WHEN Peter Aitchison researched the biggest tragedy in Scotland's fishing history he was staggered to find out that the local hero was his great, great, great, great uncle. The story of Willie Spears had been lost until Aitchison recovered it, but only when he was nearing the end of his research did he find out that he was a direct descendant of a man he had come to admire and respect.

"To have done all the things he did was magnificent and his character captivated me, " says Aitchison, a BBC Scotland editor. "When I realised I was of his bloodline, it was a real jawdropping moment. I know it sounds ridiculous but it was almost as though history had dragged me in the right direction so I could find his story."

Until Aitchison came along, Spears, who was buried in a pauper's grave when he died in 1885, had been forgotten. Yet he was the man who had led the people of Eyemouth in a rebellion against the establishment - and won.

Aitchison recovered the story when he researched the Eyemouth fishing disaster of 1881 in which 129 men perished in front of their mothers, wives and children as they struggled to get into port.

Although now living in Renfrewshire, Aitchison grew up in Eyemouth where his grandmother told him stories of how his great, great, great grandfather had drowned in the tragedy.

As he grew older, he was astonished to find that although the disaster nearly finished the town and changed the shape of the fishing industry in Scotland, there was little reference to it in history books.

Aitchison started researching the story for his PhD then had to shelve it for some time after starting work as a journalist with the BBC. "I worked on disasters like Piper Alpha and other big international stories, yet here was something that was of greater magnitude yet did not merit a footnote in the history books. I found that appalling. One in three adult males perished, it ruined whole families and completely destroyed the hope and heart of one of the biggest fishing ports in Scotland yet no-one, apart from people who lived in Eyemouth, knew anything about it."

Around five years ago, Aitchison decided to go back to his research so that he could turn the story into a book. In the process, he came across Willie Spears and found that this devastating event could have been avoided.

Eyemouth in the 19th century was on the way up. With industrialisation going on and fish cheap and plentiful, there was a boom in fishing and people flocked to the town, taking the population up from around 500 to 3000 in a short space of time.

Yet although fishing ports up and down the east coast received government aid to improve their harbours, the port at Eyemouth remained dangerous and the local fishermen became renowned for their bravery.

"I thought it was very strange that nothing had been done to improve the harbour as the industry was developing and the fleet had quadrupled. Millions were spent on ports up and down the east coast, but nothing was spent on Eyemouth, " points out Aitchison.

Researching further, Aitchison discovered that alone of all the ports in Scotland, Eyemouth still retained a fishing tithe paid to the Church of Scotland. With the tithe at one 10th of the fishermen's income, the Kirk was fairly raking in the cash - a fact that rankled more and more within the fleet.

Matters came to a head in the 1840s when the fishermen agreed to take a stand against the tithe.

Their leader was Willie Spears, who was known as The Kingfisher because of his prowess in fishing. In 1827, when Spears was 14, his father and brothers drowned, leaving him sole provider for his widowed mother.

With great tenacity, Spears educated himself and went on to become one of the most successful fishermen in Scotland. When the townspeople rebelled against the tithe, he was their natural leader.

In a stirring speech to a rally, Spears told the cheering crowd: "Why should a fisherman be born into the thraldom of the church? Away with such a monstrous injustice and let us prove that we have both a sense of oppression and a deposition to resistance."

It was the start of a 20-year battle, which was taken to the highest law lord in the land and which was so potentially destabilising that the government grew extremely worried.

Needless to say that while there were riots and unrest, nothing was done to improve the harbour. At one point a botched attempt was made to arrest Spears. A company of 20 policemen and four sheriff officers arrived at the house but before he could be carted off to jail, his housekeeper ran to the harbour to sound the alarm. The fleet was ready to set sail but on hearing the news 400 fishermen ran back to save their leader. A riot ensued but Spears, fearing someone would be killed, gave himself up and was clapped in jail. The community later paid his fine and his tithe arrears to secure his freedom.

On another occasion, Spears and two other skippers were due in court over the unpaid tithes but nearly 2000 people - almost the entire population of the town - turned out for a demonstration and marched to the court at nearby Ayton behind a brass band. When they got there the band stopped playing and they marched past the court in silence, doffing their caps as a mark of contempt.

