Steam Drifters and the Herring Fisheries

With the introduction of the Fifie, Scaffie and Zulu sailing fishing boats during the 1800s they all became very successful during the herring fishery, building larger sailing boats and using bigger nets. The herring industry was seasonal so these boats worked long lines during the winter and drift nets for herring in the summer. Around the North East of Scotland the herring season was for around 8-9 weeks and to extend this fishery the larger boats started to venture further afield as the herring moved from area to area. The season started during the early summer around the Shetland Isles moving down the west coast for May/June, the east coast July/August continuing down the east coast to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft for the autumn fishery returning home the beginning of December each year. By the 1880s it was a big industry with a good product supplying large markets in Russia and the Baltic states, but it was to become even bigger with the development of steam engines for propulsion of larger vessels with the capability to return to port quickly and land freshly caught herring.

Hopeman steam drifter embrace

Embrace INS 402  leaving Hopeman.

1907- built of steel in Govan, Glasgow for Hopeman owner – William McPherson (Daich) skipper. No other owners

1939- Requisitioned by Admiralty for naval duties

1940- grounded at Kyle of Lochalsh and became total loss whilst on naval duties.

1931 – Embrace was reported in ‘The Northern Scot’ to have made record earnings that year.

The first of these steam driven boats appeared during the 1890’s and they were around 20 feet longer than the sailing boats as they needed room for the steam engine, storage of coal, larger crew accommodation and of course larger nets. They were being built in their hundreds and Hopeman was no exception with 41 steam drifters having been owned at various times by Hopeman fishermen between 1903 and 1947. A list of these drifters are included within the section “Hopeman Fishing Boats” however it is worth noting that there was only one actually built in Hopeman and that was the Laich o’ Moray INS 31 during 1909 by Daniel (Don) Main who had his boatyard at the bottom of Harbour Street. Due to her size the Laich was actually constructed between his yard and the old harbour. Built of wood with a length of 84.2 feet, breadth 19.3 feet and draft of 8.8 feet she must have been quite a sight in the village during this build.

Hopeman’s first steam drifter was the SD Alpha, INS 559 and it must have been a great event for the village. She was built of steel in Glasgow for John McPherson (Jonnack) and brothers Danny & Johnny Main (Thock). The last to be built was the SD Admiration INS 99 in Lossiemouth during 1914 for Tom Bruce, L. Main & Alex Lawson. She was made of wood and had only three weeks fishing prior to the commencement of World War 1 and being requisitioned by the Royal Navy for wartime duties. Later sold to other owners but returned to Hopeman in 1932 under the ownership of Alex & Willie Lawson. Finally scrapped in 1939.

During 1910, 1297 drifters went south for the English fishing and their earnings were £456,528. The Scottish fleet comprised of 707 steam drifters, 500 sailing boats and 51 motor boats. The year 1913 saw 854 steam drifters, 209 sail boats and 100 motor boats. For 1923 the Inverness registry recorded 118 steam drifters, 22 sailing boats and 25 motor boats and again in 1936 there were 81 steam drifters, 115 motor boats and no sail.—the days of sail and the Scaffie, Fifie and Zulu were over.

hopeman harbour

The above photograph shows Hopeman harbour around 1934 with a considerable number of steam drifters moored following the end of the herring fishery. In the foreground are a number of Scaffie or Zulu sailing yawls with the new motor boat ‘Achieve’ (skipper Charles More) moored in the middle. The tall funnels of the drifters were commonly called “Woodbines” after the cigarettes of that name and were required to keep the coal fired boiler smoke away from the crew on deck. Drifters with a solid steel keel cut deep ruts in the rock seabed alongside the quay in Hopeman harbour when they surged fore and aft during adverse weather conditions.

SEDULUS INS 3 rounding the ‘Barbers Island’ whilst manoeuvring in Hopeman harbour. Aug 19371912- built Dartmouth for Lowestoft owners and used during WW1 as a patrol vessel at Dover.

sedulus ins31924- purchased by Hopeman owners- John Jack, skipper & William Backie.
1937 – returned to Lowestoft owners
1949- converted to 400hp Petter diesel.

1969 – approx. scrapped in Belgium



1907-built of steel in Govan, Glasgow for Burghead owners. D Main & D McKenzie
1914- requisitioned by admiralty during WW1 (1914-1918) as a boom defence vessel.
1925- purchased by Simon & Margaret Young along with Robert Young of Hopeman. Skipper Robert Young.
Scrapped 1938.

