By The Mearns Rover
I am sure all residents of, and visitors to, Stonehaven develop a strong relationship with the town’s main landmark – the harbour.
Stoney harbour is the largest of all the recreational harbours in Aberdeenshire; its three basins cover more than 18,000 square metres, and there’s plenty of room for more than 100 boats. Whatever the weather, it is beautiful to behold. On a clear day, there are few things better in this world than standing at the harbour wall and gazing out to infinity between the 3 knots sign and the familiar silhouette of Downie Point. Breathe in the view, taste the air and feel happy to be alive!
I have always thought that walking down the High Street towards the harbour is like popping a cork out of a bottle of Prosecco. You feel a bit of pressure as you get to the claustrophobic end of the road; it can be a bit dark and gloomy as the buildings on either side impose on you. But then you pop out into the sweet, wide-open, joyous vista of the magnificent harbour. Depending on the weather, you can step from shade into sunshine, or from stillness into a surprisingly strong gust of wind that blows your hat off or gives you crazy hair, as your senses are all at once overloaded by your cool rustic surroundings.
I have noticed that many villages and towns with harbours have this characteristic. For example, there are many similar Stonehaven-style harbour towns in Cornwall. One minute you’re going along huddled between imposing buildings high on either side, and the next you step into the wide open space of the harbour, struck by both a grand sight before you, and usually a strong gust of wind.
Once you have spent any time with Stonehaven harbour, it begins to burn a big horseshoe-shaped mark on your heart.
The harbour as a kid
I spent all my formative years in Stoney, so the memories of my early years, adolescence and early adulthood are deeply intertwined with reflections of the harbour.
Long summer evenings were spent playing down on the sand around the slipway next to the harbour entrance with my pals, while my folks had a beer and G&T at the harbour bars. In fading light I remember the heady mix of cheese and onion crisps and spicy ginger beer at the wall outside the Ship and the Marine. My older brother once caused some major family drama by biting a huge chunk out of his tongue. He’d been jumping off the harbour wall onto the sand near the slipway but on one occasion he didn’t jump far enough and came down on the bottom of the sloped wall instead of the sand. He’d obviously been poking his tongue out with the effort and managed to take a bite out of it, causing lots of gore and a lot of shrieking from girls (and some boys) nearby.
My mum volunteered on the Ladies Lifeboat Guild, so a big annual event for us was the Lifeboat Gala at the harbour. The burgers were great, you could get a ride on the Lifeboat that came down from Aberdeen or up from Montrose, and you could try and fail to win a prize in the near impossible challenge of “catch the rat”.
It’s gone now, but if you came into the harbour from the High Street, took a right past the Ship and Marine and kept going towards where the Yacht Club is now, you would have passed a small garden / rockery display of a lighthouse, and maybe a windmill, on your right hand side after some of the buildings. This was in the 80s, long before the advent of novelty fibreoptics that you see in some Christmas trees nowadays. But I remember the wee lighthouse (was it red and white?) light used to gradually cycle from red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, back to red again. It mesmerised me and I could stand at gaze at it for literally minutes at a time, or however long my attention-deficit eight-year-old focus would hold for. I loved that little rockery garden thing!
Back in the 80s the shed at the south end of the harbour, under the Bervie Braes, was owned by the Lifeboat and not the Sea Cadets as it is today. Every now and again I was able get a look inside this place, where our brave little rubber outboard lifeboat proudly sat. The boat back then was much smaller than the one we have today, which you get to see now and again being lowered down the slipway by that cool, snow-cat style tractor. In the old shed I remember the unique smell of sea salt and rubber, something I’ve never smelled before or since – it was quite intoxicating. I used to play with the loud-hailer, which was presumably used to shout life-saving instructions to unfortunate sea-goers who had found themselves in a tricky spot.
I haven’t walked in the front door of Mackie Academy for many years. But there used to be a large mural there, next to the assembly hall, of a view of the harbour from some obscure vantage point on the Bervie Braes (is it still there?). The viewpoint seemed to be from inside a room that had been carved out of the Brae. There were academic instruments lying around on the tiled or concrete floor and a wonderful view of the sweet harbour. I really liked this picture and I used to climb above the lifeboat shed in search of this fictional, magical room in the braes! It won’t surprise you to learn I never managed to find the bloody thing.
