used to be a Barometer on the wall there. A Barometer is an instrument, a bit like a compass, which measures the atmospheric pressure and gives a weather forecast. The fishermen would read the barometer before heading out on their boats to know whether it was safe to go fishing or not.
Can you imagine what it's like to be a seabird or sea mammal in a storm? What would it be like to be a seagull flying against the wind, trying to catch a fish? Maybe you would find a passing ship to take refuge on?
Fish and Eels
The herring fishing industry used to provide employment for many families in Cromarty. Hugh Miller (1802 - 1856) remembers ‘peering over book or slate’ during his school lessons so he could see the fishing boats coming home to the harbour. If they’d caught a lot of fish it would be ‘laid in glittering heaps opposite the school-house door’. He would watch the young women at work ‘knife in hand’ gutting the fish with pay of sixpence an hour and ‘relays of heavily-laden fish-wives bringing ever and anon fresh heaps of herrings in their creels.’
In a quote from 1640 we see how the Firth once teemed with life. ‘Many kinds of cod . . . the fish called by the name of the dog, plaice, stingrays, mackerel, soles, angel-fish, sea - eels, catfish.’
A local told us that as a child he could find lobsters by looking under rocks along the shore.
In the book Cromarty- Living by the sea (Edited by Fran Tilbrook, p.119) a Cromarty resident mentions that he used to say to his mum when he was a wee lad ,”don’t worry about the tea, I will go and catch it.”
Now the fishing industry has gone from Cromarty and the fish in the Firth have declined, but there are still people who make their living from the sea. Including, creel boats fishing for lobsters and crabs, researchers trying to understand the dolphins and seals that live here, and tour boats so you too can experience life on the waves.
We spoke to a fisherman from Culbokie -
“I am the 4th generation of fishermen in the family and growing up we were always doing something associated with the sea. From poaching for salmon, to going away for part of the school holidays on fishing trips, l think I was about 13yo the first time.You never knew how much you would catch or earn anytime you left home.
All my working life I have earned my living from it, albeit it's now fresh water rather than salt and that I am truly grateful for, to come home safe."
We also spoke to a local Eel expert -
“My passion for eels started when I was a youngster. I started fishing around the age of five with my dad. My local river in Yorkshire contained lots of eels back then. Everytimeyou used worms or maggots as bait you could guarantee that an eel would come along, these were always fairly small and we called them “Bootlaces”.
They returned all the eels they caught, they ‘were there for the excitement, fishing in the dark waiting for the tell tale pull, sometimes the rod would get dragged in.’
He told us some amazing facts about the European Eel -
"Eels can live a long time especially in Scotland, up to 60 years or more (especially females)."
"Eels have a keen sense of smell, they can detect 1ml of rose scent in a waterbody 58 times that of Lake Constance."
"Eel blood is toxic…1 ml is enough to kill a small mammal."
The European Eel makes an incredible migrational journey, swimming all the way from the Sargasso Sea near North America, right across the Atlantic ocean and back to a river in scotland.
Unfortunately these amazing travellers are on the critically endangered list. The temperature of our oceans is changing because of the climate crisis. This affects the ocean currents that fish use to travel, so that fish are living in areas of the ocean where we would not usually find them and fish and eels are finding it harder to get back to the rivers where they spend the majority of their lives.
Local knowledge of the area has helped research into the Europen Eel -
‘whilst in Sutherland a local man who fished for elvers (and made a lot of money) donated all his traps as he had stopped fishing for them. He taught me how to set them and where.’
And also into the fish we find in our rivers -
A local freshwater expert - ‘Local knowledge of how pike and minnows were spread along the Garry river was very useful in understanding current species distribution, which would be difficult to assess as natural or introduced in some cases.’
How do you think we could research the fish in our oceans? Would you need a submarine to explore all the way to the bottom, and what do you think you would see on your way down?
Hugh Miller remembers being out in a Skiff (with Dr Thomas Chalmers, founder of the Free Church of Scotland and Rev Alexander Stewart, minister of Cromarty)
"Would you not like Sir," he said, addressing himself to my minister, who sat beside him,"Would you not like to be a sea-gull? I think I would. Sea-gulls are free of the three elements, earth, air, and water . . . I think I could enjoy being a sea-gull.”
A local remembers being out on his boat beyond the Sutors and seeing a Bonksie (Great Skua) swooping down through the air at a herring gull sitting on the water. He turned his boat around and lifted the bemused bird up onto the safety of the deck. He remembers dropping the herring gull off at the beach and watching it walk back up to it's mates with a bit of a swagger in it's step – I'm sure it was grateful for the lift!
