The history of the Highlands is intertwined with the fishing industry. For communities all around the coast fishing was essential to their very existence and towns and villages sprang up or died depending on the vagaries of the catch or the market. Today the industry only employs a fraction of the numbers it did in the 19th century and although still in decline is still very important to a number of communities. All along the coastline are reminders of this maritime heritage, some are deserted relics of the past, some have been repurposed for a post-industrial age but all tell a poignant story of a traditional way of life largely gone forever.
At one point in the 1850s Lybster harbour was the 3rd busiest in Scotland, amazing when you consider how quiet and peaceful the village feels today. Its prosperity is evidenced by the beautiful old buildings and wide main street that would not look out of place in a major city instead of a small village in the far north of Scotland. The harbour itself is now largely quiet but it is the location of an impressive new visitor centre and café. Waterlines tells the story of the town from its Viking origins to the present day and how the area has survived from its peak of 1500 herring fisherman to the situation now where only a handful of small boats go out for crab and lobster. If you time your visit right you may be able to buy some directly from the fishermen themselves. Hill House is an easy walk from here and is a great family friendly holiday home with loads of space for kids and a dog.
Just a 10 minute drive from here will take you to Whaligoe steps, one of the most unusual harbours in the country and a great day out. 365 man-made steps will take you down to a tiny flat grassy area called the bink which is flanked on three sides by steep imposing cliffs. The rusting remains of an industry that was once the only option for employment are a reminder of just how hard life could be for subsistence fishermen, many of whom were originally displaced by the Highland Clearances further inland.
The unassuming harbour at Port of Ness has long ceased to be an important fishing port but there are two big reasons however why it is worth a visit, one ancient, one more modern. It is from this harbour that for hundreds of years men from the surrounding area have departed for the island of Sula Sgeir to hunt guga. The guga or baby gannet is much sought after in Lewis and once a year a squad of men maroon themselves on the tiniest of islands for two weeks to gather enough for the whole community. On their return it is not unusual to see people excitedly waiting at the harbour, eager to get their hands on this fishy delicacy. The boat shed at the harbour is also the location for a pivotal scene in Peter Mays first book set on the islands The Black House. Although the book is fictional almost all the places and traditions mentioned in it are very much real. Taigh Eilidh is a luxurious modern property and quite a contrast to a traditional black house. It sits on a rise overlooking the harbour and would make a snug place to get stuck into all the Peter May books if you haven’t already, or cook up a guga if you are brave enough. Be warned, it is a bit of an acquired taste.
Despite being on the coast Hopeman was not established originally as fishing village. It was planned in the early 1800s to house stonemasons working the nearby quarries. To help transport the rock a harbour was built and this in turn prompted the start of the fishing industry which at one point could number 120 boats. With the silting of the harbour in the 1980s most commercial operations moved to nearby Lossiemouth leaving the harbour to pleasure boats and the Gordonstoun seamanship department. Without the hustle and bustle of a busy sea port the village feels like more of a seaside resort, especially with its impressive row of multi coloured beach huts sitting above its sandy shores and its numerous opportunities for water sports. It has a quiet, friendly laid back atmosphere and dolphins are often spotted playing out past the harbour. Cullen skink originates just down the coast from here. In contrast to guga it is a much more accessible taste of the sea. Prepare your own at The Lookout and sit outside looking over the ocean as you tuck in to this most hearty of Scottish classics. Although the fortunes of the industry have waned over the years the age old pleasure of tucking into fresh seafood on holiday is something that will never change.