An old rowing boat high and dry on the beach at Barra

Change can be painfully slow.  A new conservation campaign, the Our Seas Coalition, is calling for trawlers to be banned from fishing within three miles of Scotland’s shoreline.  Almost 90 years ago John Lorne Campbell was campaigning for sustainable fishery in Scottish waters. 

Decades ahead of his time, John – the man who gave his island to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981 – saw trawling as a threat to sustainability. Now, almost 25 years after his death, the NTS is part of a campaign to reinstate a three-nautical-mile ban which was lifted in 1984.

The visionary Sea League was founded by Compton Mackenzie and John Campbell on the island of Barra.  Their tactics are a model of progressive campaigning.

Without benefit of Twitter or Facebook, Campbell and Mackenzie set about gaining the unanimous support of island fishing communities.  While the Our Seas campaign prepares to launch later this month, it is worth looking back at the aims and strategy of the Sea League.

Mackenzie was incensed when he witnessed an English steamer working a mile offshore while a fisher protection cruiser carrying a government minister was anchored in Castlebay and did nothing.

‘Increase penalties for illegal trawling’

Barra fisherman worked the inshore waters of the Minch by drift netting and long-lining – traditional, low intensity forms of fishing suitable to small sailing or low-powered boats. Their vessels were no match for steam trawlers from English parts dragging huge nets along the seabed on the way home from Icelandic fishing grounds. They took large quantities of fish, and the work of the Barra fish processors too.

Technically the law forbade trawling within three miles of the coast but it was not enforced. Mackenzie was incensed when he witnessed an English steamer working a mile offshore while a fisher protection cruiser carrying a government minister was anchored in Castlebay and did nothing. He sent a  telegram to the prime minister but received a noncommittal reply from 10 Downing Street and decided to take action himself. On 20 December 1933, Mackenzie formed the Sea League with himself as chairman and John as one of the secretaries. They produced a leaflet in Gaelic and English and distributed it around the island.  They wanted:

  1. A protected zone closed to trawlers for the benefit of fishermen from Barra Head to Tiree and the Butt of Lewis to Cape Wrath
  2. Increased penalties for illegal trawling and more effective policing of inshore waters
  3. Fines for illegal trawling to compensate and finance fisherman who wanted to start inshore fishing

The two men were amazed to discover that legislation from 1895 provided protection for local fishermen and covered waters up to 14 miles from the coast.  In England a dozen protected fishery districts had been established from Cornwall to the Scottish border but there were none in Scotland.  They began a petition to Inverness-shire county council to set up such districts.

Mackenzie and Campbell toured Barra and neighbouring islands of Eriskay and South Uist. When everyone who caught, bought or sold fish signed the petition they went further, to Benbecula, North Uist and Scalpay and received equally unanimous support. The movement caught the imagination of the islands. On the mainland however progress was slower.

It was 1964 before a fishery limit was established. John wrote to Mackenzie, ‘31 years almost to the day after the first Sea League meeting at Castlebay our policy had been put into effect – at least one if not two generations too late.’

He wrote later, ‘I have never been more thoroughly convinced of the justice of any cause than I was of the Sea League.’ Decades ahead of his time he also saw trawling as a threat to sustainability. Local boats using traditional methods had been fishing the Minch for countless generations. Industrial fishing was to virtually exhaust the fishery in two generations.

The Our Seas campaign, can build on the 2010 Scottish Marine Act. Ten years on, this is a new opportunity to protect a precious and fragile environment. But campaigners will need the energy, vision and determination of John Campbell.

[This is an update of a story first published in 2010 when Richard Lochhead then Scotland’s Fisheries Secretary condemned waste endangering recovery of cod in the North Sea…progress is painfully slow] 

Further reading: Conservationists call for three mile ban, Severin Carrell, The Guardian

The coalition, which includes NTS, is launching a campaign later this month urging the Scottish government to impose a three-nautical-mile ban, which was in force in Scottish waters for nearly a century until it was lifted in 1984.

The Man Who Gave Away His Island: Birlinn.  Currently out of stock but available on Kindle.  A new paperback edition is due later this year.

The wide expanse of the beach at Barra