The Four MacNicols

By William Black

This is the true story of how four lads in a fishing village in the North of Scotland, being left orphans by the drowning of their father, learned the great lesson of self-help.

They were the four MacNicols,—Robert, an active, stout-sinewed, black-eyed lad of seventeen; his two younger brothers, Duncan and Nicol; and his cousin Neil.

It was a sad evening for Rob MacNicol when the body of his father was brought home to their poor lodgings. It was his first introduction to the hard facts of life.

“Neil,” said Rob to his cousin, “we’ll have to think about things now. We have just about as much left as will pay the lodgings this week, and Nicol must go three nights a week to the night school. What we get for stripping the nets will not do now.”—”It will not,” said Neil.

“Neil,” said he, “if we had only a net; do you not think we could trawl for cuddies?” And again he said, “Neil, do you not think we could make a net for ourselves out of the old rags lying about the shed?” And again he said, “Do you think that Peter the tailor would let us have his old boat for a shilling a week?”

It was clear that Rob had been carefully considering the details of this plan. And it was eagerly welcomed, not only by Neil, but also by the brothers, Duncan and Nicol.

It was agreed, under Rob’s direction, to set to work at once. So Rob bade his brothers and cousin get their rude fishing rods, and hie away down to the rocks at the mouth of the harbor, and see what fish they could get for him during the afternoon.

Meanwhile he himself went along to a shed which was used as a sort of storage house by some of the fishermen; and here he found lying about plenty of pieces of net that had been cast aside as worthless.

Rob was allowed to pick out a number of pieces that he thought might serve his purpose; and these he carried home. But then came the question of floats and sinkers. Enough pieces of cork to form the floats might in time be found about the beach; but the sinkers had all been removed from the castaway netting.

Rob was a quick-witted lad, and soon formed the plan of rigging up a couple of guy poles, as the salmon fishers call them, one for each end of the small seine he had in view. These guy poles, with a lump of lead at the lower end, would keep the net vertical while it was being dragged through the water.

All this took up the best part of the afternoon; for he had to hunt about before he could get a couple of stout poles; and he had to bargain with the blacksmith for a lump of lead. Then he walked along to the point where the other MacNicols were busy fishing.

They had been lucky with their lines and bait. On the rocks beside them lay two or three small codfish, a large flounder, two good-sized lythe, and nearly a dozen saithe. Rob washed them clean, put a string through their gills, and marched off with them to the village.

He felt no shame in trying to sell fish: was it not the whole trade of the village? So he walked into the grocer’s shop.

“Will you buy some fish?” said he; “they’re fresh.”

The grocer looked at them.

“What do you want?”

“A ball of twine.”

“Let me tell you this, Rob,” said the grocer severely, “that a lad in your place should be thinking of something else than flying a kite.”

“I don’t want to fly a kite,” said Rob, “I want to mend a net.”

“Oh, that is quite different,” said the grocer. So Rob had his ball of twine—and a very large one it was. Off he set to his companions. “Come away, boys, I have other work for you.”

Well, it took them several days of very hard and constant work before they rigged up something resembling a small seine. Then Rob fixed his guy poles to it; and the lads went to the grocer, and got from him a lot of old rope, on the promise to give him a few fresh fish whenever they happened to have a good haul. Then Rob proceeded to his interview with Peter the tailor, who, after a good deal of grumbling, agreed to let them have his boat for a shilling a week.

Rob went back eager and joyous. Forthwith a thorough inspection of the boat was set about by the lads: they tested the oars, they tested the thole pins, they had a new piece of cork put into the bottom. For that evening, when it grew a little more toward dusk, they would make their first cast with their net.

Yes; and that evening, when it had quite turned to dusk, the people of Erisaig were startled with a new proclamation. It was Neil MacNicol, standing in front of the cottages, and boldly calling forth these words:—


The sale of the cuddies went on briskly. Indeed, when the people had gone away there was not a fish left except a dozen that Rob had put into a can of water, to be given to the grocer as part payment for the loan of the ropes.

“What do you make it altogether?” said Neil to Rob, who was counting the money.

“Three shillings and ninepence.”

“Three shillings and ninepence! Man, that’s a lot! Will you put it in the savings bank?”

