A Wonderful Night in Oban, Scotland
One autumn evening in 1952, in Oban, in western Scotland, I fell in with a couple of seafaring fellows in a pub. They were Dundee trawlermen from the other side of Scotland.
Their fishing vessel was tied up alongside in Oban. When, as we spun yarns together, I told them how I had just spent the last five years living aboard my Iraqi survey vessel, El Ghar, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, we easily accepted each other as fellow seafarers.
We yarned and chatted over several pints of beer and later went together to a dockside cafe where we met half a dozen of their shipmates.
When I realized I had missed the only bus back to Taynuilt they said not to worry, they had a spare bunk on their trawler and would not be casting off until midmorning at the earliest.
So I went back aboard with this happy gang and found that all hands slept in the fo'c's'le where about a dozen bunks, one atop the other, were ranged around the forward part of the ship. In fact it was just about the same size as had been my cabin aboard my survey vessel El Ghar, of which, being in command, I had been the sole occupant, .
Before turning into their bunks these hardy fishermen didn't remove any clothes, they put more clothes on. Even though we were still in a warm autumn.
As we fell asleep, late that night, and later the next morning as I joined them in their simple but hearty breakfast, they recounted stories of their encounters with the deadly black ice during cold winters off Iceland and Greenland and also of the fabled characters with whom they had sailed on previous ships.
They all laughed and contributed personal segments of a long saga concerning one particularly eccentric woman of Dundee. It seems she was noted for her quick and prolific sandwich-making prowess. In fact, all aboard that trawler vowed, she was the champion sandwich maker in all of Scotland. In this capacity she was famed for growing an enormously long thumbnail on her right hand. With this natural appendage she could scoop up just the right amount of butter and then spread it accurately and evenly over slices of bread in the briefest flash of time and without recourse to the use of any artificial tool.
One of the older fishermen told of how when he was a child back in the 1890s his mother, every Saturday, made a batch of oatmeal porridge for her six children and husband, a batch so big, as to last them all for the coming week. This gallon or two of porridge was poured into the top drawer of a clothes chest and left to solidify. Then each morning the mother would open the drawer and cut a slice for each child to take to school or work for his or her lunch.
All the trawler crew agreed that herring had played an important part in their daily diet as children. They also all agreed that they still relished herring as a favourite food. No wonder they were all such tough trawlermen.
No wonder, also, that the soldiers of the highly-acclaimed Scottish regiments have always given such good account of themselves in battle.
Personally, if I were serving in an enemy army opposing such tough, white-hatted, good guys, I'd rather be facing the spam, french-fries and apple-pie eaters than ferocious oatmeal-and-herring eaters — the renowned hardy kilties of the Highland Division.