So here we are: the pullover is finished, and what a great pattern it is. I finally decided to extend the cuffs to 6 inches, so they can be rolled back to suit and give the wearer a bit of flexibility. The loose ends have all been darned in (at least with Frangipani 500g cones there aren’t too many), so now it just has to be washed and blocked and it’s ready to go. And after a short break it’ll be time to think about the next.
Now, as you know, I’ve been up to my elbows in the history of Wick’s Victorian fishing industry lately – and one of the things I’ve been wondering about is, just what was the impact of thousands of immigrants (‘strangers’) descending on the town for two months of the year. You see, Wick is (and was) an English-speaking town; but many of the migrants came from the (Gaelic-speaking) Highlands and Islands. You never read about tensions between the two communities, so when I came across this extraordinary incident from 1859 it was all the more surprising.
It all started trivially enough, as is so often the case. About 7pm on Saturday 27 August two boys, one a local from Wick, the other from Lewis, got into a fight over a dropped orange. At that time the streets were packed with both incomers and locals; within a few minutes the brawl became general, as each side leapt to the defence of their own, and quickly developed into a full-blown riot. The police arrived and made a few arrests, including a Highlander who was thought to be the ringleader, and who was taken to the gaol in Bridge Street.
The incensed Highlanders at once besieged the gaol and tried to get the man released (one crew even went down to the Harbour and returned with the mast of their boat to use as a battering ram!). But the police had meanwhile recruited a number of local youths as special constables and armed them with batons, and together they broke up the crowd, and repulsed a later attempt to break through to the gaol.
The trouble died down that night, and everything remained calm throughout Sunday. But the Highlanders were only biding their time – for, as the harbour master noted, the police had armed “many of the thoughtless lads of the place” with batons on Saturday, and now their furious victims wanted revenge.
They got it on Monday. “Numbers of the Highlanders thronging Bridge Street and threatening vengeance against the parties using the batons on Saturday evening … upwards of 22 persons struck and abused before 6 pm, no available force able in any way to check the violence offered.” As evening came on, however, the Highlanders, having had their revenge, were “now willing to enter upon armistices.”
There followed a temporary suspension of hostilities, though “the Highlanders continue very sullen, looking daggers at parties who escaped them yesterday.” The helpless authorities sent for the army, and meanwhile, with the fishing season nearing its end in any case, some of the Highlanders began to leave for home.
Next Saturday 100 soldiers arrived by steamer and it looked as if the trouble was finally at an end. But later that night the Wick youths went on the rampage, running through the streets with knives and stabbing any Highlanders they found out of doors. The military were called out and it took them two hours to “scatter the rebels”, by which time 11 people had been stabbed, some of them badly wounded, though luckily no one died.
The Wick harbour master wrote sadly in his diary next day, Monday, 5 September 1859: “The Highlanders leaving the town in great numbers, others making ready, the men have no confidence after the usages to which they have been subjected, in terror of their lives for several nights past.”
It’s hard to imagine that relations between the Highlanders and the people of Wick would ever be the same again after that, isn’t it?