The herring industry and the migration of the herring from the Shetland Islands down the East and West coasts of the UK involved thousands of fishermen who fished the silver darlings whilst thousands of fisher girls from all of the fishing communities also followed the fleets of boats to process the fish ashore by gutting, salting and packing the herring nto barrels for shipment to the markets. Girls moved from one area to another on board the drifters and lived ashore in temporary camps where they had their own cooks and infrastructure. There were other support industries making the wooden barrels, making nets, engineers, shipwrights etc and all of those involved would spend months away from home with little or no communications.

1905 Hopeman girls in stromness

1905 – Hopeman girls in Stromness, Orkney – all unmarried and around 18/19 years of age.

A full list of their names and ‘Bye’ names are contained in the Hopeman 1805-2005 book

Available on this site for sale.

These steam drifters brought wealth to the village and during this era there were many large new stone houses built in Hopeman and good examples can be seen in Park St, Forsyth St and Inverugie Road.

March 1910 saw the start of navigation classes at Hopeman School and the first to gain their Skippers certificates were – Wm Davidson, 7 Gordon Street ; J. Davidson, 33 Duff Street ; Alex L Main, 8 Gordon Street & Wm McPherson, 39 Duff Street. During 1911 there were seventeen men from Hopeman who gained their Skippers ticket at Lossiemouth and this trend continued for many years.

Attached is a copy of the certificate gained by John McPherson (Jock Peddie) on 19th May 1914

John McPherson Skippers ticket

The reverse side of this certificate it gives the following information –

No of Certificate 13280

Address of Owner – 9 Coal Row, Hopeman, Moray.

Date & Place of Birth – Eighteen hundred and eighty three : Hopeman

This Certificate is given upon EXAMINATION passed at Lossiemouth on the 6 May 1914

Issued At the Port of Lossiemouth on the 13th August 1914

Signed W. Coulson superintendent

1932 - SD Favour INS 530

Steam Drifter “FAVOUR” INS 530

Built of steel in 1908 by Mackie & Thomson, Govan, Glasgow for John Young (Skipper) and his brother-in-law Donald Main of Hopeman.

Dimensions: – Length 83.6 feet ; Breadth 19.55 feet ; Depth 8.80 feet.

Propulsion: – 18inch propeller, 39 Horse Power compound engine built by Lingerwood, Coatbridge, Glasgow.

Boiler: – Made by AW Dalgleish, Pollockshaws and capable of 120lbs per sq. inch.

1925 – Sold to Daniel Davidson, Alexander Young & Mrs Madeline Main of Hopeman.

During the WW1 (1914-1918) “Favour” was requisioned by the Royal Navy for coastal patrol duties and some of the Hopeman crew remained with her throughout this conflict.

During WW2 (1938-1945) “Favour” was again requisitioned by the admiralty for war time duties along with five other steam drifters leaving only one steam drifter at Hopeman to fish throughout the entire period of this conflict. None of these six drifters returned to Hopeman when WW2 ended and “Favour” lay in Buckie for some time, still in her grey wartime colours until she was eventually sold to Peterhead owners in 1946 for further fishing.

Drifters used carbide for making gas required for lighting, but when Favour had finished her wartime service she had a dynamo in the engine room for generating electricity.

‘Favour’ was remembered for an incident in the Isle of Man during 1937/8 whilst lying alongside in port when the boats gunwale nearest the quayside caught under the bottom of a wooden pile at low water. As the tide rose Favour heeled further and further towards the quay until there was a very loud bang when the pile securing arrangement failed, the pile shot up into the air and Favour rolled away from the quay. Fortunately there was no damage to the boat and no injury to the crew.

“Favour” was scrapped in May 1952.



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  1. Robert Collin Oliver  December 4, 2015

    My uncle Bobby, (Robert Collin) served on Drifter “FAVOUR” during WW2 but was killed during the Glasgow blitz as he made his way through Glasgow on his way home to Edinburgh.
    After many years searching I found his grave in Cardonald Cemetry inscribed as follows.
    “Here are interred the remains of LT/JX Robert Collin. Seaman. R.N.P.S. H.M Drifter “FAVOUR” and thirty-nine unidentified persons who were killed by enemy action in Glasgow. March 1941.
    All my efforts to trace any shipmates have failed but am very pleased to have this picture of his boat.
    Any other information would be greatly appreciated.