A Watery Grave

I wrote below about ‘John Stewart, a life almost lost’, who was rescued from the sea in 1897 after his fishing boat had capsized in a gale. He was the sole survivor. John married Annie Ross from Ullapool. In 1920 their only son, Murdo, was born on Isle Martin. He must have been about the last baby born to the old crofting families, and not long after this the Stewarts emigrated to New Zealand.

Murdo Stewart joined the Royal New Zealand Navy at the start of the Second World War. Here is the Stewart family’s account of what happened to Murdo and his friend Jack Rix:

Murdo Stewart

On 7 December 1941 the Japanese bombed the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, near Honolulu, Hawaii.  The Japanese had also attacked Hong Kong that same day where Murdo and Jack had just arrived.  By Christmas Day that year the colony had fallen and Murdo and Jack were taken as Prisoners of War by the Japanese and taken to Kowloon.  Over a nine-month period many occupants of the camp at Kowloon succumbed to malnutrition, pneumonia, dysentery, diphtheria and gangrene.  Late September 1942, Murdo and Jack were two of 1816 Prisoners of War loaded onto the SS Lisbon Maru to be transported to Japan.  On 1 October that ship was torpedoed by the Americans.  The ship had not been flying the required Red Cross flag to identify it was carrying Prisoners of War.  The ship stayed afloat for 24 hours before sinking.  Murdo and Jack leapt off the sinking ship and were subsequently picked up by a Japanese Patrol boat and taken to Shanghai.  846 Prisoners of War perished that day.  For the next three days food was scarce and the only water to drink had been bailed out of the Yangtse River.  This water was a carrier of cholera and dysentery.  On 5 October Murdo and Jack were loaded onto the SS Shinsei Maru but Murdo succumbed to dysentery and died on 10 October 1942, the night before the boat reached Moji, Japan.  He was buried at sea.

Below are some individuals who shaped the island’s history and visitors who left first-hand accounts:

  1. John Woodhouse, entrepreneur, trader, enthusiast for red herring, inventor of marsala wine
  2. David Loch’s account of a visit to the Isle Martin herring curing station in 1778
  3. John Knox, a visit to Isle Martin in 1787
  4. John Imack, a bit of a mystery, manager of the curing station for over 50 years, crofter and gardener
  5. John Stewart, a life almost lost

John Woodhouse (dates uncertain)

John Woodhouse is the man who established the Isle Martin herring curing station. He was from Liverpool, and the following account of his early years in the fish trade explain how he got involved in fish curing and selling, and why he chose Isle Martin as his base. He started his career as apprentice, then partner, of William Earle, an important trader in Liverpool. It is undeniable that Earle and his partners were involved in the slave trade. If not actually shipping slaves from Africa to the West indies, they were selling weapons to Africa and cured fish to the West Indies.

The following enterprise took place in 1760, 15 years before Woodhouse established himself on Isle Martin, and bang in the middle of the Seven Years War, when shipping could be seized and at the very least held to ransom by the enemy. The text is lifted from Peter Earle 2015: The Earles of Liverpool, a Georgian Merchant dynasty

Just when he started to exploit the vast fish stocks of Shetland is unclear, but he was certainly importing fish from these northern islands by 1757. What this involved can be seen from a mass of letters in his day book that concerns an expedition that set out for the Shetlands early in 1760. William was associated in this project with his two ‘young men’ Joseph Carter and John Woodhouse. These two were friends as well as partners, judging by the fact that he signed a letter to them in June ‘yours very affectionately’, something he did not do for anyone else. In the winter of 1759/60, Carter had been in Stornoway and Woodhouse in Liverpool, where his presence is marked by and advertisement offering for sale in William’s warehouse ‘a parcel of Scotch white herrings just imported’ White refers to the method of curing, sometimes known as Dutch white in which the fish, once caught were opened and gutted on board the fishing boat, then salted by rubbing their insides with salt and packed into barrels withy more salt between the fish. This, considered the ‘most esteemed’ method of curing the fish, should be contrasted with ‘red herrings’ which were soaked in brine for 24 hours then taken out, spitted and hung in a chimney above a very smoky brushwood fire for at least ten days.

