Ian Stephen

Ian Stephen

Salmon Netters – Balmedie

After the painting Salmon-netters, Balmedie, by Donald Smith

We saw everything change, in a few herring-seasons. There is documentation. The shapes of the purse-seiners are caught accurately in the draughtsmanship which lies behind the layers in Donald Smith’s paintings of the late 1970s. The ‘pursers’ are all deep in the belly. Human figures are more like toys, as they stretch gear out for repair. I don’t think the artist was making any overt comment but simply translating the energy of people at work into the mediums of line, shape and colour. Donald was my mother’s brother. Their father, Murchadh (or Murdo) was a former fisherman turned road-labourer when the market for herring took a tumble. His artist son drew people on island and mainland. Many sketches, drawings and paintings would sit more easily in an international Modernist grouping than in a particular school of ‘British’ or ‘Scottish’ art. In his 1966 work ‘Gannet over Ness’, you can detect hessian and something with the texture of flaking bitumen. The artist from a crofting community on the Atlantic coast of Lewis has dived, like the central gannet, deep below the surface then returned to build up his own layers in response.

Development of the North Sea oil industry overlapped the jagged ups and downs of pelagic trade. Many Hebridean men went to the mainland as welders or scaffolders. They became the migrant workers, berthed in caravans at Nigg or Ardersier or they became ‘Kishorn commandoes’. This was the construction phase of the North Sea oil and gas industry. An exodus for work was nothing new. Many Island men of my parents’ generation had joined the ships of Salvesen of Leith to earn money at the last throes of British commercial whaling in the Antarctic. Many more went ‘deep sea’ in the Merchant Navy. And there were wars.

Island women went to nursing or posts ‘in service’ whether in the big houses or in hotels. Back in the 1930s, Mary Macleod, the woman who was to become the mother of Donald Trump was one of them. Her background in the Broad Bay village of Tong is electronically airbrushed now. Trump was filmed as he posed for a matter of seconds at the threshold of the ‘family house’, a photo-opportunity stopover on his way to his mainland golf-course interests. Of course, the serviceable contemporary home stands on a croft with layers of previous builds. Trump’s fisherman grandfather would likely have been only one shareholder of a small, open vessel, a way of life dependent on co-operation. There was not much romance in a winter fishing from exposed shores. A memorial, along the bay at Brèibhig pier, documents the huge number of those lost at sea. North Lewis was far from unique in that.

Mary Macleod was an economic migrant like so many before and after her. Trump has never shown real interest, and far less understanding of that background. In February 2024 he referred to the languages which might well include his mother’s native Gaelic :

“We have languages coming into our country … they have languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of. It’s a horrible thing.”

Donald Smith’s sketches and paintings always have signs of the human on land or sea. He studied ways of living, west coast or east. A body of work sheds light on the area of Scotland where we can see the effect of Trump power on individual lives and on the natural environment. Salmon-netters, Balmedie, groups sea-booted members of the Forbes family on a trailer. A free and open shore walk north of Aberdeen, Balmedie was among the last of the family-run salmon netting stations. The Forbes worked in an intimate and sustainable scale until industrial fishing wiped out most of the migrating salmon populations.

Decades later, the Trump Corporation would set out to ‘fix’ the fluidity of the Balmedie wetlands. That character is of course what made it such a rich habitat. The argument was always that you cannot afford turn down jobs for the sake of your children’s children. Six thousand of them, said the application, counting out an imagined web of tourist and leisure facilities. Alex Salmond was amongst those who bought into the myth. Local residents like the Forbes family did not. Though the application was rejected in 2007 by Aberdeenshire Council, it was called in by the Scottish Government, which approved the project in 2008. Environmental restrictions were overturned and the bulldozers arrived.  

In his documentary film, You’ve Been Trumped, Anthony Baxter speaks of the fear of filming in countries like Afghanistan, but being able to keep his film. In Scotland, police sided with the landowner, seized his camera and threw him into their vehicle. Baxter’s 2020 film, You’ve Been Trumped Too, became a David and Goliath tale as Michael Forbes travels to the States to tell Trump supporters that they could learn from the Scottish experience. His dry east-coast wit and that of his mother Molly, contrast with Trump’s blunt, limited range. BBC 2 showed the first film despite the best efforts of Trump’s legal teams. Sadly, the might of money and bought-media restricted distribution, but at least the films are freely available on Youtube. The Trump Corporation might have their fairy-tale towers with their gold-plated taps but they claimed they were unable to fix the water supply of a 90 year old resident who did not want to sell her ground. The films catch the wry humour of those who Trump says ‘live like a pig’. Baxter sets that, often on a split screen, against the posturing of the bully. Local Hero director Bill Forsyth gave his blessing to use clips suggesting the parallel between Burt Lancaster’s character proposing an unwanted oil refinery. The difference is of course that Forsyth’s film shows an individual who can listen and respond.

Back on Lewis, the pace of change is fast too. Stornoway now allots very little space to fishing vessels. A second marina has been constructed by Goat Island causeway. The old slip was another haunt of my uncle, sketching the perpetual maintenance of working vessels. Expansion of Stornoway harbour could help supply renewable power generation, but the past still lingers. In 2019 the diggers went in to excavate behind the listed harbour building, Amity House. Archaeologists found extant stone walls from a Cromwellian Fort. Oliver’s new republic had sought to suppress the Hebrideans as well as the Irish. Maybe our island lives were never free from the influence of political agendas.

A walk round the harbour suggests that people still discuss the state of the planet within a breath or two of swapping yarns. Stories go with net-mending. Maybe a story, proven over time, is more constant than a trade-deal, a boundary, even a democracy, though narratives of shape-shifting seem no more weird than recent world events. In the UK, a former Prime Minister attempted to close down the elected parliament which was ‘obstructing’ him. Thwarted by an elderly heroine wearing a brooch in the form of a spider, the image could be from a fable. On both sides of the Atlantic, assaults on democracy alternate with blocking and reversal of measures to slow climate-change. 

Biden’s administration has won some ground back, but unless the slow process of law, or the ballot boxes can stop the return of Trump, the planet faces accelerating chaos. We need better stories, counter-narratives like those of the Forbes family who cannot be bought. Now I’m thinking back to a richer Balmedie, before it was ‘fixed’. ‘Developments’ don’t always make things better. 

Cover Photo:  Donald Smith, ‘The Paintings of an Islander’, Acair, Stornoway, 2019

Ian Stephen
Ian Stephen

Ian Stephen was born on Lewis where he still lives. For many years he has combined the exploration of stories with travels, land and sea. His books include, A Book of Death and Fish, published by Saraband, Waypoints: Voyages and Tales Retold, published by Bloomsbury and Boatlines: A Geography of Scottish Boats, published by Birlinn. His most recent poems have appeared in The Rialto, Stand, Magma and The Cafe Review.