Shell Wherries

Records of the activities once undertaken in Kirkcudbright Bay often include references to “shell wherries”. Today the term is a little confusing to most people and requires some explanation. In modern usage, a shell wherry can be a lightweight and very fast, sleek, canoe-like vessel used for exercise, pleasure and racing on ponds, rivers or canals. The more commonly used term of wherry describes a type of vessel peculiar to places such as slow flowing English rivers like the Thames. In that context, a wherry was a lightly built rowing boat, capable of being rowed by one man and carrying up to eight passengers. The much larger wherry utilised on the Norfolk Broads was heavily built and capable of carrying great amounts of cargo. A Norfolk Broads wherry was usually driven by a single sail when the wind was favourable, but being large and not easily manoeuvred, was also controlled at times by a quant pole which could easily reach the bottom of the shallow broads and rivers.

None of the foregoing vessels would seem likely to have been familiar to any of Kirkcudbright’s mariners, but a type of wherry that was certainly well known here was the Manx or Irish Sea wherry, originally built on the Isle of Man and much loved by those engaged in smuggling. Manx wherries were shapely little vessels with pronounced sheer, pointed sterns and finely shaped hulls of moderate draft that gave them a good performance under sail. They were largely open boats, the smaller ones rigged as sloops or cutters and the larger occasionally rigged as schooners. It is most likely that the term wherry was used in Kirkcudbright merely to describe a wide variety of small and fairly rugged open vessels of shallow draft, each controlled by one or two men, capable of carrying modest loads, doing some fishing, and perhaps making just the occasional foray into smuggling.

The operators of Kirkcudbright’s wherries were for much of the year engaged in the hard work of collecting sea-shells from the mouth of the bay and bringing them up river to the various farmers whose horses and carts had access to the shore. The shells were a useful source of lime in the fertilisation of farmland. The wherries were not of course used exclusively for carrying shells. Their versatile owners and crews also made use of them for the transportation of manure, seaweed, sand, and whinstone quarried from the shore at Torrs, Little Ross and the Isles of Fleet. It is perhaps worth noting that today, large quantities of scallop and queen scallop shells are discarded at sea by seafood processors, with the approval of the necessary authorities. This reflects changing agricultural practices and also the care necessary to prevent pollution of burns, rivers and water supplies by seafood waste.

Brief accounts have survived from the operators of three shell wherries, William White, (Mariner), described as being 50 and upwards in 1810, Alexander Kilpatrick, (Shipmaster), aged 45 in 1810 and John McLellan, (Mariner), of Torrs Lake, aged 63 in 1810. Their accounts refer to vessels that were clinker built and of 10 or 12 tons burthen. The activities of the shell gatherers began usually in April, and from then till November or December they worked night and day for six days a week. The long hours were necessary to use the tides to advantage, going down river with the ebb, beaching near to the banks of shells on the shores of Balmangan bay (now known as Ross bay), labouring to load their vessels to maximum capacity, then heading up river as soon as they were re-floated by the rising tide, travelling as far as Tarff and Tongueland (now shortened and corrupted to Tongland) to distribute their cargoes. John McLellan carried out this work for 22 years, making as many as 70 trips during each season.

Today there is no business to be had for the owners of little vessels like the wherries. They, like almost all other coastal traders and local railways, have had to give way to the perceived convenience and reliability of road transport. Perhaps in an independent Scotland there could be new opportunities for such vessels in smuggling. It is unclear however at this stage, the direction in which such a trade might have to be pursued, and the nature of the goods or passengers with potential to generate profit.
Copyright – David R. Collin 2013