The plan was for Carter and Woodhouse to sail for the Shetlands at the beginning of April 1760 and to spend the whole spring and summer there, buying cured fish, mainly ling, from the local fishermen, until ‘all August’ by which time it was considered that enough fish would have been cured to fill a vessel of 80 to 90 tons. If all went well, this should be a very profitable enterprise, since cured ling fetched £17 to £20 per ton and outgoings were very small, compared for instance with those necessary for a slaving expedition. There was also money to be made exploiting government schemes to promote fishing by offering bounties for boats built for the trade and tax breaks on the salt needed to cure the fish. In order to ensure that Carter and Woodhouse would have enough money, William arranged a line of credit with the bankers William Hogg and Son in Glasgow, who were also able to oblige with other favours such as accepting bills and forwarding mail.

Once he had sent his associates off to the Shetland islands, William settled down to business, writing letter after letter to reduce any risks associated with this expedition. William was a prudent merchant who never liked to have 100% of anything, so his first task was to bring in men with money as partners and so reduce the commitments of Earle, Woodhouse and Carter. This did not prove too difficult as most people were optimistic about the prospects of the voyage. It was decided that the main market for the fish should be Barcelona (with Leghorn as a possible second choice) so he was pleased to acquire a partner familiar not just with Barcelona but also with the Shetland fishing industry. Joseph Crisp, a London merchant with a large share in a merchant house in Barcelona, agreed to become his main partner, taking 62 tons of the fish cargo and leaving 28 tons to William. He reduced his commitment further by disposing some of his own share to John Finch and John Joseph Bacon, two Manx merchants who were old friends.

..It was standard procedure for Liverpool merchants to ship in neutral ships with false papers and the choice fell on a Dutch brig, Susannah and Cordelia, commanded by Captain Berond de Boer. William sent to the Shetlands a charter-party with blanks for the fake foreign names for the shippers and consignees and detailed instructions on how to fill it all up. ‘This trip will determine our pursueing or dropping this trade ‘ he wrote to Carter and Woodhouse. ‘This is a great undertaking, I pray God it answers’

Everything went very well, at least at the Scottish end of the voyage. On 30 July he wrote to his ‘young men’ in a generally optimistic tone. ‘Since my last the weather has been very favourable, in hopes you will have a good summer to make your fish. I think there will be a great deal of money to be made from fish arriving before lent.’ News did not travel very fast from either the Shetlands or Barcelona, but early in September he was able to report to John Joseph Bacon on the Isle of Man that Captain de Boer had arrived in the Shetlands on 14th August. ’The fish was all bought and only waited a few good days (ie calm days for loading)’ And on 29 October he wrote to James Crisp in London informing him of the departure of Susannah and Cordelia on 16th September with a fine wind…and I hope you will soon hear an account of her arricval at Barcelona and a good market, 65 tons shipt for your account. As to the quality of the fish..the young man who shipt it says it is the best cargo he ever saw.

William arranged for Carter to sail with de Boer to Barcelona, where he was to spy out the market….

As is well known, Woodhouse went on to make his fortune by inventing and popularising Marsala wine after being blown into Marsala port on his way to collect a completely different cargo in 1773. This is so close to the date that he started the herring industry at Isle Martin, one wonders how he managed to do both. it does seem that it was the wine, not the fish, that ultimately made the Woodhouse family fortunes


David Loch 1778: Letters concerning the trade and manufactures of Scotland

This is the earliest first hand account of herring curing on Isle Martin, written only a couple of years after Woodhouse started the enterprise.

On Friday the 8th at 4am I arrived at Isle Martin, a branch of the large Loch Broom, called loch Kennet; a place of considerable trade in the fishing branch; in the prosecution of which, most of the people who have fitted out busses on the bounty have made rich. Here is an  extensive, convenient, and well contrived red-herring house, in which 1000 barrels can be dried at one time. The proprietors cure and redden in the same way as they do at Yarmouth and Dunbar; for the particulars of which I refer my readers to page 21. No less than 12000 barrels, for many years past, have been annually cured here at a medium, each of which contains from 500 to 800 herrings, of five score to the hundred, according to their size. The common received opinion, that fat herrings will not keep when reddened, is reprobated and disregarded by this company, who find, by experience, that they are reddened with as much safety, and have a much finer flavour than the poor herrings which haunt the coast of Yarmouth. As I am ever open to conviction,  I cuased some to be broiled for dinner; and I declare I never tasted any that pleased my palate so well. An epicure, fond of this dish, would think it no trouble to take a journey of fifty or a hundred miles to eat red herrings cured at this place.

