Christian Watt stirred the glowing embers of the fire. With her parents away, she was alone in the family’s ‘butt and ben’ cottage in Broadsea, near Fraserburgh, in the far north of Scotland.
‘No!’ she thought decidedly to herself. ‘I will not marry James Sim’. Born into a fisherman’s family, Christian had long ago decided she herself would never marry a fisherman.
Life had been very hard for her family. As the seventh of eight children, all the rest boys, she had seen her parents almost fainting with exhaustion at the end of the day as they struggled to provide enough for them all.
From the age of five, Christian had also contributed to the family finances by gutting and selling fish. Then, in six disastrous months during 1854, when Christian was 21, five of her brothers had perished in different tragedies at sea.
‘I did not think I would ever smile again’, she later wrote, as she thought of her missing brothers from 29-year-old Sandy, down to 18-year-old Billy. All suddenly gone.
Yet now, against her better judgement, she had allowed herself to become engaged to James Sim — a fisherman.
As she sat musing, the wind roaring round the cottage, waves crashing onto the nearby beach, Christian heard heavy footsteps approaching. James himself was at the door. He had come for a last talk with Christian before sailing once more to fishing grounds in the wild arctic waters. He would be away many months.
Late into the night they sat talking, as the peat fire died and the room grew cold. By now the rain was lashing down and James had more than a mile to walk home. So Christian suggested that he could sleep in the butt end of the cottage instead.
But the temptation of being alone with Christian was too much for the young man. Before long he crept into bed with her. Not until James had sailed did Christian discover that she was pregnant.
Fiery by nature and with an enormous capacity for indignation, Christian was thrown into a maelstrom of resentment and despair. If a child were born out of wedlock, she would face church discipline at the next Kirk Session.
Angrily she began to plot her revenge. She would create a scene in the church; she would show up the hypocrisy of one of the church elders; she would… Her imagination ran on. At least she might disown the father and keep the child.
But, at this moment of crisis, God intervened. As the months crept past, Christian grew more and more anxious. What was she going to do?
Taking down an old family Bible, she began to read and reread its pages. In her own words: ‘During the weeks of waiting, I read nothing but the Bible, and to my own joy and astonishment I found the Lord Jesus as my own personal Saviour … In my own room one night I knew that I had passed from death to life’.
Now Christian was convinced that she must marry James, and whatever sufferings might await her in the years ahead, the power, grace and love of Christ would help her through.
Shortly before her confinement, James at last returned and they were married in a simple ceremony in the living room of the Broadsea cottage.
After two sons were born in quick succession, James decided to move his family in with his mother in a nearby village. But, when two more boys were born, tensions quickly mounted and it became clear that the family must move out.
Renting accommodation, Christian and James struggled to make ends meet, especially after three more children were added to the family. These were the days of the Industrial Revolution and big businesses were squeezing the small fisher-folk out of the market. No longer could their earnings sustain the family adequately.
Christian longed to return to the cottage in Broadsea, now standing empty, but James refused. Becoming increasingly depressed, she decided to move anyway, and, while James was away at sea, she settled her large family back in the butt and ben cottage.
On his return, James was furious at what Christian had done, but the fact that three more children were born suggests that he forgave his unpredictable wife.
Sorrows multiplied in the years ahead. When he was 13, Peter, their second son — known as ‘Pete the Rover’ for his love of the sea, received his heart’s desire — employment on a sea-going vessel.
But one morning as Christian was cooking breakfast for the family, she suddenly and distinctly heard Peter’s voice calling out for her. By that strange bond that links hearts closely joined in love, she knew that Peter was dying and calling out for his mother. Later they learned that the boy had drowned at sea, but never knew why or how.
When 11-year-old Joseph died of tetanus two years later, Christian’s nervous health began to crumble. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord takes away’, she wrote bravely, but the loss was no less severe.
Only one year later, James and his two remaining older sons were out in their fishing boat when great storm clouds began to gather. Christian glanced apprehensively at the mountainous waves as she hurriedly took in her washing. Then she saw their own boat riding high on the water. Something was wrong: she knew it.
‘Which of my folks is lost’, she asked bleakly when the Congregational minister knocked at her door. ‘It’s the husband’, he replied. James was missing, washed overboard in the storm.
Search as she might, she never found his body. ‘When I lost my man, my [only] hope was in Christ, the Man of Sorrows’, she wrote sadly.
As Christian, undernourished herself, struggled to feed her eight remaining children her nervous health gradually weakened. At last her doctor advised her to spend a period of rest in Cornhill, a mental hospital in Aberdeen.
Reluctantly she obeyed and soon recovered strength, but on discharge a further calamity awaited this sorely-tried Christian woman. Superstitious of nervous illness, former friends would no longer come near Christian, nor would anyone buy her fish.
Her family was starving — their only food the whelks she could gather on the shore. One advantage remained. At least no one else came gathering whelks near her, leaving her a good supply. When she obtained a job gutting fish, she soon lost it because someone complained to the boss, ‘That mad woman should never be trusted with a knife’.
‘It was a terrifying experience’, Christian wrote. ‘I had only Christ, who dined with publicans and sinners … a real friend to social outcasts’.
Perhaps she could emigrate to America and start afresh where no one knew her? But one bitter winter day, as she returned from the beach wet and shivering, with her bucket of whelks plucked from the icy rock pools, she found a letter awaiting her from the emigration office.
She tore it open. ‘On account of your mental health’, it read, ‘you are being refused permission to emigrate’.
The final door of hope had been slammed in her face. Christian’s mind snapped, ‘like a butter plate breaking on the floor’.
In an agony of despair she tried to burn down the hen house, restrained only by her 14-year-old son George. Next day Christian was certified insane and taken to Cornhill hospital permanently. The children were scattered to different homes and institutions, the house put up for auction, the family dog shot.
With adequate food and care, Christian soon regained mental balance. Did she want to remain in an institution for the rest of her life? Most certainly not! But, through it all, the power of God’s grace shone out.
Quoting from the book of Job she wrote: ‘”He knows the way that I take. When he has tried me he will bring me forth as gold.” I have had the experience of the furnace of affliction and no matter how fierce, I will eventually come forth unhurt’.
And she did. With renewed physical strength, she spent three days each week at the Aberdeen market, gutting fish, saving up each penny with the hope of one day buying back the family cottage in Broadsea.
At every opportunity she spoke to the trawler skippers and their wives of the grace of God in Christ. She spoke to distressed men and women brought in as patients to Cornhill; and in the last years of life (for she lived into her 90s), she was able to comfort shell-shocked soldiers from the battlefields of the Great War.
Her family visited her whenever possible and, when she died in 1923, Christian Watt could say to her three sons who were with her, ‘I am happy. I go into the presence of the Lord and will there learn more and more about God’.
Through the life of this poor fisher girl from Broadsea, God had shown the power of his grace to triumph over sin, sorrow and every extremity.
Picture: Fishing boats off Scotland, by John Wilson Carmichael