120719: George Clark – the Bernera years : shoes, boats and lobsters

The following article is by Dr John A Macrae, the son of Dr Malcolm M Macrae who was a friend of George Clark. John Macrae and his family had met George whilst holidaying in Kirkibost in the early 1950s, and also visited George Clark’s home near Oban on two occasions in the 1960s. John’ s uncle, Kenneth Macdonald, was a Bernera lobster fisherman who was a friend and colleague of George Clark. John spent his childhood, school and university holidays lobster fishing in Bernera with his uncle and with the other fishermen based there.

Copyright: Dr John A Macrae, 2021.



George Clark was a director of the Clark Shoe Company of Kilmarnock – not to be confused with the better known Clarks Shoes of Somerset – and also a director of Saxone Shoes of which Clark Shoes was an integral part. The Scottish Clark Shoe Company was a family business established in 1820 by George’s great-grandfather. His grandfather, another George Clark, expanded the business and during the mid to late 19th century the firm became a major shoe manufacturer with much of the production being for export, especially to South America. From 1887 onward, multiple retail outlets were opened across Britain and, in addition to the Kilmarnock factory, a manufacturing plant was established in Brazil.

George’s father, yet another George Clark, led the firm into the 20th century and in 1908, the firm merged with F. & G. Abbott to form the Saxone Shoe Company with the main production site being at Clark’s Kilmarnock factory. George’s father, together with George Abbott, were joint managing directors of Saxone Shoes. George’s father died in 1937 after which he became a director. During the war, most of the firm’s production was for the military. In the post-war period, business flourished and in 1948 the firm employed 1000 workers in the Kilmarnock factory with a further 1200 employed in the UK retail outlets. Saxone Shoes were famous for introducing Hush Puppies in the early 1960s.

Despite being a director of the family shoe business, George Clark’s main interest lay elsewhere with a passion for the sea, boats and sailing. It was a direct result of his seafaring passion that in 1949 George arrived in Great Bernera where he decided to settle for several years becoming involved with lobster fishing which was the main industry of the island. While resident in Bernera, George lived at No. 4 Kirkibost with the Morrison family.

George Clark very quickly learned about lobster fishing from the local fishermen but, being highly innovative, he devised, developed and introduced techniques which would, in due course, revolutionise the industry both locally and far beyond. He fished for lobsters from Bernera for 4 years, from 1950 until 1954, and his developments were so effective in increasing efficiency that they have defined the way in which lobsters, crabs and prawns are fished with creels to this day.

George first arrived in Great Bernera having delivered a boat to Kirkibost, the Loch Roag, a 27 ft. converted ship’s lifeboat. The Loch Roag had been purchased by the Crofter’s Supply Agency (CSA) as a support vessel for the Loch Risay lobster pond where lobsters were landed by the local fishermen and stored to await sale and transport to the mainland and foreign markets.

George was inspired by the Bernera fishermen and became fascinated by and enthusiastic about lobster fishing to the extent that he decided to have a new boat purpose-built to fish lobsters from Bernera. That boat was the “Mairi Dhonn” which was built by J. & G. Forbes of Sandhaven, on the north east coast of Scotland, in 1950. The Mairi Dhonn was a double-ended Fifie style design, 33 feet in length and was initially powered by a 22hp Kelvin diesel engine. To satisfy George’s love of sail, she was rigged as a gaff ketch and, unusually for a fishing boat of that time, she did not have a wheelhouse since that would have detracted from his pleasure of sailing. Also unusual for a lobster boat of that era, she was fitted with a vertical drum capstan which was used in conjunction with a pulley mounted at the gunwale and a supplementary turning block to assist in hauling the lobster creels. This arrangement required two crew to haul a creel, one to lift the creel from the water and remove the rope from the pulley and another to tail and control the rope at the capstan. George’s crew on the Mairi Dhonn were Calum Ruairidh Morrison of 4 Kirkibost, Donald Macaulay (Domhnall Clapper) of 2 Kirkibost and, on occasion, Kenneth Macdonald (Coinneach Croir) of 7 Croir and Murdo Maclennan (Murchadh Scottie) of 8 Kirkibost.

