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Taking forward perceptions of identity: the Sea League’s campaign to protect maritime communities and the environment.

Uisdean Cheape


The Sea League was a significant but relatively short-lived movement of popular protest (1933-1939), active in the communities of the Outer Hebrides for the purpose of drawing the attention of government to deep concerns over island social and economic circumstances. Founded in the Island of Barra, their cause was political and public recognition of the destruction of inshore fisheries and of consequent loss of livelihoods in island communities. Through its campaign, evidenced through its newsletter and surviving correspondence, the Sea League can be seen as propagating perceptions of identity in fishing communities in the Outer Hebrides based on commonality of interests and the threats to them from a wider society. This gave their cause profile although the wider aims were only partially realised in the nearly six years of campaigning which was effectively ended by the outbreak of the Second World War. Perceptions of identity engendered by the Sea league have continued to be shaped by the culture and language of the Gàidhealtachd, and these same communities in which the language survives are engaging with the contemporary climate-crisis and current debates on environmental conservation. Considerable space is given to this to highlight the relevance of the Sea League’s campaign for the part of ‘human ecology’ in the marine environment.

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I wish to thank Professor Lindsay Blair for her patience over the production of this paper, Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich of Glasgow University with his ready help and advice over the complexities of Hebridean fisheries history, Murray Macleod of the Stornoway Gazette for information generously given, and Guadalupe Canale for the use of her artwork from her thesis “Sanctuary. The Lifeworlds of Seaweeds in Loch Hourn” for the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University.

I have depended in great measure on the help of Fiona Mackenzie, formerly Archivist in Canna House for the National Trust for Scotland. Thanks are due also to the National Trust for Scotland for permission to use the photographs of Margaret Fay Shaw from the Canna House Archive to illustrate this study. It has been based on CH2/5/3/0-7, Sea Leaguer articles and associated papers of the Sea League, National Trust for Scotland (Campbell Collection), Canna House Archive, and I am most grateful to the Trust for permission to carry out this study and to quote extensively from these papers.


  • 1 The surviving papers and published material of the Sea League are curated by the National Trust for (...)

1The ‘Sea League’ was a lobby-group and movement of popular protest formed in the Outer Hebrides in the 1930s. Founded in the Island of Barra in 1933, its aim - or its mission - was to protect and conserve fishing for the local communities of the islands and to campaign for the reduction of protracted over-fishing and depletion of stocks by trawling. The movement was founded by the novelist, Compton Mackenzie, then living ‘in exile’ in Barra, and John Lorne Campbell, scholar and later owner of the Island of Canna, who had moved to Barra in the summer of 1933. As means to publicising its message and building the debate, the Sea League produced a bi-lingual newsletter between September 1936 and March 1939 (see Figure 1). It was edited and largely written by the Sea League’s secretary, John Lorne Campbell. The news sheet forms a series of documents which should be better known as ‘forgotten material’ from what has been described as the ‘literature of Highland protest’ and with an identity deriving from the days of the late-nineteenth century Land League (Campbell 1975: 617).1

Figure 1: the ‘Sea Leaguer’ news sheet

Figure 1: the ‘Sea Leaguer’ news sheet

Archives, National Trust for Scotland

  • 2 Expression of these circumstances was restrained in island communities, but for an individual accou (...)

2The aims and actions of the Sea League were very much sui generis and of their time but resonate with the environmental and political debates of today. They have a value too in terms of perceptions of identity in the past and coming forward. Perceptions of identity are for many associated with place and rooted in past experiences and retained in the Gaelic communal memory. This memory is strongest for the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their climactic social and economic movements; the period between the World Wars, for example, was marked by the decline of Scotland’s heavy industries and by high unemployment, and repeated failures of governments to deal with the economic and social problems prevailing. The longstanding drift of Hebrideans to Central Scotland, Glasgow and Clydeside in search of employment – central to the communal memory - no longer held out opportunities for an income and material betterment. Emigration, however, continued to offer a bleak and final resort and communities continued to suffer social and economic haemorrhaging, so bad were the everyday-life circumstances in the islands following the First World War. 2

Action on the marine environment then and now

3In the current circumstances of intense concern and politicisation of climate and environment issues, the Sea League’s campaign against the destruction of inshore fishing serves to remind us that concerns for the marine environment of the Hebrides were being raised and politicised almost a century ago. Today, emerging from the commitment of governments to tackling the global crisis of climate change, the Scottish Government has declared a ‘Nature Emergency’ with degradation of the environment and species-loss twinned with climate change. Adopting as text the UN Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD], the government has committed ‘to act at scale and with urgency to restore Scotland’s biodiversity’. Current aims are formulated in a policy document published online at the end of 2022, Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2045, with outcomes and key actions towards the restoration of ecosystems and the regeneration of biodiversity. Aims are far-reaching, for example, for marine and coastal environments by 2045:

The health, condition, and resilience of pelagic, coastal, shelf, and deep-sea marine habitats will have been restored, supporting wider ecosystem function, providing increased benefits to society, and contributing to climate resilience and adaptation through nature-based solutions.3

4Aims and objectives for the marine environment draw on an earlier strategy document, Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 [SMA 2020], which highlights the increasing impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. The SMA 2020 notes that disturbance of the seabed by ‘bottom-contact towed fishing gear’ – in other words trawling – remains a significant and the most widespread pressure, but with damage limitation as the default position since even a target of ‘no loss in extent’ for subtidal habitats was not then being met.4

Heritage of the sea

5Heightened awareness of environmental damage and pollution of the seas is a major concern for us today in the Highlands and Islands, and the health and conservation of fish stocks has been a corollary of this. Scotland is surrounded by seas which have been among the most prolific fishing areas of the world, and we recognise that the loss of this heritage is unacceptable. Fishing has always supplied a food protein and archaeological evidence from Mesolithic sites demonstrates in the very earliest strata of occupation that food was being won from the seas and coastline of Scotland. Much the same early historical pattern of use of the sea is evident over northern Europe and among North Atlantic communities, with shellfish remains predominating in midden sites and fish remains not so plentiful. This may be taken as prima facie evidence for the lack of a proto technology of nets and lines and perhaps also for the awareness of the ever-present dangers of the sea. Fishing from the rocks with rod and line or net has always offered a safer option and every coastal community had its carraig or ‘fishing rock’ where the tàbh was used to catch saithe or ‘cuddies’ with limpet bait. The tàbh was like an oversized landing-net on a large hoop about six feet in diameter on the end of a long pole (Macdonald 1978: 92; Coull, Fenton and Veitch 2008; Coull 2008: 253-76).

Figure 2: Saithe drying for the winter food store, Loch Aineort, South Uist.

Figure 2: Saithe drying for the winter food store, Loch Aineort, South Uist.

Archives from the National Trust for Scotland

  • 5 The nature and extent of this inshore fishery is discernible in multiple examples of accounts by mi (...)

