36223: The Epic Battle of Wick

The Epic Battle of Wick or “Sabaid Mhor Wick” as it is still referred to in Lewis started on 27 August 1859 between Lewis fishermen and East Coast fishermen. This was the only time in the annals of the Scottish herring fleet that fishermen tied up their boats and engaged in a ‘free for all’ from Saturday to Saturday.

The battle commenced, not over fishing limits but over an apple. According to local tradition, a Lewis boy met a Wick lad on the street and after a dispute over an apple, a fight soon started between the youths. As always happens in a fight, spectators soon gathered urging the boys to greater effort, little realising what their irresponsible behaviour was leading to. The Lewis youth involved was 14 year old Malcolm Macleod (Calum Alasdair), who was helping on his father’s boat. His father, Alexander, was tenant of the croft at 65 Balallan.

The battle raged fast and furious while the police were unable to control the combatants. Some Lewismen were arrested and taken to jail which no doubt served as an added incentive to the Lewismen to more ferocious action with any type of weapon at their disposal. Donald Mackenzie (Domhnull Ruaraidh), 10 Laxay, assisted by his crew and other volunteers, removed the mast from his boat and released the prisoners by using it as a battering ram against the jail door.

One Lewisman who played a prominent part in the battle was Robert Macdonald (Rob Dhomhnuill Bhain), 12 Keose, a man of above average strength. One of his roles was breaking barrels to keep the Lewismen supplied with staves – the main weapon used in the battle. A warrant was issued for Robert’s arrest and when hostilities ceased, he hastily left Wick in order to evade capture. He set out on foot and a few miles outside Wick he was overtaken by a carriage with driver and passenger. Macdonald signalled the cabby to stop and give him a lift but he was ignored. He ran after the carriage, jumped aboard and ejected the cabby and his passenger, leaving them by the roadside. He continued his journey until finally, when the horses became exhausted, he abandoned them but by this time he was near his destination, Poolewe, whence he caught the boat Mary Jane to Lewis.

Meanwhile it was a detachment of the York Militia from Edinburgh and sailors from HMS Jackal and the Princess Royal, and the intervention of Rev George Mackay of Tongue, that brought at end to the fighting which coincided with the end of the fishing season – no doubt to the great relief of the burghers of Wick.

The Wick police contacted their Stornoway colleagues with a request to arrest Macdonald but he went into hiding in Cromore until he thought the furore had died down. On his return to Keose he joined other youths who used to gather in the Manse kitchen for a ceilidh. One evening two police officers from Stornoway arrived in the manse and arrested him. He was handcuffed to one of the officers and they set off down the track past Fuaran Shobhail where a horse and gig awaited them. Once clear of the village, Robert decided he would not go any further and so he asked the police officers to release him, threatening to drag the officer to whom he was handcuffed into Loch nan Ritheannan. After a struggle he was released but knew that his days in Lewis were numbered having added this second crime to the hijacking of the coach and decided to seek pastures new. He left the Island via Tarbert as Stornoway was too “hot” a place for him.

He resumed his seafaring career, this time in the Merchant Navy but was lost overboard in the Thames estuary a few years later.

Refer also to the account held by the Angus Macleod Archive, and an alternative Gaelic version of the same story.

Record Type:
Historical Event
Date / From:
27 Aug 1859
Type Of Event:
Record Maintained by: