Here are excerpts from my memoir to go with James Collett’s excellent photo of a boat abandoned in Campbeltown Loch. To set the scene, I am 13 and am getting used to having a stepfather. An Irishman from Larne, Bill Moorhead had just married my mother, Chrissie Morrans. You might say that an abandoned boat in Campbeltown Loch helped to knit our relationship.
Quoted from “From Poverty to Poverty: A Scotsman Encounters Canada” by Ian Moore-Morrans, copyright © 2012. Friesen Press.
Life was still not rosy for Mother even with her “new found respectability” as Bill turned out to be quite lazy. He would work for a little while, then complain that his heart was bad, quit the job that he had, and then lie around doing nothing for months. Then when he did work, he very often got drunk and gave her a lot of verbal abuse. He never did give my brother or me any trouble, though. I guess he knew better. He was pretty smart when he wanted to be. Quite often, he would reminisce about old times in Larne when he and others would make illicit whisky (“poteen” or homebrew). “Poteen boys” he called them. Then he would show me a photograph of a small motor boat that he said he had built himself during his younger days in Larne. I was so fed up hearing all that he did, that I eventually let it go in one ear and out the other. It seemed to me that all Irishmen bragged a lot about nothing! I don’t mean to suggest that we were enemies, though; mainly just the opposite.
Bill taught me quite a few things, among them how to make netting needles that the local fishermen would buy to mend their nets and how to make the best catapult in town, one that was different from any I’ve ever seen, even today. (A catapult in Britain is called a slingshot in North America.) For all Bill’s faults, we got along very well. He certainly wasn’t dumb. He taught me things that I never would have learned if he hadn’t been around. I don’t know what my brother thought of him, for he never ever mentioned Bill to me either positively or negatively. (Actually, my brother never mentioned anything to me, period!) I think, perhaps Bill and Archie thought similarly of each other; and I don’t think it was complimentary either way.
Regarding the catapult, Bill explained details like making a small hole in the centre of the leather pouch that holds the stone to reduce drag by letting air through while the stone was shooting forward. He taught me to reduce the “Y,” leaving just a stub on the bottom leg and cradling the other two legs with the thumb and forefinger. The securing system of joining the rubber to the leather was very elaborate, quite unusual with all the loops of leather that he used. It was actually quite easy to hit a tin can about ten meters (30 feet) away—impossible with the ones my friends and I had made previously. Best of all, Bill emphasized one very good rule: never shoot at any living thing!
One day while I was playing with my friends I heard, “Ian, will you come with me, please? I need your help.” Bill had never said this before, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out that he had found a small row boat washed up on the shore just outside town. The stern was all smashed away, and I mean totally gone. I think it would have been classified as “flotsam.” It was perfectly legal for Bill to take it. Wreckage found on the shore was considered “finders keepers.”
“Help me to carry it to O’Hara’s yard and I’ll fix it up; then we can go fishing.”
“Sure, Bill,” I replied although my thoughts were, ‘How the heck can ye fix this when the whole back end is missing?’
But, boy, did he ever fix it! You would never have known that it had been damaged, except for a little different shade where the new wood appeared. The boat was classified as “clinker-built” (overlapping boards). I never did watch him work on it and I’ve often regretted it. I thought he was just doing his usual bragging. I couldn’t believe it was the same little boat when he asked me to help him take it to the water. He had also managed, (how, I don’t know) to have two oars and two row locks (oar locks) and “hand-lines” so that we could use the boat right away, plus a rope to tie it up when we weren’t using it.
Use it we did! We were never short of fish after that. It was only Bill and I who went fishing; my brother always said “no”, although he would certainly eat his share. We would go out in the evening, usually around seven or eight p.m., spend an hour or two at the most, and return home with cod, mackerel, or flounder. There was plenty of fish. In less than an hour, we usually had enough fish to last us a couple of days, plus some for Bill to sell.