6Nowhere is this danger more real for us than in the Atlantic waters of the Highlands and Islands. Insofar as fishing here played a large part in the winning of a food supply, ‘inshore fishing’ for ‘white fish’ was the longstanding tradition, with saithe, cod, haddock and lythe being the most prominent species and reliable food source (see Coull 2008: 253-4; McKay 1980: 89-90).5

7The saithe or coalfish has been one of the most useful of all the fish caught on the West Coast in recent generations, and the best known among the crofter-fisherman communities with its variety of names in Gaelic and terms for the stages of its growth. These can be caught at any time of year and can be dried and salted as part of the winter store of food (see Figure 2). They supplied additional fresh food for the family and for the community and acted as a subsistence food. The equipment was simple, such as rods and nets, a handline with two hooks, the ‘small line’ or lìon beag and the ‘long line’ or lìon mòr of approximately 60 fathoms with up to 1,000 baited hooks at intervals (see Figure 3). Drift nets were used for herring and mackerel; as pelagic fish they usually swim near the surface of the water and gather in shoals. Finely meshed nets needing constant attention and frequent mending were shot about sunset and the boat ‘drifts’ with the tide for about three or four hours.6

Figure 3: Baiting small lines for inshore fishing.

Figure 3: Baiting small lines for inshore fishing.

Picture kept at the National Trust for Scotland

The historical record

8The surviving oral tradition and material culture of fishing may seem to offer only a piecemeal account of the topic for the historian. By contrast, the historical record concerns commercial fisheries and species such as salmon and herring and has dominated our understanding of Scottish fisheries (see, for example, Gray 1978: 181-2). There was an historical Hebridean fishery but not, on the whole, in the hands of Hebrideans. Lack of boats and gear (and financial capital) hampered Hebrideans from establishing a controlling interest in their own sea fisheries until the Mackenzies of Seaforth gained a control of the Minch fisheries in the seventeenth century (Mackenzie 1903: 290-339; MacCoinnich 2014:

9291-335). This enterprise was in the face of the long-term success of a Dutch fishing industry catching herring along the coasts of Europe and controlling the markets. That herring fishery was a source of Dutch national wealth, using a larger type of decked vessel – the buss – of about 60 tons which could stay at sea for six to eight weeks, taking aboard barrels and salt and large enough to cure, pack and store on board.

10Dutch, French and English boats continued to vie for control of Hebridean fisheries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and catching herring, white fish and lobsters (Mackenzie 1903: 312-26). The same period saw attempts to develop a national policy to match the success of the Dutch fishing industry and to win back fishing grounds. Public and political interest grew through the eighteenth century in ‘improvement’ as a political strategy as well as philosophical aim for social development. It was believed, to the level of conviction, that the Enlightenment concept of ‘improvement’ could transform the economy of the Highlands. The British Fisheries Society was founded in July 1786 by the Highland Society of London to apply an improvement strategy to the region by establishing ‘fishing stations’ on the North and West Coasts. The onshore dimension of this in curing houses and salt stores became an established part of West Coast history along with centres of commercial activity or ‘fishing villages’ as the sources of labour (see Dunlop 2007: passim). These in due course received communities evicted from townships in the interior and the victims of Clearance.

11A more recent episode in extending commercial fisheries on the West Coast - and with echoes of the historical Dutch ‘busses’ - occurred in the 1970s and 1980s with the arrival of the ‘Klondykers’. These were factory ships from Russia and Eastern Europe, anchoring for weeks in Loch Broom and elsewhere, and trans-shipping fish from local fishermen and processing mainly mackerel at the time. This is most acutely remembered in the Gaelic-speaking coastal communities of the Minch:

  • 7 ‘1989. The ‘Cold War’ at its height. And out from a small Highland town there is an amazing fleet: (...)

1989. An Cogadh Fuar aig àirde. Agus a-mach bho bhaile beag Gàidhealach tha cabhlach iongantach: ceudan de bhàtaichean-iasgaich Ruiseanach. Iad air tòir an rionnaich, is iarraidh air a-nis mar a bh’ air an sgadan fhèin. Tha a bhuil air a’ bhaile: tha an t-airgead pailt, caviar ri fhaighinn sna taighean-òsta, Pravda sna bùithtean.7


12In the course of the nineteenth century, a home-based fishing industry developed with trawling as its main mechanism and helped to satisfy a demand for cheap food for lower income groups in the United Kingdom’s expanding industrial cities; in due course the railways came to link them with markets and to the trawler ports. The trawl was a bag-shaped net on the end of long ropes, pulled over the seabed and catching fish en masse. This became the world’s most important fishing technique. Custom-built steam trawlers came to cost between £3,000 and £8,000 and more, and with the requirement for substantial capital investment, they were owned by companies at first based in England. These big vessels dominated the market and dominated the fishing grounds, taking fish indiscriminately, damaging and destroying the nets and lines of the inshore fishers and removing a vital local food source (Macdonald 1978: 106; Coull 1994: 108-9).

  • 8 The Sea Leaguer. Comunn Iasgairean na Mara Number 1 (September 1936), 7. An unequivocal editorial i (...)

13This was the background to the founding of the Sea League of the 1930s. They contended that fishing offered a natural resource on which the economy of islands like Barra should have been built and sustained, as was the case in countries like Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. By the early years of the twentieth century in Scotland, it was said that the traditional long-line and drift-net fishing of the Hebrides had been nearly completely destroyed by the incursions of Hull, Grimsby, Lowestoft and Fleetwood trawlers, as well as trawlers from East Coast ports like Aberdeen. The trawlers were regarded as ‘poachers’ in the same way as were the Dutch and English fishing boats through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.8 By the end of the nineteenth century, a local pundit could comment about Broad Bay on the north-east coast of Lewis that ‘trawling, we fear, has nearly destroyed these rich fish banks’ (Mackenzie 1903, 578). The same message was conveyed in a letter to The Scotsman in spring 1902 with regard to fishermen in the north-west mainland parishes of Assynt, Edarachillis and Durness:

This valuable source of food and employment has now, I grieve to say, almost quite disappeared, and this is generally attributed to excessive and illegal trawling – which has destroyed the breeding grounds of the fish and deprived the inhabitants of their principal food supply. So scarce has food become that the fishermen have ceased to set lines, and they cannot even get enough to use as bait for their lobster creels. (MacIver 1905, 277)

14Making its mark in the early 1880s in Scotland, extensive trawling took demersal fish – found on or near the bottom of the sea - from inshore waters. A three-mile fishery limit had been agreed between England, Germany, France, Denmark, Holland and Belgium under the North Sea Convention of 1882 as having the force of ‘international law’. Norway was not a signatory, thus justifying British trawlers fishing in Norwegian and Icelandic waters. The three-mile limit round each island could not be policed by fishery cruisers and poaching by trawlers was common as could still be observed round Barra in the 1930s (see below). The same correspondent in The Scotsman had complained about trawler practices in the Minch in 1902:

Trawlers are constantly seen within the three-mile limit with impunity, there being no means of identifying them, and apparently they are left to ruin the fishing banks close inshore at their own sweet will. They trawl during the night and on Sundays. ….. As these remarks must apply to the whole North and West coast of Scotland, I request you to make them public in hopes that some redress may be provided by Government. (MacIver 1905, 278)

  • 9 The success of the industry was then being celebrated by a series of international exhibitions whic (...)