The principal adventurers in this trade are Messrs Woodhouse and Mr Henry Holmes. The residence of this last mentioned gentleman is at Liverpool, to which place the trade here is principally carried on, and whither he returns after residing here six months during the fishing season.

Archibald Macaulay, a cooper, bred under the direction of the Trustees, by Robert Crocket, cooper in Leith, and John Greig, cooper in the Dean, near Edinburgh, with his father, who lives in the neighbourhood, have the sole direction or management of the business. The most of their casks are made of birch and fir, that come from Norway; but as the adventurers have liberty from the Honourable Commissioners of the annexed estates to cut down such timber on the estate of Cromarty, now called Town-side (on part of which this little sea port stands), as, suiting their conveniency, they may stand in need of; and there being some birch of an excellent kind, a part of their casks are made of it, which, in fact, are as good as any I ever saw. The quantity of herrings contained in each cask is marked at the top, as at Dunbar. They likewise number them so as to know, at a distant period, the first-caught herrings, and to distinguish those of the second take, they put a P. upon, which they call plucks; -and those which drop when drying from the spits, they hang on iron hooks, and, as a discriminating mark, put Tt. on each cask, calling them tenters.

Most of the oak billets that are used here for drying the herrings, are sent here by Mr woodhouse in the ships from Liverpool, which come hither­­­ only in ballast. This not only helps waste freight, but as this small timber is the refuse of ship-builders yards, it is purchased at a trifling expense. The herrings, when properly cured, are shipped from this place to London, Hull, Liverpool and indeed to most of the ports in Great Britain, as well as the Mediterranean and all parts of |Europe. This trade, as I have already observed, is of the most beneficial kind, while, at the same time, there is no fear of overstocking the markets. There are often in this and the neighbouring lochs from two to three hundred sail of fishing vessels which might, with equal probability of success, be increased to as many thousands…..

Having now got all the information i could at this place, I cleared one side of our sloop and procured a few red herrings ( a barrel of which contains about 500 or 600) far preferable, in my opinion, to those caught and cured at Yarmouth, leostoff or anywhere else. I made sail, wind SW. Met Lord Seaforth and his little fleet

John Knox: ‘ Tour through the Highlands of Scotland’ 1787

Knox travelled around the coast of Scotland investigating the present state of fisheries and their potential for development. His report was influential in establishing the fishing villages such as Ullapool. When he visited Isle Martin in 1786, the herring station had been in operation for about ten years.

We sailed immediately from Ulapule to Loch Kennard at the main entrance to Loch Broom, a commodious bay where Mr Woodhouse of Liverpool has expended 5000l in erecting a set of buildings for curing red herrings. Notwithstanding the money he had laid out, the number of people whom he daily employed, and the high price of 5s 6d given to the fishers for every loose barrel of herrings, he had been so harassed in his business, by the collector of the custom house at Ulapule, respecting salt, that after remonstrating in vain to the commissioners of the customs at Edinburgh, he resolved to relinquish that trade and withdraw his capital. He accordingly advertised his buildings for sale, upon which, it is said, the commissioners thought proper to dismiss the collector, which gave universal satisfaction, and particularly to Mr Woodhouse, who, on this news, withdrew his advertisements; and he now carries on a business that is likely to prove very beneficial to himself, and still more so to toe fishers and labourers on the coast.

I was gratified by Mr Woodyer, his manager, with a sight of these works who obligingly and without reserve gave me an account of the whole process of drying the fish, with the prices and the markets where they were sold….

Unfortunately, Knox fails to record these details in his published account. He writes in more detail on the similar herring stations on Tanera Mor and at Lochinver

John Imack 1785 – 1864

John Imack is a bit of a mystery, as his surname appears to be effectively unique in the north of Scotland, although he was supposedly born in Elgin.

