Eyemouth is something of an undiscovered treasure. This busy fishing port is tucked away on the Berwickshire coast and it’s easy to miss if you’re heading to St Abb’s Head, its picturesque neighbour.
This authentic coastal town is worth a visit, even if it is a little rough around the edges. Eyemouth’s bustling harbour dates back to the 13th Century and fishing boats still arrive each day, laden with their catches.
But there’s much more to Eyemouth than just fish and ships. There’s a bonny beach and a historic quayside where you can feed the harbour seals. And for history lovers, there are intriguing tales of smuggling, witches and shipwrecks. But where to begin?
Fish and ships
I’d suggest starting your trip down on the busy quayside. I love places where you can watch the fishing boats coming in and eavesdrop on the salty sea dogs working on the quay front.
To be honest, the harbour has a slightly grimy feel, but that’s part of the joy of coming to a place which hasn’t been transformed by property developers and bland hotel and food chains.
As you walk along the quay, there’s a variety of craft from industrial-style ships to sailing yachts and even wooden cobles, traditional fishing boats from this part of the world.
Our walking tour didn’t get far before I was persuaded to take a detour into the ships’ chandlers which is stuffed to the gunnels with fishing kit, giant wellies and ropes. This is a proper chandlers for proper sailors, not your millionaire yacht owners.
Fishing is still king in Eyemouth, but it’s a far cry from the bad old days when the fishing fleet could be decimated by bad weather.
Tragedy struck on ‘Black Friday’ in October 1881 when 189 fishermen died at sea when a violent storm broke unexpectedly. Locals refer to it as ‘The Great East Coast Fishing Disaster’. Most families lost loved ones in the tragedy.
You can only imagine the grief of their families who watched the tragedy unfold as they stood watching helplessly at The Bantry on the quayside.
Today, the town has several monuments commemorating the event including a striking modern statue on the water’s edge. Another new memorial is about to be unfurled on a hill at the top of the town, overlooking the harbour.
If you drop into Eyemouth Museum, you can discover the full story as well as taking a look at the impressive Eyemouth Tapestry, commemorating the disaster.
Whilst you’re on the far side of the harbour, don’t miss the Good Hope, a gorgeous wooden fishing boat which is being restored by the Berwickshire Maritime Trust.
We bumped into Johnny Johnston who is behind the boat restoration project as we walked along the quayside – and he told us all about her colourful history.
Built in 1923, the Good Hope was a fishing boat which sailed along the coast around St Abb’s and Eyemouth. She was later requisitioned by the Royal Navy to patrol for enemy activity in the Second World War and then became a mine sweeping vessel.
Fishing is in the blood of this town and you’ll see remnants of its heritage around every corner from the Fisherman’s Mission and the Fish Market to the Ship Hotel, Smoke House and the Coastguards’ Cottages.
Sadly, the World of Boats Museum fronting onto the harbour closed down not long ago, but you can still peek through the windows and see the historic vessels thorough the glass.
If you’re visiting in the summer, don’t miss the Herring Queen Festival which takes place in the town annually for a week in July. It’s the Glastonbury of the fishing industry!
Boating, diving and yachting
Leisure boating is increasingly popular in Eyemouth, but if you can’t afford a yacht, there are plenty of sightseeing boats which take out parties on short trips up the coast to St Abb’s Head.
You can also stroll along the quayside admiring the yachts and deciding which you’d buy if you won the National Lottery.
Divers are in for a treat as this is a prime diving area for exploring underwater treasures off the coast. The St Abbs and Eyemouth Marine Reserve has a great diversity of marine life with spectacular underwater scenery, largely due to the unusually clear water. Look out for minke whales and dolphins breaching above the surface as they move up the coast.
Adventurous folk can leap on a rib boat for a speedy excursion up the coast where you’ll be rewarded with great views of the cliffs and coves, seabirds and seals.
Smuggling and smugglers
Smuggling was rife in Eyemouth during the 18th Century and the town was once crisscrossed by a network of underground alleys. It’s a shame that many of these were destroyed when the modern town was built.
It was once said that more of the town existed underground than overground. The town’s complex network of narrow back streets also provided escape routes when the customs and excise men came on their raids to uncover illicit trading.
Everyone was at it, even the local aristocrat, John Nisbet, who was a merchant by day, smuggler by night. He lived at Gunsgreen House overlooking the harbour and this 18th Century house was the centre of a sophisticated tea smuggling operation.