15Opposition from Scottish fishing communities both on the East and West Coasts was becoming a political issue by the late 1870s, the conflict of interests being at its sharpest over inshore fishing grounds where fish stocks were more dense. The Fishery Board for Scotland [FBS] was reconstituted in 1882 to pass legislation and to regulate the fishing industry. In spite of pressure to extend the law, trawling companies seemed to have the ear of government and managed to avert the creation of a central authority being proposed to exercise control over British fisheries. Damage to lines and drift nets at local level was largely ignored and no action was taken against the trawling interests.9

16As a measure of the impact of trawling, European states began to legislate to control it and Norway, Sweden, Denmark and France banned trawling in their territorial waters (Coull 1994: 110-11). The Herring Fishery (Scotland) Act of 1889 banned all trawling within three miles of the low water mark and empowered the FBS to close selected inshore areas to trawling. The Moray Firth was closed to trawlers in 1891 and the ban was extended to a number of bays and coastal areas on the West Coast. The Sea Fisheries Regulation (Scotland) Act 1895 provided for the creation of a thirteen-mile limit to further protect the inshore fisheries (Forte and Coull 2008: 178-80). In the North and West of Scotland, this was strongly in the interest of local fishing communities but the thirteen-mile limit was not implemented. Fines and prosecutions were the sanctions, but illegal trawling persisted in Scottish inshore waters and it was apparently common for trawlers to cover their registration numbers and operate at night without lights (Grant 1957: 23-5). There were not enough Fishery Protection Cruisers to enforce the law and there are many accounts of illegal trawling and the resentment and anger that this caused (Coull 1994, 117-19). Writing in the periodical Gairm in 1958, John Lorne Campbell retailed comments from a former Fishery Cruiser skipper about the lack of diligence in the pursuit and prosecution of ‘poaching’ trawlers:

  • 10 ‘This skipper told me that he needn’t have had to do his utmost to pursue the trawlers that were wo (...)

Dh’ inns an sgiobair seo dhomh fhìn nach ruigeadh e leas a dhol “gu mullach a dhìchill” a’ ruith nan tràlairean a bha ’g obair goirid bho ’n chladach. “Chan fhaighinn taing air a shon,” ars esan, “chaidh leigeil fhaicinn dhomh nach deanadh e feum dhomh a bhith tuilleadh is dìchiollach ’gan glacadh. Tuigidh sibh mar a bha a’ chùis; bha muinntir nan tràlairean gu math làidir air Bòrd an Iasgaich fhèin.” (Fear Chanaidh 1958: 159) 10

17The pattern of destruction to the point of extinction of inshore fishing was interrupted by the First World War but there was no alleviation of a steady decline between the wars. The economic advantages of an industrial-scale fishing industry outweighed social concerns for island communities and coastal fishermen. Restrictions against inshore and illegal trawling had drawn a ‘critical analysis’ in The Scotsman in December 1933 from the trawling point of view. John Lorne Campbell responded swiftly to “an account which is …. both tendentious and misleading” and taking the author to task for his admission that “trawling wherever practised has always destroyed vast quantities of young fish.” Campbell continued:

Since this is the case, let us be thankful for the sake of the food supply of future generations, that there are at least some areas still closed to so wasteful a mode of fishing. The other (and stronger) reason for maintaining (and enforcing) the three-mile limit, is the social one, the right of the small man working on an individualist basis to have his livelihood protected from the encroachment of large centralised and soulless combines. The problem is not limited to the fishing industry. It is a powerful factor behind the agitation against illegal trawling, the more so as ‘live and let live’ certainly does not appear to be the policy of the trawlers. (Campbell 1933: 11)

The Sea League is founded

18Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), who founded the Sea League with John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996), lived and worked in Barra for twelve years from 1933 until 1945. Campbell contacted him in the summer of 1932 with the suggestion that Mackenzie, who was working on a book on ‘Prince Charlie’, might like to see the proofs of his own work, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five. This was an anthology of Gaelic Jacobite poetry with translations. He sent the proofs to Compton Mackenzie who responded with an invitation to visit. John Lorne Campbell went to Barra, arriving on 4 August 1933 and staying for five years. Shortly after his arrival, he became Secretary of the Sea League (see Figure 3).

  • 11 The motor yacht’s complement (left to right): Doris Walker, Neil Sinclair (‘An Sgoilear Ruadh’), Ro (...)

Figure 3: Political intrigue at sea - the instigators of the Sea League, 1935.11

Figure 3: Political intrigue at sea - the instigators of the Sea League, 1935.11

Source: National Trust for Scotland

19Mackenzie was attracted to the Hebridean way of life and its culture and, in 1935, built himself a house on the machair which he called Suidheachan (for ‘a sitting-down place’). This rapidly became the centre of a social and literary coterie, with the tradition of a weekly pool game at which the issues and problems of Hebridean life were fully aired (see Figure 4). If the crofting way of life and the Gaelic tradition were to be saved, that way of life had to be put on a sounder economic footing and this called for political action. Challenging political issues was Mackenzie’s forté and especially those that appeared to shelter behind bureaucracy and red tape.

Figure 4: Closet politics and the Sea League - in the billiard room at Suidheachan.

Figure 4: Closet politics and the Sea League - in the billiard room at Suidheachan.

Source: National Trust for Scotland

20On 6 September 1933, Mackenzie sent a telegram to the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald: “At this moment the fishing cruiser Minerva is lying at anchor in Castlebay, Barra, while a trawler in full view is at work inside the limit”. A response from Westminster denied that this was the case in Castlebay (Mackenzie 1968, 127). Prompted by this blatant ignoring of the three-mile limit and by the frequent sightings of trawlers poaching, Campbell and Mackenzie decided that the agitation against illegal trawling had to be intensified and that a ‘Sea League’ should be formed in the spirit of the ‘Land League’ of the 1880s. 'The Sea League' or Comunn Iasgairean na Mara was formed in the summer of 1933; its objectives were straightforward, to lobby for the closing of the Minch to trawlers, for effective protection of the seas within the three-mile limit and for the increase of fines for illegal trawling, and thus to rebuild local inshore fisheries with long lines and drift-nets (Mackenzie 1968, 128).

  • 12 CH2/5/3 and CH2/5/3/0-7: Canna House Archive, National Trust for Scotland. Research into the papers (...)

21The inaugural meeting of the Sea League took place in the Church Hall, Castlebay, on the 22 July 1933. Rev Father Dominic MacKellaig, Craigston, was in the chair. Compton Mackenzie delivered an address on the objects of the Sea League in the face of the “ruination of the fishing industry” and appealed for the enrolment of fishermen and others interested in the industry.12 Given the impact of trawling on the coastal communities over the preceding fifty years, Mackenzie concluded on a note, probably designed to speak more directly to Gaels, that the Sea League had been formed to demand the same protection for the livelihood of the crofter-fisherman as was given to the sporting fishing of the landowners themselves. The substance of this message and appeal for support were included in a printed bilingual manifesto in which the objects of the Sea League were briskly rehearsed:

1. That the Minch between a line from Barra Head to Tiree, and a line from the Butt of Lewis to Cape Wrath, shall be closed to trawlers, and that the fishing in this area shall be regulated to the benefit of the fishermen who live around it.

2. That the penalties for illegal trawling shall be increased, and the policing of the inshore waters made more efficient.

  • 13 Rùn agus Beachd Comunn Iasgairean na Mara. For a subscription of one shilling, applicants were invi (...)

3. That the fines inflicted for illegal trawling shall be used for financing fishermen who have lost their gear through illegal trawling, or who want to commence inshore fishing for the first time.13

The Sea League in action

  • 14 CH2/5/3 ‘Illegal trawling and the King’s Speech / Barra, Outer Hebrides, 2nd December 1933’, and co (...)

