To say that fishing is important to the story of Scotland is an understatement, a little like saying that snow is important to the story of the Eskimos. Ours is a country with a land area of a little over 30,000 square miles, but a coast so complex that it's length has been measured at anything between 6,000 and 10,000 miles, depending on the scale of the map you measure it on. And it is a country with 790 islands, of which around 10% are still populated and many more used to be.
Nowhere in Scotland is more than two day's walk from the sea, and many areas can be defined in terms of their fishing heritage. Shetland was where fishermen also farmed; Orkney was where farmers also fished. And at the other end of the country, Galloway remains home to many small harbours from which fishermen venture forth to catch fish, and to risk, and sometimes lose, their lives.
Between these extremes, whole swathes of Scotland have a look and feel dictated by their fishing villages and towns. The north coast of Aberdeenshire is home to a series of similar and very attractive settlements, though fishing activity is now largely focussed on the larger towns. Across the whole of the vast western seaboard of Scotland, including many of its islands, you are likely to find small fishing vessels moored in every safe anchorage: plus larger settlements that developed around fishing like Kinlochbervie, Lochinver and Ullapool in the north west, or Mallaig, Tobermory and Loch Fyne's Tarbert further south.
Amongst the prettiest and most atmospheric of Scotland's fishing communities are the series of villages that line the southern shore of the East Neuk of Fife. The largest of these is Anstruther, and it is appropriate that this should be the home of the Scottish Fisheries Museum. In an era in which fishing quotas have seen a dramatic decline in the size of Scotland's fishing fleets, it is more than ever vital that we do not lose sight of the role fishing played in shaping this nation. So as the importance of fishing in Scotland continues to decline, the importance of the Scottish Fisheries Museum steadily grows.
The Scottish Fisheries Museum occupies a warren of buildings towards the east end of Anstruther's harbourside. It first opened its doors in July 1969. Since then it has steadily grown in size by acquiring and expanding into neighbouring properties. The fishing heritage of the museum site itself dates back nearly 700 years when the monks of Balmerino Abbey rented out booths and net drying facilities here to fishermen: in return for 100 salt fish from each barrel of herring they produced.
Today the visitor travels through a largely wheelchair friendly series of exhibition areas linked by ramps, that give a sense of the chronological development of Scotland's fishing industry. Beyond the reception and giftshop is a courtyard in which you can sit and enjoy your refreshments as an outdoor alternative to the tea room, and which remains home to the wooden beams once used to dry nets. From here the only set of steps in the museum lead up to a recreation of a fisherman's cottage, complete with an equipment store on the upper floor.
In the rest of the museum you are led from a door at the rear of the courtyard via ramps and corridors through a series of galleries that set out the story of fishing in Scotland. From the dugout canoe through the days before sail; to sailing vessels and on to steam and diesel fishing boats. Meanwhile the people involved in the process are not overlooked. One beautifully laid out gallery tells the remarkable story of the herring gutters, virtually entire communities, often from remote areas, who spent part of each year travelling throughout Scotland and Eastern England to process the catches of the fishing fleets as they followed the migration of the herring.
En route through the museum you pass the Memorial to Scottish Fishermen Lost at Sea, a simple and deeply sobering room whose walls are lined with small plaques, each marking the loss of a vessel and her crew. The sheer number of these helps bring home the reality that fishing was, and remains, the most dangerous of ways to earn a living.
As you progress through the exhibits it is often easy to lose sight of where you are in the complex of buildings. But when the rooflines begin to rise and real boats replace the superb models that are so much a part of the attraction of the museum, you know you are coming to the large scale displays in the old boatbuilding sheds at the east end of the site. A final foray through the aptly named Engine Room, and you emerge back into the courtyard.
And the contents of the museum are not all it has to offer. Some of the vessels in its care remain seaworthy and some of these can often be seen across the road in Anstruther's harbour. The flagship of the fleet is The Reaper a two masted "fifie" herring drifter built in 1902. Acquired by the museum in 1975, she makes promotional visits to ports around Scotland and in north east England during the Summer. The museum also hosts a variety of special events and exhibitions.