As the years passed, the dispute became more entrenched and the fishermen took to burning bills and effigies of the local minister and laird.

As passions grew, the authorities became very embarrassed and worried by all the fuss.

Fishermen were talking not only about refusing to pay the tithe, but also about returning all the land to the people. Government ministers worried that the situation was spiralling out of control.

In 1861, the Lord Advocate James Moncrieff personally intervened and brokered a deal, which allowed Eyemouth's fishermen to pay pounds-2000 to buy out the tithe.

Spears, who was worried that someone would end up being killed, recommended acceptance.

Although the fishermen were unhappy about having to pay at all, it was widely seen as a victory for them. Unfortunately, a bank loan to pay off the Kirk was not cleared until 1878, meaning that Eyemouth continued to miss out on government aid for harbour improvements.

Once the loan was redeemed, improvement plans were drawn up and six weeks before the Eyemouth disaster, the treasury agreed to pay pounds-200,000.

Had the improvements been in place, there would have been no disaster and the whole economy of Scotland's fishing industry would have been entirely different as there would have been a major port in the southeast as well as the northeast.

Instead, the fleet put out on the disastrous day in 1881 when a hurricane rose up and dashed the boats to bits as they tried to make the safe haven of the harbour. Men were drowned within sight and sound and near touching distance of frantic relatives.

There was not a family untouched by the disaster with 300 children left fatherless. The fleet was decimated and the heart ripped from the town.

Spears, who was on shore and saw the men die, was traumatised and turned to the bottle, giving away all his money to the widows left behind. He died a pauper and might have remained forgotten were it not for Aitchison's research.

"As a character, he captivated me and it was when I had nearly finished the research that I found a reference to Helen Spears. His mother was called Helen but the dates did not tally and when I did more genealogy I found it was his sister who had married a fisherman called William Aitchison. They were my great, great, great, great grandparents and he was my great, great, great, great uncle.

As Spears had no children and no surviving brothers, the name had disappeared in Eyemouth but on finding the connection, Aitchison's own newly born son was christened Jack Spears Aitchison.

After publication of Aitchison's book Children Of The Sea: The Story Of The Eyemouth Fishing Disaster, it was agreed to erect a statue of Spears in Eyemouth town centre. Fittingly, it was unveiled by Jack and his dad.

"It was a great joy to me when I was told that the local authority were going to do this. I was bowled over as Spears was airbrushed from history even though he really was a hero of the working classes."

Aitchison is convinced that every family has a story worth investigating.

"I feel very strongly that everybody has an interesting family history, " he says. "They may find that their ancestors were murderers and villains rather than kings and queens, but it will still be interesting. There is a huge amount of material out there to dip into and it is a marvellous journey to embark on.

"If anyone is interested in researching their family tree then I would advise them to go first to their gran or grandad as there is a lot of truth in the old family stories. For example, we were told that two parts of our family had gone abroad and while one lot had come back, the others had stayed and become millionaires.

That turned out to be true and is the subject of my new book."

Children Of The Sea: The Story Of The Eyemouth Fishing Disaster, Tuckwell Press.

Aitchison's new book, based on further research into his family tree, is Noblest Work Of God: The Story Of James Lough And John Craig. It is due to be published in February.


PETERAitchison was born on May 28, 1964, in Berwick and grew up in Eyemouth.

On leaving school he gained an MA (hons) in history from Aberdeen University before joining the BBC in 1988, where he has worked to date. He has worked mainly in radio, editing Good Morning Scotland and Newsnight Scotland and is currently working as editor of weekend output, which includes the programmes Sunday Live and Newsweek Scotland.

He has written three books: Children Of The Sea - The Story Of The Eyemouth Disaster, Tuckwell Press, 2001, pounds-12.99; coauthored Lowland Clearances with Andrew Castle, Tuckwell Press, 2003, pounds-9.99, and his third book, Noblest Work Of God, Birlinn Press, pounds-10.99 is out in February. Aitchison also lectures on local and family history.

He is married to Gillian and the couple have three children, David, 12, Jenny, 11 and Jack, 7.