22An immediate objective for the Sea League was active support for the Illegal Trawling Bill, then before parliament. Circumstances appeared to be in their favour and government was not altogether deaf to these protests since the Bill was predicated on the increase of fines for inshore and illegal trawling. As John Lorne Campbell’s letter to The Scotsman showed (quoted above), this proposed legislation was provoking vigorous opposition from the trawler owners and had led to the Sea League’s assumption that they had a vested interest in trawling within the three-mile limit in Scottish waters. The Sea League wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir Godfrey Collins, in support of the Bill and as ‘response on behalf of the inshore fishermen of the West of Scotland’. It then issued the letter as a printed leaflet under the heading ‘Illegal trawling and the King’s Speech’.14 The Illegal Trawling Act was passed by the Government in the spring of 1934, increasing the maximum penalty for illegal trawling from £100 to £200 and with sanctions of imprisonment for non-payment and non-compliance. This was a quick-win for the Sea League but the Secretary was later to comment in the news sheet, using a simile of the door closing on hens rather than horses: “There was only one fault to be found with this Act – the fact that it was not passed 40 years ago …. As it is, the Act comes after the damage has been [done] … like closing the door of the henhouse after the hens had been stolen.”

  • 15 Application of the term ‘Fleetwood trawlers’ had become a generic or shorthand applied by the Sea L (...)

23A revelation for the instigators of the Sea League then came from London barrister and West Highland laird, Francis Cameron Head of Inverailort, who told them of the existence of the Sea Fisheries Regulation (Scotland) Act of 1895, none of whose provisions, it appeared, had been put into force. The Act provided for the creation of Fishery District Committees through powers conferred on the Secretary of State for Scotland. They were to create sea-fisheries districts and fishing district committees ‘for the regulation of the sea fisheries carried on within the district’. By means of byelaws for the regulation of local fisheries, the terms of the Act also provided for the creation of a thirteen-mile fishery limit in Scottish waters. Legal provision had been made nearly forty years earlier, therefore, for a fishery limit which would have protected the Hebridean inshore fisheries but it had never been implemented. This and the issue of Fishery District Committees for the Hebrides became the campaigning causes of the Sea league. But Fleetwood trawlers, consistently violating the three-mile limit, continued to destroy the spawning beds of the white fish and with them the livelihood of the long line fishermen of the islands.15 Compton Mackenzie was later to write in an article in 1955 for The Picture Post that “the failure to carry out the provisions of the 1895 Act has been the main cause of the complete ruin of the West Highland fishermen. ….. Meanwhile the fishing boats are rotting all because an Act of Parliament over sixty years old has never been put in force for fear of vested interests” (Mackenzie 1955: 7, 8).

  • 16 CH2/5/3/0, with Sea League documentation and correspondence in Canna House that remains to be docum (...)

24Given the local authority basis of the Secretary of State’s powers to enforce fishery regulation by-laws, the Sea League campaigned for a sea fishery district committee for Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay, all islands in Inverness-shire and subject to Inverness County Council, and received unanimous support from all the fishermen in these islands. The Sea League shared their literature with Lewis fishermen but encouraged them to lobby for their own Fishery District Committee because Lewis, as part of Ross-shire, was in a separate County Council area. Fishery district branches came into being, generating correspondence and airing local concerns. Alex Steele of the Loch Eynort Branch, for example, writing to the Secretary in 1937 offered another significant local perspective: “The people in this district are placed in a very bad plight, there is any amount of fish to be had in this district, but through lack of transport it is practically useless for them”, explaining that lobsters had to be carried in creels for two or three miles.16

25In 1934, John Lorne Campbell and Compton Mackenzie began to discuss how to dispose of the sentimental image of the Hebrides then common in the public mind and fostered by certain writers. An outcome of this was the joint-editing with the Norwegian linguistics scholar, Carl Borgstrøm, of The Book of Barra. Embracing the social and economic history of one Outer Hebridean island over about five hundred years, accounts and documents about Barra were included without fear or favour, since, given the interests of Campbell and Mackenzie, these tended to be controversial. A further challenge to the reader at the time was that this work firmly ignored the tourist literature with its “uncritical exploitation of the romantic aspects of Highland and Hebridean history. If such aspects have sometimes been a legitimate source of inspiration to our historians, they have …. served to obscure to many the less pleasant side of recent Highland history” (Campbell et al. 1936: ix). The book was published by Routledge in 1936 and royalties were given to the Sea League.

The Sea Leaguer news sheet

26In terms of the pursuit of its goals, the news sheet opened with the preparation of a petition for the creation of a fishery district in the Inverness-shire Outer Islands under the terms of the Sea Fisheries Regulation (Scotland) Act of 1895. This would comprise a committee, half of whose members would be County Councillors and the other half representatives of the fishing community, and expenses would be chargeable to the general-purpose rates. The campaign followed on through successive numbers of the news sheet with minimal response from the authorities, while “official attitude consists of finding reasons for not doing anything” and ‘The Petition’s Progress’ is described as an example; the Petition was sent to the County Clerk in Inverness at New Year 1935, forwarded by the County Clerk to the Scottish Office on 25 October 1935 and, following unduly slow exchange of letters, no decision or reasoned argument had been put forward by August 1936 on the eve of the news sheet going to press.

27The news sheet first appeared in September 1936 under the by-line: “THE SEA LEAGUER / Comunn Iasgairean na Mara / Price 1d September 1936 No. 1”. The editor held out the prospect of the news sheet being published every two to three months and eight numbers were produced to form a first volume concluding in July 1938. A second volume began in September 1938 and three numbers were produced, the final number in March 1939. Assembling content and typing out, duplicating and distributing represented a major commitment for its compiler and John Lorne Campbell should earn our admiration for sustaining such a production.

28The first number opened by marking the beginning of the fourth year of the Sea League’s existence and commented on the fate of movements connected with the Highlands and Islands that are “launched on a wave of enthusiasm, thereafter lose their force and die and disappear”. The experience had been subject to disappointments in trying to get anything done due to remoteness, procrastination and inefficiency of the government offices, often, it was suggested, a consequence of opposition interests being closer to those in authority. Building an organisation for which communications are so slow had been enough to destroy enthusiasm but it concluded: “Nevertheless the Sea League is as strong as it ever was; and one of the chief sources of its strength is the fact that all its officials are permanently resident in the Islands.” The first news sheet concluded with its Gaelic section on Obair Comunn Iasgairean na Mara (‘The Work of the Sea League’), and a barnstorming statement by the Secretary against an tràladh, speaking directly to his local audience (see Figure 5). He rehearses the oppressions of island folk between Clearances and the utter destruction of their fishing grounds and he sets the tone of the campaign by invoking the Highland Land League as example to follow. He does not hesitate to accuse and the trawlermen are termed ‘luchd-reubainn’, that is, not just ‘pillagers’ but a force that effectively tears up and destroys what it seeks.

Figure 5: Angus John Campbell and creel.

Figure 5: Angus John Campbell and creel.

Source: National Trust for Scotland

  • 17 Report of the Commission appointed to inquire into Certain Matters affecting the Interests of the P (...)

