The Steam Trawler

The Firth of Forth became a magnet for early steam powered vessels as shelter from the wind was provided on three sides allowing the vessels to work almost all year round and fishing here was good. There was constant trouble between the different fishing communities with people in the highest positions becoming involved. Some laws were passed to protect the inshore fisherman. This was to allow the line fisherman to continue and kept the trawlers clear of what was thought to be the Herring Spawning areas, the Oyster Beds of the Firth of Forth also needed to be protected.  This did not prevent clashes between the different kinds of fishermen; many of these clashes were violent. So from almost the very beginning trawling in the Firth of Forth and three miles to the East of the May Island was prohibited.  It was to the fishing grounds east of there that the steam trawlers went to catch fish. These vessels came from far and wide to fish.


Early steam trawler with sails

 These vessels were approx 40 to 100 tons and built to withstand the ferocious weather they would encounter in the North Sea or German Ocean as some would call it. These vessels were built of wood at first but iron vessels soon followed. The earliest purpose built fishing vessels were designed and made by an Orcadian, David Allan.  In Leith Edinburgh during March 1875, he converted a drifter to steam power. In 1877 it is said that he built the first screw propelled steam trawler in the world. This vessel was Pioneer” registered at Leith LH 854. She was of wooden construction with two masts and carried a gaff rigged main and mizzen using booms, and a single foresail.  These trawlers would leave the harbour at around midnight on Sunday and spend the next five or six days on the fishing grounds, were the trawl would be shot over the side and fishing commenced. After an allotted time the trawl would be hauled and the Cod End emptied and retied and once more sent to the bottom and trawling once again commences.  It is to the fish now that all but the Skippers attention is taken. Boxes are brought up on deck and the fish washed and sorted into boxes according to size and species, there was no ice then and fish were sold round and not gutted. This routine would continue relentlessly until it was time to head for home. Sleep would be scarce and in short sharp bursts for these crews.  Catching fish was the priority.    

Typical steam side winder

 © Reproduced with acknowledgement to John Stevenson & Milford Trawler website 

Steam trawlers had a number of advantages over the sailing trawlers.They were not dependant on the wind, could travel further afield, and tow a larger trawl at greater depths. The new steam trawler was soon being constructed of the stronger materials iron & later steel and divided into watertight compartments; the need for sails other than the Mizzen was also dispensed with, the mast used for lifting the cod end. They were well designed for the crew with a large fish room, a wheelhouse and deckhouse.They had high funnels to prevent the smoke from spreading across the deck area. With the new compound and later triple expansion engines they were faster which allowed for them to tow the new more effective otter trawl (Granton Trawl); patented in 1894 by John Robert Scott of Granton Edinburgh, using two warps (hawsers) and two otter boards, replacing the beam to keep the net open. This change lead to the net being towed at the side of the vessel and not over the stern (Side Trawling/Sidewinder). In 1895 James Alward of Grimsby patented the double barrelled winch; that allowed the two warps to be hauled independently over pulleys hanging fore and aft on gallows.

The otter trawl is held open by the otter boards and the headline is kept up by floats. The tickler chain is used to stir up the sea bed. The quarter rope is used to pull the headline and the ground rope together when hauling.


Over this period the method of vessel ownership also changes from owner/skippers to groups of owners forming companies and fleets of vessels. The price of building one of these vessel is approx £3000 nearly four times the price of a sailing vessel. At this time second-hand trawlers could command higher prices than new ones, because they were available for use immediately. These ships were becoming increasingly larger as they ventured further a field in search of fish. A result of this modernisation was the greater efficiency and drove the need to go further afield and to retain high catches by 1891 trawlers from Britain were already fishing at Iceland.


In Granton Thomas L. Devlin began to build a fleet of trawlers which went on to be one of the largest privately owned fleets in Britain.


The Demise of the Steam Trawler

 This demise was gradual if not inevitable. The wheelhouse equipment on a steam trawler was very basic; consisting mainly of the steering wheel, engine telegraph control, a compass, an echo sounder and a two way radio. The skippers on these vessels were experienced Old Sea Dogs who watched the skies with a weather eye, who had catching fish down to a fine art and 50% luck. The ships position was found using a lead line, and a sextant, some skippers could tell where they were by what the lead indicated was on the sea bed. The large post war catches were declining, the cost of coal ever increasing. These trawlers most of which had been built before or during the First World War were now beginning to show their age. The Board of Trade had over the post war years introduced new tough sea worthiness and safety checks. The cost of attaining these standards was on some vessels prohibitive. The discarded vessels were mainly sold for scrap mostly to the British Iron & Steel Corporation (BISCO founded 06.1940-09.1962). The vessels were then allocated to breakers yards across the country. Malcolm Brechin had a yard in Granton Harbour; there were also yards at Inverkeithing, Bo’ness, Grangemouth, St David’s and Charlestown all on the Firth of Forth.

The price paid for each vessel would be based on its tonnage and condition.

Prices would range from a few hundred pounds to five or six thousand pounds this also being reliant on the fluctuating steel market.

Some were sold (traded in) against the new diesel engined trawlers being built at the shipyards.

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