Guest blog: Fathom – a response to Cùram Cuain

12th May 2022

A stack of fathom maps for Cùram Cuain - Embrace the Sea. Image © Jonathan Ford

In October 2021, we collaborated with the Seas of the Outer Hebrides project and artists Saoirse Higgins and Jonathan Ford to host Cùram Cuain, bringing people together in the North-East Lewis Marine Protected Area in a celebration of the ocean, its species and habitats. We’re now thrilled to share local poet, artist and writer Ian Stephen’s creative reflections from the event to coincide with the launch of artworks and a short film made by the artists this May.

The measurement, like many, is based on your own body. It also involves a stretch. Your fingertips extend out to make your personal wingspan but that measurement is also your height. Leonardo was aware of that and his drawing of that human compass is an icon. For me, the charts in which lines of recorded depths were based on soundings, taken by lead-line, are also iconic. Now such historic data carries the warning ‘use with caution’ because the soundings were taken from small boats. Depths were noted from the cordage which was marked with a recognised system of knots and tags. But the neat rows of soundings would have been guided by visual transits – markers in the natural landscape held in line. This is an accurate means of checking that the track of a vessel or a swimmer has not been distorted by sea-current. 

As a sailor, I re-arranged my collection of charts a couple of days ago. Most of them are of course metric. These should be updated regularly. Of course, the geography doesn’t change fast, except for sandbars, but lights and buoyage are altered from time to time. I have jealously guarded the few fathoms-charts because they have more detail and because the engravings are beautiful. When it comes to soundings I still think, firstly in fathoms rather than metres. That’s because my patient mentors, Jock Stewart, Domhmnall Caley and Johndan showed me how to stretch the anchor warp to my own fathoms to make a coil. They also taught me the transits, from Tiumpan Head, Isle of Lewis to the Shiant Islands and back along the coasts to the port of Stornoway. We would use these to fish over unseen reefs. The pinnacle called ‘The Carranoch’ will have only about 19 fathoms over it around Low Water but the depth will jump to about 30 when you drift off the mark. 

When I was trusted to be the anchor-boy, I would call the number of fathoms of line let go to follow the short length of chain fixed to the anchor. The stocks of herring, mackerel, haddock and whiting seemed boundless. It was common to see feeding frenzies of gannets and cetaceans between Tiumpan Head and Holm Point. Often you saw the sandeels swim in shoals so dense that the huge formations were like things in themselves, rather than individual creatures. But of course each glint is one particular creature and nothing is boundless. 

In the 1970s and ’80s a thing called ‘industrial fishing’ targeted sandeels, pout and other small fish. This intervention in the food-chain was devastating in itself but it also affected the large numbers of immature fish of other species caught as ‘bycatch’. This was part of a very inefficient means of producing food and clothing. The fishmeal was used to fatten farm animals or farmed fish but also, weirdly, feed the mink bred for their fur. When these predators, new to this side of the sea, escaped or were released, they created havoc amongst both domestic fowl and wild species. Several studies of the impact of industrial fishing have been carried out. Here is one example from 1998. 

Now the mink problem is under control but the species vital to the food chain of fish and fowl have not recovered. This is in turn reflected in populations of species like razorbills and migratory seatrout. A gut feeling that there are less of these fish and fowl around can sadly be confirmed by recent research programmes. There are always other factors too but most people now know that we can’t just take from the sea without accounting for the effects of our catches on the whole system. The more we are in contact with sea and shore the more we observe. I think that all amounts to a sensing of how much it matters. More and more people are now leaving the comfort of home, car and outdoor clothing to plunge briefly into the sea. The shock seems to bring a sudden heightening of awareness. 

An event at Bayble Beach on Saturday 23rd October led to a group of swimmers and a few observers linking their personal fathoms of outstretched arms. A wild ‘Ring a Rosies’ circle spun into the surf. A southerly severe gale was gusting to about 45 knots at the time. Spindrift flew by the uniform blue bathing caps, dispensed to give a signature to the event. The concept of arranging ‘pods’ of sea-swimmers on shores which fringe Marine Protected Areas is that of SEASOH Project Officer, Charlie Main and artists, Saoirse Higgins and Jonathan Ford. 

This is a significant place. This was where many small boats went out, around dusk, to seek herring. We would cast bare hooks to simulate plankton and often find enough of the pelagic species for families and neighbours. Often they would be in the first fathoms under the boat, rising to feed. Commercial fishing for the species had already become voracious in the 1970s to ’80s. The purse-seiners were bristling with sensors. A blanket ban on commercial fishing for herring was to affect the surviving small-scale commercial craft as well as the giants. 

And so a chain of decline rattles. Species like Risso’s dolphin, tall finned, social and powerful animals, have long been resident in the area reached out of Bayble. We still know so little about these neighbours. Only recently there is documentation of hybridisation of the Risso’s with the bottlenose dolphin. But it also seems that human awareness of the maritime world at the end of our doorstep or croft is returning. On the positive side, the Risso’s are still resident along this coast but we cannot take it for granted that the food resources which sustain them will remain at the level needed. More acute climate-change and deposits of plastic pellets in the sea have increased the threat to all species including our own. 

The turnout on this wild day was astonishing. None were naked but the range of costumes was wide. Some just had the simple swimsuit and cap. Others had partial wetsuits, wooly hats worked for others. The look on the faces (I was observer, not participant) was not pain but joy.  

This is not a new thing. Never mind the Serpentine swimmers at New Year. In the very early 1970s a long blue bus would park at the Melbost road-end. This is the north side of the isthmus, which links the Eye Peninsula including Bayble to the main body of Lewis. A music-teacher with a crewcut would lead a band of lads to the surf. This school ‘activity’ also continued into October and beyond. First it seemed insane. Like many, I’d joined, thinking there was a trainer pool somewhere. There wasn’t one in reach at the time. Even if there had been, that wasn’t the point. I now look back and wish I’d participated more. When I did I found that rush of awareness with every nerve in cold fire. 

Then if you could remain just a bit longer, that gave way to a deep sense of calm. Sea-swimmers don’t seem crazy anymore. In this case they could be a scouting party, going on ahead. Our fathoms have to link with the neighbouring ones. That sudden awareness admits us into protected areas. Local and worldwide histories tell us why such habitats are in need of protected status. The feeling amongst that gathering seemed to be that this is something very different from unreasoned prohibitions. In small groups, we were later invited to draw our own fathoms as interlocking circles on the floor of the public hall by the local football pitch. 

My mother used to say ‘You can’t live on a view.’ Of course she was and is right.  But I got the feeling on Saturday that those who linked their handspans sense that our livelihoods, long-term, and those of the ones who might follow us, depend on close scrutiny of the territories we enter.

Writing by Ian Stephen, October 2021 

You can read more about the Cùram Cuain – Embrace the Sea project and watch the film in this blog post.

This project was part of Creative Carbon Scotland’s culture/SHIFT programme, which supports collaborations between arts and sustainability practitioners to address the climate emergency. 

Marpamm and interreg logos for Seas of the Outer Hebrides project

MarPAMM and Interreg logos

MarPAMM is a cross-border environment project, funded by the EU’s INTERREG VA programme, to develop tools for monitoring and managing a number of protected coastal marine environments in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Western Scotland.



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