THE FOUR MacNICOLS
By William Black
This is the true story of how four lads in a fishing village in
the North of Scotland, being left orphans by the drowning of
their father, learned the great lesson of self-help.
They were the four MacNicols,--Robert, an active, stout-sinewed,
black-eyed lad of seventeen; his two younger brothers, Duncan and
Nicol; and his cousin Neil.
It was a sad evening for Rob MacNicol when the body of his father
was brought home to their poor lodgings. It was his first
introduction to the hard facts of life.
"Neil," said Rob to his cousin, "we'll have to think about
now. We have just about as much left as will pay the lodgings
this week, and Nicol must go three nights a week to the night
school. What we get for stripping the nets will not do now."--"It
will not," said Neil.
"Neil," said he, "if we had only a net; do you not think
trawl for cuddies?" And again he said, "Neil, do you not think
could make a net for ourselves out of the old rags lying about
the shed?" And again he said, "Do you think that Peter the tailor
would let us have his old boat for a shilling a week?"
It was clear that Rob had been carefully considering the details
of this plan. And it was eagerly welcomed, not only by Neil, but
also by the brothers, Duncan and Nicol.
It was agreed, under Rob's direction, to set to work at once. So
Rob bade his brothers and cousin get their rude fishing rods, and
hie away down to the rocks at the mouth of the harbor, and see
what fish they could get for him during the afternoon.
Meanwhile he himself went along to a shed which was used as a
sort of storage house by some of the fishermen; and here he found
lying about plenty of pieces of net that had been cast aside as worthless.
Rob was allowed to pick out a number of pieces that he thought
might serve his purpose; and these he carried home. But then came
the question of floats and sinkers. Enough pieces of cork to form
the floats might in time be found about the beach; but the
sinkers had all been removed from the castaway netting.
Rob was a quick-witted lad, and soon formed the plan of rigging
up a couple of guy poles, as the salmon fishers call them, one
for each end of the small seine he had in view. These guy poles,
with a lump of lead at the lower end, would keep the net vertical
while it was being dragged through the water.
All this took up the best part of the afternoon; for he had to
hunt about before he could get a couple of stout poles; and he
had to bargain with the blacksmith for a lump of lead. Then he
walked along to the point where the other MacNicols were busy fishing.
They had been lucky with their lines and bait. On the rocks
beside them lay two or three small codfish, a large flounder, two
good-sized lythe, and nearly a dozen saithe. Rob washed them
clean, put a string through their gills, and marched off with
them to the village.
He felt no shame in trying to sell fish: was it not the whole
trade of the village? So he walked into the grocer's shop.
"Will you buy some fish?" said he; "they're fresh."
The grocer looked at them.
"What do you want?"
"A ball of twine."
"Let me tell you this, Rob," said the grocer severely, "that
lad in your place should be thinking of something else than flying a kite."
"I don't want to fly a kite," said Rob, "I want to mend a
"Oh, that is quite different," said the grocer. So Rob had his
ball of twine--and a very large one it was. Off he set to his
companions. "Come away, boys, I have other work for you."
Well, it took them several days of very hard and constant work
before they rigged up something resembling a small seine. Then
Rob fixed his guy poles to it; and the lads went to the grocer,
and got from him a lot of old rope, on the promise to give
him a few fresh fish whenever they happened to have a good haul.
Then Rob proceeded to his interview with Peter the tailor, who,
after a good deal of grumbling, agreed to let them have his boat
for a shilling a week.
Rob went back eager and joyous. Forthwith a thorough inspection
of the boat was set about by the lads: they tested the oars, they
tested the thole pins, they had a new piece of cork put into the
bottom. For that evening, when it grew a little more toward
dusk, they would make their first cast with their net.
Yes; and that evening, when it had quite turned to dusk, the
people of Erisaig were startled with a new proclamation. It was
Neil MacNicol, standing in front of the cottages, and boldly
calling forth these words:--
"IS THERE ANY ONE WANTING CUDDIES? THERE ARE CUDDIES TO BE SOLD
AT THE WEST SLIP, FOR SIXPENCE A HUNDRED!"
The sale of the cuddies went on briskly. Indeed, when the people
had gone away there was not a fish left except a dozen that Rob
had put into a can of water, to be given to the grocer as part
payment for the loan of the ropes.