29The second news sheet was issued in January 1937 and reported on the death of Sir Godfrey Collins, Secretary of State for Scotland (since 1932) who was described as showing firmness and determination in handling the support for the Illegal Trawling Bill and had clearly acted in the interests of inshore fishermen. Under the mantra ‘Hope deferred’, the Sea Leaguer reported on an editorial in the Stornoway Gazette with reference to the Walpole Commission of 1890 and commented that it was still “one of the most penetrating and poignant exposures of the neglect of the Highlands and Islands”, and that “the great mistake which every Government has made in its dealings with the Highlands has been that it acted too late and on too small a scale”.17

30Exemplars already existed for a system which acted in the interests of inshore fisheries but it was a matter of frustration for the Sea League that Fishery District Committees existed in England and Wales, covering coastal regions and giving a voice to inshore fishermen. The news sheet included enviable accounts of Fishery Districts at work, for example, reports by the Fishery Officer of the South Wales Sea Fisheries District, including the effective policing of the three-mile limit by a Fishery District patrol vessel.

  • 18 In June 1935, John Lorne Campbell had married the folksong collector, Margaret Fay Shaw, and later (...)

31The Sea Leaguer of September 1937 was moving forward the policy embodied in the resolution of the Sea League adopted at the first meeting in Castlebay in July 1933, especially in the light of the 1895 Act for the regulation of sea fisheries, providing inter alia for a thirteen-mile limit and drawing parallels with Norway’s fishery policies:18

The Sea League has been founded in order to do everything in its power by whatever means it may consider suitable:

  • to secure the absolute closing of the Minch from Barra Head to Skerryvore and thence to the north point of Islay against any kind of fishing except drift nets and lines.

  • To take any measure it may think suitable to stop illegal trawling within the three mile limit pending the closing of the Minch

  • To close the Moray Firth and the Firth of Clyde against all trawlers of any nationality.

The Sea League since that time has agitated for the enforcement of the thirteen-mile limit provided for by this Act around the Western Isles and off the western coast of Scotland. Alternatively attention has been drawn to the fact that the Norwegian government regards and always has regarded the waters lying between the islands that fringe their coast and their mainland as part of their territorial waters, taking thus under protection areas like Vestfjord between the Lofoten Islands and the mainland which are larger than the Minch, and the Sea League has latterly pointed out the geographical similarity which exists between the coast of Norway and the coast of West Scotland, and has demanded that Norwegian principles of fishery protection can be applied to Scottish waters.

32The content of the news sheets included the material of recordings made by John Lorne Campbell and also items of cultural and social concern outside the Sea League’s campaign. One such item was the proposal in July 1938 to restore Kismul Castle, eliciting the comments: “We say deliberately that we regret the possibility of such a thing taking place …. the very large sum of money which will obviously be necessary for this purpose could be spent in many other ways that would be more beneficial to the natives of Barra as a whole – for example the founding of bursaries to enable young men from Barra to attend the courses in co-operation at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. … Far too much money has been wasted in the Highlands before now in erecting such monuments to sentimentality and pride.”

33Another item which ran through several numbers of the Sea Leaguer was the story of the Barra ‘car strike’ and the ensuing Lochmaddy Sheriff Court case. In 1935 owners of cars and lorries in Barra refused to pay their road fund licences in view of the failure of the local authority to improve the twelve miles of island road. This was still in its original condition following its construction by relief labour during the potato famine in the late 1840s. Those who refused to pay were prosecuted in the Lochmaddy Sheriff Court. The case attracted popular support and financial contributions from mainland motorists, heavy fines were reduced on appeal and the following year the roads were put in order; “solidarity brings moral victory”, as the Editor wryly commented.

34The topic of the Barra roads continued with a visit by the Mr Walter Elliot, Secretary of State for Scotland, in summer 1937 on a tour of inspection of the Islands. Coming ‘to see things as they are’, he flew from Renfrew to Barra and then toured round the islands in the Fishery Cruiser Minerva, drawing some criticism that first-hand experience should include experience of normal discomfort and the difficulties of travel to and round the islands. Flying in to Barra, Mr Elliot was taken from the Tràigh Mhòr to Castlebay in a car hired in the Island, an event which inspired a newspaper cartoon (Figure 6).

Figure 6: impact of the Barra road tax protest.

Figure 6: impact of the Barra road tax protest.

CH2/5/3 cartoon from summer 1937 filed in the Sea League papers, Canna House


  • 19 CH2/5/3. The news sheets presently recorded are Volume 1 (September 1936) – Volume 8 (July 1938), V (...)

35The Sea Leaguer news sheet appears to have issued its final number in December 1938 under the editorial headline ‘The Gàidhealtachd and the Crisis’, and with a summary of the possible outcomes of the ‘Munich Crisis’. John Lorne Campbell’s comments on the circumstances and wellbeing of the Western Isles end on the deserted and undefended state of the West Coast and an expectation of the need for “manpower” and: “For deer and salmon will hardly be able to take the place in the ranks of the famous Highland regiments of the Highlanders themselves.”19

Going forward from the Sea League

36The Sea League, not surprisingly in the prevailing geopolitical situation, then goes into abeyance. Much of the political arguments and interventions of the preceding six years were subsumed within a ‘Belhaven Press’ booklet co-authored by John Lorne Campbell with Sir Alexander MacEwen, County Councillor for Benbecula and former provost of Inverness, and Scottish Nationalist parliamentary candidate, under the title Act now for the Highlands and Islands (1939). It represented a political call for action and a prescient recommendation for the creation of a Highland Development Board. With striking comparisons with Norway, the booklet set out in detail the aims of the Sea League towards fishery limits and reiterated “the inadequacy of a three-mile limit to afford the local fishermen proper protection against the competition of steam trawlers.” The authors took their case much further in calling for government action and investment, support with boats and gear, better harbour facilities, overall improvement in a transport and communications infrastructure, attention given to agriculture as well as fisheries, water supplies and housing, and a perceptive chapter on ‘Waterpower, Rural Industry and Tourist Traffic’ (MacEwen 1939: 22 and passim),

Figure 7: essay on the Cod War, 1958.

Figure 7: essay on the Cod War, 1958.

Source: National Trust for Scotland

37John Lorne Campbell himself continued to carry the Sea Leagues arguments’ forward, for example, with his comments on the ‘Cod Wars’. Iceland’s declaration of a twelve-mile limit, to come into effect from 1 September 1958, began a series of confrontations and conflicts between the UK and Iceland over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. British reasons for challenging this were strategic and economic, in that declining British fisheries were hard hit by the loss of access to historical North Atlantic fishing grounds. British trawlers ignored this limit, and they were protected by the Royal Navy for whom this was a ‘necessary war’ in the face of the Labour Government’s defence cuts. The term ‘Cod Wars’, waged between British trawlers and Icelandic gunboats, was coined by journalists who portrayed the trawlermen as national heroes, and the confrontation continued until 1976. Significantly for a northern viewpoint, they were termed in Iceland ‘The Wars for the Territorial Waters’. Campbell published an essay on the ‘Cod War’ – Cogadh nan Trosg - in the Gaelic-medium periodical, Gairm, in winter 1958 (Figure 7), with a bias towards Iceland, the Faroes and Norway protecting their fisheries. At the same time, he drew attention to the cause of Hebridean fishermen of the Sea League and to the cultural identity of these communities:

  • 20 ‘But there’s another way of looking at this, and the Gaels know about that. They remember their sho (...)

