Robert Birtles is a landscape and documentary photographer living in Dundee, Scotland. This current body of work by him examines the relationship between the landscapes, culture and traditions of the highland and coastal communities of Scotland.
Robert is currently making photographs documenting the east-coast fishing port of Arbroath. The project explores the town’s romantic bond with the North Sea and the riches its shores provide. For centuries, these waves have carved the identity of this historic community, even reaching global recognition for its famed smoked fish, the “Arbroath Smokie”. The project aims to capture an intimate reflection of the town and the people who call Arbroath home. A selection of images from this series was featured at the “Contour 001” exhibition in Edinburgh earlier this year (Feb 2020).
Back in the day I’d had an assignment from a Scottish newspaper to go out on a fishing boat which was taking part in a fisherman’s demonstration against EU regulations and quotas. It was only an overnight job, but it gave me a taste of being at sea.
“Can I come back and come out with you sometime when you go out fishing”” I asked the skipper Ronnie Hughes, of the seine net boat Mairead. When he’d stopped laughing he answered, “Aye, but if you’re sick, you’ll be sick for ten days and we’re not taking you back in.” I agreed to his terms.
It wasn’t too long after, not wishing to let the chance slip, that I boarded the boat in Aberdeen harbour and we set off into the North Sea for ten days of fishing for cod and herring. I didn’t even know the difference between a cod and a herring.
My sea legs appeared by magic, and soon I was scrambling all over that boat like an old sea dog. For the crew these trips can be exceedingly dull, monotonous and repetitive. I was probably light entertainment for them as they told me their stories, and explained their work.
A while later I decided to venture out again, this time with the Argosy from Peterhead. Another ten days off out to sea, over near Norway somewhere. Same routine, throw the net overboard, wait an hour and half, circle the boat round, play dice games, drink more tea, read the Daily Mirror for the 276th time, pull in the net, retrieve the fish, gut the fish, stow the fish, chuck the net overboard, make more tea, read the Daily Mirror again…
Looking back on these images recently as I edited them for a new Café Royal Books publication, North Sea Fishing, they brought back so many memories for me. I could see each ship clearly in my mind, remembering the moments; of eating Angel Delight for desert and fried cod roe for breakfast, of the crew member who read his bible every morning and evening, of watching Kim Basinger in The Getaway, of hearing of the boat that pulled up their nets to find a car in them, of hearing of large waves which buckled metal, and of the deaths of loved ones swept overboard.
As one skipper said to me, “the North Sea is a cruel mistress. You love her and want to be with her, but she’s hard.” Ever since those North Sea trips I’ve ventured out on many oceanic assignments, from the North Sea to the Pacific, the Sea of China to the South Atlantic, the Irish Sea to the Southern Ocean. And all the time I remained standing in force 12 storms, stalwart on the bridge looking out the window loving every peak and trough that shuddered the metal of the ship and the bones of my body. And every time I’m there I think back to the Mairead and Argosy, and the hospitality and education those boats and crew gave me. – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
With thanks to Ronnie Hughes and the crews of the Mairead and the Argosy.