The house had secret passageways and recesses between the walls whilst the owner built an extra floor that was effectively a store for smuggled goods. There was also a fireplace which swung out to reveal a passage to an illicit store-room. Today, you can wonder at the ingenious hiding places for the smuggled tea.
This Georgian house, with its splendid James Adam design, is like a Pandora’s Box with its illicit stores, secret tea chutes, hidden recesses and an underground Smugglers’ Passage.
The smugglers aimed to get off the coast as quickly as possible with their goods – often tea, wine, gin – so it could be stashed away inland, often at farms, ready for distribution to ready buyers in the local community.
Many of the paths used by the smugglers can still be seen today along the coast from Eyemouth to Abb’s Head. Coves and beaches that look inaccessible with steep grassy slopes were often the prime spots for smugglers. Look carefully and you’ll see the old tracks which were used as escape routes by smugglers with horses loaded with contraband.
On the beach
The beach at Eyemouth is small but pleasant, especially on a sunny summer day when the dark clouds lift to reveal its golden sands.
Eyemouth’s colourful past includes tales of witchcraft but the town has come a long way since it burned more than two dozen witches on this beach in the 17th Century. What a hideous scene it must have been back then, like something out of the Spanish Inquisition.
Today, nature lovers can enjoy looking around the rock pools and their marine life which are revealed at low tide.
Water sports fanatics and adrenaline junkies can enjoy a touch of noisy jet skiing near the harbour wall.
Eyemouth is a great place to start a marine wildlife adventure, and there’s no better place to begin than down at the far end of the town near the harbour entrance.
One of the big surprises at Eyemouth is the entertaining ‘Feed the Seals’ attraction. I’ve never seen anything quite like this on my travels around the world.
Each day, wild seals entertain visitors during impromptu feeding sessions. You can buy a chunk of fish, stick it on the end of a pole and dangle it for the seals to eat… with expert advice from one of the Feed the Seals team on how to make the seals leap higher and higher.
The trick is to hover the fish just out of the seals’ reach so they leap up for it in an entertaining game. There’s even a mini pontoon where the seals can sit and beg for the tit bits!
Authentic Fishing Town
Eyemouth may not be as pretty as neighbouring St Abb’s or as historic as Elizabethan Berwick, but it is an interesting and authentic fishing town.
There are many surprises, if you’re prepared to see beyond the working industries and slightly bleak facade of this Scottish coastal town.
It’s also a great place to take one of the town’s smuggling trails to discover its hidden secrets and surprising stories. The Smugglers’ Trail takes walkers along the coast to out-of-the-way coves and beaches that the ‘free-traders’ favoured in smuggling times.
Golfers should make their way to the golf club and try out their skills on the famous 6th hole, a par three, which was recently voted ‘Britain’s most extraordinary golf hole’. It’s quite a challenge.
Why not get an eyeful of Eyemouth with its many unusual attractions. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Eyemouth
Eyemouth is a fishing port located on the Berwickshire coast not far from St Abb’s in Scotland. The Visit Eyemouth website is the official tourist site where you’ll discover details of places to stay, restaurants and local services.
The Eyemouth Rib Trip Experience can be found down on the harbour quayside near the former World of Boats Museum. The company also runs the Eyemouth – St Abbs Shuttle Boat Service if you plan to visit picturesque St Abb’s Head and its harbour.
The modern Fishmarket and Visitor Centre can be found at the top end of the town. The building has a sales area for freshly caught fish and a viewing deck over the harbour,
The Feed the Seals attraction is open 9-5pm and is located on the beach end of the harbour. You can buy fish to feed the acrobatic seals from the mobile fish store on the quayside.
Gunsgreen House is worth a visit for its smuggling history and strange tales of hidden contraband. It’s open daily 11-5 and there’s an admission charge.
Head to the Eyemouth Museum for a dose of maritime history but check times as it has limited opening hours.
Don’t forget to take the Eyemouth Town Trail – you’ll find the detailed brochure at the Museum. Close to the museum, look for the statue to Willie Spears who led the local fishermen’s protest during the Great Tithes Dispute (a form of tax) in the 1850s.
Other interesting local buildings include the Auld Kirk, the Coastguard Cottages, the Smoke House, Dundee House and the Lifeboat Station, all on the Town Trail.