Laying the foundations of a thriving fishing idustry

In the early part of the 18th century, the Magistrates of the Burgh of Arbroath began actively seeking experienced fishermen to fill a perceived gap in the burgh’s economy.

Forbes Inglis
Saturday, 23rd April 2022, 3:00pm
Laying the foundations of a thriving fishing idustry

The Magistrates must have believed they had solved the problem when, in 1705, they managed to lure two fisher families from Auchmithie to come and live in Arbroath and work from the harbour there. Unfortunately, such a move was not as clear-cut then as it would be today. An Act of 1606, bound certain workers to their masters as serfs, preventing free movement of such workers.

The Act only mentioned ‘Salters, Collyiers and coal-bearers’. but when the two fishermen, James and Robert Cargill, moved to Arbroath, the Auchmithie landowner, the Earl of Northesk, decided to take action against them, arguing that this law also applied to fishermen.

On May 7, 1705, he petitioned the Privy Council to have both James and Robert returned to his estate, claiming that the Magistrates of Aberbrothwick had refused to give up the runaways.

The fishermen seemed to have a reasonable defence. They argued that they were free men and that no law or custom bound them to any master. The magistrates, David Ramsay, Provost, and Alexander Webster and William Ramsay, bailies, were drawn into the action and were ordered to appear.

The Magistrates’ defence was quite simple; they had no knowledge of the relationship between the parties and anyone could live in the burgh if they wished. If James and Robert had houses in Arbroath there was nothing they could do about it.

In December 1705 the Privy Council decided in favour of Northesk and ordered the fishermen to return to Auchmithie with ‘their boats and other instruments of fishing’.

During the second half of the 19th century the fishermen of Auchmithie finally realised that their future lay in Arbroath and they transferred in numbers to the harbour there, eventually settling in the area close to the harbour, known to this day as ‘the fit o the toon’.

If Auchmithie was the loser there could be no doubting Arbroath’s success, having got the major fishing industry it had long sought, with the smokie thrown in as a bonus.

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