Ach tha dòigh eile ann, agus cha bhi na Gàidheil aineolach air. Bidh cuimhne aca-san mar a bha na cladaichean aca, cladaichean nan Innse Gall ’s an Eilein Sgiathanaich agus Mòrthir na Gàidhealtachd, tighinn beò le èisg gus na thòisich obair ghràna sin nan tràlairean a’ tighinn dlùth air a’ chladach o chionn trì fichead bliadhna air ais ’s ma dh’fhaoidte an còrr.20

38Campbell also brought into his article an essay written in 1933 by Neil Sinclair, the Barra schoolteacher, An Sgoilear Ruadh, in which he drew a comparison so strongly embedded in community memory on: ‘…. livelihoods and fishing grounds stolen from them by the trawlers as the rights to their lands had been taken from the people of the islands’ (Campbell 1958: 157-58).

  • 21 Fishing rights were one of the most contentious areas of the Brexit talks (2017-2019), with public (...)

39In 1972, Iceland extended its fishing zone to fifty nautical miles and further extended it in 1975 to 200 miles to conserve fish stocks and to increase its share of catches. This had an ultimately favourable outcome for the protagonists when, in 1976, the UK conceded to Iceland’s 200 nautical mile exclusive fisheries zone. Conservation of fish stocks and the protection of fisheries for local communities, not to mention access to coastal waters by European Union nations and others, make this a topic of current significance although the ‘Brexit’ debate is muted in terms of growing environmental concerns.21

40Social and economic concerns for sustainability, environmental damage and depopulation in the Hebrides were at the heart of the Sea League’s campaign and are now matters of intense debate. Arguably, debate is currently sharpened by matters beyond our control as well as by local issues. The global scale of issues such as damage to the marine environment and over-exploitation of fish stocks in ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction has led the UN Ocean Conference calling for the ‘dire state of the ocean’ to be addressed:

Clean seas are the foundation of our inshore and offshore fishing fleets, cementing Scotland’s reputation as a world-class source of sustainable seafood. Fisheries are in balance with biodiversity, the seabed is largely intact and the environmental food chain supports species from tiny plankton to massive fin whales. Industries have incorporated environmentally friendly management practices, eliminating pollution and reducing their carbon footprint through new technologies.22

41At home, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party have been committed to an ambitious marine protection programme with at least 10% of Scotland’s seas designated as ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’ [HPMA] by 2026. Ongoing discussions on a possible network of ‘marine protected areas’ have been prolonged and the designation with its specific fisheries management measures has been challenged. Areas of contention have included Barra’s inshore waters and the livelihoods of its fishermen. The Western Isles Council declared unequivocally against the government designated HPMA on 9 March 2023 and Radio nan Gàidheal’s reporting of the decision offered a direct and unequivocal warning on the fishermen’s behalf:

  • 23 BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, Athris na Maidne 09.03.23, “The Western Isles Council have declared vigorou (...)

Chuir Comhairle nan Eilean Siar gu mòr an aghaidh sgìrean ùra aig muir le dìon sònraichte. Dh’aithnichear gu bheil ‘glèidhteachas’ na phriomh-chùis ann an saoghal atharrachadh na gnàth-shìde ach bhiodh sgìrean fìor ghlèidhte aig muir a’ deanamh cron ri eaconamaidh na sgìre agus bith-beò dhaoine agus tha eagal oirnn gun tigeadh dùnadh sìos na coimhearsnachd às.23

  • 24 BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, Athris na Maidne, with successive reporting on HPMAs on 9, 10, 14, 15, 20, (...)

42Radio nan Gàidheal’s news item on HPMAs has been repeated frequently since the beginning of March 2023, including reporting on robust responses from Tiree and Tarbert, Loch Fyne, and responses from three sites in England such as Lindisfarne where communities consider their livelihoods under threat. Typically the newscaster’s comment was: “Tha iad a’ togail ghuth an aghaidh sgiìrean ghlèidhte le dìon àird” (‘They are protesting against conservation areas with high protection’). A period of consultation was extended and is ongoing, with exasperation in the tone of local commentators – “we’re marching down the road of insanity” or “what do they want to conserve?” Or “seo na fuadaichean a-rithist” (‘here’s the clearances again’). 24

43Drawn into public awareness has been the research of Edinburgh University anthropologist, Dr Magnus Course. He made a short film in South Uist in 2018 as part of his research project on the culture and language of land and sea. Muir ar n-Athraichean (‘Our Fathers’ Sea’) explored what he described as a holistic relationship between island fishermen and the sea which the film vividly demonstrated.25 As against a widely-accepted concept of fishing being driven solely by profit, he revealed a commitment to sustainability and a stewardship of the sea uniquely expressed through the medium of Uist Gaelic. In describing and naming the comharran (or ‘landmarks’) which denoted the fishing grounds, the speaker added “my father, grandfather and great-grandfather fished here”. He continued: “the Scottish government is creating places called MPAs and is closing the waters to fishermen. ….. If that continues, it’ll do a lot of harm.” He concluded: “It’ll be like the clearances!”26

44Under the pressure of political expediency, memory and meaning find themselves laid aside in the face of ‘global’ issues such as the conservation of the marine environment; any such government programme is normally formulated, articulated and applied from the centre, cultural and linguistic values ignored and a process of local consultation perhaps too cynically perceived as a means of bringing the community on board. Local opposition in Barra to such a measure was sensitively rehearsed and published as long ago as 2012 in a project exploring cultural and linguistic commonalities in relation to the sea between Barra and Donegal. Adopting the term ‘emotional energy’ from the late Dr John MacInnes, the authors drew on the sense of belonging to a home place – and a sense of responsibility for that place – as ‘Dùthchas na mara’ or ‘Belonging to the sea’, and folk living in the islands see a ‘way of knowing’ the marine environment as part of their identity. Our experience is that political ideologies will still bypass these values:

The existence on these Gaelic-speaking islands of a strong body of traditional knowledge that has emerged from the island people’s long and close relationship with nature, alongside the existence in international law of a framework which gives value to this knowledge, has the potential to connect different ways of knowing the marine environment. …. It is likely that the current lack of connection between these different ways of understanding the world contributes fundamentally to the ongoing conflicts in the islands. (Mackinnon and Brennan 2012, 7-8, 43)

  • 27 “Without doubt sgoth is the common word that they have for ‘boat’, rather than bàta, but sgoth and (...)

45Memory and meaning are still nurtured in Hebridean communities and dialect and terminology valued. In terms of the identity of fishing communities, a recent University of Glasgow MPhil thesis by Ciorstaidh NicLeòid from Barra, Briathrachas an Iasgaich ann an Eilean Bharraigh (‘The terminology of fishing in the Island of Barra’), reflects this interest and sense of value (NicLeòid 2016: 271-84). The lives of Barra folk have been dependent on fishing for centuries and this is also evident in the lexical richness in vocabulary for boats and the sea. With the shrinking of Gaelic as the first language and the changes to fishing, a wealth of terminology for boats, gear, fish and weather is in danger of being forgotten. Ciorstaidh NicLeòid draws our attention to language acting as a benchmark for distinctiveness of dialect and community identity: “Gun teagamh is e sgoth am facal coitcheann a tha aca airson ‘boat’ seach bàta ach thathar a’ cur feum air sgoth agus bàta le ciall nas mionaidiche” 27(NicLeòid 2016: 283).