Just after the onset of the war, the Admiralty had commandeered an enormous “yacht” (not a sailing boat) that belonged to Lord and Lady Docker. It was renamed the “HMS Shamara” and had its own permanent berth at the old quay. This ship would go out every night around eight p.m. and return early the next morning. Nobody knew what she did. Whenever we were going fishing, either Bill or I would check whether she was still tied up, or if she had left the pier. When she was tied up, we fished close to the shore, just west of the small warning beacon, to get us well away from her wash as she passed on her way out. When she was out we fished nearer to the middle of the opening as there were more fish there. (The opening was only about a thousand feet or 330 m. wide.)
One night, however, neither of us had remembered to check. We were right in the middle of the opening to Campbeltown Loch, between the island and the north shore, getting ready to put our fishing lines in the water when Bill asked me if the Shamara was out. I told Bill that I wasn’t sure, but that I thought she was out. Big mistake! It was almost dark and we had our lines in the water when suddenly we heard the “swoosh…swoosh” of Shamara’s bows breaking the water. In the late twilight, just before darkness fell, we could just make out the massive bow of this big ship heading straight for us. I grabbed the oars and rowed like mad, hoping I was rowing in the right direction. Bill started to shout, “Ahoy, Shamara; ahoy, Shamara” at the top of his lungs. I can still see the dark outline of the ship coming straight for us. She was showing no lights whatsoever (and this was peacetime—after the war!). I continued to row like mad, and all the time Bill was shouting his head off. (Bear in mind that this ship was just slightly smaller than a frigate!)
Bill shouted to me, “Get low in the boat, Ian, as low as you can and hold on to the sides.” He did the same. She missed us by no more than 40 or 50 feet (ca. 16 m.)! We bobbed up and down like a cork, oars in, as we clung for dear life to the edges of the little row boat. (There weren’t any rules about life jackets at that time, and we wouldn’t have been able to afford them anyway!) Bill knew to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible to help prevent capsizing; that was why he told me to get as low in the boat as possible. After that incident we made double sure that we checked if that ship was at her berth before we left to go fishing!
We’ve all heard “big fish stories” at one time or another. Well, here’s another to add to the list. It was always Bill’s policy to ask my mother if she wanted to go fishing with us and she always said, “No thanks; you two go and catch fish and that will please me just fine.” At least, she almost always did. One evening when Bill asked her, she just about floored both of us by saying, “Aye, okay, Ah’ll go oot wi’ ye.”
We were at our usual spot between the island and the mainland (yes, the Shamara was already out!), our lines were in the water and Bill had shown Mother what she was supposed to do.
“Go down until the sinker touches bottom, Chrissie; then lift it just off, and then touch it down again ever so lightly so that the hooks are a few inches above the sand. That is where the cod are.” (Cod are “bottom-feeders.”).
Both Bill and I had landed a few fish and Bill was teasing Mother about coming fishing with us, asking when she was going to catch one. Suddenly she cried, “Ah think Ah’ve got one; will ye help me?”
“When yer pulling like that, Chrissie,” Bill laughed, “and nothing is happening, it means that yer caught on the bottom.” (Remember too, that she was a really little lady!)
“Well, if Ah’m caught on the bottom, maybe you’ll fix it for me.”
“Okay, I’ll loosen it for ye and I’ll show ye what t’ do so that you’ll know how to do it in future …. Hey Ian, I think she’s really got somethin’ here, look at the line, it’s going all over the place now …. Hey, wow! It must be a dandy …. C’mon over here and give me a hand.”
Well, I did go to help, and it took both of us to pull in this great big cod! (Keep in mind, we didn’t have rods; we used hand-lines and had to haul the dark, rough twine in with our bare hands.) We didn’t have a means of measuring the fish; in fact, no one ever thought of doing that in those days. The only indication we had was that the commercial “fish box” we always put our catch in was about 26 inches (65 cm.) long. (Every fish we had caught before always had fit inside the box.) As “Chrissie’s fish” was a full head and tail over the ends, it probably measured about 33 inches (84 cm.) or more long. That was some fish!
Of course, this episode totally spoiled our “fish stories” from then on. Any time we were going over the evening’s catch, we would hear a little voice in the background saying something like, “Do ye remember the fish that Ah caught, you two?” That was the one and only time that she ever came fishing with us! (Yes, Chrissie, God bless your heart; you’re dead and gone now but I well remember the fish you caught!)
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