“No, I will not,” said Rob. “I’m not satisfied with the net, Neil. We must have better ropes all the way round; and sinkers, too.”

One afternoon, about ten days afterward, they set out as usual. They had earned more than enough to pay their landlady, the tailor, and the schoolmaster; and every farthing beyond these expenses they had spent on the net.

Well, on this afternoon, Duncan and Nicol were pulling away to one of the small, quiet bays, and Rob was idly looking around him, when he saw something on the surface of the sea at some distance off that excited a sudden interest. It was what the fishermen call “broken water,”—a seething produced by a shoal of fish.

“Look, look, Neil!” he cried. “It’s either mackerel or herring: shall we try for them?”

The greatest excitement now prevailed on board. The younger brothers pulled their hardest for that rough patch on the water.

They came nearer and nearer that strange hissing of the water. They kept rather away from it; and Rob quietly dropped the guy pole over, paying out the net rapidly, so that it should not be dragged after the boat.

Then the three lads pulled hard, and in a circle, so that at last they were sending the bow of the boat straight toward the floating guy pole. The other guy pole was near the stern of the boat, the rope made fast to one of the thwarts. In a few minutes Rob had caught this first guy pole: they were now possessed of the two ends of the net.

But the water had grown suddenly quiet. Had the fish dived, and escaped them? There was not the motion of a fin anywhere, and yet the net seemed heavy to haul.

“Rob,” said Neil, almost in a whisper, “we’ve got them!”

“We haven’t got them, but they’re in the net. Man, I wonder if it’ll hold out?”

Then it was that the diligent patching and the strong tackle told; for they had succeeded in inclosing a goodly portion of a large shoal of mackerel, and the weight seemed more than they could get into the boat.

But even the strength of the younger lads seemed to grow into the strength of giants when they saw through the clear water a great moving mass like quicksilver.

Four, giants when theyAnd then the wild excitement of hauling in; the difficulty of it; the danger of the fish escaping; the warning cries of Rob; the possibility of swamping the boat, as all the four were straining their utmost at one side!

When that heaving, sparkling mass of quicksilver at last was captured, the young lads sat down quite exhausted, wet through, but happy.
“Man! Rob, what do you think of that?” said Neil, in amazement.

“What do I think?” said Rob. “I think, that, if we could get two or three more hauls like that, I would soon buy a share in Coll MacDougall’s boat, and go after the herring.”

They had no more thought that afternoon of “cuddy” fishing after this famous “take,” but rowed back to Erisaig; then Rob left the boat at the slip, and walked up to the office of the fish salesman.

“What will you give me for mackerel?” he said. The salesman laughed at him, thinking he had caught a few with rods and flies.

“I’m not buying mackerel,” said he; “not by the half-dozen.”

“I have half a boat load,” said Rob.

The salesman glanced toward the slip, and saw the tailor’s boat pretty low in the water.

“I’ll go down to the slip with you.”

So he and Rob together walked down to the slip, and the salesman had a look at the mackeral.

“Well, I will buy the mackerel from you,” he said. “I will give you half a crown the hundred for them.”

“Half a crown!” said Rob. “I will take three and sixpence the hundred for them.”

“I will not give it to you. But I will give you three shillings the hundred, and a good price too.”—”Very well, then,” said Rob.

So the MacNicols got altogether two pounds and eight shillings for that load of mackerel; and out of that Rob spent the eight shillings on still further improving the net, the two pounds going into the savings hank.

As time went on, by dint of hard and constant work, the sum in the savings bank slowly increased; and at last Rob announced to his companions that they had saved enough to enable him to purchase a share in Coll MacDougall’s boat.

These MacNicol boys had grown to be very much respected in Erisaig; and one day, as Rob was going along the main street, the banker called him into his office. “Rob,” said he, “have you seen the yacht at the building yard?”

“Yes,” said Rob, rather wistfully, for many a time he had stood and looked at the beautiful lines of the new craft; “she’s a splendid boat.”

“Well, you see, Rob,” continued Mr. Bailie, regarding him with a good-natured look, “I had the boat built as a kind of speculation. Now, I have been hearing a good deal about you, Rob, from the neighbors. They say that you and your brothers and cousin are good, careful seamen. Now, do you think you could manage that new boat?”