Fishing for poddlies
One of the main things I liked about the harbour was going fishing.
At low tide my dad and I used to go down onto the sand at the end harbour (Yacht Club end) with a grape and a bucket to dig up lugworms, which we would use as bait. You knew that these thick, juicy deep-brown worms were in the sand when you saw little coils of sand poo on the wet surface. You’d stick the grape in the sand below and with a bit of scrabbling around, you would find the big shiny worm.
Occasionally we would dig up a ragworm, which was a different proposition altogether. These things looked terrifying, like large, red centipedes with two fearsome jaws at the mouth end. They were fast moving too and reminded me of those dancing Chinese New Year dragons you see with the big scary head. Their aggression matched their looks, and I lost count of the times I was bitten by one.
Anyway, the fish went crazy for both lugworms and ragworms. If you had these as bait, you were almost guaranteed a decent catch that day. If you couldn’t get the worms, a second-rate kind of bait were limpets that you could knock off the rocks at low tide. If you looked at their underside they have a large light brown sucker. The method of getting the best bit out of them is murderous, gruesome and brutal, so if you are of a squeamish disposition, please don’t read the next paragraph.
If you pressed your thumb into the limpet’s soft, light brown stomach its head would appear from behind the sucker. It always reminded me of a Highland Cow’s head, with horns and all. Press harder on the poor thing’s stomach and the head would pop out further. Then press as hard as you could in your murderous endeavour and a black, jelly-like substance would squirt out of its head, which was the best bit of bait. I hope no one is eating their dinner while reading this.
These were the morsels I used for fishing off the end of the pier with my dad, or with my friends. In the summer, on Thursday evenings, there used to be (council?) organised “poddlie competitions” where us young contestants would compete to catch as many of the small silvery green fish as possible in the space of an hour. I think I won it once, with an impressive haul of about a dozen “geeks”. For my efforts I received something like a swingball set, and I was as proud as punch!
One of my grandas died when I was 10. I’m well into my 40s now so I don’t have too many memories of him. But I have a vivid picture of him at Stoney harbour. He was a fisherman by trade and one day took (maybe seven-year-old) me down to the harbour to go fishing off the end of the pier. I was equipped with my orange and red, fairly short, prize-winning fishing rod, of which I was immensely proud. And I was going to show granda how excellent I was at catching poddlies.
I was no good with hooks and weights, so I left all that to the wizened old expert. But he put so many weights on the line that my rod was bent to the limit, even before I put it in the water. I protested a bit, but he assured me it would be fine…
On my first cast I caught my hook in the seaweed. All this was too much for my rod, which decided to check out and … SNAP! As I whinged over the demise of my beloved rod in tears and bubbles of snot, there was my granda standing tall, laughing and laughing. Hilarious this was to him, while I howled and howled.
When I was a bit older, I was once fishing off the end of the middle pier. I was almost out of bait and I was down to using the non-appetising, “sucker” parts of the limpets. I was getting bored and had one last cast. As I reeled it in I happened to glance down and – I’m not joking you – there, sniffing at the end of my line was a massive cod … it must have been about a foot long! We stared at each other for a second and then the beast lazily turned around and swam back into the depths … it was the one that got away, and it fairly gave me my cheapies!
Beer at the harbour
As I grew up, Stoney pub crawls used to begin at the Marine, then the Ship and then to the pubs around the Market Square. However, quite often, we never made it there and ended up boozing the night away at the two harbour pubs. Hilarity would quite often break out and there are many occasions of steaming eejits racing out of the pub and jumping off one of the piers, or running down the slipway into the water. Sometimes, rugby club guys (what’s going on with them man?) would waddle, trousers around their ankles, with flaming pieces of toilet paper wedged between their bumcheeks into the sea to put the fire out. I never understood that particular fraternity! Another time one of my acquaintances decided in his wisdom to jump off the pier in darkness, but the tide was out and he got a free trip to Accident and Emergency for his troubles!
These are my abiding memories of Stonehaven harbour. I never tire of visiting it; I love the winter white horses smashing off the harbour wall; I love the crazy high tides in spring; and I love the hustle and bustle of locals and visitors in the summer, all jostling to soak up the atmosphere at one of Stonehaven’s greatest landmarks.