Fish-Work

Lost at Sea writer Morna Young

There’s a common saying amongst fishing folk that we have “salt in our blood”. I feel that; a transcendent connection of sorts to the sea. As a born and bred fishing quine, I was taught to respect the waters that brought both tragedy and reward.

I grew up in Burghead on the Northeast Coast. My grandfather Daniel and my father Donnie were both fishermen. Our friends and neighbours were fishermen. The industry dominated our lives – as did the shared knowledge that every voyage could be the last.

In 1989, a tumultuous time for the industry, my father was swept overboard from the Ardent II and, despite extensive searches, his body was never recovered. This story is not unusual in fishing communities. Men and boats from all around the coast have been lost, every village scarred by these losses.

In April, 30 years after my dad’s loss, my play Lost at Sea will commence its world premiere tour at Perth before heading to theatres in Dundee, Aberdeen, Greenock, Inverness, Edinburgh and Dumfries.

While inspired by events from my own life, I wanted to create a fictional story that represented the many unheard losses from around the coast. To achieve this, I decided to use ‘real voices’, verbatim text from interviews with fishermen and their families, and to thread this throughout. Though the story itself is imagined and infused with artistic licence, the truth behind it is not. These voices exist all around us. I wanted to pay tribute to all those who have been lost, and all those who have endured loss.

One of my aims in writing the play was to offer an insight into the emotions, culture, traditions, economics and values that bind people to a way of life. I wanted to look beyond the dangers to understand the lure of the sea. 

Perth Theatre has taken the opportunity to explore these issues through the visual as well as the dramatic arts by staging the first Scottish solo exhibition of photographs by acclaimed American artist, and commercial fisherman, Corey Arnold.

Seeing Corey’s pictures brought visual sense and understanding to the words I have written. The beauty and danger captured in his dramatic images meshed so well with my vision for the play that we selected one of these to be used as the promotional shot for the tour.

Corey’s photography evokes the visceral experience of life at sea for fishermen worldwide. It reflects the courage of those who earn their living on the ocean whilst facing immense risk. Moreover, he manages to capture the experience of tremendous joy and fulfilment. It’s complex but clear.

This understanding of clashing emotions comes directly from Corey’s own experiences. He has been harvesting king crab and wild salmon from the stormy waters of the Bering Sea, Alaska since 1995. He too has salt in his blood.

Fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in the UK with a chance of being killed that’s 50 times greater than for any other job.

Corey’s pictures help us understand why. The night and day struggle with ropes and nets, the hauling of tonnes of fish from the deep, the churning machinery. He tells a story of man versus the elements, of life aboard a precarious vessel being pitched about by wind, wave and storm.

The images would be instantly recognisable to my father, grandfather and all those down the centuries who have been engaged in fishing, as reflective of their moments of hope, fear and triumph.

Many of the pictures were captured when Corey managed to persuade crewmates to take over his duties for a few moments during strenuous working winter days of up to 20 hours aboard Rollo, a 107ft Bering Sea crab boat. Others from summers catching salmon from an aluminium skiff near a remote shore called Graveyard Point.

Corey shares the feelings of so many fishermen, having a love-hate relationship with what he calls “the freedom and subsequent entrapment of life crammed into a small fishing boat”. “Life at sea”, he goes on; “has become a valued identity, a source of great pride, and a reminder that the safety and ease of everyday life back home is to be appreciated and devoured”.

While Corey and I both create work that reflects the common experience of every generation that has gone to sea, there is also a strong element of social history. Whilst we work in different mediums, we are both capturing expressions of a people and place.

Lost at Sea spans 40 years and tells the story of a young woman returning home to find out the truth about her father’s death. It addresses times and events that could all too easily slip unrecorded from history. But whilst Corey uses imagery to record these moments in time, my medium focuses on storytelling through authentic language.

Lost at Sea is written in Northeast Scots, a colloquial version of Doric, as spoken in my home community. It is a magnificently expressive version of Scots language, muscular and rich, but seldom heard on stage or screen. Capturing this everyday language was vital for bringing authenticity to the story.

The fishing industry has changed rapidly over the decades. There have been the EU regulations and quotas, the rise of technology, the growth of the oil industry and the decommissioning of many fleets. All have had an impact. Moreover, fishing rights are once again at the top of the political agenda and the decision making around this will continue to resonate in the years to come.

Much of Scotland is within a stone’s throw of a fishing community and Lost at Sea aims to shine a light on these unheard stories from past decades and the present. Showcasing this work alongside Corey’s exhibition feels like a timely and enriching opportunity to fully reflect all facades.

Exhibition dates

Fish-Work – the first solo exhibition in Scotland of work by Corey Arnold: Fri 1 Mar - Thu 27 Jun, Threshold artspace, Perth Theatre

Tour dates for Lost at Sea

Perth Theatre, Thursday 25 April to Saturday 4 May

Dundee Rep Theatre, Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 May

His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, Thursday 9 to Saturday 11 May

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, Tuesday 14 May

Eden Court, Inverness, Thursday 16 to Saturday 18 May

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, Monday 20 to Wednesday 22 May

Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival, Easterbrook Hall, Dumfries, Friday 24 May.