In 1859 a fight between two boys over a piece of fruit escalated into a riot of over a thousand men known as “Sabaid Mhòr Wick”.
To give a bit of background, the nineteenth century was when the fishing industry was absolutely huge. In the first decade, an entire town had been commissioned on the south side of the River Wick to be called Pulteneytown, with Thomas Telford brought in to design it. He was involved in numerous civil engineering projects, including the Caledonian Canal and several other ports around Scotland.
Workers followed the fish, and around the north of Scotland this meant herring, so in the height of summer, fishing boats from the Western Isles, the Northern Isles and the east coast of England as far as Grimsby congregated in Wick to build a workforce of thousands of men, women and boys with Gaelic and Scots speakers living cheek by jowl. In the main, it worked well because there was plenty of work and little time for leisure.
In 1847 Wick was the largest herring producing port in the British Isles, producing over one hundred thousand barrels of salted herring in a year, each barrel containing between 700 and 1,100 salted fish. The standard capacity of a herring barrel was 66 Scottish pints (or jougs) which equates to 112 litres – a little over half the size of a standard 220-litre oil barrel today.
Sometimes though, when the winds were wrong, or the fish swam too deep with little fishing possible, activities at the docks ceased, and the workers became idle and often drunk.
It all kicked off, in the market, over an orange. The boy with the orange was an incomer from Lewis in Wick to work the herring with his family. The boy, who had bought the orange from the market stall, dropped it, and another, reputedly larger, a local boy from Pultneytown, grabbed it and would not give it back.
The two of them fell into a brawl, and in trying to separate them, the men around started to get involved as well. It was a hot Saturday afternoon in August and, due to the weather, there had been no fishing all week. Drink had been taken, and inevitably all the frustrations of the week erupted into an all-out stramash with the locals taking out their irritations on the incomers from the Western Isles.
The local police, just half a dozen men, managed to get the fight under control and took several Lewis men off to the town jail, which proved to be a mistake as one of the captains of a Lewis fishing boat took his men and the mast of his boat and battered the jail door down to release their fellow islanders.
The fight burst out again, and the town was in a complete riot for several days. The authorities finally quelled the riot after calling for military help, probably from the Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and Cromarty Militia out of Dingwall. An unexpected consequence of the incident was the early agreement to forming a new military unit for Caithness with 1st Caithness based in Wick in March 1860.
According to historian Angus MacLeod of Lewis, a man named Rob MacDonald from Keose, a village by Loch Eireasort, played a major part in keeping the riot going, breaking up the herring barrels to make staves and clubs for the islanders. Upon hearing that there was a warrant for his arrest, MacDonald made a run for it and hijacked a coach and pair on the west coast road before boarding the ferry for home. MacLeod says that the local police from Lewis could not overpower the fugitive and so allowed him to go free. You can read his version of history at the Angus Macleod archive.
Some sources say that the fight was over an apple, but nobody would fight like that over an apple. That would be ridiculous. Oranges were certainly available in 1859 in the far north, imported into Dundee for the marmalade factories. They were not as sweet as now, though, which is why marmalade was invented. In August, whether they would have been available in a rural food market is another question, but then, is it more likely that apples would be in season?
Wick remains a port town to this day. Its main purpose lies in being a port, and the town’s success over the centuries has waxed and waned with the activity in the port. Today, the port acts as the centre for maintenance and monitoring for the Beatrice Wind farm in the Moray Firth and is busier than it has been for several decades. The small fishing fleet relies on the inshore waters for creel fishing these days. What may be a less bustling and chaotic place than the during the heights of the nineteenth century has now developed into an attractive and pleasant marina and dock.
Image: 19th century engraving boats and docks Wick, Scotland. Reproduced under license.