As a result of his initial experience with the Mairi Dhonn, George realised that some major changes were necessary to the boat to make working the creels both safer and more efficient. The Mairi Dhonn, as originally designed and built, had very low bulwarks which, in rough seas, often led to creels being lost overboard. In addition, working on deck was unsafe and exposed for crew particularly when shooting and lifting the creels due to the insecurity resulting from the low bulwarks. The boat was returned to the builders where the bulwarks were raised significantly, the rig was changed to a more manageable single central mast with loose-footed gaff rig, a more powerful 44hp. Kelvin diesel engine fitted and, very significantly, the first dedicated lobster pot-hauling winch, to George’s design, was fitted. Unusually, for that time, the winch was hydraulically powered with copper piping for the hydraulic system. Instead of a vertical drum capstan, there was a v-pulley mounted horizontally and, most crucially, a jockey wheel with a v-shaped edge which was held against the v-pulley under tension by a spring to securely engage the rope being hauled. The jockey wheel had a handle attached with which it could be disengaged from the v-pully to release the rope. The block at the gunwale was retained to direct the rope to the pulley on the winch. The winch was positioned to allow the rope leader to fall straight into the hold.

Having developed an efficient mechanical means of hauling lobster creels, George Clark then turned his attention to the lobster fishing gear itself and the way in which it was handled. Until that time, all lobster fishing was carried out using individual creels on a single dedicated rope of appropriate length for the depth of water being fished. The advent of a dedicated creel-hauling winch made possible lifting heavier gear than would be possible hauling by hand.

George thought that a much more efficient way of arranging the creels would be to employ multiple creels attached to a continuous line rather than single creels set and lifted individually. This would greatly speed-up the setting and lifting procedure greatly improving the efficiency of the operation. The arrangement involved having a single leading rope to which were attached side ropes of around 2 fathoms in length (around 4 metres) at the end of which there was a single creel. 20 creels were attached to the leading rope in this way, forming what is called a “fleet” of creels. The winch would haul the leading rope and drop it into the hold of the boat while the side rope allowed handling and stacking of the creel on deck without interfering with the hauling process. This was a revolutionary development and essentially remains the way in which lobster fishing gear is arranged and managed to this day.

In September 1952, the Mairi Dhonn became the first vessel to be chartered to support the guga hunters from Ness in Lewis visiting the island rock of Sulaisgeir, 40 miles north of the Butt of Lewis, to hunt and harvest the young gannets or “guga”. With George as skipper and his Kirkibost crew of Donald Macaulay and Murdo Maclennan, the Mairi Dhonn sailed from Bernera, calling at Port of Ness to collect 9 Ness men who would assist with the loading of the guga on their arrival at Sulaisgeir. A day earlier, on a Monday morning, a number of men from Ness had sailed to Sulaisgeir in a 23 foot open boat, the Mayflower, to carry out a short “raid” at the island to hunt the guga. The normal longer stay at the island had been prevented due to poor weather earlier in the month when the visit was normally scheduled. The Mairi Dhonn and her crew had been chartered to transport the harvest of birds back to Ness together with some of the team on the island.

When they arrived at the island, there was a south-westerly wind and conditions were suitably sheltered at the landing place to load the Mairi Dhonn with the harvested guga. However, the weather rapidly deteriorated and the wind came round to the south-east necessitating the crew to move the Mairi Dhonn out away from the shore. The conditions progressively worsened to a full gale with heavy seas. The decision was made by George that the only course of action was to head for Lewis since it was no longer possible to safely remain at the island or to attempt to evacuate the men remaining ashore. To further complicate the situation, the Mairi Dhonn’s radio had stopped working, which prevented any news being relayed back to Lewis or to raise the alarm about those stranded on the island. The radio silence caused major concern at home in Ness and Bernera since scheduled radio reports had not been heard. The men remaining on the island frantically tried to secure their boat, the Mayflower, moored in the bay but she was eventually swamped by the heavy seas and capsized.

