End of a Long Era

North Berwick has recently grown with new residents—in fact, such growth has been common down its thousand-year history. From ferrymen originally, down through sailors trading with Hanseatic ports in the Middle Ages to coastal barques taking wheat, potatoes and turnips to booming cities in Napoleonic times, the harbour has always been the driver for that, many new residents now being ELYC members.

But the harbour’s golden age came a century ago when the railway allowed fish easy reach to market and the ‘silver darling’ herring became king. This was the heyday of the Harbour Terrace, crammed with Millars and Thorburns, Browns and Sherburns, many come from further up the Forth as that era’s new residents. So many were there that the harbour overflowed, boats being dragged up onto Elcho Green and most Westgate residents showing occupation as ‘fisherman’.

However, one family was no such century-old ‘incomer’. Most towns have a name around which it was built. In North Berwick, the name is Marr. Deriving from the far reaches of the Cairngorms, it is first recorded in North Berwick when a Patricke Marr had a son in 1656—and followed that up with three more at two-yearly intervals.

Down the centuries for their next eleven generations, the Marrs were a harbour institution, peaking in the 1881 census when no fewer than 17 of them are recorded there. That year, James Marr (46) was living there with his wife Elizabeth (43, from Dirleton), three children and two in-laws.

James Marr went on to be Harbourmaster (a responsible post in such busy times) and a well-known, popular personality, universally known as ‘Daddy’. He still found time to furnish a string of rowing boats in the West Bay for hire to ‘trippers’ as a side-line. These passed on to Percy Pearson because, by 1931 and aged 95, ‘Daddy’ Marr had held the post so long he’d become the oldest harbourmaster in the British Isles.

But the last generations of this remarkable family made an impact far afield. ‘Fred’ Marr was born in 1923 and, by the sixties, fishing for lobster and crab in Girl Pat. But an entrepreneur spirit landed him the mail contract for local lighthouses and his Viking good looks won an appearance in the “View from the Bass” promotional film. By the seventies, launches that once took tourists out to Bass Rock were gone, so Fred brought Sula II up from Norfolk to fill the gap and inveigled his son Chris into crewing for him.

For the next thirty years, no visit to the town was complete without a trip on Sula II, spiced with Fred or Chris’s knowledgeable, if heavy-brogued, commentary. Over 100,000 people enjoyed that unique experience. As Fred passed 80, he finally let Chris and his sister Pat take over, dying peacefully at 85. Chris, having already dedicated much of his life to the business, decided on retirement and was only starting to enjoy it, pursuing the history he loved when an accident cut it all short in late 2012.

With Chris’s death (all three of his children being daughters) over 350 years of continuous family history in one small town ended abruptly—without anyone recording the voluminous research Chris carried in his head. Now that Pat has moved to Stornoway, the absence of any Marrs around the harbour seems out of joint, fundamentally wrong as the keel of a boat being suddenly missing.

First published in the East Lothian Courier, April 2014


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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2 Responses to End of a Long Era

  1. Jake Briggs says:

    Just happened upon this poignant article, didn’t realise Northneuk was still up and running.
    My great grandfather was a James Marr, and a cousin( I think) of Daddy Marr. He was one of the Dunbar Marrs (also a fisherman) and he married Elizabeth Puntin, also from Dunbar. They had 14 children,
    one of whom, Isabella Marr, married my grandfather Hew Briggs who was a farm worker on Phantassie Farm near Tyninghame. They had three children, my uncles Tom and Andrew, and my dad James Marr Briggs aka Jimmy.
    Fascinating stuff

  2. davidsberry says:

    Great addition to the post, for which I am grateful. In this day and age when people move aBout so easily, it;s humbling to think of the strong bonds that once bound us al to our respective home towns

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