Sammy the seagull, was a Gull who used to go for a walk on the links with a local resident!
The Herring and Lesser black-back gulls make a wide range of noises and sounds. These different types of social calls vary in their use but are predominantly used to signify and hold the small territories each pair of nesting birds have. These wild birds are admirable for their ability to adapt and survive in a human dominated world. However, as the RSPB states:
“This species is on the red list due to ongoing population declines and wintering population declines”
A local resident has noticed that the white pooh on the Sutor rock has faded over the years- is this a sign that there are less birds?
Why not try imaging what your favourite spots in Cromarty would look like from a birds eye view?
Dolphins visit the Cromarty Firth most days of the year – though they’re less likely to be here in the spring. When they visit in the Autumn, it’s more likely to be at night – the researchers at the lighthouse think this is because fish like herring and sprat come closer to the surface at this time and it’s easier for the dolphins to catch them then.
The male and female dolphins here are the same size, which is unusual and means they travel in quite mixed groups both genders and different ages all together.
The mother will whistle when her calf is born in order to imprint her voice onto her calf. Each dolphin develops its own individual whistle which can be similar to their mother’s but sometimes it is completely different (the researchers don’t know why this is yet). It can be likened to humans calling out our names.
For the researchers at the Lighthouse Field Station, the dream is to eventually be able to match the dolphin’s voice, which they can hear using hydrophones under water, with their fins, which they use to identify dolphins above the water.
Photographs from the public have helped the researchers understand how far the dolphins can travel from Cromarty (to Ireland and the Netherlands last year!). And many of the records of those friendly dolphins beating up and killing those poor wee porpoises have come from members of the public!
Dolphin’s sometimes ride on a boat’s bow wave to save their energy.
A researcher from the Lighthouse Field Station told us she identifies each seal by the pattern on their pellage (fur). Seals all develop different patterns, however, they go through phases and also they moult, so can look very ‘mangey’ and it is hard to identify them during this time.
Lighthouse researcher: On returning from hunting, mother seals use their noses to smell out their young, to find out which one is theirs. The scientist observed Mother seals sniffing various pups until she found the right one!
Another PHD student at the Lighthouse has been researching seals and their different kinds of dives. She reported that seals have different “shaped” dives depending on whether they are hunting whilst travelling (which would be more of a ‘U’ shaped dive) or if they are diving specifically to forage for food below them (which would be a vertical ‘V’ shaped dive).
Seals have very sensitive whiskers. They use them to locate food and with their whiskers, they can sense the change in the water’s shape when a fish has just swam past!
Sorting through lots of seal poo reveals they may eat over 40 different species of prey in the Moray Firth, the main one being squid.
Most of the time seals are out at sea foraging for food. However, the term “haul out” is used to describe harbour seals when they are on the shoreline to rest, give birth and to raise their young.
Seals appear to be predominantly very silent animals, although sometimes you can hear Harbour seals make in-air vocalisations such as: barks, grunts, moans or honks. They float on the sea surface with their heads and big brown eyes visible above the water. Sound pollution can mask their underwater communication.
The Minke is the most commonly sighted whale in the Inner Moray Firth and it is usually spotted between September and late July. They can grow up to 10m long. One of the giveaways that there has been a minke whale about is that there is a rottencabbage smell which can linger on the surface. This gave them the nickname ‘Stinky Minke’.
Why not try keeping a look out for sea mammals while you're on the shore or out on a boat? Cromarty is famous for being home to a number of them.
The front of the sail
We would like to say a very warm thank you to everyone who was involved in the project. Whether you shared your knowledge and stories about the sea with the artists, took the time and care to make a collage or came to see the sail, on what was probably the windiest weekend of the year, thank you for celebrating the sea with us. We have learnt so much from you about our local coastline and all of the fascinating animals, birds and plants we share it with. We encourage you to keep learning about and looking after the sea and do let us know if we can help you in anyway. We hope to display the sail again and expand upon this project in the future, but in the meantime please send us an email if you would like to know more/ view the sail.
The back of the sail has hand sewn squares of writing about the sea. These are a mix of stories and imagingings, that accompanied the collages on the front, quotes from the artist's research and interviews with local marine experts and a selection of Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect words and thier definition.
The front and back of the sail.
This project has been supported by NatureScot, through the 'Plunge In! The Coasts and Waters Community Fund’.