Rob was quite bewildered. All he could say was, “I am obliged to you, sir. Will you wait for a minute till I see Neil?” And very soon the wild rumor ran through Erisaig, that Rob MacNicol had been appointed master of the new yacht the Mary of Argyle and that he had taken his brothers and cousin as a crew.

Rob sold out his share in MacDougall’s boat, and bought jerseys and black boots and yellow oilskins for his companions; so that the new crew, if they were rather slightly built, looked spruce enough as they went down to the slip to overhaul the Mary of Argyle.

Then came the afternoon on which they were to set out for the first time after the herring. All Erisaig came out to see; and Rob was a proud lad as he stepped on board, and took his seat as stroke oar.

It was not until they were at the mouth of the harbor that something occurred which seemed likely to turn this fine setting out into ridicule. This was Daft Sandy (a half-witted old man to whom Robert MacNicol had been kind), who rowed his boat right across the course of the Mary of Argyle, and, as she came up, called to Rob.

“What do you want?” cried Rob.

“I want to come on board, Rob,” the old man said, as he now rowed his boat up to the stern of the yacht. “Rob,” said he, in a whisper, as he fastened the painter of his boat, “I promised I would tell you something. I’ll show you how to find the herring.”

“You!” said Rob.

“Yes, Rob,” said Daft Sandy; “I’ll make a rich man of you. I will tell you something about the herring that no one in Erisaig knows,—that no one in all Scotland knows.”

Then he begged Rob to take him for that night’s fishing. He had discovered a sure sign of the presence of herring, unknown to any of the fishermen: it was the appearance, on the surface of the water, of small air-bubbles.

Rob MacNicol was doubtful, for he had never heard of this thing before; but at last he could not resist the pleading of the old man. So they pulled in, and anchored the boats until toward sunset. Then, taking poor Sandy on board of the Mary of Argyle, they set forth again, rowing slowly as the light faded out of the sky, and keeping watch all around on the almost glassy sea.

The night was coming on, and they were far away from home; but old Sandy kept up his watch, studying the water as though he expected to find pearls floating in it. At last, in great excitement, he grasped Rob’s arm. Leaning over the side of the boat, they could just make out in the dusk a great quantity of air-bubbles rising to the surface.

“Put some stones along with the sinkers, Rob,” the old man said, in a whisper, as though he were afraid of the herring hearing. “Go deep, deep, deep!”

To let out a long drift-net, which sometimes goes as deep as fifteen fathoms, is an easy affair: but to haul it in again is a hard task; and when it happens to be laden, and heavily laden, with silver gleaming fish, that is a breakback business for four young lads.

But if you are hauling in yard after yard of a dripping net, only to find the brown meshes starred at every point with the shining silver of the herring, then even young lads can work like men. Sandy was laughing all the while.

“Rob, my man, what think you of the air-bubbles now? Maybe Daft Sandy is not so daft after all. And do you think I would go and tell any one but yourself, Rob?”
Rob could not speak; he was breathless. Nor was their work nearly done when they had got in the net, with all its splendid silver treasure. For as there was not a breath of wind, they had to set to work to pull the heavy boat back to Erisaig. The gray dawn gave way to a glowing sunrise; and when they at length reached the quay, tired out with work and want of sleep, the people were all about.

Mr. Bailie came along and shook hands with Rob, and congratulated him; for it turned out that, while not another Erisaig boat had that night got more than from two to three crans, the Mary Of Argyle had ten crans—as good herring as ever were got out of Loch Scrone.

Well, the MacNicol lads were now in a fair way of earning an independent and honorable living. And the last that the present writer heard of them was this: that they had bought outright the Mary of Argyle and her nets, from the banker; and that they were building for themselves a small stone cottage on the slope of the hill above Erisaig; and that Daft Sandy was to become a sort of major-domo,—cook, gardener, and mender of nets.

DEFINITIONS:— Lythe, saithe, cuddies, kinds of fish. Thole pins, pins to keep the oars in place. Trawl, to fish with a net. Dint, means. Prevailed, existed. Seething, a stir, a boiling. Told, had a great effect. Thwarts, benches. Crans, barrels. Daft, weak-minded. Major-domo, steward.

Reading List