Case Study: Sarclet Fishing Village

Anne Coombs

Sarclet is a small village on the east coast of Caithness 5 miles south of Wick (MHG1959).  A planned village of the late 18th century, Sarclet is a good example of an estate venture to develop a herring fishing village as the herring boom of the 18/19th century began.  The herring fishing industry expanded rapidly after several government reports and the establishment of the British Fisheries Society in 1786.  Initially the Society focussed on the west coast of Scotland, but the unpredictable movement of the herring shoals resulted in the east coast becoming the centre of the herring boom in the 1800s.  Although the British Fisheries Society was responsible for the building of the two biggest ports, Ullapool on the west coast and Wick on the east coast, many estate owners instigated similar smaller projects (Dunlop 1978; 1982).

The coast of Caithness is very indented with inlets and many of these were visited by Thomas Telford during a tour of the coast in 1790 looking for suitable harbours.  Sir John Sinclair, a notable local ‘Improver’, and his tenant and son-in-law, David Brodie, were responsible for the building of two fishing villages on the Ulbster estate south of Wick.  Sarclet was begun after Telford’s visit; two rows of houses were built for the fishermen and their families and the harbour was created.  There were considerable efforts to create and maintain a breakwater to protect the harbour which was exposed to easterly storms (Mitchison 1962; Graham and Gordon 1987, 299-302).

The harbour (MHG1936) was thriving in the early 1800s. In 1839 the John o’Groat Journal of 16th August reported: ’a most extraordinary fishing was made on Tuesday last, when the size of the boats and drifts of nets are taken into consideration. There were actually landed at the place on the day above alluded to [Sarclet], upwards of 1300 crans from thirty-two boats, making an average of 42 crans per boats!!’. This is roughly about 50,400 fish per boat. By the 1870s however, the harbour was described as ruinous due to a succession of severe storms (Northern Ensign 16 Nov 1887).

Figure 1: Sarclet harbour. Andrew Puls ©Highland Council

Today the remains of the port are still accessed down the original winding trackway from the top of the cliffs to the shore.  The fishermen would have left from the port and on their return the herring would have been gutted and packed with salt into barrels on the flat gutting stance beside the building. Behind the stance there is a substantial revetting wall with a narrow (c. 1m wide) space containing a spring-fed well.  Steps go down to the stance, well and the building.  The top of the wall has been levelled and paved with large slabs to form a platform for the capstan, still in place, which would have drawn the boats up the pitched shore.  The building is a large 2-storey building surviving to the wall heads with an upper entrance opening in the southwest gable onto the gutting stance.   The front of the building has three ground floor doorways and two upper window spaces and central doorway.  Although access is not available there appears to be three internal divisions on the ground floor.  The upper floor would have been accessed from the gable doorway, but the floor has gone.  Described as ‘Curing house’ on the 1834 plan of the harbour (reproduced on SCRAN 000-000-573-469-C) the building would have been a store for salt, barrels and the offices of the curers who would have overseen the herring fishing.  

Figure 2: Panorama of Sarclet foreshore. ©Anne Coombs

Scattered across the shore are the large, masoned blocks of stone which would have made up the substantial breakwater with just the vestiges of the wharf visible along the south side of the bay.   Along the road down to the harbour there are a few of the original workers cottages remaining showing the very basic accommodation provided for the fishermen, their wives who would have gutted and packed the herring and the coopers who made the barrels.

Figure 3: The wall of the wharf with the stones of the breakwater in the foreground. ©Anne Coombs
Figure 4: The storehouse with the well and steps to the left and breakwater stones in the foreground. ©Anne Coombs
Figure 5: The revetted wall with the well on the right, steps in the centre, the capstan base to the left, and the gutting stance below the well. ©Anne Coombs

Historic Environment Scotland recognised the importance of Sarclet to contribute to understanding of the herring fishing industry. In its scheduling document (SM13643) the report stated

‘Its significance is further enhanced by its location within close proximity of the sites of other fishing stations along the Caithness coast. The surviving historical records, in the form of plans and financial accounts, enhance our appreciation and understanding of this important site. The fishing station at Sarclet represents a key site for enhancing our knowledge of a resource which was often re-used and redeveloped or subject to abandonment followed by complete collapse and ruin due to marine erosion. As a little-altered example of a herring fishing station, the loss of this monument would impede our ability to understand the development and operation of the fishing industry, with emphasis on herring, in Caithness and across Scotland during the 19th century’.