Waterlines is a visitor centre and museum which stands in restored buildings close to the attractive harbour at Lybster. You reach the harbour by turning off the main A99 onto Lybster's broad main street and passing through most of the village, then turning right onto a narrow road which descends steeply to the harbour. Parking is available in front of Waterlines itself.
Waterlines opened in 2001. Downstairs it houses a nice cafe with facilities for visiting yachtsmen, while on the upper floor is a museum and exhibition area in two large rooms. Outside, beyond the far end of the building, is an array of the rocks found in the north-east Highlands, while the end of the building nearest the harbour is set up to show how it would have operated in its days as a smokehouse, curing part of the catch of fishermen operating from Lybster and from neighbouring harbours. Access to most facilities is free, while there is a small charge made for admission to the museum and exhibition area.
The upstairs rooms, accessible by stairs and a lift, have a series of exhibits about Lybster Harbour and the local area. The story of fish and fishing forms a core theme, but visiting ornithologists greatly appreciate the live feeds of pictures of birds nesting on local cliffs, from controllable cameras, and there is also a display of casts of fossils found in Caithness quarries.
The second room has an audio-visual presentation on the story of Lybster Harbour and displays of background information. Much of the space is given over to the ongoing construction of a real fishing boat, a yawl of a design commonly used in the 1800s. The frame of the boat is made from Scottish oak, while the planking is made of larch.
Fishing from the natural harbour formed by the mouth of the Reisgill Burn has probably taken place since the days of the Vikings. More organised fishing for herring began in 1790, when a wooden pier was built, and this really grew in scale from about 1810. In 1829, the local laird, Captain Temple Sinclair paid for the building of a new harbour built of stone. This cost £7000 and the harbour was able to accommodate 100 fishing boats.
A storm in 1847 cost the lives of seven fishermen from Lybster, and badly damaged the harbour. The harbour was repaired and extended between 1850 and 1854, with the result that it could accommodate a much larger fishing fleet. The new harbour broke all previous records, and by the mid 1850s nearly 50,000 barrels of herring were exported annually. All this activity employed some 1500 fishermen, 100 coopers, 700 gutters and packers, and 900 people on associated activities such as labouring and net making, making some 3,200 people in total.
By 1859 there were 357 boats fishing from Lybster, making it the third busiest fishing port in Scotland after Wick and Fraserburgh. It was also a major exporter of cured herrings to Ireland and the continent. Storms in 1877 badly damaged the harbour again, and in 1880 the local laird, by now the Duke of Portland, started repairs and improvements that over the following four years would cost £20,000. By the end of the century, however, herring was proving less abundant in the waters off Caithness and even the arrival of the ill-timed Wick and Lybster Light Railway in 1899, intended to profit from the herring boom, was unable to turn things around.
A decade of decline followed, but World War I brought efforts to improve fish catches and by 1920 Lybster's fleet had been built up to 40 sailing vessels and 5 motorised craft, all fishing for white fish like haddock and cod. Seine nets were introduced to the Lybster fleet in the 1920s and sail was phased out in favour of diesel power. The result was a prosperous fishing fleet active enough to justify the building of a new inner harbour in 1950. The Lybster white fish fleet continued to be successful into the 1970s and 1980s, after which quotas caused it to decline. The last of the fleet's vessels, Morvenna, was sold in 1992.
Lybster continues to be the home base of a number of small fishing boats today. Those you can still see chugging into or out of the harbour are largely fishing for crabs and lobsters.