Tom Howe’s working life in Salmon fishing by Margo Howe

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Tom Howe in front of his childhood home , a croft near Haddo Castle

Tom Howe in front of his childhood home , a croft near Haddo Castle

Tom Howe was a well-known figure in the life of Moray particularly his role in the politics including as a Scottish National Party candidate and his work as a councillor. Less is known about his working life in Salmon Fishing. Sadly Tom passed away on 18th May 2011, however, his widow, Margo Howe has kindly agreed to provide some details of his earlier working life for the project.

Tom was born on 14th April 1929. He was brought up in Turriff in a croft near Hatton Castle. He attended Birkenhill School, Turriff and also Torphins School.

Cobble boat with Tom Howe with his hat at a jaunty angleHe was living on Auchlunies House estate on finishing Primary education and had to attend Mackie Academy, Stonehaven however

Cobble boat with Tom Howe with his hat at a jaunty angle

Cobble boat with Tom Howe with his hat at a jaunty angle

due to poor health he got a medical exemption and left school in 1941 when he was 12 years old and went into fishing.He didn’t know why he chose fishing as there was no family connection with the sea.He joined a salmon crew under the skipper, Willie Main of Portlethen, who Tom said did a lot to finish his education with his pearls of wisdom. The boats fished along the coast of Aberdeenshire between Stonehaven and Aberdeen. The nets were postioned at sea and the crew emptied them two to three times a day. The boat they used was a cobble boat (see photo- Tom is the one with the cap at a jaunty angle on the left).

Letter of commendation for Tom Howe

Letter of commendation for Tom Howe

From 1947-1950 he did his National Service starting at Gordon Barracks in Aberdeen. While in Germany it was his job to requisition supplies,ranging around the countryside
on a motorbike. One Christmas he went out looking for rations and came back with a live piglet strapped to his back, having done a deal. with a friendly farmer.At the end of his service he returned to the Salmon fishing and by 1954 was skipper of the crew.In later years he received a letter of commendation when he was involved in a life-saving incident with his boat. He joined the Aberdeen North and South branch of the SNP in 1954. By the late 1950s Tom was involved in the campaign re: drift net fishing. He stood as the SNP council candidate for Ferryhill ward and was Sandy Milne’s election agent in the 1959 election. Sandy came third.

Tugnet buildings at the mouth of the Spey source:

Tugnet buildings at the mouth of the Spey

In September 1961 Tom moved up to Tugnet at the mouth of the River Spey as Fisheries manager of the Crown Estate. It was an operating fishery station and is where the Whale and Dolphin Centre (WDCS) is now. They used stake nets (= bag nets) and a cobble at Portgordon and Spey bay. Slowly over the years the number of days Tom and his crews could fish at the mouth was eroded due to the campaigning of the Riperian owners who owned the riverbank coming to an agreement with the Crown Estates to curtail the net fishing to allow more salmon to move up river to their fishing beats.By 1985 the fishing had stopped altogether. Tom retired on the grounds of ill health in 1983.

1970 election campaign information for Tom Howe

1970 election campaign information for Tom Howe

During this period he continued his political interests competing in the 1970  general election as SNP candidate for Moray and Nairn “achieving 27.8% of the popular vote (7,885 votes), against the Tories’ 49.4% and Labour on 22.8%.” . He ran as local councillor for the Lennox ward in 1967. This continued until he stood down in 2003 after over 36 years in the post. Tom met Margo, a primary school teacher, in 1979. They bought the Harbour Cafe in Cullen which Margo ran. They were both successful in running for office. Margo in 1990 stood in the Regional elections for the Rafford ward while Tom remained as a District councillor for the Lennox ward. She then joined him as a Moray councillor when the two councils were merged into one.

Memory contributed by Councillor Margo Howe

Additional information

Speyside Fishery Board – information on the salmon catch since 1952.


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William Robertson’s memory of working at Upper Craigton Farm in Kincardine O’Neil

Upper Craigton source: Geolocation and wikicommons“I started work at the age of 15 in 1952.  I worked on Upper Craigton Farm at Kinkardine O’Neil.  I had to live in a timber bothy with the farmer and stayed there all week. Then I had Saturday afternoon and Sunday off when I went home.  I had a bike and was able to cycle 14 miles home on a Wednesday night and also at weekends.

I started work at 7am when I had to take in the cow for the farmer’s mother to milk.  We would then have porridge for breakfast then I would go back to work.  One of my jobs was to work in the fields hoeing turnips, which took about 14 days.  The mother looked after me very well.  She would come out at 9am and give me a jam jar of milk and some bread.  I’d continue hoeing until dinner time, and then went back to the farm and had home made soup, which sometimes had feathers in!  Back to the hoeing then back to the farm for tea which was porridge and an egg.  The eggs were boiled in the kettle and then the tea was made with the same water!  

I worked there for 2 years and then left because the farmer would have had to pay more National Insurance as I was 18.  He got rid of me and employed another boy, but I often went back because I liked the mother, and I looked after the tractor, maintaining it and driving it (I was 11 when I started to drive tractors)!  I continued to do farm work until I was called up for National Service.  I went into the Army for 3 years because the money was good.  I went to Malaya for 2 and a half years and spent a lot of time in the jungle.  I then came back to farm related work for the rest of my working life.”

William Robertson was interviewed in Elgin by Heather Heppenstall, WRVS volunteer

Mackenzie Bruce’s work as a railway fitter

Mackenzie’s first job was in Old Meldrum as a railway fitter in 1952 at the age of 15. It was the only thing to do at the time. His job included repairing steam engines and repairing breaks in the lines. He earned 13 shillings a week and got two weeks holiday a year. Everything he earned went to his mother but he did get back some pocket money.

When he started the job he didn’t like the discipline. His working day started at 7 a.m. or sometimes earlier. There were no official tea or coffee breaks that he remembers. At lunchtime they played football in the yard. It took five years of serving time to be fully qualified as a railway fitter. They were using heavy machinery and the job could be dangerous. They also used a normal tool kit of spanners and hammers. After two years he had to go into the army for national service.

He became a drill instructor in Scotland and traiined recruits. He was in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was not allowed to go abroad as he was too useful as a drill instructor. He was also a drum major. They wanted to sign me on as a regular soldier but he had a girlfriend who didn’t want to marry a soldier. They did get married and went on to have four children. The two boys joined the Royal Engineers and the two girls did not.

After the army he joined the Fire Brigade and was in the service for 18 years in Aberdeen. He was also in the Territorials (Gordon Highlanders) based in Old Meldrum for 10 years. He was a drum major in Old Meldrum Pipe Band and travelled to Ellon on weekends and holidays.

McKenzie Bruce was interviewed by S2 pupils from Elgin High School