In appalling conditions, the Mairi Dhonn sailed through the gale to Stornoway to raise the alarm about the men marooned on Sulaisgeir. She eventually arrived in Stornoway at midnight on the Wednesday, two days after having left Bernera. George Clark reported the situation of the men marooned on the island to the coastguard and Stornoway lifeboat.

After waiting for the weather to moderate, the Stornoway lifeboat and the fishery cruiser, the Minna, set off the following day for Sulaisgeir where the lifeboat crew managed to evacuate the men from the island, without casualty, by breeches buoy, dragging each man through the breaking surf. The Stornoway lifeboat coxswain, Malcolm Macdonald was awarded an RNLI  medal for the rescue. However, it was George Clark who was the prime mover in initiating the rescue and without his outstanding seamanship and that of his crew, in safely sailing the Mairi Dhonn to Stornoway during the height of a gale to raise the alarm, the outcome would have been very different.

In 1953, George decided that he should have a somewhat larger boat to fish lobsters on the west coast of Lewis. He therefore ordered a new 40 foot lobster boat from the famous and long established yard of James N. Miller and Sons of St. Monans in Fife. His new boat was completed in May 1953 and was named “Scotch Lass”. The ownership of the Mairi Dhonn was transferred to Donald Macaulay of 2 Kirkibost who had been a crew member on the vessel and under his command she continued to fish lobsters from Bernera.

The Scotch Lass incorporated all the lessons George had learned from his experience fishing with the Mairi Dhonn. She was a very beamy boat with high bulwarks in order that she could carry a large number of creels and provide a safe, secure and stable working platform and had a cruiser stern which provided more deck space than the pointed stern of the Mairi Dhonn. She was powered by a 66hp. Kelvin diesel engine. The creel-hauling winch was a further development from that of the Mairi Dhonn but this time was mechanically driven rather than hydraulic. The previous hydraulic system was insufficiently powerful and had caused the winch to stop if significant tension came onto the line such as when a creel was snagged for any reason. The winch was engineered and constructed to George’s specification by the builders who were renowned for their Miller Fifer trawl and seine net winches. Around 6 months after the Scotch Lass was built, her propeller was replaced by a Hundested variable pitch propeller which reduced drag while sailing but also gave more efficient propulsion when under power. Again, this was a highly innovative and advanced fitment on a boat of that size.

In August 1953, George and his crew with the Scotch Lass were once again chartered to support the guga hunt on Sulaisgeir. Apart from an initial abortive trip when the shore party could not be landed due to heavy swell, and unlike the extreme drama of the previous year, the return trips to and from Sulaisgeir were eventually completed successfully and safely.

George continued to fish for lobsters with the Scotch Lass from Bernera until 1954 when he moved the boat to Oban and fished for lobsters there but still maintaining the Hebridean connection with crew who came from either Bernera or from Harris.

In 1956, George commissioned the highly respected Scottish yacht designer David Boyd to design another lobster boat to replace the Scotch Lass but this time somewhat larger, with greater sail area and improved sailing performance. David Boyd was later to design the 1958 British America’s Cup challenger Sceptre. George’s new boat was called “Skadi” – the wife of a sea god in Norse mythology – and, like the Scotch Lass, she was built by James N. Miller of St. Monans. She was 46 feet in length with a modest beam of 13.5 feet and gaff-ketch rigged a sail area of 1000 square feet. She had a small wheelhouse and was powered by a Gardner 6LW diesel engine of 76 hp. She was also fitted with a further development of the creel-hauling winch which had been developed and perfected in conjunction with Miller’s engineering department. The Skadi was also very unusual and innovative in that she had a transom (square) stern. She was the first Scottish fishing boat of her size to feature a transom stern and this feature of her design preceded what was later to become a normal trend in fishing boats around 15 years later. The transom stern gave even more deck space, a slightly more easily driven hull and thus more speed.

