by Anne Coombs
Caithness at the end of the 18th century was an exciting place to be. While maybe not the centre of the world, it was home to some of the big names of the time. Sir John Sinclair, ‘Agricultural’ Sir John, of Ulbster is a name we should all know. He instigated the Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland, an amazing resource which is often the first place we look for details of life in the 1780s and 90s. His name appears in many of the forward-thinking documents of the time, not just the OSA, he was author of the General View of the Agriculture of the Northern Counties. He was a member of the British Fisheries Society and a Trustee of the Board for the Improvement of Fisheries and Manufactures along with his near neighbours in Sutherland, George Dempster of Dunnichen, founder of Spinningdale mill, and Lord Gower, later the Marquise of Stafford and then the Duke of Sutherland.
This group instigated several moneymaking (Improvement) schemes, one of the most successful was the development of the herring fishing industry off the coast of Caithness during the 19th century. The British Fisheries Society was responsible for building Pultneytown immediately south of the Wick River. It was laid out by Thomas Telford in 1786 and was so successful it became known as ‘Herringopolis’ with the harbour so full of fishing boats which meant you could walk across it without touching water. But Pultneytown was just one of many harbours developed along the coast of Caithness during this period.
David Brodie of Hopeville married Sir John’s daughter and became tenant of Thrumster and with his father-in-law set about planning and building their own port at Sarclet, a couple of miles to the east of Thrumster. The coast south of Wick is very indented with narrow inlets or goes which had always provided shelter for boats, but in the early 19th century harbours were constructed to provide extra protection. In about 1800, Sarclet was conceived as a whole settlement: A harbour with breakwaters and slips for hauling boats out of the water; stances for the gutters to gut and pack the herrings as they were landed; and associated buildings for storing equipment including barrels for putting the herring into and salt for packing between the gutted herrings. And like Pultneytown, houses for the workers were built, arranged along the road to the harbour. Unfortunately, the harbour was exposed to easterly gales and had to be rebuilt on at least three occasions according to a local historian.
After Brodie’s time the new tenant, Robert Innes hired another local James Bremner to rebuild the harbour between 1834 and 1841. This involved bringing blocks of stone from Wick in barges and dropping them onto the seabed at the edge of the harbour. Bremner also used cranes set on the clifftops and able to reach 120 feet (36m) out across the entrance. A capstan was set on a platform below the cliff face so boats could be hauled up the slipway out of the water. At this time the two-storey storehouse was built to store salt and barrels and possibly for the curer’s office.
This all helped Sarclet to be a successful herring port for the next few years. In 1839, ‘’a most extraordinary fishing was made on Tuesday last, when the size of the boats and drifts of nets are taken into consideration. There were actually landed at the place on the day above alluded to (Sarclet), upwards of 1300 crans from thirty-two boats, making an average of 42 crans per boat!!(about 50,400 fish per boat)’’, reported the John o’Groat Journal of 16th August. However, on 16th November 1887 the Northern Ensign described the final abandonment of the harbour recounting ‘’a succession of severe storms’’ and stating that “in 1876 the harbour went to ruins, and was practically of no use…”
Today the settlement is changed but it is still possible to identify a few of the original houses on either side of the road where the fishermen, netmakers and coopers would have lived with their wives who would have worked at the gutting. At the end of the road there is space to park then walk down the steep path to the shore as the gutters and fishermen would have walked. At the bottom, taking care not to disturb the only present day inhabitants, the seals, it is possible to imagine the bustling port this once was. Stand on the stances, just in front of the well, waiting for the boats laden with fish to arrive or walk along the remains of the quay or down the slipway, now covered with the large blocks of stones, some still with the metal rings and furniture of the quay. Just a very few miles south of Sarclet is the iconic harbour at Whaligoe, famous for its steps. But to my mind Sarclet is more atmospheric, as is Latheronwheel. Alternatively try Lybster or Staxigoe, both still in use but with much of the original harbour structures in place.