"What do you make it altogether?" said Neil to Rob, who was
counting the money.
"Three shillings and ninepence."
"Three shillings and ninepence! Man, that's a lot! Will you put
it in the savings bank?"
"No, I will not," said Rob. "I'm not satisfied with the net,
Neil. We must have better ropes all the way round; and sinkers, too."
One afternoon, about ten days afterward, they set out as usual.
They had earned more than enough to pay their landlady, the
tailor, and the schoolmaster; and every farthing beyond these
expenses they had spent on the net.
Well, on this afternoon, Duncan and Nicol were pulling away to
one of the small, quiet bays, and Rob was idly looking around
him, when he saw something on the surface of the sea at some
distance off that excited a sudden interest. It was what the
fishermen call "broken water,"--a seething produced by a shoal
"Look, look, Neil!" he cried. "It's either mackerel or herring:
shall we try for them?"
The greatest excitement now prevailed on board. The younger
brothers pulled their hardest for that rough patch on the water.
They came nearer and nearer that strange hissing of the water.
They kept rather away from it; and Rob quietly dropped the guy
pole over, paying out the net rapidly, so that it should not be
dragged after the boat.
Then the three lads pulled hard, and in a circle, so that at last
they were sending the bow of the boat straight toward the
floating guy pole. The other guy pole was near the stern of the
boat, the rope made fast to one of the thwarts. In a few minutes
Rob had caught this first guy pole: they were now possessed of
the two ends of the net.
But the water had grown suddenly quiet. Had the fish dived, and
escaped them? There was not the motion of a fin anywhere, and yet
the net seemed heavy to haul.
"Rob," said Neil, almost in a whisper, "we've got them!"
"We haven't got them, but they're in the net. Man, I wonder if
it'll hold out?"
Then it was that the diligent patching and the strong tackle
told; for they had succeeded in inclosing a goodly portion of a
large shoal of mackerel, and the weight seemed more than they
could get into the boat.
But even the strength of the younger lads seemed to grow into the
strength of giants when they saw through the clear water a great
moving mass like quicksilver. And then the wild excitement of
hauling in; the difficulty of it; the danger of the fish
escaping; the warning cries of Rob; the possibility of swamping
the boat, as all the four were straining their utmost at one side!
When that heaving, sparkling mass of quicksilver at last was
captured, the young lads sat down quite exhausted, wet through,
"Man! Rob, what do you think of that?" said Neil, in amazement.
"What do I think?" said Rob. "I think, that, if we could
or three more hauls like that, I would soon buy a share in Coll
MacDougall's boat, and go after the herring."
They had no more thought that afternoon of "cuddy" fishing after
this famous "take," but rowed back to Erisaig; then Rob left the
boat at the slip, and walked up to the office of the fish salesman.
"What will you give me for mackerel?" he said. The salesman
laughed at him, thinking he had caught a few with rods and flies.
"I'm not buying mackerel," said he; "not by the half-dozen."
"I have half a boat load," said Rob.
The salesman glanced toward the slip, and saw the tailor's boat
pretty low in the water.
"I'll go down to the slip with you."
So he and Rob together walked down to the slip, and the salesman
had a look at the mackeral.
"Well, I will buy the mackerel from you," he said. "I will
you half a crown the hundred for them."
"Half a crown!" said Rob. "I will take three and sixpence
hundred for them."
"I will not give it to you. But I will give you three shillings
the hundred, and a good price too."--"Very well, then," said
So the MacNicols got altogether two pounds and eight shillings
for that load of mackerel; and out of that Rob spent the eight
shillings on still further improving the net, the two pounds
going into the savings hank.
As time went on, by dint of hard and constant work, the sum in
the savings bank slowly increased; and at last Rob announced to
his companions that they had saved enough to enable him to
purchase a share in Coll MacDougall's boat.
These MacNicol boys had grown to be very much respected in
Erisaig; and one day, as Rob was going along the main street, the
banker called him into his office. "Rob," said he, "have
the yacht at the building yard?"
"Yes," said Rob, rather wistfully, for many a time he had stood
and looked at the beautiful lines of the new craft; "she's a splendid
"Well, you see, Rob," continued Mr. Bailie, regarding him with
good-natured look, "I had the boat built as a kind of
speculation. Now, I have been hearing a good deal about you, Rob,
from the neighbors. They say that you and your brothers and
cousin are good, careful seamen. Now, do you think you could
manage that new boat?"