The Skadi was registered in Oban (OB 20) and fished lobsters from there for around 3 years. George Clark then married, retired from fishing and built a bungalow on the north shore of Loch Etive. He kept the Skadi for pleasure and removed the wheelhouse to permit more physical enjoyment from his sailing. Sadly, however, the Skadi developed shipworm (Teredo) infestation and George decided that she should end her days by being burnt – a fiery end which is, perhaps, in keeping with the Norse ancestry of her name. George then replaced the Skadi with a sailing yacht called Corista which had previously been owned by the chairman of the nylon stocking manufacturer Aristoc – the name being an anagram of Aristoc – and continued his passion for sailing on the west coast.

Tragically, George Clark died on the island of Mull in the early 1970s as a result of a road accident while walking with his wife, June, who survived him and continued to live in the house they had built together on the shore of Loch Etive. They had no children.

The Bernera lobster fishermen benefitted tremendously from the influence of George Clark – his leadership, seamanship, enthusiasm and guidance but, above all, his friendship. It was also a two-way process in that the fishermen provided the initial inspiration for George and taught him about lobster fishing but they were adaptable and willing to embrace the changes he devised. His innovations led to a rapid expansion and improvement in the quality of the Bernera lobster fishing fleet. In the years which followed his time on the island, several new state-of-the-art boats were purpose built for lobster fishing, incorporating his ideas – the Reliant, Sir Lancelot, and Astronaut together with a number of other older boats which were suitably adapted and added to the fleet. In later years, more new boats joined the fleet.

Like his forebears, George Clark was a visionary, endowed with ingenuity, drive and passion which he applied to the development and improvement of lobster fishing equipment and techniques together with the fishermen in Bernera. He was also a very modest man who integrated completely with the Bernera people and their community. He made an indelible impact on all aspects of lobster fishing and his innovations have defined the way in which static gear is handled and managed to this day, not just in the Bernera and the United Kingdom but worldwide. All fishermen who work static gear to catch lobsters, crabs and prawns, owe a huge debt of gratitude to George Clark and his time in Great Bernera in the early 1950s.

The epitaph on George Clark’s gravestone reads: “Thy way is in the sea and thy paths in many waters.”



What happened to George Clark’s Fishing Boats?

Mairi Dhonn – SY 360
The Mairi Dhonn continued fishing from Bernera under the ownership of Donald Macaulay and with various crew members until 1963 when she was sold to Donald’s brother-in-law Donald Macleod of Ness. She was then sold to Barra where she also fished lobsters. Tragically, in 1968, she was lost with all 5 crew on a passage between Mallaig and Barra, having landed a catch in Mallaig. The exact cause was never established.

Scotch Lass – SY 597 and A 72
George Clark sold the Scotch Lass to new owners in Stonehaven where she was based for around 15 years, was re-registered as A 72, and fished with long lines and the seine net. At one point, she broke free from her mooring and went ashore outside the harbour, sustaining significant damage to her planking. This was repaired and she was also re-engined with a Perkins diesel. She was then sold to Campbeltown and later to Wales where she finished her fishing career.  She was purchased by a consortium in the Isle of Man who converted her for pleasure use with an increased rig and sails which carry her original Stornoway registration of SY 597. She often attends classic boat rallies on the west coast and is maintained in immaculate condition.

Skadi – OB 20
As mentioned in the text, the Skadi became infested with shipworm and the extent of the damage was such that George Clark felt it was neither viable nor safe to repair and rebuild her. She therefore had a Viking funeral and was burnt. A sad but perhaps dignified end to a fine vessel.



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The Scotch Lass on her mooring in the Dubh Thob, Kirkibost

The Scotch Lass on her mooring in the Dubh Thob, Kirkibost