Fishing pre-1890 style
"The Tolstonians did not fish out of Giordail before 1890. They fished out of Garry. Men from Point fished out of Giordail and Port nam Bothag. There is a place over from the pier called Port mhic Chailein Thorcuill, after a man from Knock, Point and the bothies there were occupied by the men from Point.
“I have heard that Alick Campbell’s boat (Alasdair Breabadair), while rowing along the shore from Cellar Head struck a submerged rock. She filled with water and sank to a depth of 5 feet. The crew were standing on the thwarts up to their necks in the water while the skipper was standing on the steering thwart with the water up to his chin. The sea was dead calm at the time. One of the crew, Iain Chaillein, put off his boots and swam to the foot of the rocks at Dun Othail. The points of his fingers were all cut to shreds before he got a proper hold but he managed to scale the cliff.
“When he reached the summit at Dun Othail he gave a shout and the last crew leaving Garry for home heard him. They understood immediately that there was something wrong.
“They started to launch their boat but before they were afloat Iain Chailein was on the beach. He told what had happened. They rowed for all they were worth and found the boat drifting down to the Tobha Head. They could see nothing of the men but their heads above the water. When they rescued them they made them row back to Garry in order to get some warmth into their bodies. The boat of course was lost.
“It was not the life at sea that was the killer in fishing out of Tolsta, but the launching and the hauling of the boats. The boat was launched into the sea and ballasted with about one ton of sand and as much of stone, with great lines, the mast and sail and herring nets and small lines. If they did not get enough herring for bait for the great lines they would shoot the small lines for haddock bait.
"From the latter end of March until May they used to drift all night, look at the net at midnight, take out of them as much as would bait the small lines. When they were baited we would make tea for we carried a cast iron pot with fire and a bag of peats. We always managed to keep the fire going whatever the weather was like. After hauling in the nets the small lines were shot. When they were pulled in, the catch, haddocks or any other fish caught was cut for bait so that we could have mixed bait for the great lines. When they were shot we made for the land, discharged the ballast beyond the breakers, beached her and hauled her up past the high water mark till the following morning at 3am or so when we were underway again.
“Launching the boats in heavy surf was a hard task. It was difficult to keep her straight to the surf (at right angles) for if she went broadside it was no easy matter to straighten her again besides being up to ones neck in water. Jumping into the boat after she was afloat was a tricky job with the boat high above one, that one could only reach her gunwale with the tips of one's fingers.
“It was no easy task to be out in an open boat for the most of two days.
"Yours faithfully, Torquil”
The above is part of a letter written by Torquil Macdonald in 1956, which gives us an insight into fishing in Tolsta in the nineteenth century.
Torquil Macdonald was a bugler in the Gordon’s Militia at the age of 14. He was interned in Holland in 1914 with the Royal Naval Division, having been captured during the retreat from Antwerp. He passed his Skipper’s Ticket in Holland (Groningen) and was a fishing skipper for the rest of his life. He is best remembered as the skipper of the ‘Sea Scout’.
Torquil Macdonald (Torcuil Iain Bhig mhic Murchaidh. mhic Iain Bhuidhe) was born at 13B Tolsta in 1882. His mother was Christina Campbell (nighean Aonghais Ruaidh), a sister of Murdo Campbell,no.13 (Stashy). He had a sister Annie who was married in Fort William to D.J.Munro.
After the death of Torquil’s mother his father, John Macdonald, remarried Mary Graham, no.9 (nighean Aonghais Mhor), who had a daughter (Mairead Aonghais Mhor) and they moved to 9B Tolsta and later to 9 New Tolsta. From his second marriage John Macdonald had two children Murdo, who was killed in the First World War aged 21 and Christina (Lal) who was the mother of the late Murdo and John Macdonald, 9 New Tolsta.
Torquil was married to Margaret Graham, no.9 (Mairead Aonghais Mhor), but they had no family and after their death the croft passed to their step sister Christina.
The Brother’s Delight was an example of the type of boat Torquil describes in his letter, but in 1926 fishing had moved to Cladach Ghiordail instead of Garry.
Angie Crockett writes from his home in Auchtermuchty in Fife, "When the boats were out fishing we would go to the cladach to meet grandfather’s boat the ‘Brother’s Delight’. Then there would be sharing of the catch, with always a share for someone in need. The women would carry the fish home in their creels, up that almost perpendicular brick red path, winding through weird shaped olive green hillocks.
"Calum and I used to spend most of our summer holidays in Tolsta, although I think I spent more time there than he did. In fact I remember one particular day when the two of us together with our cousin Alex set off for a walk in the Castle Grounds, but decided to walk to Tolsta instead. When we did not come home as we should have, parents, neighbours and even police were out searching for us.
"Eventually we did get to Tolsta and Chromartaidh got Neil the Post Office to phone the Stornoway Police to say that we were safe. The Post Office was the only phone in the village at that time. Domhnall Geal was my pal in Tolsta and I remember going out to the glen with him in Aoghnais an Saighdear’s donkey cart. I don’t know if there were any other donkeys in Lewis, but I certainly hadn’t seen one before!’"