Rob was quite bewildered. All he could say was, "I am obliged to
you, sir. Will you wait for a minute till I see Neil?" And very
soon the wild rumor ran through Erisaig, that Rob MacNicol had
been appointed master of the new yacht the Mary of Argyle and
that he had taken his brothers and cousin as a crew.
Rob sold out his share in MacDougall's boat, and bought jerseys
and black boots and yellow oilskins for his companions; so that
the new crew, if they were rather slightly built, looked spruce
enough as they went down to the slip to overhaul the Mary of Argyle.
Then came the afternoon on which they were to set out for the
first time after the herring. All Erisaig came out to see; and
Rob was a proud lad as he stepped on board, and took his seat as
It was not until they were at the mouth of the harbor that
something occurred which seemed likely to turn this fine setting
out into ridicule. This was Daft Sandy (a half-witted old man to
whom Robert MacNicol had been kind), who rowed his boat right
across the course of the Mary of Argyle, and, as she came up,
called to Rob.
"What do you want?" cried Rob.
"I want to come on board, Rob," the old man said, as he now rowed
his boat up to the stern of the yacht. "Rob," said he, in a
whisper, as he fastened the painter of his boat, "I promised I
would tell you something. I'll show you how to find the herring."
"You!" said Rob.
"Yes, Rob," said Daft Sandy; "I'll make a rich man of you.
tell you something about the herring that no one in Erisaig
knows,--that no one in all Scotland knows."
Then he begged Rob to take him for that night's fishing. He had
discovered a sure sign of the presence of herring, unknown to any
of the fishermen: it was the appearance, on the surface of the
water, of small air-bubbles.
Rob MacNicol was doubtful, for he had never heard of this thing
before; but at last he could not resist the pleading of the old
man. So they pulled in, and anchored the boats until toward
sunset. Then, taking poor Sandy on board of the Mary of Argyle,
they set forth again, rowing slowly as the light faded out of the
sky, and keeping watch all around on the almost glassy sea.
The night was coming on, and they were far away from home; but
old Sandy kept up his watch, studying the water as though he
expected to find pearls floating in it. At last, in great
excitement, he grasped Rob's arm. Leaning over the side of the
boat, they could just make out in the dusk a great quantity of
air-bubbles rising to the surface.
"Put some stones along with the sinkers, Rob," the old man said,
in a whisper, as though he were afraid of the herring hearing.
"Go deep, deep, deep!"
To let out a long drift-net, which sometimes goes as deep as
fifteen fathoms, is an easy affair: but to haul it in again is a
hard task; and when it happens to be laden, and heavily laden,
with silver gleaming fish, that is a breakback business for four
But if you are hauling in yard after yard of a dripping net, only
to find the brown meshes starred at every point with the shining
silver of the herring, then even young lads can work like men.
Sandy was laughing all the while.
"Rob, my man, what think you of the air-bubbles now? Maybe Daft
Sandy is not so daft after all. And do you think I would go and
tell any one but yourself, Rob?"
Rob could not speak; he was breathless. Nor was their work nearly
done when they had got in the net, with all its splendid silver
treasure. For as there was not a breath of wind, they had to set
to work to pull the heavy boat back to Erisaig. The gray dawn
gave way to a glowing sunrise; and when they at length reached
the quay, tired out with work and want of sleep, the people were
Mr. Bailie came along and shook hands with Rob, and congratulated
him; for it turned out that, while not another Erisaig boat had
that night got more than from two to three crans, the Mary Of
Argyle had ten crans--as good herring as ever were got out of
Well, the MacNicol lads were now in a fair way of earning an
independent and honorable living. And the last that the present
writer heard of them was this: that they had bought outright the
Mary of Argyle and her nets, from the banker; and that they
were building for themselves a small stone cottage on the slope
of the hill above Erisaig; and that Daft Sandy was to become a
sort of major-domo,--cook, gardener, and mender of nets.
Lythe, saithe, cuddies, kinds of fish.
Thole pins, pins to keep the oars in place.
Trawl, to fish with a net.
Seething, a stir, a boiling.
Told, had a great effect.
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