46Between the two World Wars, a need for the protection of that natural resource - fisheries - on which the wellbeing of islanders ​and coastal communities had always depended was never more pressing. ​The concept of being 'on the edge' which was powerfully present as the twentieth century progressed was exacerbated by the apparent neglect of distant communities by a remote government and bureaucracy, both prominent targets of the Sea League’s campaign. With its membership of fishermen throughout the Hebrides, it might be claimed that it is a pity that the Sea League came to be lost to view. A contemporary reason for its disappearance is evident in its persistent but neglected argument for the creation of fishery district committees. Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1929, authority was vested in larger administrative units, either in County or Burgh Councils, and the income from rates was supplemented by grants from central government. It was soon evident that County authorities, especially in the Highlands and Islands, did not have, as they saw it, sufficient resources to discharge their functions efficiently. According to the Sea League, this was a wholly inadequate response to their appeals, followed by complaints of inaction and prevarication. Compton Mackenzie later briskly commented on this: “As for the Fishing Districts, not one was formed. County Councils involved were afraid of the extra halfpenny on the rates” (Mackenzie 1968: 128).

47This study places the Sea League in a wider context in which the discovery and valorisation of its records can serve to extend the debate over environmental degradation and community livelihoods while also introducing longer perspectives on our understanding of community identity. This study points to the role of the inshore fisherman in sustaining this identity (see Figure 8). Closing down what is left of a fishing industry in coastal and island communities was at the heart of the campaign of the Sea League and, coming forward ninety years, centrally devised plans for the marine environment have raised a local voice of protest. We can echo the comment of John Lorne Campbell on his Sea Leaguer news sheet that it deserves its place amongst the literature of Highland protest. Its commentary on the state of the Hebrides was sharp, provocative and, for us today, insightful; on the politics of the day at local and national level, it might have been tendentious but it offered a version of a voice from within – all too rare before our own day.

Figure 8: Creel boat, Loch Hourn, spring 2023.

Figure 8: Creel boat, Loch Hourn, spring 2023.

"Sanctuary-the Lifeworlds of Seaweeds in Loch Hourn", G. Canale p. 87.

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Campbell, J. L. “Illegal Trawling.” The Scotsman, 28 December 1933: 11.

Campbell, John Lorne, Compton Mackenzie and Carl Hj. Borgstrøm, eds. The Book of Barra.

London: Routledge & Sons 1936.

Campbell, John Lorne. “Our Barra Years (1). The Friends at Suidheachan.” The Scots Magazine, August 1975: 494-503.

Campbell, John Lorne. “Our Barra Years (2). Fields of Battle.” The Scots Magazine, September 1975: 613-623.

Cheape, Hugh. “The sea wanted to be visited.” West Highland Free Press, 4 December 2020: 20.

Coull, James. “The trawling controversy in Scotland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” International Journal of Maritime History Volume 6 Issue 1 (June 1994): 107-22.

Coull, James. “White Fishing.” Boats, Fishing and the Sea. A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Volume 4. Ed. James Coull (and others). Edinburgh: John Donald 2008. 253-76.

Coull, James, Alexander Fenton and Kenneth Veitch, eds. Boats, Fishing and the Sea. A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Volume 4. Edinburgh: John Donald 2008.

Dunlop, Jean. The British Fisheries Society, 1786-1893. Edinburgh: John Donald, [1978] 2007.

Fear Chanaidh [John Lorne Campbell]. “Cogadh nan Trosg.” Gairm Àireamh 26 (An Geamhradh 1958): 157-62.

Forte, Angelo, and James Coull, “Fishing and Legislation.” Boats, Fishing and the Sea. A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Volume 4. Ed. James Coull (and others). Edinburgh: John Donald 2008: 171-85.

Grant, James Shaw. “Sea fight off Tolsta Head.” Eilean an Fhraoich Annual December 1957, 23-5.

Gray, Malcolm. The Fishing Industries of Scotland, 1790-1914. Aberdeen: U. of Aberdeen P. 1978.

Herbert, David, ed. Fish and Fisheries. A Selection from the Prize Essays of the International Fisheries Exhibition, Edinburgh 1882. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons 1883.

MacCoinnich, Aonghas. Plantation and Civility in the North Atlantic World; the case of the Northern Hebrides, 1570-1639. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2014. Chapter 6 ‘The English in the Isles and the British Fishery Company’: 291-335.

Macdonald, Donald. Lewis. A History of the Island. Edinburgh: Gordon Wright Publishing 1978 (also edition by Acair Books, Stornoway 2004).

MacEwen, Sir Alexander, and John Lorne Campbell. Act Now for the Highlands and Islands. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, published for the Belhaven Press 1939.

MacIver, Evander. Reminiscences of a Highland Gentleman. Edinburgh: T & A Constable 1905.

Mackenzie, Compton. My Life and Times. Octave Seven, 1931-1938. London: Chatto and Windus, 1968

Mackenzie, Compton. ‘A Great Fishing Controversy.’ Typescript, draft for The Picture Post 8 October 1955, in CH2/5/3, Canna House, 8pp.

Mackenzie, William C. History of the Outer Hebrides. Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1903.

Mackinnon, Iain, and Ruth Brennan. Dùthchas na Mara / Dúchas na Mara / Belonging to the Sea. Buidheann-clò Mhic Thòmais / J. Thomson Colour Printers, 2012.

MacLeòid, Iain F. Na Klondykers. Inbhir Nis: CLÀR, 2005. Bho gheàrr-iomradh air còmhdach an leabhair.

McKay, Margaret M., ed. The Rev. Dr. John Walker’s Report on the Hebrides of 1764 and 1771. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1980.

Munro, R. W., ed. Monro’s Western Isles of Scotland. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1961.

NicLeòid, Ciorstaidh. “Briathrachas an iasgaich an Eilean Bharraigh – faclan airson nan sgothan.” In Cànan agus Cultar / Language and Culture. Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 8. Eds.Wilson McLeod, Anja Gunderloch agus Rob Dunbar. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press 2016, 271-84.

NicNèill, Catriona. “Na h-Eilthirich.” Gairm Àireamh 192 Am Foghar 2000: 359-63.

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1 The surviving papers and published material of the Sea League are curated by the National Trust for Scotland in Canna House, the former home of John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996). I am very grateful to the Archivist, Fiona Mackenzie, for access and advice regarding these papers. They offer a very rich vein of future research.

2 Expression of these circumstances was restrained in island communities, but for an individual account from Barra, see NicNèill 2000: 359-63.


4 or reference Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 (SMA 2020) 

5 The nature and extent of this inshore fishery is discernible in multiple examples of accounts by ministers of their respective parishes published in the ‘Old Statistical Account’ of the 1790s. It is evident too in the earliest known description of the Western Isles from personal observation, that of Donald Monro in the 1540s (Munro 1961: 73-4, 87).

6 includes extensive accounts of the role of fishing in the lives of island communities and a recent summary from recordings in the Tobar an Dualchais sound archive is offered in Cheape 2020: 20.

7 ‘1989. The ‘Cold War’ at its height. And out from a small Highland town there is an amazing fleet: hundreds of Russian fishing boats. They are chasing the mackerel, and pursuing it now as was the pursuit of the herring itself. It has its impact on the town: money is plentiful, caviar is available in the hotels, and Pravda in the shops’ (MacLeòid 2005: author’s summary in Gaelic).