John Imack  mentioned in the Inverness Courrier

There are no other Imacks in the census returns from 1841 onwards, suggesting that he had no brothers, male cousins or more distant relatives. He seems to have not married or had any (legitimate) children. It’s been suggested that he was using an alias, but it would have been strange to choose a name that stood out, rather than becoming a Mackenzie or a Ross.

He must have arrived on Isle Martin around 1810, at the age of 25, and is described as a cooper and fish curer, skills he presumably didn’t learn in landlocked Elgin. He had the job of manager of the fish curing station for 54 years, long after the enterprise had pretty much folded. Instead of leaving the island, he stayed on as caretaker and crofter, presumably devoting his energy to gardening, as the article in the Inverness Courier of 1855 indicates:

John Stewart
Photograph taken following the end of World War II, circa late 1940s 

This is John Stewart, born on Isle Martin in 1878. When he was only 21 he was fished, unconscious, out of the sea after his fishing boat capsized in a squall. The other two fishermen, both from the island, drowned. He was rescued by his mother, Kate Stewart who rowed out in the gale with two other Isle Martin women. The following account of his later life was written by his granddaughter Jacquelin Wright.


John Stewart

John (affectionately referred to by the family as Johnny Buidhe) was the third child of Murdoch Stewart, fisherman, and Catherine Stewart (nee Macdonald).  He was born at Isle Martin, Lochbroom, on 5 August 1876.   We are unsure how old John was when he left Isle Martin.  We do know he was the sole survivor of a sea tragedy, off Isle Martin on 17 September 1897, which claimed the lives of Murdo Stewart and Finlay MacRae.  John was working as a fisherman with Murdo and Finlay when this tragedy occurred.  His mother was one of three women who rescued him.  At the time of his wedding in 1919 he was working for Claymore Mercantile Marine as an able bodied seaman.

John Stewart (able bodied seaman) was married to Ann Ross (domestic servant) on 19 March 1919 by Rev George Blair in the United Free Church of Scotland, Strathallan, Glasgow Road, Uddingston, Glasgow.  The witnesses to the marriage were Kenneth Stewart (John’s youngest brother) and Mary Jackson (friend of Ann).

Ann (Annie) Ross was one of seven children born to Peter and Mary (nee Campbell) Ross.  She was born at 12 Braes of Ullapool on 1 August 1887.  When Ann finished her education she initially worked as a ‘fishwife’, preparing fish for sale.  She then moved to Glasgow where she worked as a kitchen hand in a large household.

In 1920 John and Annie returned to Isle Martin for the birth, on 11 October, of their first born and only son Murdo.

Sometime during 1921 John, Annie and Murdo emigrated from Scotland to the Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand.   They came to the Wairarapa to join John’s sister, Katie who with husband Alex Stewart, lived in Featherston.  They had immigrated here following the end of World War I.  Alex worked as a railway track maintenance man.

Once the family was settled in a cottage on Andersons Line, Carterton, John returned to the sea working for various coastal shipping lines that included the New Zealand Steamship Company and the Holm Shipping Company.  On 30 November 1922 their second child, a daughter they called Mary, was born at Featherston.  While John was absent at sea Annie sometimes worked as a cook on a remote farm called Clay Creek Station located at Ruakokoputuna, outside of Martinborough.  Clay Creek Station was owned by the McLeod family, also immigrants from Scotland and relatives of the Stewart family.

By 1925 the family had moved to Dunedin, known in New Zealand as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’,  and purchased a home at 8 Chester Street, North East Valley, which was to be their only family home.  The move to Dunedin had been prompted by the fact that Otago Harbour was ‘safe’ and there were two ports within the harbour; one at Port Chalmers and one in Dunedin itself.  On 5 July 1925, while John was at sea, their third child, Catherine, was born at home.  Catherine became unwell as a newborn and sadly died on

6 August 1925 before John was able to return home.  Their fourth child, Katie was born at home on

22 December 1926 and their fifth child, Patricia, was born in the maternity annex of the Dunedin Hospital on 22 January 1932.

John continued to serve on various coastal vessels well into his 70s.   Ann worked as a chef at one of Dunedin’s classy restaurants, the Savoy.  While still living at 8 Chester Street, Ann died on 28 May 1955 after a short illness.  John died in Dunedin on 27 July 1960 at age 84.