8 The Sea Leaguer. Comunn Iasgairean na Mara Number 1 (September 1936), 7. An unequivocal editorial in Gaelic spoke directly to Hebrideans, for example (in translation): ‘Fishing folks in the Islands lacked for nothing in catching fish in those times. Today, the fishermen of the Western Isles will not catch what would be worth hanging the pot on the fire for. The trawlers have scraped the seabed and they have gone off with the very mother of the fish. Those destroyers have come down in their droves, the biggest share from Fleetwood in England, and, in the darkness of the night, they have scraped and shelled each fishing ground around the shores.’

9 The success of the industry was then being celebrated by a series of international exhibitions which passed over or ignored the voices of protest (e.g. Herbert 1883: xiii-xiv).

10 ‘This skipper told me that he needn’t have had to do his utmost to pursue the trawlers that were working close into the shore. “I wouldn’t get thanks for it” said he. “I was made to understand that it wouldn’t do me any good to be too diligent in catching them. You’ll understand the business; the trawler folks were fairly strong on the Fisheries Board itself.’

11 The motor yacht’s complement (left to right): Doris Walker, Neil Sinclair (‘An Sgoilear Ruadh’), Roderick MacNeil, Chrissie MacSween, Somhairle MacKinnon, Compton Mackenzie, John Lorne Campbell, John MacNeil, John Macpherson (‘The Coddy’).

12 CH2/5/3 and CH2/5/3/0-7: Canna House Archive, National Trust for Scotland. Research into the papers of the Sea League is ongoing and has as yet fully to itemise separate documents. A larger proportion has now been digitised and will in the future be available online. Subsequent citations in this text are from documents without individual classification but which are all within the collection of Sea League papers, CH2/5/3, in Canna House.

13 Rùn agus Beachd Comunn Iasgairean na Mara. For a subscription of one shilling, applicants were invited to write in Gaelic or English to ‘The Secretary, Northbay, Barra.’ Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich has shared a reference to the Sea League in the Glasgow Herald, 1 August 1933, showing that it attracted support from East Coast and English fishermen. The Sea League’s activities were widely reported in the Scottish press in the 1930s and particularly in the Oban Times, for example, ‘The Sea League in Barra’, Oban Times 16 September 1933, p. 2.

14 CH2/5/3 ‘Illegal trawling and the King’s Speech / Barra, Outer Hebrides, 2nd December 1933’, and copies in Canna House.

15 Application of the term ‘Fleetwood trawlers’ had become a generic or shorthand applied by the Sea League to more or less all boats trawling in Hebridean waters. Occasionally the Secretary was more explicit about the political power of the British Trawlers Federation having, for example, the ear of the Sea Fish Commission.

16 CH2/5/3/0, with Sea League documentation and correspondence in Canna House that remains to be documented and evaluated.

17 Report of the Commission appointed to inquire into Certain Matters affecting the Interests of the Population of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1890).

18 In June 1935, John Lorne Campbell had married the folksong collector, Margaret Fay Shaw, and later commented: “Our honeymoon had been spent in North Norway, where I was able to study Norwegian fishery protection methods.” (Campbell 1975: 502)

19 CH2/5/3. The news sheets presently recorded are Volume 1 (September 1936) – Volume 8 (July 1938), Volume 2 Number 1 (September 1938) and Volume 2 Number 2 (December 1938).

20 ‘But there’s another way of looking at this, and the Gaels know about that. They remember their shores, the shores of the Outer Isles, the Isle of Skye and the Mainland of the Highlands, alive with fish until that ugly work of the trawlers began, coming close into the shore around sixty years ago and perhaps more.’

21 Fishing rights were one of the most contentious areas of the Brexit talks (2017-2019), with public assumptions about the UK becoming an independent coastal state and exercising a control over ‘British’ waters with expectations of increased catches for UK fishermen.

22 UN Ocean Conference ends with call for greater global commitment to address dire state of the ocean | UN News

23 BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, Athris na Maidne 09.03.23, “The Western Isles Council have declared vigorously against new highly protected marine areas. It is recognised that conservation is a global concern in the world of climate-change but special conservation areas would damage the economy and people’s livelihoods, and moreover we fear that a closing down of the community would result from it.”

24 BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, Athris na Maidne, with successive reporting on HPMAs on 9, 10, 14, 15, 20, 23 am Màrt, 13, 17 an Giblean, 2 an Cèitean, 29, 30 an t-Ògmhios, and continuing through summer and autumn 2023 with increasingly robust comments e.g. aineolas mun Ghàidhealtachd bho dheas (‘…. ignorance about the Gàidhealtachd from the south’) 2 an Dàmhair 2023.

25 Muir ar n-Athraichean:

26 The Scots Trad Music Awards 2023 have chosen as their ‘Original Work of the Year’ Skipinish’s “The Clearances Again”, being a song written in protest at the Scottish Government’s fishing policy for HPMAs. Winners of the Scots Trad Music Awards 2023 - Folk Radio UK

27 “Without doubt sgoth is the common word that they have for ‘boat’, rather than bàta, but sgoth and bàta are used with a more precise sense.”

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: the ‘Sea Leaguer’ news sheet
Credits Archives, National Trust for Scotland
File image/png, 2.0M
Title Figure 2: Saithe drying for the winter food store, Loch Aineort, South Uist.
Credits Archives from the National Trust for Scotland
File image/jpeg, 405k
Title Figure 3: Baiting small lines for inshore fishing.
Caption Picture kept at the National Trust for Scotland
File image/jpeg, 169k
Title Figure 3: Political intrigue at sea - the instigators of the Sea League, 1935.11
Credits Source: National Trust for Scotland
File image/jpeg, 289k
Title Figure 4: Closet politics and the Sea League - in the billiard room at Suidheachan.
Credits Source: National Trust for Scotland
File image/jpeg, 352k
Title Figure 5: Angus John Campbell and creel.
Credits Source: National Trust for Scotland
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Title Figure 6: impact of the Barra road tax protest.
Caption CH2/5/3 cartoon from summer 1937 filed in the Sea League papers, Canna House
Credits Unsourced
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Title Figure 7: essay on the Cod War, 1958.
Credits Source: National Trust for Scotland
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Title Figure 8: Creel boat, Loch Hourn, spring 2023.
Credits "Sanctuary-the Lifeworlds of Seaweeds in Loch Hourn", G. Canale p. 87.
File image/jpeg, 141k
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Electronic reference

Uisdean Cheape, Taking forward perceptions of identity: the Sea League’s campaign to protect maritime communities and the environment. Angles [Online], 17 | 2024, Online since 28 May 2024, connection on 14 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Uisdean Cheape

Professor Uisdean (Hugh) Cheape has devised and teaches a postgraduate programme, MSc Cultar Dùthchasach agus Eachdraidh na Gàidhealtachd (‘Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History’), at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture. He holds a Research Chair in the University of the Highlands and Islands. The MSc has grown out of his curatorial and ethnological work during a career in the National Museums Scotland (1974-2007) where latterly he was a Principal Curator in the Department of Scotland and Europe. He has researched and published extensively in the subject fields of ethnology and musicology, including studies in Scottish agricultural history, vernacular architecture, piping, tartans and dye analysis, pottery, charms and amulets and talismanic belief. Contact:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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